We spoke to Grand Theft Auto V’s Franklin actor about his role in one of the greatest games of all time
One of the weirdest experiences you can have is having an actual conversation with a character from a video game. It is—more or less—the deal when you chat with Shawn “Solo” Fonteno, aka Franklin from Grand Theft Auto V.
To coincide with the launch of GTA V on current-gen and Shawn’s memoir Game Changer, I took some time to film the shit with the man himself. It was a complete reversal of what I’ve been doing for triple-digit hours since 2013: using it, in-game, to shoot shit.
What followed was a fascinating conversation with an OG who was both the nicest (but technically also the scariest) San Andrean I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting…
Right off the bat, I love your memoir, Game Changer. Captivating and inspiring stuff that’s hard to put down. How would you quantify it in your own words?
Shawn Fonteno: So the book is my story, man. It took me about two and a half years to complete it. My life hasn’t always been a pretty picture, so writing Game Changer was like bringing back old memories that I didn’t want to let go.
Many people around the world have experienced some of the things I’ve written about, if not more. [It’s my hope] that they will get my point and know that you can get away with just about anything, if you get some help.
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I managed to get some, you know. I got a god fearing family—my wife, my children—and that’s the first thing. The next: some of us have too much pride to reach out and ask for help, which was my problem. I was also addicted to painkillers, trying to remove something that wasn’t physical pain. It was a pain to go through the times mentioned in my book—the abuse I suffered as a child.
Getting beat up three, four times a week by my stepdad taught me to be pretty damn hateful, you know. Later in life, it even led me to consider suicide.
Fortunately, I entrusted everything I had to do to my wife who helped me make some changes. Reset. And I promise you, man, not even five months after that, I got the call to work for Rockstar. They took me off the streets and gave me a second chance at life.
Game Changer also contains a ton of interesting information about GTA. For example, I didn’t know your cousin played CJ in GTA San Andreas, and you had small roles in that as well. How did your family’s first contact with Rockstar Games come about?
SF: I was connected to it through a guy named DJ Pooh, a consultant who’s been with Rockstar for many, many years. He called me because I’m a former gang member and GTA San Andreas was based on what happens in my town.
They also called a host of other guys who were prominent ex-gang members and some who were still gang members to come and lend our voice. [to San Andreas]. As for my cousin Maylay, man, I ain’t even to know he was CJ when we were doing our stuff. We were all under NDA. He didn’t tell me, even though we hung out two or three times a week.
Then when GTA V came along, Pooh called me and I didn’t want to at first. Rockstar is secret with stuff, man—the name he told me was not GTA. He also didn’t say it was for Rockstar. the [gig was for something] called “Paradise”. So I was like, “What the hell is this?”
So, in a nutshell, you’ve gone from having a tough upbringing to starring as a 160 million-selling cultural phenomenon that, now it’s out on PS5 and Xbox Series X, spans three generations of games. Did you have any idea of the enormity of this role when you accepted it?
SF: I didn’t at first when I was working with it. What I was looking to do was reset my life, so it was just good for me to get out of LA and get away from some people. And it was work, you know.
The name of this one for at least a year wasn’t GTA V, but I learned that was thanks to Rockstar because we worked at their facility. When we found out, of course, I knew how bad it was going to be. That said, I was pushed back into my seat by his waist [actually] gone and how long it lasted.
It’s amazing that you came in as a relatively inexperienced actor, to co-star in a production with a 3500 page script. The average feature doesn’t go over 114, so that’s quite the bottom. How did you acclimate to something like this?
SF: At Rockstar, the director was really good. The team too – they make you feel welcome. It was a culture shock for me, man, with all these pages of script. But I also had Ned [Luke] and Steve [Ogg] help me, plus the other actors too. And everyone that came on set, I was asking things – like, how do you remember your lines, man?
I was the only one there who wasn’t an actor. The few things I had done were roles where I was just me being me. To be a thug. To be a moron.
Rockstar’s manager was real tight on his shit too, man. If we had three page rows to run, you couldn’t go wrong. If you forgot the last line, it would be like: “Cut, let’s go back upstairs!” Working with Rockstar definitely taught me how to be a fluid actor and more comfortable doing it.
There are parallels between you and Franklin. Obviously larger stuff, like a young man being raised on the street with higher hopes, but also more intimate shots, like your shared love of motorcycles. Are these coincidences?
SF: Those [similarities] were shocking. I was sitting, like, man, did they research me or something? And going back the other way, there were things there that I helped them with on set – showing the [mocap] set builders on which side you would place a kickstand for a motorcycle.
But yeah, they came pretty close to my lifestyle. The screenwriters, they were on it, and I’m happy about it. I felt like I could mostly be myself in a video game. Don’t play too far from my element.
In the game, an almost father-son bond develops between Franklin and Michael, played by Ned Luke. Your book opens with an anecdote where Ned seems to be something similar: a professional mentor. Is this a fair interpretation?
SF: Very true. He and I built the connection very quickly. He started being overprotective of me, because he and I used to sit on the side to run the lines.
He really helped. But then, it could also be a pain sometimes. Because he thinks he knows too much *laughs*. I still had to do Franklin my way. I couldn’t be “Franklin de Santa”, you know?
And then you have to reprise your role in The Contract, an expansion to the ongoing online component of GTA V. What was it like getting back into Franklin’s shoes after such a long 8-year hiatus?
SF: I was, like, shocked happy. But I knew that I still had my hard points, because during those eight years I didn’t play. I probably should have gone to castings and made little feature films to sharpen my tools, but I didn’t. It definitely took a day or two to get the rhythm back.
Is it true that you only found out you were going to work with Dre when you arrived on set, day one? It must have taken your breath away.
SF: Oh man, I couldn’t believe it. Who could? Especially when I found out I was going to play a boss in [the storyline of the DLC]. I was, like, I don’t even know how to be a boss, because I deal with all these bosses. The manager kept me on my toes, though.
Working with Dre, DJ Cool, Jimmy – I mean, it was a dream come true.
Speaking of celebrity hookups, have you ever thought about doing some of that yourself? Have you ever logged into GTA Online, got rid of Franklin for a bit and made a gamer’s year?
SF: *Laughs* I tried, man. But most of the time I get shot from afar. Other times a lot of people just don’t believe it’s you, even though my voice is pretty well known. I still play GTA Online.
Obviously, I can’t have a conversation with you and not talk about the phenomenon of internet memes. It must be a bizarre experience to watch your performance go viral. Mutate thousands of times in increasingly strange ways?
SF: Oh, man. I woke up one day, and it was just crazy. Whoever started it all, thank you. I owe you, man, because it just put me back in the limelight. And when you go viral, you either know you did something wrong or you did something good. So yeah, it was like having proof that me and Slink [Johnson, aka Lamar] do something good. I was very happy.
Solo, it was a pleasure. Thank you for your time.
Grand Theft Auto V is available now on PS5/Xbox Series X. The cheapest physical copy is currently $53 on Amazon.