There’s an ease about Manny Montana that’s hard not to admire. He’s far from the cynical character Rio he plays on the hit show Good Girls—although that iconic smirk that suggests he knows something you might not pops up now and again as he recalls growing up in Long Beach.

Despite what the timeline tells you, he’s always been an actor. The man who saw one of his dreams dissolve in a fit of football injury discovered a new passion in acting. In it, he also realized how much he had restricted his own happiness early on.

His tough façade has diminished in his adult years, replaced by a genuine resolve to wear his emotions like a badge of honor.

“I feel like acting was the only route for me after football,” he tells En Fuego. “And I feel like I should have been doing it over football if I'm being honest, because I feel like every kid, especially from the hood, knows how to act because a lot of us don't want to be hood. We just want to be able to laugh and joke and have fun like we did as kids.”

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While there is an effervescence in the way he carries himself, he is as committed an actor as you will find. He pours himself into his craft of creativity. It all stems from growing up bearing a shield, one he doesn’t mind taking down now.

“I wasted so many years trying to be tough and not showing my emotions and not telling people what I feel about them, because nowadays I just do that shit off the cuff,” he explained. 

“I don't want to do this tough guy shit anymore. And when I go and talk to schools and stuff, that's the first thing that I tell, especially, males. I'm like, you got to shake all this shit, man, because it doesn't help. You may think it helps while you're here. But, man, I'm telling you, in the long run, this shit does not help.”

Renowned for being the tough guy in his current role as the beloved villain Rio, Montana has worked his way through so many films and one-off television roles to find what works for him. It’s a dedication to authenticity, to himself, to bettering the industry.

Forward Momentum

It’s always fascinating to take a glimpse back on life, recounting the chapters of defeat that pepper each of our own respective journeys. With the advantage of perspective, days filled with tears get looked upon with affection. Defeat suddenly resembles opportunity.

Montana grew up enamored with competition. Whether it was on the Jordan High School gridiron where he would earn a scholarship to Cal State Sacramento or sitting back watching boxing on Telemundo with his dad, early brushes with sports formed who he would become—someone who takes a great deal of his time to coach and mentor the younger generation.

But it was in football that he learned a valuable lesson. None of us get to dictate what unfolds over the course of our professional years. But there is a beauty in that if you know where to look for it.

He recounts the moment that he hit a wall. Injuries had set in and he lost his spot on Cal State Sacramento’s football team. It was a watershed moment that would eventually lead to one fortuitous opportunity after another. But, at the time, he endured the gut-wrenching feeling of finality.

He immediately packed up his car and drove home to Long Beach. The emotion of the moment was palpable and formative.

“I was calling my dad and my mom and I'm crying and, you know, what's a parent going to do? They're just like, it's going to be OK. You'll find something else to do.”

It took a while for it to sink in that his playing days were in the past. He would still train vigorously as if the next big game were just a week away. Then it hit him. He now had time to sink his teeth into another dream. He Googled how to become an actor.

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He’ll be the first to tell you that true success is never immediate. But the power in typing out that query is phenomenal. The mindset was established.

Montana transferred to Cal State Long Beach where he studied journalism. While in pursuit of his next endeavor, he himself on the Street Team at Los Angeles’ 92.3 The Beat.

An industry that is renowned for making its radio hosts pay their dues in smaller markets seemed to take a shine to Montana. He and his friend Chuck Dizzle managed to find a sliver of opportunity not normally afforded radio hopefuls on the come-up.

They were given a chance at hosting overnights from 2-6 a.m. It was another moment of possibility that again came to a sudden halt.

“We were on air and then maybe two months later, the station was sold, so it was again like, oh my God, what do I do with my life now,” Montana said.

Dizzle is still holding it down at the station. But Montana has moved on. He carved his own path and found his way to acting, focusing all of his energy on whatever work he could get. Early on it was productions from wide-eyed film students from the local UCLA and USC programs. And looking back, they were brutal.

“You see these films and you're like, man, maybe I'm not good,” Montana reflected with a smile. “But you don't realize when you're younger that it takes a lot to look good on camera. You have to have good lighting and good makeup, good directing, good people to work with.”

There is no finish line, not when you are passionate about following your dreams. One great opportunity begets another. A door shuts, but you look around for another. Montana’s story is like so many in that it’s filled with disappointment but his is also defined by determination.

“I always want to say it like this,” he explains. “You don't have to choose the one thing and then that's your focus on your life. The game's changed.”

As he puts it, everyone has a college degree. The key is finding that work ethic. Don’t just find your niche in this life, you have to accompany it with an unrelenting drive.

“When I had to pivot, it was super hard. But you got to have the confidence in yourself to just try—try something, do something, make those efforts. So that's when acting really started becoming a real, real passion.”

We chop it up a bit about football and boxing, the latter has been a passion for him since he was a kid, something he’s imparted upon his own three-year-old son. Montana isn’t just a boxing fan, he’s an active supporter and can be heard singing the praises of budding neighborhood stars like fellow Long Beach native Ashton Sylve.

There is a palpable excitement in his voice when he talks about the young slate of boxing stars on the podcast he shares with Will Harris, Put Em Up (Deux).

