There’s a lot riding on the tricked-out Harleys of the Mayans M.C., an outlaw Latino motorcycle gang headquartered on the Cali side of the U.S.-Mexico border.
With FX's Sons of Anarchy four years in the rear-view mirror, its spinoff Mayans M.C. is set about the same amount of time after the death of that series' protagonist, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) --which followed the demise of many of its other key characters, including his wife and his mother.
But well before the blood-soaked denouement of Sons, in fact from the very beginning in 2008, the Mayans were always part of its universe—first as rivals and then as the seven-season series drew to a close, as allies.
The Mayans have clubs throughout California and the new series focuses on the charter set in the fictional town of Santo Padre in the Imperial Valley bordering Mexico. As with the Sons, their main business is running drugs and guns. Unlike their counterparts, they often smuggle contraband inside Quinceañera gowns.
At the center of it all is the Reyes family, with its head Felipe (Edward James Olmos), who runs a butcher shop in town. His eldest son Angel (Clayton Cardenas) is a charter member of the club, while his youngest son Ezekiel, known as EZ (JD Pardo), is a prospect, doing grunt work while inching his way up the ranks become a full-fledged member.
"For me the challenge for the first couple of seasons is taking the mythology a lot people spent time, energy and love creating and honoring that, and then bringing into it a new mythology that doesn't feel derivative and like a brown version. I want to honor what we have and make it new and different for the audience. That's really my challenge in this," said creator Kurt Sutter.
As a self-proclaimed "white guy from New Jersey," Sutter brought in Elgin James as his co-creator to craft the characters and the milieu of the Mayans.
"I realized exactly what I had to do," said James, who is half Latin and half Irish, and grew up in Boston. "Ever since I was a kid, I've seen black and brown characters who are criminals. I actually grew up in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. This is the first time I get to tell stories from the inside out. I don't know what it's like it's like to be part of a functional, supportive family."
He may have found that under Sutter's guidance and in the writers room for the show, which is dominated by women and people of color.
As Sutter has joked during cast and crew appearances this summer at Comic Con, ATX and TCA, many of them have spent more time behind bars than in the TV trenches.
That's certainly true of James, who was a gang member in Boston and did prison time for extortion. His incarceration for a 2005 attempt to extort $5,000 from a man was several years after he wrote and directed the 2011 Sundance Film Festival entry Little Birds and was mentored by Robert Redford during his time at Sundance Labs.
"Being at Sundance Labs completely changed my life. It taught me how to express myself with art instead of violence, which was crazy," James said.
"The thing we're most ashamed of is our superpower. For me it was being mixed, but that became a path to see things through a different set of eyes. Living in Boston, and having Robert Redford of all people call me on all my shit—that in my 20s and 30s, I was still acting like a scared little kid. I chose to be an artist."
James jumped at the opportunity to work with Sutter, whose work he had long admired. "I had heard Kurt was meeting with people, and I was excited to have a chance to sit down with him. The Shield was one of my favorite TV shows," said James, who went on to relay the story of their first meeting.
"I went in to see him, and it was so nerve-wracking. At Fox Studios, I didn't know what to expect. I was just going to tell him it was nerve-wracking to meet him, thinking I wouldn't get the job. We talked about violence, and how I grew up as a child, as a victim and then as an aggressor, and how I spent the next few decades.
"I didn't want to tell stories about violence. I thought that's what I came out here [to L.A.] for, and pushed back against it. Then I realized I needed to talk about this, and my time in prison. I took this job to explore those things. He said he can't mess with the mythology of Sons. Then he said, 'Let's make a TV show together.'"
"Elgin and I had a directive for ourselves in how we wanted to end - and the mile markers and mythology," Sutter said. "The beauty and fun is we never know how we get there. A lot of times it's letting the characters and stories really drive the mythology. For me, sometimes I don't find the episode until way inside the script, and have no idea how.
"I've learned that's the authentic beat that comes out and drives the story."
One throughline between the two series is the character of Marcus Alvarez, played by Emilio Rivera. As the founder and president of the Oakland Mayans, he appeared in the very first episode of Sons of Anarchy. The brutal nature of his character was revealed early on when he had his own son killed for making a dangerous and costly mistake during an arms deal.
"Emilio is a guy who came from that world," James said about the actor, who guest stars in Mayans M.C. "We have the show only because of him and what he did on Sons. He was a cold-blooded killer but brought so much else that gave all of us our lives and careers."
Playing the character of EZ is expected to be a career-changer for Pardo, whose previous television credits include East Los High, Revolution, The Messengers and a role in 2012's The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2.
Pardo initially thought he might land another role on the show before being cast as the lead.
"Originally I was brought in to meet with the casting director for EZ," said Pardo. "But for whatever reason, it wasn't going to happen-- but they asked if I could come to a session with Kurt for the actors he liked, with six roles to read for. I said absolutely, I wanted to be part of it. I studied all six characters and went into the room and started the process.
"After a couple of reads, Kurt sat me down and talked to me about myself and thought I could probably play EZ. He gave me sides, so I went outside and studied. Wow, I had the offer the next day."
Like Jax Teller, whom his role is being compared with, EZ was a golden boy, although the stark difference is that he is not an heir to a family dynasty as Jax was.
"Charlie was playing Jax as the hero of Sons of Anarchy," Pardo said. "I'm playing EZ, with the story told through his perspective, which is what I think is different. Jax was already being given the keys to the kingdom."
Yet EZ was the one who got out of a largely impoverished community, making the grade to attend Stanford and set to marry his high school sweetheart, played by Sarah Bolger.
Without giving away the details, a bad decision puts him behind bars for a serious crime and for her, heartbroken by the tragic turn of events, life goes off in a different direction.
As the series begins, EZ is recently out of prison and trying to pick up the pieces of his previous, promising life from the ground up.
"He's at rock bottom. EZ is a prospect, so it's not like you can go speaking your mind or making jokes," said Pardo. "You can't fully be yourself because there are rules. You have to go and wash the bikes and do a lot of dirty work. Just him being his own man, he never wanted to be part of the motorcycle gang.
"It was not handed down to him but a place he finds himself after a tragic event. What we see is he wants to do what he has to do and get out."
A real-world challenge in playing the role is that Pardo had never ridden a motorcycle. "This is the first time I jumped on a bike," he said. "They sent me to Harley school, and you apply that knowledge to the Soft Tail Deluxe with 22-inch ape hangers [handlebars].
"It took some time. I went through a period where my hands would fall asleep, and my sides were hurting from turning it. It's a heavy bike, and there were a lot of challenges but what drove us all is the fact this a show on bikes and whole culture behind them."
More than making up for his motorcycle-riding learning curve, Pardo said working with Sutter and James has been creatively fulfilling.
"Kurt is a master storyteller. There isn't anyone better. As an actor you get worried with things you have to say, how to make this real. You don't find that at all with Kurt, you just give your heart and he'll be there. He's very clear as to what he wants. I know right off the bat if he's happy, so there is no second guessing or confusion.
"Elgin has had such a remarkable life with his backstory of gangs and prison, and then finding himself here. These are rich lives that have a lot to say, and I'm lucky that I get to be a part of it."