Vincent Rocco Vargas is a decorated Army Ranger, an Army Reserve drill sergeant, a former prison guard, a former member of the Border Patrol, a social-media star, an entrepreneur, a children’s book author, an advocate for veterans and an actor who’s co-starring in “Mayans M.C.” — a spinoff of “Sons of Anarchy.”
Oh, and he lives in Herriman and owns a barbershop in Salt Lake City.
“I'm nothing special. I'm just a normal dude with high drive,” Vargas said with a laugh.
He may believe that; others disagree.
After his dreams of baseball stardom died because of an injury, Vargas joined the Army and was deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan with the 75th Ranger Regiment’s 2nd Battalion. After four years, he left to work special operations with the Arizona Department of Corrections and then the U.S. Border Patrol.
And now he’s … an actor?
“I didn’t jump into the acting thing to chase fame and money. I don’t care about that,” Vargas said. “I make my own money by working hard developing businesses. …
“I choose to act because I really love the craft of it, and I want to choose roles that I respect. The goal for me is, the bigger my voice can be, the better I can help more veterans transition out of the military. Be that beacon of light for them.”
The light will shine on him more brightly when “Mayans M.C.” premieres Tuesday on FX. He’s in the supporting cast of the series, which picks up about four years after the end of the “Sons of Anarchy” timeline. The new show is about another motorcycle gang — Mayans M.C. — and centers on Ezekial “EZ” Reyes (JD Pardo), who’s a prospect (a novice) with the gang, and who is harboring secret motives.
ON TV • “Mayans M.C.” premieres Tuesday on FX — 8 p.m. on DirecTV and Dish; 11 p.m. on Comcast.
The cast includes Clayton Cardenas, Edward James Olmos, Sarah Bolger, Michael Irby, Carla Baratta, Antonio Jaramillo, Raoul Max Trujillo, Richard Cabral and Danny Pino.
Expectations for the show are high, and the first two episodes (screened for critics) are very good. The supporting characters don't get a lot of screen time, but Vargas makes a good first impression.
At first glance, he’s an intimidating guy. He’s 6 feet tall and 230 pounds, and he has tattoos. A lot of tattoos. But when you talk to him, you discover an affable, energetic, thoroughly likable guy whose enthusiasm is infectious.
Living in Utah • Just over a year ago, Vargas and his wife, Christie, made a decision that confounded his friends and family — they moved to Utah. He was in the state working on another project (which is still under wraps), and they “fell in love with it here.”
“Everyone talks about, ‘Oh my God! Mormons!’” Vargas said. “And then we get here and it’s, like, everyone’s really nice! It’s really cool! Our neighbors are really sweet! Whether they’re LDS or not, they were still very helpful.”
Vargas is the father of six who range in age from 5 to 15. The family left El Paso, Texas, where he was working for the Border Patrol.
“We realized we didn’t have to live there if we didn’t want to, because of what I do for a living — entertainment and social media,” Vargas said. “My life is my kids. Trying to give them the best place to hopefully grow and have success. I think this was one of the places that felt the most comfortable.”
Vargas operates a number of social-media businesses, and beard.com turned out to be “the first big one.” And that, in turn, spawned the Throwbacks Barber Company at 930 S. Main in Salt Lake City, which feels like an old-school barbershop with a cool vibe.
“I've always loved the barber feel — the old-school culture built around it,” Vargas said. “You walk in. Community knows your name. They know your story. I did that. I went to the same barber since I was 5 until I was 20 years old. And I miss that feel.”
Vargas has been “cutting hair since I was a kid — learning how to do fades when I was 16 years old.” He cut hair for his fellow soldiers, for other member of the Border Patrol, for his friends and his kids.
“I was just kind of always around it, but never had the time go to school for it,” he said. “So when I started beard.com with a partner of mine, I felt like it would really complement a barbershop.”
Not surprisingly, he has big plans for Throwbacks. “We’re hoping this thing does so well we can open them up around the United States,” he said.
Making it to ‘Mayans M.C' • Vargas grew up in the San Fernando Valley, a short drive — depending on traffic — from the center of the entertainment industry. He took a stab at acting in his early 20s. But he’s dyslexic, and he struggled to read the script.
