Fifty-year-old Noel Gugliemi has played a character named “Hector” on five separate occasions. He’s been a “Cesar” twice, same with “Chico,” “Chino” and “Cruz.” Sometimes, in his most obscure jobs, Gugliemi is saddled with characters like “Gangbanger” (The X-Files), “Inmate #1” (Masked and Anonymous), or most notably, “Warehouse Rooftop Thug” (Crank).
This is all part of the deal. With Gugliemi’s unmistakable silhouette — freshly-shaved head, baggy wardrobe, immaculately trimmed goatee, the occasional diamond-encrusted Jesus piece — he has consistently filled Hollywood’s enduring, problematic need for the quintessential Latino gangster. Whenever the network police procedurals or cast-off action movies come calling for a compository local heavy who can memorize a few lines and look inauspicious with a shotgun, Gugliemi will happily oblige.
The man is a consummate professional, mean-mugging his way to a fruitful, 20-year career in Tinseltown. Are the roles nuanced? Of course not. Do these biases reveal the tired, juvenile clichés still rotting away at the core of the movie business? Absolutely. But Gugliemi doesn’t lose any sleep over the politics. “I always tell people, ‘If I’m playing something like a doctor, that’s when I’m acting,’” he laughs. “With those other roles, I’m just getting paid to act like how I grew up in real life.”
Gugliemi was born in Puerto Rico, and immigrated to Orange County with his parents when he was a year old. His mom was Latino, his dad was Italian, and he says that he never had the chance to meet his extended family. “I’ve got no brothers, sisters, grandmas or grandpas,” he says. “My parents were the only two to come to the States.” His path to Hollywood was similarly improbable. Vocational acting wasn’t a consideration during his teenage years in the mid-1980s; in fact, Gugliemi tells me he spent a good chunk of his youth homeless in Orange County, living meal to meal, after his parents abandoned him at the age of 13. There was no plan, and no time to consider the future.
Two years later, at 15, he had a new girlfriend whose father was kind enough to take him in. She wanted to be an actress, and by dumb luck, he ended up in a workshop with her. A producer offered him a job in a Taco Bell commercial, his first TV gig, and the rest was history.
Today, Gugliemi may not be on the cover of Vanity Fair, but he is absolutely famous: He has 260,000 followers on Instagram, and his likeness has been immortalized in LEGO form. But Gugliemi arrived at this hallowed ground in an unconventional, workmanlike way — grinding away at countless audition calls, deploying his rote SoCal gangster act over such a wide selection of TV soundstages and film sets that by the sheer force of market-soaking ubiquity, most Americans have unconsciously welcomed him into their home on multiple occasions over the last three decades. In fact, a Reddit meme refers to Gugliemi solely as the “Generic Latino Gangster From Every Movie,” and his oeuvre has been called the HCU: “Hector Cinematic Universe.”
Gugliemi can’t point to a specific moment where he emerged as an all-encompassing touchstone, but he does know when he officially cemented himself as an identifiable actor. It was after the first Fast & Furious movie, where he portrayed the grimy street racer casted as, you guessed it, “Hector.” That franchise went nuclear in the subsequent years, and suddenly, everyone knew who he was, even if they didn’t know his name.
“I was going to the same bank for six years. The same people. When I was working 9 to 5, I was always depositing a $500 check,” he says. “But all of a sudden I do The Fast and the Furious, I go to the bank and the manager comes over and gives me their whole spiel about getting a financial advisor. I was like, ‘You guys are funny. I’ve been coming here my whole life and nobody introduced themselves before.’ That was the moment when I realized that my life had changed.”
Although he remains a busy full-time actor — lodging 11 jobs to his IMDb portfolio in 2019 alone — he can still get bogged down by the productions that don’t always seem to possess much empathy for the many Latino men that Gugliemi is asked to depict. “I wanted to play some different roles. I didn’t want to be stereotyped. I started having conversations about that with my managers or my agents,” he tells me. “I was like, ‘I’d love to go play a father, or a probation officer who changed his life.’ I admire actors who can change completely depending on what role they’re playing.”
Unfortunately, he’s been offered scarce opportunities to rebrand, to divest himself of the Hectors and to take the next step in his journey. “There’s nothing we can really do,” he says. “If something comes across the table, [my management] will try and make it happen.”
In that sense, Gugliemi is another one of the countless actors who’ve never been afforded the chance to display their own creative agency. Typecasting is obviously harmful for the way it depicts a skewed cultural image of so many marginalized communities, but it also takes a toll on those asked, over and over again, to operate under the guise of a two-line caricature. Spend any time talking with Gugliemi and it becomes immediately clear that he has a lot to say. It’s unfortunate that the powers that be have never heard him out.
In the meantime, a devout Christian since his youth, Gugliemi has spoken at schools throughout L.A. and Las Vegas about the dangers of criminal life. It’s a fascinating concept: The all-time generic heavy, logging appearances in everything from CSI: Miami to Malibu’s Most Wanted, standing in a classroom and informing the congregation that they should never fall for the temporary foibles of, say, an underground race organizer. Considering the characteristics of the average Gugliemi role — ancillary, forgotten and often quickly dispatched — it’s a worthy moral to prosthelytize.
“If I can use my life in a good way and help someone else make the right decision and stay out of jail, then why not?” he says. “I developed a passion for helping people. Helping people is my drug.”
Perhaps that is the lasting proverb of Gugliemi’s long, strange trip in Hollywood. He made a boatload of money playing the game, and now he wishes to lay a positive groundwork for anyone with those names in his wake. “The way I looked at it, if I wasn’t going to play the gangster, someone else was,” he says. “I thought I’d keep doing it until I’ve made all these connections. That’s exactly what happened. As my face started getting more known, doors started opening up easier. People could hear my voice.”