There is no census box to check when it comes to Elgin James, writer, director, and co-showrunner of FX’s new Mayans M.C. His first film, 2011’s Little Birds, was a Sundance darling, and then he went to prison for attempted extortion. During the year of his incarceration, he survived by working on a script that Brian Grazer gave him to rewrite. Nearly four years after his release, he met Sons of Anarchy creator and showrunner Kurt Sutter, who would hire him to help run his hit show’s sequel, even though James had never even stepped foot in a TV writers room.
What James, 48, lacks in work experience he makes up with his life story. He is the youngest adopted son of a white couple who raised him on a Connecticut farm with three other siblings of different races. Growing up, he says school bullies called him every racial slur in the book. Some assumed he was black; others thought he was Puerto Rican. That, and the abuse he endured at the hands of his father, would nudge him into a life of violence in Boston, spending almost two decades as a leader of the notorious hard-core punk gang FSU.
James didn’t know his race or ethnicity until he met his biological parents after he was released from prison in 2012. His mother is Irish-American; his dad is black, Native American, and Dominican. But learning about his background didn’t offer a new sense of identity for James, who says he has always and will always feel like an outsider — which he thinks best qualifies him for a show about a Southern California border-town motorcycle gang.
Sutter, who co-runs Mayans, has made a point of saying he hired James because he knew, as “a white guy from Jersey,” he couldn’t write a show about a Latino subculture by himself. The show straddles the border, with scenes depicted both in California and Mexico. But James, who doesn’t speak Spanish, admits he’s not comfortable being labeled a Latino filmmaker. Or a black filmmaker. If anything, he says, “I would always just like to be a punk-rock filmmaker ‘cause that’s the culture I chose.” Even when describing the writers whom Sutter assembled for Mayans, James isn’t certain about their backgrounds, first claiming they are all Mexican or Mexican-American and then correcting himself. There’s perhaps a reason for this: Culturally, he’s never belonged anywhere, so thinking of people in those terms and labels eludes him.
Vulture spoke with James for an hour at the Viceroy Hotel in Beverly Hills last week, just days after he finished directing the Mayans season finale, a surprise gift from Sutter. For all the strength in his lean, muscular physique, he can be quite vulnerable: His eyes teared up at every mention of his deceased mother, and he mentioned his terror about meeting Sutter for the first time, taking charge of the writers room, directing his first TV episode, and even doing this interview. James hopes he has left his violent past behind, but confesses that he knows he could still be set off, so he’s trying to remember the wise words of his mentor Robert Redford, whom he met when he was accepted into the Sundance Labs to take classes in screenwriting and directing. The Oscar-winning director and actor advised James to focus on the love his mother gave him, instead of the love he never received from his father, and to sink his rage and pain into his work.
This is an exciting time for you.
If exciting means you feel like you’re gonna puke all the time, yeah. [Laughs.] That’s what it feels like.
Did you feel that way working on the show?
The whole time. Everything’s so new to me. All of our writers, they’re such an amazing group, but they all have more experience than me. They’re definitely all smarter than me. To be, with Kurt’s guidance, running that room — the whole time I felt like I was barely lifting my head above water, but in a really good, exciting way.
I know that your life has been very painful and hard. I’d love to hear about your childhood. I know you were adopted after living in some foster homes. How old were you?
I wasn’t a baby, but I think I was a toddler. I have little memories, but nothing really. Most of my memories start when they brought me to their house in New Jersey. At first we were there, then we moved to rural Connecticut. To me, they have always been my family. We lived in a small town called Morris. Waterbury was our big city. Morris was just like a dying little town. A small farm town.
What were your parents like?
My mom was amazing. Everything that’s fucked up about me is my own fault, but everything good about me is my mom. My dad was a really complicated man. He had his own demons, and we lived with that. He was only around on the weekends, like a couple of days a week. He was in the city. He’d work. He basically had his own life. So I lived in this world with my sisters, my aunt would be around a lot, and my mom and my grandma.
Were your sisters adopted?
One was their biological daughter. The other was adopted; she is black. Then I had a couple of foster brothers, too. They were all older than me. I grew up in a household full of these amazing, strong women, so it was so weird to get out into the world where women have to fight to be heard. It was so the opposite in my house. I think that made me who I am. Even though I spent decades in a gang, that’s the energy that I feel comfortable with.
Your father was volatile when he was home? Was he abusive?
