Raised in San Jose, Phillip Garcia Stars in New Pandemic Comedy Series 'Sprung'

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A Latino man sits on a fence, looking left, with lush green hills in the background
Phillip Garcia in 'Sprung,' the new TV series premiering Friday, Aug. 19.  (Freevee/Amazon)

When Phillip Garcia landed a starring role in the new TV comedy Sprung, which premieres this Friday on Amazon subsidiary Freevee, he couldn’t wait to tell his grandma—and not just because he knew she’d be proud.

The 34-year-old actor, who’s guest starred on crime dramas like Criminal Minds and CSI: Vegas, was excited about something else: “I could spare her not having to see me die on TV anymore,” he says.

Garcia, originally from San Jose, says family is important to him—on and off screen. In Sprung, his character Rooster is released from prison due to COVID, and he ends up sheltering in place with a group of formerly incarcerated folks. Those include the show’s hero and Rooster’s former cellmate Jack (Garret Dillahunt), Rooster’s mom Barb (Martha Plimpton) and Gloria, Jack’s former prison girlfriend (Shakira Barrera).

The show, created by Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope), follows Jack as he navigates life outside prison and bands together with this new family, using their criminal expertise to do some good.

“It becomes this Robin Hood story, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor,” said Garcia, who got his start in musical theater.

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KQED’s Brian Watt caught up with Garcia to talk about Sprung, his Bay Area roots and the possibility of a 49ers film.

A Latino man in headshot against a dark background
Phillip Garcia. (Anderson Group)

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

BRIAN WATT: Was there ever a moment of trepidation about doing a show that basically laughs at the expense of the pandemic?

PHILLIP GARCIA: Without getting too political, Greg [Garcia] did a great job, not hitting you over the head with it. The story is truly about these characters going through something that we all went through. I think we need something like this right now. We need to poke fun at ourselves a little bit, and to say, “Hey, remember when we didn't know whether we could touch our faces?”

What is it about your character Rooster that you connect with?

Initially, I auditioned for the villain character, and all my friends, they all said, “Oh, Phillip is so sweet. He has such a positive outlook.” I think that’s Rooster. He’s the good guy, but he's misunderstood at times. If there's something that he could mess up along the way, oh, he’ll definitely mess it up: He's not the sharpest tool in the shed. And it’s funny because my mom, Barb, played by Martha Plimpton, I think the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree, in terms of the IQ perspective. Greg did a good job, making Barb and Rooster the butt of every joke.

You're based in L.A. now, but you started in eastern San Jose, in Alum Rock. What was it like growing up there?

It's predominantly Latino, more blue-collar people who are working everyday to try and make ends meet. You saw people struggling. My dad worked three jobs to try and support my brother and me. For me, to be the change, it's a lot of weight. I just want to make my city proud. I want to make my family proud. I think about the way I grew up and the things I was surrounded by, and thank God for my family.

A Latino man holds a flower in the middle of the street looking forlorn
Phillip Garcia, seen in an episode of 'Sprung.' (Freevee/Amazon)

You're right next to the tech sector. At one point did your dad ever look at you and say, “Hey, I hear there's a bunch of tech jobs just right over there. If you get into tech, you know, there's some real money to be made!”

He wanted the best for his kids. He was a positive influence on me. When he figured out I wanted to be an actor, which happened maybe in the sixth grade, I played Mogwli in The Jungle Book. Since there were no actors or singers in my family, my dad would drive me every Sunday to a commercial acting class for kids. He was a disciplinarian, and I remember car rides on the way to an audition for a musical. He would be like, “Okay, you got to make sure you hit that note.”

Throughout your career, how have you dealt with the issue of representation? There aren't many roles for Latinos. According to a 2021 UCLA report, Latinos appeared in only about 6 percent of roles, despite making up 19 percent of the population in the United States.

I feel honored to be a part of the change. Latinx is the new wave of representation. We're seeing a lot more diversity in film and TV. When I was growing up, all I saw on TV was George Lopez and Cheech and Chong. On our show, we have two Latinos in the lead cast—Shakira Barrera and I.

I hope there’s a young man or woman who lives on the east side of San Jose and watches Sprung and sees me, brown skin, and says, “Oh, wow, I could do that, too. You work so hard, grinding at your career and then to finally get to a point where you can give back and effect some change. That’s the dream.”

As I understand it, you're still loyal to Bay Area sports teams. So if someone decided to make a biopic or TV show about an era for one of those teams, who would you want to play?

I don’t know! I'd want to help produce. Maybe the passing of the torch from [Joe] Montana to Steve Young [both former 49ers quarterbacks]. Those are the 49ers’ glory days, man.

'Sprung' premieres on Friday, Aug. 19, on the free streaming service Freevee. Details here.