Manny Montana at Jordan Panther night practice. Photos by Angela Ratzlaff.  

“Welcome to the ghetto,” Graceland actor Manny Montana said as he opened up the gates to the Jordan High School football field on the night of the USA Network’s latest Southern California-set crime series’ premier.

As Montana walks towards the patched-up playing field and a group of teenaged boys huddled for a pep talk, he waves to coaches, players and other Long Beach residents.

Instead of staying at home during the night of Graceland’s premier and watching the new episode with friends, he stuck to his commitment of coaching the weekly Long Beach Jordan Panthers’ night practice, which lasts from 7PM to 9PM.

“I want to be that guy that has the show, that has the really good show, and starts to be known for the smaller roles,” he said sitting on the sidelines of the field. “I never wanted to be ‘the man,’ or super famous.”

The Long Beach native plays a supporting role in Graceland, a series about the Los Angeles crime scene and the drama behind drug and gang busts. The show takes a look inside a beachside house where a group of FBI agents live and spend their time when they are not on the job doing undercover work to bust drug deals.

manny2Unlike other crime dramas, Graceland takes on more of a California vibe, complete with extended scenes of surfing and driving down Pacific Coast Highway. Montana plays the part of Johnny Tuturro, a laid back, fun-loving surfer.

“I read it, and I was like, ‘If I don’t get this part, I’m just going to quit acting,’” Montana, who regularly surfs and relates to Latin street culture, said. “It just clicked.”

He didn’t get into acting until recently, having graduated from Jordan High School and gaining a football scholarship to Cal State University Sacramento. His dreams of football were crushed due to an arm injury, though, and he quit after dislocating his shoulder for the eighth time.

After a transfer to Cal State Long Beach, Montana decided to major in journalism and broadcasting. He worked as a DJ for the school’s student-run radio station KBeach and eventually landed an internship for Power 100.3, which at the time played mostly hip-hop music before it changed to playing classic rock.

Always having had a desire to act, Montana pushed himself after he graduated in 2006 to start by playing roles in student films, some of which were sub-par.

“[Acting in student films] turned on that desire,” he said. “I’m a competitor at heart, I’ve been playing sports my whole life, so when I saw that I had potential in that, but it wasn’t where I wanted to be, I started taking classes, I started doing workshops, and it reminded me of football.”

Montana still fulfills his passion for football by coaching the Jordan Panthers every day.

“It’s a little difficult with high school,” he said. “Usually I have stuff to do in L.A., and I have to drive back here to practice and then usually go back to L.A. for whatever reason, so it’s a little tough, but whenever I’m out here, it’s fun. It makes every problem go away.”

As the kids, many of whom are surrounded or involved in gang activity, shout to each other and complete touchdowns, Montana gives positive feedback and support.

Montana said he, too, grew up around Mexican and black gang activity in Long Beach. He often found himself breaking up fights and witnessing his friends getting shot or going to prison. The football practice, Montana said, creates an escape from the day-to-day violence that the kids may face.

manny1“Being out here, it’s a good place to help show kids to not do [get involved in gangs], to show them a different path,” he said. “We have kids that act so tough, and you can just see how sensitive they are, you can just see that you want somebody to care for them.”

Living in Los Angeles is not an option for Montana, as he wants to keep up with coaching and maintain a laid back lifestyle alongside his acting career.

“I love that Long Beach has … something for everyone. We have rich areas … we have super nice areas, then we got places like the North Side and the East,” he said. “We have a class for everybody, and growing up here, I feel like I got a taste for every kind of person, and every kind of lifestyle that you could have.”

His Long Beach background makes its way into one of the 11 episodes that have been already shot, where Montana’s character has to go undercover as a Latin gang member.

“We incorporate a lot of surrounding neighborhoods into the show, and we wanted to do everything authentic,” he said, explaining how the makeup team mimicked common tattoos that are a part of the eastside gangs in Long Beach.

“In a way, it felt good to do something that I grew up around, but in a lot of ways, I hated it. I hated those gangs growing up,” he said. “[But] it was a treat to do as an actor.”

For now, Montana plans to continue his work with Graceland while keeping his eyes out for smaller, independent films to play roles in. Even though he tries to steer clear from becoming an A-list star, Montana said that as long as he can keep coaching, he doesn’t mind how much success he may gain from acting.

“If I could coach when hiatus is on, and still do films, that would be my ideal life,” he said. “I’d die a happy man. I could do that forever.”

Graceland airs weekly Thursday nights on the USA Network.