I grew up really scared. My memories are basically of being terrified of him. But I think it made me a really good artist because I’m able to read a room. When you’re a little kid, you have to know when the fuck to run.
Was he abusive toward all of you?
It was mostly centered on me. There was stuff with my mom, too. My mom tried to protect me ‘cause I was the baby. There would be some really violent act with my dad, and then I’d feel worthless crying in bed. I’d be like 7 years old and my mom would come in with a cold washcloth and sing to me, “You’re not bad; you’re a good person. He’s wrong about you.” That was the most beautiful gift my mom gave me — those moments afterward of “You’re not a piece of shit.” I grew up feeling that way, diminished or disregarded by the world. You’re told you’re a piece of shit, and then you start to believe that you’re a piece of shit, so then you start to act like a piece of shit. And you find other kids who also got told they’re a piece of shit their whole life. I think we’re just dudes without dads who didn’t know how to be men. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Did you know anything about your biological parents? Or did you want to?
All I knew is that my mom was young and was white, and that my dad wasn’t. That was all the information that I had.
And you never met them?
Never met them until recently. They found me through The New Yorker magazine. It was crazy. They found me after I got out of prison.
What are they like?
It’s wild to meet my father. It’s like nature versus nurture. Hanging out with him, I see this dude has this little glint that I have in my eye — that I want to set shit on fire thing. I see that in him. He was a drummer, a musician. He just played music his whole life, and I was really like, Oh, this totally could be a path that I had taken.
Meeting my mom, she’s really interesting, too, which really is extremely cool. I don’t know how to say this … my [adoptive] mom’s death was so awful and life-changing for me. There’s something that happens when kids lose their parents. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you still feel like an orphan. So that just totally screwed me up.
When did she die?
I lost my mom in 2003. All of a sudden, you fast-forward all these years later, and it’s just like, “Oh, your mom called,” and it’s this first feeling of Oh my god. It’s irrational and really strange. Meeting my biological mom, in a way, helped me rediscover my mom, the one who raised me. I got this from Robert Redford — which sounds ridiculous to say — but I was fixated on being an angry young man, everything that my dad did, what a bastard my dad was, and everything he didn’t do. We were in Utah and he was just sitting there listening — the most handsome man in the world staring back at you — and he’s like, “Yeah, but what about what your mom did?” And I was like, “Oh yeah, she was always there for me.” Here’s this woman who was so strong. She weighed like 100-something pounds. My dad was like 300 pounds. She was such an amazing, strong woman who lived by her ideals her whole life and just protected us and loved us. So getting to know my biological mom has been very cool, a weird reflection of how amazing my mom was.
What about your ethnic background? What did you learn?
It’s funny ‘cause when I was a kid, I just grew up being like, Oh, you’re probably just white and black, ‘cause it’s all you know. And then the world expands and people were like, “You’re Puerto Rican.” Later, some people even thought I was Middle Eastern. You could be absolutely anything! I was like, I don’t know what the fuck I am. Well, my mom is straight-up Irish, so I was in Boston and was more Irish than all my Irish friends. [Laughs.] My dad is black and Latino, or like Dominican, or like Spanish on that side, so it wasn’t that far off. But you know, when you’re mixed, you’re basically just nothing. You know what I mean?
Like you’re always in the middle, never fully one thing?
For your white friends, you’re too dark. For my black friends, I was too light. With my Latino friends, I couldn’t speak Spanish. You’re basically always “other.” In some ways it’s a gift for those of us who are writers and artists because we’re a part of things, but we also have a detachment. But when you’re young, it’s really, really painful. I had so much shame about that growing up.
Was your dad born in the Dominican Republic?
No, he’s from here. It’s just part of his blood. So he’s black and Dominican and Native American.
Do you feel any of those cultures in your identity now? Kurt has said it was important for him to find a Latino co-showrunner to tell this story.
I feel a part of those things. Growing up, everyone thought I was Latino — though they thought I was Puerto Rican, not Dominican. It’s something I naturally connected to but also felt outside of. Also, the wanting. There are clumsy attempts at it when you’re a kid. You see, like, Blood In, Blood Out and try to talk in Spanish. Or reading Malcolm X and wanting to be black. And being none of those things. I think that’s why the [Mayans] character of Adelita was really important to me. What I want is someone who looks indigenous ‘cause we don’t see that on TV, but then Carla Baratta walked in. She looks like she’s right out of a Botticelli painting or something, but she inhabits Adelita so much. I had to get out of my head because she embodies this woman.
