From 'Step Up Revolution' to '9-1-1': How competition fuels actor Ryan Guzman

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Ryan Guzman’s path to the ABC drama “9-1-1” began with Bruce Lee.

He recalls falling in love with martial arts as a child after his father showed him a movie starring the Hong Kong American actor.

“I remember begging him around 6 years old, ‘Can you please give me like a karate lesson or whatever?’” said Guzman. “He signed me up for a taekwondo class for my seventh birthday. I got my black belt when I was 10.”

Guzman, who was raised in Sacramento, eventually pursued a career in mixed martial arts fighting and joined an amateur league

“I had this fear of not necessarily getting hurt but losing and being embarrassed,” he said. “I wanted to overcome that fear and put myself in the worst possible scenario I could. I ended up doing that and fell in love with MMA. It led to the expansion of my own durability and the question of what’s next.”

But fighting brought him no income, so he sought out a side hustle. He landed on modeling — not exactly the most complementary profession for a fighter.

“I couldn’t hide MMA from modeling because I would show up with a black eye or with cage marks on my back,” said Guzman, chuckling. “I remember doing a runway show and I took off my shirt. The whole room gasped and thought I had gotten in a car accident.”

Guzman’s modeling career took off, leading him away from fighting and bringing him to Los Angeles. It wouldn’t take long for the former mixed martial artist to follow in his hero’s footsteps and pursue acting.

“I saw these people who were coming out to do modeling and acting and they were all snobbish. I looked at them and I thought, ‘You have the IQ of an ant. How are you successful?’” he said. “No way that they’re going to beat me in these [auditions]. I gotta try this out. It became more of a competitive thing.”

Modeling casting calls were replaced with commercial auditions. In 2011, Guzman landed his first big role— he was cast as Sean Asa, the protagonist in “Step Up Revolution,” the fourth installment in the dance film franchise that helped launch Channing Tatum’s career.

“I knew that I wasn’t ready for what I had gotten,” he said. “I was in such a catch-up mode [on the set of “Step Up Revolution”] because I never acted, and I never really professionally danced. It put my competitive streak to a level I had never been before.”

His hard work paid off, resulting in roles in Tim Kring’s reboot series “Heroes Reborn” and “The Boy Next Door” with Jennifer Lopez. Guzman says navigating Hollywood led him to develop a complicated relationship with his Mexican American heritage— he was constantly being cast as the token Latino.

“Sometimes tokenism has run its course. I don’t want to just be that person,” he said. “I have a unique thing that I really want to portray. The other part of it is that somehow this got me here. You know, and I can’t really denounce this because this is a gift and I have to make the best of it. So what can I do with this gift?”

He found the perfect balance with “9-1-1.”

The prime-time drama, which centers around the high-pressure lives of first responders in L.A., wasn’t on his radar until he was offered the role of Eduardo “Eddie” Diaz for the show’s second season — a moment he describes as “divine intervention.” Guzman says he got the call right after finding out his first child was about to be born.

Guzman says he saw a lot of himself in Eddie Diaz, a Mexican American firefighter who takes on the challenge of being a single parent.

“I’ve had moments as a father on the show before the actual moment in my life. Some moments have to do with being a single parent, overall friendships or how to handle your own emotions,” said Guzman. “There’s so many things that Eddie has gone through that I was able to kind of pull from later on in life and give myself a little bit more grace while doing it.”

Between a capsized cruise ship and life-altering fires, “9-1-1’s” seventh season has kept its audience on the edge of their seats — bringing in 8.85 million viewers to the season premiere. There’s also drama — Diaz becomes entangled in an emotional affair with a woman who resembles his late ex-wife, complicating his relationship with his current girlfriend and his son.

And while Guzman didn’t set out to be an actor, he’s glad he ended up where he is.

“I realized [on the set of “Step Up Revolution”] there’s something to be learned from acting, so I thought, ‘Let me devote myself to this. Let me try to understand a little bit better.’ Honestly, up until three years ago, I didn’t call myself an actor,” he said.

“I’m just trying to get into each character and learn something about humanity or learn something even about myself. I was just lucky that I got the jobs that I got using my competitive charisma.”

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