On Episode 13, he goes on about a recent card that featured star pugilist Seniesa Estrada, lauding her for her footwork, versatility and overall demeanor. “You are one of my favorite fighters,” he says about her on the show. “You have so much swag.”

While he doesn’t have time at the moment, he looks forward to the day he can get back to coaching football and visiting the gym more regularly. He found utter joy in not just imparting sports wisdom but also doing things like helping athletes with their rental applications, financial aid forms, and even girl troubles.

Montana has made a habit of being present. “I want kids to see a normal person like myself who pulls up in a normal car and a normal outfit and, you know, is a success, quote-unquote,” he tells me.

“And I want them to see that you don't have to be this big, showy, flamboyant person. You could be yourself and just be good at your craft and give back to your community, because it's what helps you get here.”

Finding Rio

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Montana contends that Rio is so far from who he is. But there is a humanity that he brings to the role that serves to not just amplify the stakes but rounds out a character that could so easily have become a caricature of a gang leader.

There is a weight to the silence in his performance. The fact that the audience can both fear Rio but also desire to see more of him speaks volumes to the work he pours into the character each season.

Montana followed his tenure on Graceland as Johnny Turturro—a lighthearted optimist who is quick with a joke and a smile—with something very different. His audition for Rio meant going dark.

It’s one thing to become sinister, it’s another to create a character that resonates from the jump. Walking into the audition, Montana was prepared with a cross tattoo on his neck and one simple task—to terrify the room.

“I just kind of went in there with a lot of like steel confidence and steel demeanor. And it was one of the best auditions I've ever had because I know it was different from other stuff, because I came in there wanting to just scare everybody in the room and not really caring if they thought it was too aggressive. I just wanted to leave that audition room, leaving no doubt that I'm Rio.”

But he’s not Rio, not really. Montana is a warm and inviting presence who is welcoming with a smile and quick with praise. The dude is about sharing the love and making the world better.

But acting is a gig; it’s a job that takes precision and effort. Montana explains that others may cash it in, but that’s not how you get ahead in this game.

He can be seen prior to shoots growing quiet, losing himself in the meditation of preparing himself for a day as Rio, a performance that necessitates going somewhere that exists in his brain but is never let out until action is barked across the set.

“It takes a lot for me when I get to set. I'm always happy, but as soon as I get out of my car, I like to just quiet down. I don’t want to talk much,” Montana explained. The transformation is emotional as it is physical. “As soon as I get my tattoo on, I just feel different.”

The process isn’t about going through the motions. Someone who is well versed in the kind of training it takes to hit the gridiron or step into the ring takes that kind of preparation into every scene.

“I just mentally prep and I still carry that into auditions because I work so much and I tell a lot of actor friends that I have or even kids that are coming up, it's not just memorizing lines. If you're going into this thing, just memorizing lines, you're not going to make it. You've got to find out what's really going on with this person. You have to dig deep. And when you go in there, it has to be about competition. And the older I get, the more I'm meeting people that come from football and basketball and baseball and are successful in acting because it's the same shit.”

The Power of Telling Stories 

Playing Rio could easily be another instance of a Latino playing a thug, a one-dimensional plot device that is gobbled up by other more layered characters and spit out by the second season.

That’s not what we get with Rio. He’s a father, a businessman, and a villain. He can show great depth of emotion one minute and turn his back and leave you with the deep gashes of indifference the next.

To appreciate his acting, just go through his social media or just chat with him for a spell and you find that he’s far from the cold and calculating Rio. He’s warm, inviting, and concerned with the state of the world.

It’s clear from his posts that he won’t stand for cultural appropriation and will call out the minute some fun in the community goes down.

There is a severe lack of representation from the Latinx community in Hollywood. Just last year a study found that “Only 5% of the speaking roles in last year's (2019) top 100 movies went to Latino actors even though that demographic group represents 18% of the US population,” via CNN.

I discussed with Montana how to rectify that chasm and bring more inclusion for Latinx actors, directors and creatives who want to be seen and heard.

“We have to follow the lead of our Black brothers and sisters who are now writing their own stuff, directing their own stuff, creating their own stuff,” he said.

Montana divulges that he is indeed working on something right now, plunging into a new endeavor as he pens his own narrative for the screen, something that’s more indicative of the Mexican-American experience.

Growing up on the northside of Long Beach, he’s used to seeing families from struggling communities portrayed with the gloom of uncertainty hanging over their lives.

But he wants to show the light. The Latinx experience isn’t a one-dimensional trope, it’s a spectrum with some much joy.

“We're always happy,” Montana says. “We're always laughing. Same thing when you see a fruit vendor or five Mexican contractors sitting under a tree laughing their ass off and they have a hard job, but like there's always laughter, there's always a joke.”

There is more to this community than the cook or the landscaper, as he says. There is a depth beyond what is portrayed that he wants to help amplify.

“We can be the lawyer…We could be the doctor if you just put us in that position, make people see that we're this way, too, and it'll just kind of level out the playing field.”

It comes down to doing what he has always done, taking his conviction and putting it into action. Never content with what life has given him, Montana is here to move forward and change the very nature of the industry. It starts with telling these stories.

“As soon as we start writing our own stuff and directing our own stuff and creating our own stuff, it'll happen.” 

"Good Girls" can be seen Sundays on NBC at 10/9c.