As a child, Manny Jimenez would tie a pillowcase around his neck and pretend to be Superman. He'd hum the superhero's theme and barrel into furniture, pretending to save his mother from speeding bullets. ''My mom would yell at me all the time because she was afraid I was going to jump out the window,'' says Jimenez. ''As far back as I can remember, I dreamed of being in the movies. But that wasn't really an option the way I grew up.''
Jimenez is 33 now. And while his sense of hope should have been exhausted a long time ago, his dream did finally come true, although not without a nightmarish detour. Jimenez's father was a heroin addict and an alcoholic. He used to beat Manny's mother in front of him. In the eighth grade, Jimenez started hanging out with the gang members in his Whittier, Calif., neighborhood. He dropped out of high school and began stealing cars, getting shipped off to juvenile detention camp for 10 months. Then, at 15, he was finally ''jumped in'' to his local gang. ''When you join a gang, they initiate you by beating you up,'' he says matter-of-factly. ''I got my ass kicked! But it felt good at the time because I felt like I had a real family. I felt like I was finally home.''
Jimenez left gang life nine years ago. And these days, he has a more legitimate job. As the CEO of Suspect Entertainment, he heads up a Hollywood management company with a roster of 30 actors, most of them Latino. That in itself is unique in an industry as white as Hollywood. But what really sets Suspect apart is the kind of actors Jimenez represents.
Have you watched a movie like Training Day recently and wondered where they found all of those tattoo-covered dudes playing gangbangers and murderers? The answer is most likely Suspect. Most of Jimenez's actors have pasts as checkered as his own. And while the company is only three years old, it's already built a reputation as the place to go when casting directors need a dose of ''urban'' authenticity.
''A lot of times when you look at gang movies you see guys in black leather jackets doing Debbie Allen choreographed numbers,'' says Training Day writer David Ayer. ''That's not how gangsters are. Manny's guys have been there. So when you see them on screen, you're looking at someone who you know has a history.'' Ayer's next film, Harsh Times, which opens in November, features four Suspect actors in its cast alongside Christian Bale and Eva Longoria.
While providing menacing-looking actors is Suspect's bread and butter, Jimenez prides himself on being an all-purpose fixer. If you need a fleet of pimped-out lowrider cars for your movie, Manny can hook you up. If you need someone to coach Christian Bale to give him some street cred on screen, Manny's on it. If you need a hand with wardrobe, hell, Manny will give you the clothes off his back. Jimenez is like a pudgier, Mexican-American Russell Simmons a fast-talking hustler with a cell phone permanently fused to his ear.
Maybe it's because he never had much of a family growing up, or maybe it's because he misses the old one that he left behind on the streets. Either way, Jimenez is more than a manager to the actors in Suspect. He's also an acting coach, a parole officer, a father, and a confessor.
These days, Frank Alvarez is one of Suspect's busiest actors. He just wrapped the independent hip-hop drama Platinum Illusions. But his first meeting with Manny wasn't exactly promising. One night in the early '90s, back when Alvarez was still a gangbanger in East L.A., he was filling his car with gas. As he stood at the pump, he had a bad feeling. He knew he was outside of his neighborhood.
''All of a sudden Manny and his homeboys rolled up and asked me where I was from,'' says Alvarez. ''I knew it was going to be trouble, but back then I thought I was bulletproof. I told them, and all of a sudden Manny jumped me. I had a gun in my shoe, so I pulled it out. And I'm pumping gas while I'm holding a gun on him. There were cameras at the gas station, so I'm thinking there's no way I can shoot this guy and get away.''