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American Crime's Richard Cabral on Teo's Whereabouts and the Heartbreak of Mexican Laborer Stories

It's not a party on set, unsurprisingly

Malcolm Venable

We have good news and/or bad news depending on how dramatic you like your drama. American Crimeis only going to get more heart-wrenching from here as Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez) takes his mission to find his son, Teo, to new, intense heights in Sunday's episode.

As we saw last week, he's now very well educated on the brutal conditions and subhuman treatment of workers on the Hesby farm after witnessing Isaac (Richard Cabral) issue a monstrous beatdown to Coy (Connor Jessup) and now they're due for a confrontation. Cabral, a veteran of the series who was nominated for an Emmy for his work in Season 1, is a primal force in his performances thus far -- which says a lot since he's performing alongside equally astonishing artists including Jessup, Felicity Huffman, Regina King and Ana Mulvoy Ten.

TVGuide.com caught up with Cabral to find out what's next for Isaac, how his character became the beast he is and what this season's story means to him as a Mexican-American.

TVGuide.com Does Isaac know where Teo is?

Cabral: Yeah he does. He does know where he's at.

American Crime's Season 3 depicts immigration, labor and addiction in North Carolina

How did Isaac become so cruel?

I think there's many factors that came to play in that. And I think this world, this agriculture world -- this modern-day slavery Isaac and his brother were born in that. And that world -- I could just imagine being brought up as an infant where women are being raped... siblings being treated like that. You grow up seeing that witnessing that, that's the only world you live in. I think there's a lot of factors. But this is all he really knows. If they were to throw him out on the street right now, what would he be? He doesn't have any skills. Isaac was taught this. Before Isaac was born this is how it was.

I felt like there were moments where you could see a glimmer of humanity and compassion...

For sure! For sure! As we know most people are three dimensional. There are other sides to him. To do this job you have to be cruel. But. He is human. He does have deeper thoughts. He doesn't know how to attain that, but for sure, he definitely knew this wasn't all he could do in life but it was all that was given.

He's also victimized and bullied by his own brother. Talk to me about their relationship.

They grew up like this. This is a savage world. You have to be on that level to make money and to survive so that was his relationship with his brother going into this from the beginning. His brother is a few years older, his brother is very stern. That was how he was taught -- the machismo, kind of brutal in a way. I feel that Isaac was more more Americanized. I'm not really sure where he got his schooling or where he's seen the other side of the tracks. I think Diego never [saw] the other side of tracks. I think that's where the conflict was, where Diego was stern in his ways, Isaac knew there was something beyond this. And I think that's where the conflict resulted in. But again this is all Isaac knew.

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What's it like on set? This material is really somber, does it take a lot out of you? Are you guys like, joking around on set?

I'm definitely not joking around on set. I try to stay in it. I'm not that guy that can be able to jump back from both worlds. It's a world that we're trying to create that we're living in. So I stay in there. It gets a little funky, but I think I've been around it for these last couple of years, so I know that it's going to be all right, you know?

Do you have rituals that help you decompress after it's over?

I have trust that once it's over it just snaps back. Once it's a wrap you slowly start coming [back]. I do take a minute, though, to pray and meditate after [scenes] just to bring me back, just to bring Richard back. I'm like that anyway, I'm spiritual like that anyway; I meditate beyond when I'm not on set. But I definitely do that to dust off anything that is not Richard, you get me?

Richard Cabral, American Crime

Richard Cabral, American Crime

Nicole Wilder, ABC

How much of this did you know about before taking this role?

I didn't really know much. I knew my family had something to do with this world. I'm a Mexican-American. My family has been in Los Angeles for the last 60 years. For people who know the history... the Mexican population started migrating when the revolution was happening in the 1910s, 1920s. The agricultural fields throughout the Southwest, those jobs needed to be filled and who were the ones to do it? It was the Mexicans. Those programs were called the Bracero... In the 1930s and 1940s the U.S. and Mexican governments had a program where they would let Mexicans come and work the fields. They were coming in droves because the Mexican government was still in shambles due to the revolution. So, like, practically every Mexican family was coming to the United States, and I think three of my uncles were part of that program in the 1940s and that program lasted through the 1960s. So I knew there was truth to it, but when I started working on it and [creator] John Ridley and [executive producer] Michael McDonald started giving me the research it took it to a whole 'nother level.

How did you feel discovering all this, as a Mexican-American?

It broke my heart. It just ripped my heart. I grew up in East Los Angeles, which is the biggest population of Mexican-Americans in America. I was born and raised there. So there is a certain thing about Mexicans and Mexican women especially, we care for each other, so when I seen these women telling their stories -- the majority of Mexicans come here for one thing: to work. They take the dirtiest jobs, they'll do the hardest labor and they won't say nothing. They'll put up with stuff that other people won't. So when I saw it in these documentaries [I watched for research], I can't really explain it... They were very humble women that were speaking, then talking about how their daughter was molested in front of them or raped. It was heartbreaking to watch. It was heavy.

What would you say is Isaac's biggest hope?

Isaac doesn't really have any hope. I guess his hope is that he finds a place in his heart he could learn to forgive.

American Crime airs Sundays at 10/9c on ABC.