I can only imagine it was the same for Kurt when he was meeting all these people who may have been more Latino than me — it’s in my blood, but I mean more culturally Latino. I can’t speak for him, but I think he at first was like, I don’t know if this is gonna be the guy. He’s basically everything, but he’s not what I was thinking of when I think of Latino filmmaker. So I think to compensate for that, we have a writers room where everyone is either Mexican or Mexican-American because those are the things they can get right. A lot of the producers or production heads were from Mexico or Mexican-American, too.
I thought only one of the writers was Mexican.
No, everyone’s Mexican or Mexican-American except for Andrea Ciannavei, who’s an amazing activist.
Hang on, I thought Bryan Gracia is the only Mexican-American. Who else?
Well, Sean [Tretta] is Italian and Mexican-American. Debra Moore, she’s also mixed, but I think she’s half Mexican-American. I think Carlos [Garza], our writer’s assistant, is actually from Mexico. And Andrea’s not Mexican-American, but she’s first-generation Italian-American and she’s just fucking badass. Before we started, I started following her on Instagram and she had chained herself to a prison cot outside of City Hall to talk about black overcrowding in prison.
This is an interesting point because there’s Latino, which is all of us, and there’s Mexican-American, which is very specific to this story. So there are certain cultural things that you would not be able to speak to. How important is the M.C.’s cultural identity to you in terms of the story that’s being told?
That’s what I mean. The show’s on the border, so it’s important to have those people in the writers room. It’s important not to sound defensive because this gets asked a lot — this is essentially a story of being outsiders, and I do know a lot about that, but it is about Mexican-American culture and that’s why it’s so important to have people who did grow up in Mexican-American culture. With the actors, too.
To get those details right is so important. To talk about even the border — there’s a certain way that someone listening to NPR and driving their Prius around here may think about border politics. But they actually live at the border, where it’s not about politics. You have to get out of that mind-set. The same way why, for a long time, I pushed back about having Bryan Gracia in the writers room because he used to be a police officer. The last thing I wanna do, excuse me, is spend every day with a police officer. Then I got to meet Bryan and got to know him as a person, and I was just like, “We can’t do this without him.”
What I really want to do more than anything is tell the story from the inside out. The culture is very important, but it’s not a show for Latinos. It’s not a show for Mexican-Americans. It’s a show for anyone who feels fucking diminished or underestimated or fucking disregarded or thrown aside and knows that the status quo is bullshit and is rigged against them. To get right what it’s like to be one of the many brown and black people who have lived a life of violence and incarceration. I think all that is just as important, that feeling of being an outsider. And that doesn’t come with your culture or ethnicity. It’s just how some of us are born.
So growing up, your house was multicultural, but your environment was mostly white?
Outside, yeah, I was the only brown kid for miles, and my siblings are way older than me, so it wasn’t like we were hanging out. I was called an [N-word] and spic all the time at school. I had a friend who was Native American, so they’d call us Spic and Spam, which maddeningly enough is actually a really funny nickname [laughs], but not when you’re a kid. All the shame. So I’d never want to go to school. I took a whole pack of Ex-Lax to not go to school once. Another time I rubbed poison ivy all over my body ‘cause I didn’t want to go to school and get called [N-word] and spic and get pushed around. I ended up in the hospital ‘cause my stomach hurt all the time. They didn’t know what the hell was wrong with me ‘cause I was like in second, third grade — why would anyone think stress or anxiety or fear? Still to this day, everything I feel is in my stomach. Coming down to talk to you, I feel nervous in my stomach. And then directing, I feel, Oh, that’s right, in my stomach, or I feel, Oh, that’s wrong, in my stomach.
At what point in your life then did you start coexisting with people of color outside of your family?
Punk rock is what it was. I discovered punk rock when I was like 12, and that’s what changed everything. Even with this show, people try to frame me as a Latino filmmaker, right? But I’m not a Latino filmmaker. I’m not a black filmmaker or a white filmmaker. I would always just like to be a punk-rock filmmaker ‘cause that’s the culture I chose. As much as I am all of those other things, I am punk rock. But being mixed, culturally, your culture is always outside. And hopefully that’s what gets across in the show ‘cause it doesn’t have to be from the color of your skin or ethnicity. I think there are just those of us who’ll always feel like outsiders no matter what. When you go to a punk-rock show, it is people of all different colors and that was really cool. That’s where it really started. We were all kids who had been outsiders, and we all just found each other in this culture.
