As a star high school football player, Kurt Cáceres was used to putting on a show under bright stadium lights and in front of hundreds of people. With a football scholarship already guaranteed to him at Sacramento State, the last thing Cáceres thought he would be doing during his final semester in high school was performing on a different type of stage.

“My counselor told me I still needed to fill my arts requirement,” Cáceres, 37, told me during a phone interview. “She told me to take an acting class. I was like, ‘What? All the other jocks are going to make fun of me.’”

Despite his reservations, Cáceres enrolled in drama during his last semester. Much to his surprise, he immediately fell in love with it.

“I did ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Cats,’” Cáceres said proudly. “I never thought about acting in my entire life, but when I took that class, I knew right away that was what I wanted to do.”

Best known for his role as Héctor Ávila on “Prison Break,” Cáceres, who is of Mexican descent, has starred on other TV shows including “American Family,” “The Shield” and “CSI.” Most recently, Cáceres starred in the feature film, “Down for Life,” a true story about a Latina gang member living in South Central L.A. In the film, Cáceres plays Rafael, the stepfather of the young girl who is running with the wrong crowd. The film, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in October, also stars Laz Alonso (“Fast and Furious”) and Kate del Castillo (“Under the Same Moon”).

During the interview, Cáceres talked about his work with inner city kids in L.A., why he won’t portray gang member characters anymore and what is more important to him than acting.

Tell us about your philanthropic efforts in L.A. I read you’re a volunteer teacher and actor at a theater company that exposes children to Shakespeare.

It’s Tony Plana’s theater company. We bring Shakespeare to inner city kids who have never seen a play in their life. We’ll go in and teach them Shakespeare and then at the end of the week, we’ll put on a play for them. They love it. It’s an incredible experience because it opens their eyes to something new. All of a sudden, these kids are like, “I want to do that. I want to be on stage.” It gives them something to strive for in the arts.

I’m guessing it also gets them off the street.

Exactly! Most kids who grow up on the streets never leave their four-by-four block radius. That’s their home for life and they don’t seem to be able to see beyond that. When they are exposed to something new, they can see that there is something else out there for them.

That actually sounds like a description for your latest movie “Down for Life.”

Yeah, it is. The movie is about a girl who is in a gang who has the skills for writing, but doesn’t have the means to do it. A lot of the girls in this movie are real kids from the streets. The filmmakers wanted authentic girls. They didn’t want actors.

The term “non-actor” has been used before to describe this type of talent in the film industry. Why do you think filmmakers look for actors with little or no experience?

A non-actor can be more organic than a real actor. You can get them to be so real and authentic. You can’t be too technical with them, but they really understand life. They can relate to things others actors can’t relate to.

You’ve played a gang member a few times early in your career.  Is that still a role you’re comfortable playing now that you’re older?

I will not play a gangbanger anymore. I refuse to play that stereotypical role now. The first few times, I was just starting out and needed to get some press, but then I stopped. Everyone knows Kurt Cáceres will not play a gangbanger now. I’m trying to promote the idea that Latinos are like everyone else – teachers, doctors, lawyers – so give us the opportunity.

What have you learned about yourself as an actor since you started 10 years ago?

I’ve learned a lot about integrity. When I first got to L.A., nothing else mattered except acting and succeeding. Throughout the last 10 years, I’ve learned acting is just a job. At the end of the day, the most important things are your family and friends.

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