Actor Michael Irby’s career path has found him playing his fair share of military/law enforcement types, whether in his breakthrough role as Sergeant First Class Charles Grey in The Unit, Detective Elvis Ilinca in True Detective or Detective Richard Paul in Almost Human. And while being of African-American and Mexican-American descent has lent him an ethnic ambiguity that’s allowed him to play the occasional terrorist (see 2005’s Flightplan), Irby’s most recent work as Obispo “Bishop” Losa, motorcycle president in the FX series Mayans M.C. and New Age drug lord Cristobal Sifuentes in the HBO dark comedy Barry have found him going all in to the dark side. It’s a creative move that he’s not only embraced, but admits has given him quite a bit of satisfaction at the same time.
“You have no idea how your life is about to change when it comes to stuff like that. I knew that the [Mayans M.C. executive producers] were trying to find a president and my manager called me and asked if I’d give it a read and what I thought about it. It was just one of those things that as soon as you find out who’s connected and knowing the whole Sons of Anarchy lore and what they had created there, I was all-in,” he explained. “I just got in touch with Bishop as far as his heart and mind, as far as the script goes. I felt like I knew him. I felt like I kind of created this whole career in order to have this one moment, especially with all my military and law enforcement-type roles. I‘ve also played a bad guy quite a bit, so I felt like it was those two worlds coming together. So we just went forward after that. I went back and met with [co-creator] Kurt [Sutter] and FX. The network agreed and here we are, season two.”
What makes Irby’s current characters so interesting is the dichotomy they represent in terms of their complexity, despite both living in a criminal underworld. It’s something the former Team USA soccer player embraces as he’s pulled the layers back on both Losa and Sifuentes.
“Bishop came from a broken home. He thought that the military was going to save him and all it did was give him a certain set of skills that he could use on the street. So when he went back to the streets, the streets ate him up and he wound up going to prison for a few years. When he came back out, he still had the skill set. He had even more of a skill set by going into our prison system, which is also broken,” Irby explained. “When he came out, he didn’t learn anything, he was just more instilled in what he is and his cousin saw that and said, ‘Brother, I want you to start up this charter. We need someone like you down there.’ And my character wanted that crown and accepted that responsibility.”
The flip side of being cast in Barry meant that Irby got to embrace a role in a black comedy that found him delving into his comedic side, while infusing an unexpected spin into a character that does immoral things. albeit with a New Age spin.
“There is an aspect of Bishop in Cristobal and an aspect of Cristobal in Michael Irby. In a lot of the character I play, he is the New Age Bishop. Bishop doesn’t smile too much and Cristobal, you can’t take the smile off his face. Even if he has to murder you, he’ll say that he has to do this and he hopes you’ll really understand,” Irby said. “In fact, I’m going to let you know that I’m coming. So I want you to sharpen your knives, put the bullets in your gun and get ready for a war. One of us is going to die, but it will be for the right reason. It’s very cool how they have written this character.”
While the characters in Mayans M.C. may be outlaws coming from an illegal corner of the room, the writing in the series presents them as complex entities rather than one-
dimensional characters. It’s a big part of what attracted Irby to this project. The fact that the production and cast have a heavy Latino influence also made this appealing and reminded the veteran actor of being inspired by seeing performers like current costar Edward James Olmos and Lou Diamond Phillips in La Bamba, acting up on the big screen.
“Even though we’re not the best of people—I grew up watching Eddie James Olmos in American Me. I grew up watching these guys in Colors or some of the different films that were out there. They weren’t bad guys. They were bad guys, but they looked like me. They looked like us and I thought if they could do it, I could do it,” he said. “People are watching this now, even though we’re an M.C….it goes behind the scenes too. A lot of our crew and the camera department—this is a really big Latino essence of an environment and a gig. Being here in Los Angeles—when you go to the Rams or Dodgers game, it’s beautiful, man. People stop and thank me for putting them on the tube. I say that I didn’t have anything to do with it, but I’m definitely happy to represent all of us because it’s such a big part of me.”
Also see Michael Irby’s favorite acting roles: Man Of Many Roles