One of the weirdest experiences you can ever have is conducting an actual conversation with a character from a video game. That is—more or less—the deal when you’re chatting with Shawn “Solo” Fonteno, aka Franklin from Grand Theft Auto V.
To coincide with the launch of both GTA V on current gen and Shawn’s memoir, Game Changer, I took some time to shoot the shit with the man himself. This was a complete reversal of what I’ve done for triple-digit hours since 2013: use him, in-game, to shoot shit.
What followed was a fascinating talk with an OG who was simultaneously the nicest (yet technically also scariest) San Andrean I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting…
Straight off the bat, I’m loving your memoir, Game Changer. Gripping, inspirational 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. My life wasn’t always a pretty picture, so writing Game Changer was like bringing back old memories I didn’t want to let out.
A lot of people around the world have been through some of the things I’ve written about, if not more. [It’s my hope] that they will get my perspective and know that you can make it through pretty much anything, if you get help.
I managed to get some, you know. I got a god-fearing family—my wife, my kids—and that’s the first thing. The next: some of us have got too much pride to reach out and ask for help, which was my problem. I was also addicted to pain pills, trying to take away something that wasn’t a physical pain. It was a pain of going through the times mentioned in my book—the abuse I’d been through as a kid.
Getting beat three, four times a week by my step-father taught me to damn near hate, you know. Later in life, it even caused me to contemplate suicide.
Luckily, I poured out everything I was dealing with to my wife who helped me make some changes. To reset. And I promise you, man, not even five months after that, I got the call to work for Rockstar. They took me from the streets and gave me a second chance at life.
Game Changer also has a ton of interesting GTA info. For example, I had no idea your cousin played CJ in GTA San Andreas, and you had bit parts in there, too. How did your family’s first contact with Rockstar Games come about?
SF: My connection to it was through a guy named DJ Pooh, a consultant who’s worked with Rockstar for many, many years. He called me because I’m an ex-gang member and GTA San Andreas was based around pretty much what goes on in my city.
They also called a host of other guys that were prominent ex-gang members and some that were still gang members to come lend our voices [to San Andreas]. As for my cousin Maylay, man, I didn’t even know he was CJ when we were doing our stuff. We all were under NDA. He didn’t tell me nothing, even though we hung out, like, two or three times a week.
Then, when GTA V came around, Pooh gave me a call and I actually didn’t want to do it at first. Rockstar is secret with stuff, man—the name he told me wasn’t GTA. He didn’t say it was for Rockstar, either. The [gig was for something] called ‘Paradise’. So I was like,”what the hell is that?”
So, in a nutshell you transitioned from a rough upbringing to starring in a 160-million-copies selling, cultural phenomenon which, now it’s out on PS5 and Xbox Series X spans three gens of gaming. Did you have any sense 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 away from certain people. And it was a job, you know.
The name of it for at least a year in wasn’t GTA V, but I learned it was through Rockstar because we were working in their facilities. When we found out, of course I knew how big it was going to be. That said, I was set back in my seat by how big it [actually] went and how long it went.
It’s amazing that you went in as a relatively inexperienced actor, to co-star in a production with a 3500-page script. The average feature film doesn’t go beyond 114, so that’s quite the deep end. How did you acclimate to something like that?
SF: At Rockstar, the director was real good. The team, too—they make you feel welcome. It was a culture shock to me, man, with all these pages of script. But I also had Ned [Luke] and Steven [Ogg] helping me, plus the other cast, too. And everyone that was coming on the set, I was asking things—like, how do you remember your lines, man? I was the only one there that was not an actor. The few things I had done, they were roles where I was just me being me. Being a thug. Being a knucklehead.
Rockstar’s director was real tight on his shit, too, man. If we had three page lines to run, you couldn’t mess up. If you forgot the last line, it’d be like: “cut, let’s go back to the top!” Working with Rockstar definitely taught me to be a fluent actor and to be more comfortable doing it.
There are parallels between yourself and Franklin. Obviously the broader stuff, like a young man raised on the streets with hopes of more, but also more intimate strokes, like your shared love of motorcycles. Are these coincidences?
SF: Those [similarities] were shocking. I was sitting back, like, man did they do research on me or something? And going back the other way, there were things there that I helped them with on setlike—showing the [mocap] set builders which side you’d put a kickstand for a motorcycle on.
But yeah, they got pretty close to my lifestyle. The writers, they was on that, and I’m glad. It felt like I could mostly just be me in a video game. Not perform too far out of 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 appears to be something similar—a professional mentor. Is that a fair interpretation?
SF: Very fair. Me and him built the connection real quick. He started being overprotective of me, because me and him used to sit off to the side to run lines.
He really helped. But then he could be a pain sometimes, too. Because he think he know too much *laughs*. I still had to do Franklin my way, though. I couldn’t be “Franklin de Santa”, you know?
And then you got to reprise your role in The Contract, an expansion to GTA V’s ongoing Online component. What was it like stepping back into the shoes of Franklin after such a long, 8 year hiatus?
SF: I was, like, shocked happy. But I knew I still had my rough points, because in that eight years I didn’t do any acting. I probably should have been going out to castings and doing small feature films to sharpen my tools, but I didn’t. It definitely took a day or two to get into the groove again.
Is it true that you only found out you were going to work with Dre when you rolled up on the set, first day? That must have blown your mind.
SF: Oh, man, I couldn’t believe it. Who could? Especially when I found out I was gonna be playing a boss in [the storyline of the DLC]. I was, like, I don’t even know how to be a boss, because I’m dealing with all these bosses. The director kept me on my toes, though.
Working with Dre, DJ Cool, Jimmy – I mean, it was a dream come true.
Speaking of brushes with fame, have you ever thought about doing a bit of that yourself? Ever log into GTA Online, bust out a bit of Franklin and make some gamer’s year?
SF: *Laughs* I’ve tried it, man. But most of the time I just get sniped from far away. 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 some.
Obviously, I can’t have a conversation with you and not talk about the phenomenon that is Internet memes. It must be a bizarre experience to see your performance go viral. To mutate thousands of times in increasingly weirder ways?
SF: Oh, man. I woke up one day, and it was just crazy. Whoever started all that, I thank you. I owe you, man, because it just put me back in the limelight. And when you go viral, you know you either did something messed up or you did good. So yeah, it was like having evidence that me and Slink [Johnson, aka Lamar] did something good. I was very happy. Solo, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for your time.