“I got so embarrassed, I walked out of the audition. And I never thought of it again,” Vargas said — until after he’d joined the Border Patrol and started doing YouTube videos with a friend.
“I was, like, ‘I kind of like this. It’s fun!’” he said. “And so we built from there.”
He acted in the movie “Helen Keller vs. Nightwolves.” He produced and starred in “Range 15,” which became the first crowd-funded film to hit No. 1 on Amazon.
“So my first big, starring role was in a movie I produced,” he said with a laugh. “I don't think anyone else would've given me a option.
“I didn't just put my foot in the door, I kicked it down! And now we're here.”
Vargas has big dreams and plenty of confidence, but he sounds a bit surprised that he was cast as Gilberto “Gilly” Vargas on the “Sons of Anarchy” spinoff.
A friend landed him an audition, “and I read off paper. Did the best I could” for the casting director. By the time he flew back to El Paso, he had a message that creator/writer/producer Kurt Sutter wanted to see him.
The second audition seemed to go well, but what clinched it happened afterward. As Vargas exited the building, his firefighter father excitedly pumped him for details and gave him a big hug while, unbeknownst to them, Sutter watched from a window.
“I think he saw the genuineness of the upbringing I had,” Vargas said. “I’m just a real, honest family guy and we’re all excited about this opportunity.”
Vargas’ character, Gilly, is a funny guy — he gets laughs in the first couple of episodes — but he’s also “kind of a brute.”
“He’s funny. He’s caring. He’s really about his boys,” Vargas said. “It’s the camaraderie that he gets into. Just like the military. It’s play hard and work hard.
“And that’s a lot of me, so it’s not hard to play,” he said with a laugh. “And they don’t have to cover up the tattoos. That’s lucky.”
Sutter told the cast of “Mayans” that “he prides himself on having a cast that has more prison time than screen time,” Vargas said. “And when he said I thought, ‘That’s not me.’ But everyone looked at me, thinking, ‘Yeah!’”
After he got out of the Army, he spent 2½ years as a prison guard in Arizona. Now he’s acting alongside Richard Cabral (“American Crime”), who grew up not far from him, was first incarcerated when he was 13, and at 20, served five years for shooting a man — and now the two are tight.
“He always tells us stories from inside the prison — I tell them from the other side of the bars. And we laugh about things,” Vargas said. “We’ve built a close relationship off completely understanding each other’s past.
“He’s said to me, ‘You could have easily been where I was.’ And, yeah, I could. I have friends that were. I was lucky enough to have a father to keep me out of that and push me in other directions. And it was just timing and luck — same as getting this part.
“We all had this crazy route, and we all ended up in the same place.”
The drill sergeant • For a week in November, about the time “Mayans” will be airing its final first-season episodes, he’s scheduled to resume his real-life role as a drill sergeant in the Army Reserve. His military rate helped him fly home to Utah every weekend during production on the 10 episodes of Season 1.
“The drill sergeant thing, for me, is the best thing I’ve ever done — and I’ve done some really cool stuff,” Vargas said. “To be able to develop a soldier and prepare them for combat — it’s a very serious job, and I never want to be the guy that didn’t give them enough to get them prepared for combat. So you’ll see a whole different side of me.”
Vargas speaks to veterans across the country, encouraging them to get whatever help they need to succeed in civilian life — including therapy, if necessary.
“I went to counseling to help me get rid of some of the issues that bothered me for years. I had sleep issues from PTSD,” he said. “And what I want to do is tell guys it’s OK to get counseling. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. Get it done. Get it fixed, and let’s get moving.”
(He’s also written two children’s books for military kids — “My Military Dad … Does Things a Little Different” and “My Dad Has the Most Important Job in the World.”)
And he encourages them to follow their dreams.
“We stand in our own way by doubting ourselves and giving ourselves roadblocks when there's no need,” Vargas said. “Who would have ever thought this guy could've been in acting?
“Still, sometimes, I can’t believe that I’m even a part of this. I can’t. It almost feels like a dream. It’s a Hollywood story of that one chance that happened.”