Elgin James on His Journey From Prison to Co-Creating ‘Mayans M.C.’

     September 4, 2018

mayans-mc-sliceFrom co-creators Kurt Sutter and Elgin James, the FX series Mayans M.C. is the next chapter in the Sons of Anarchy saga, now set in a post-Jax Teller world. Fresh out of prison and trying to carve out a new identity in a town where he was once the golden boy with big dreams, Ezekiel “EZ” Reyes (JD Pardo) is trying to navigate what it means to be a Prospect in the Mayans M.C. charter on the California/Mexico border. While figuring out what the next step in his life can be, EZ is torn between his struggling but lawful father (Edward James Olmos), his brother Angel (Clayton Cardenas), who is a full patch member of the M.C., and his childhood sweetheart Emily (Sarah Bolger), who seems to have moved on without him.

While at the FX portion of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with executive producer/writer Elgin James, who talked about how he went from prison to co-creating the series with Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, finding his own voice as an artist, honoring the mythology of Sons while telling their own story, always wanting to tell the truth, having the character of Marcus Alvarez and the actor Emilio Rivera to bridge the two worlds, the show’s use of harsh language, and the female voice of the series.

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Image via FX

Collider:  I really dig what you’re doing with this show!

ELGIN JAMES:  Cool, thank you!

Is it difficult to make this feel familiar, but also its own thing?

JAMES:  Not at all. I think the way that we can actually honor the mythology of Sons the most, and what Kurt [Sutter] and a lot of really intelligent people created for seven seasons, is to tell our own story and to try to plant our flag as much as we can in the ground. This is different, but the same. We always say that it’s the same universe, just a different world in it. It all comes down to Emilio Rivera, or Marcus Alvarez. People have been showing black and brown criminal characters forever, usually just as stereotypical, one-dimensional villains. The role that he had could have easily just been that, but he gave so much emotion and depth to it. He’s the reason why we even have our show. They wrote to that. It was the great Sons writers, of course, but it was also what Emilio did with it. He took something that could have been so cold-hearted, and he gave it so much warmth and humanity. I tell the actors, all the time, that the only reason we have a job is because of that dude. We’re very grateful for the work that he did.

He’s the Godfather of it all.

JAMES:  He really is the Godfather. We all call him El Padrino. We all call him the Godfather. He’s too humble to let us kiss the ring, but he’s the reason why I’m sitting here right now, which is great.

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Image via FX

Emilio Rivera is such an underrated and under-appreciated actor

JAMES:  God, yeah.

To see him get to play a character like this, who has such depth, and who’s surrounded by other characters that are allowed to have that kind of depth, is really nice.

JAMES:  It’s cool. It’s awesome. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to tell the truth. You’re seeing Eddie James Olmos and what he’s done, and how he always transcends culture and what it means just to be a great artist. Now, we have this bunch of people that grew up on him and Emilio. Emilio, even before this, mentored a couple of our actors because they came from the same neighborhood and the same situation as him. It’s phenomenal. That’s all that we’re trying to do. We’re trying to tell our story, especially for those of us that grew up in gangs, or grew up surrounded by violence or were incarcerated. We’ve always seen ourselves portrayed in a certain way, and now we get to tell our story and put a human face on it.

How did you end up working on the show with Kurt Sutter?

JAMES:  It was pretty random. It was funny because the character of EZ Reyes was a Prospect and just out of prison, and when Kurt and I first started working on this, I was only a few years out of prison myself, and still trying to assimilate into the world. It’s different. That felt so familiar to me. I left being in a gang behind, but I spent the majority of my life in it. I had this whole dream about being able to make movies and TV, and I had these amazing mentors and made it come true. And then, an old gang charge came up and I had to go to maximum security prison. To go from almost starting, to then being ripped from all that, when you’re in prison, all of that stuff disappears. All of this is make believe. You have to try to stay above that, even though you have to walk through the minefield of violence that exists in any prison, as well as inside of yourself. That’s the only way that I’ve known how to react. So, to then be thrust out into the world and this whole industry, it’s about lovely people picking you up and their mentorship, but for the most part, it’s a lot of bullshit that you have to eat. The EZ character has been through that experience. He’s been through hell and come out, and now he has to start at the bottom of something and rise up. Kurt was looking for people to write the story with because, as he says, he didn’t think that he should be the one to tell it. That’s phenomenal because he could have easily told the story alone. Instead, he gave me, a violent ex-felon who couldn’t get a job at Costco or McDonald’s, a chance. That’s because of Kurt and his generosity. He met with some people and I was the guy that he chose, and we just got to work.

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