That was the first time you felt accepted.
That’s the first time I ever felt accepted in my life. And that always felt so safe to us and that’s why it became the gang. Even before the gang, we all banded together ‘cause there were all these white supremacists and white-power skinheads in this same culture. You had to violently stamp those out because what we had was precious and that was poison. I feel like how people felt when they go to church is how I felt when I’d go to a Saturday matinee show. How people felt seen and heard and visible and supported is how I felt like listening to Black Flag and Cro-Mags.
How did things evolve then from being part of the music scene to actually joining a gang?
What it really came down to is my whole life being terrified, being scared. I understand gangs and I’m not an anti-gang person ‘cause I totally understand the reason for gangs. If we’re here and that person has a problem with you, it’s not your problem — it’s my problem, and I’m gonna take care of it. So, for the first time, you feel safe and you feel loved.
In my first conversation with Kurt, we talked about Mayans and how it’s not just about family, but also about feeling loved and safe for the first time. Just wanting to be fucking seen and to set the world on fire. All of us, we wanted to plant our flags like, Fuck you. We’re not invisible. We exist. And if the only way we can show that is by fucking shit up, that’s what we’re gonna do.
When you look back at the time, are you thinking things like, Was that really me?
Yeah, it’s weird. I feel like all of this is a weird hallucination that I’m having. Here I am in Hollywood, and today it’s beautiful in Beverly Hills and the sun’s coming in — how could that ever be possible? Or I’m still in prison and I’m asleep having this dream right now. In some ways, that seems more real. Then other times, all of that feels like a fucking weird dream and getting to be an artist is what’s real.
How did you come to terms with that life so that you could move on?
It was my mom dying. I told her I was gonna change my life around. I told her I’m gonna have a baby and name her Carol Sue — that’s my mom’s name. I’m gonna figure it out. I’m gonna find someone who will love me. I just made all her all of these promises. She squeezed my hand like she heard me. About a week or so later, she died and I decided that this is what I’m gonna do. My girlfriend said, since I was always talking about making movies, let’s move to California. And we did. We packed my dog, Myra, and everything we had in a van — my band’s van at the time — and we just drove across the country and we came up here to make movies. I didn’t know anyone, and I’m like, How the fuck do you make movies? [Laughs.]
Do you feel regret for the things you did as a gang member?
Oh, my whole life I’ll never know joy. My whole life, I have this fucking body bag of shame that I just carry everywhere. Even coming in here. Like, this isn’t a weird name-dropping thing, but I was going to meet an actor at the Chateau Marmont and I felt like everyone thought I was gonna steal the fucking silverware. You know what I mean? I just feel I cover everything in this slime. I feel a lot of shame for everything. The Sundance Labs taught me tools to express myself with art instead of violence, but it still feels weird. I’m still disaffected. I’m still hurt. I’m still just as scared and sad, and I still have so much rage inside me of how awful people are to each other and to things.
How long were you in prison?
I was a criminal for two decades, so my average was pretty good. I was in prison for a year and a day. I was really lucky.
Was it the hardest year of your life?
It was because I had come so close. I was arrested the same day my manager had called to tell me we had been financed for the film. Then I walk outside the next day and it was just like a CBS procedural. All of these people came out of nowhere and their guns are on. They’re just like, “Mr. James.” To this day, people call me “Mr. James” and I get a chill.
I got locked up and we had to put the house up to get me out. That was the longest night of my life, thinking, All of this is over. I’m going back to where I came from. It had been a few weeks since I’d taken this vow of nonviolence with Robert Redford never to raise my fist again. When I came in the shackles the next day into the courtroom, my wife was there, my manager, and everyone just rallied around me. That’s the reason I only did a year.
How do you feel your life experience helps you run a TV show?
It’s like that same desire of wanting a family and finding other people who had been thrown away. I feel like that with the actors. For us all to have the same complexion of skin just means the world. Usually, we are just the one and everyone else is white. To see all of us in the room was really cool. It doesn’t mean everything, but it means a lot.
I think we’re all just broken and fucked up. Most of us are mixed. Everyone wants to talk about how this is a Mexican-American show, but the truth of the matter is, we are American. Like we’re all fucking mixed, all right? There’s a small difference between being an outlaw or a criminal and being an artist. It’s what you do with how fucked up you are and what your damage is, whether you inflict it on the world or whether you try to create something out of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.