You know him as “Happy,” the fearsome, up-for-any-dirty-deed club assassin on the hit FX television series Sons Of Anarchy. As Happy, David Labrava brought an instant air of believability and menace to the show with his first appearance. Along the way, Labrava has made Happy a fan favorite, and found a way to be more than just an actor.
But how did Labrava go from being just another biker to becoming one of television’s recognized faces? Simply put, through a lot of hard work.
“The acting thing just fell in my lap,” Labrava explained. “I’ve done the Hollywood thing before and have been writing all my life. I was hired to be a technical advisor on SOA, met (show writer) Kurt Sutter, told him I was a writer and showed him some of my work. We hit it off, and I ended up getting cast as Happy. In addition to working with a great group of actors, I’ve been learning a lot about the business along the way.”
Labrava began his “Hollywood” career as a camera operator and eventually began working under the tutelage of the great Zalman King (Red Shoe Diaries, 9½ Weeks). King cast Labrava in Whiplash ZK, launching Labrava’s onscreen career. All the while the 50-year-old Oakland resident was steadily polishing his writing skills and soaking up all the knowledge he could.
“I’m a creator,” Labrava explained. “For as far back as I can remember I’ve loved writing and wanted to learn all I can about it. I went to school to paint and pursued some other creative interests. The whole time I was writing. Then I got published. I kept writing and getting published. I was a regular contributor to The Horse magazine for several years. I was fortunate that I was able to write about something I knew and loved. All of that has led me to where I am now.”
Labrava’s motorcycle chops date back to his childhood. “I started riding dirt bikes when I was a kid,” he said. “I bought my first Harley when I was 17—it was mostly parts in a box. I worked on it for about six months to get it on the road… and then I worked on it some more. I loved every minute of it. I definitely have a love affair with motorcycles. Once that bug bites you, it never goes away. It’s either who you are, or it’s not.”
Labrava followed his passion for bikes, graduating from MMI and building custom motorcycles, with one eventually landing on the cover of The Horse. Along the way, he became an accomplished glass artist and talented tattooist. But always, there was writing.
“I keep trying to learn more, trying to become a better writer, to learn more about different kinds of writing,” Labrava explained. “Zalman King taught me how to write scripts. Kurt Sutter taught me to write for TV, and he’s become a good friend.”
The work is paying off. Labrava wrote episode 10 of season four, entitled “Hands.” In the episode, Clay beats up Gemma, marking a turn in all of the character relationships on the show.
“That was something I really wanted to do, and Kurt gave me the opportunity,” Labrava said. “Writing that episode was probably the most challenging thing I’d done to that point. I’m grateful for the experience because I really wanted to learn that aspect of the process. Writing for a TV series is very different from other writing. It’s tough.”
Labrava explained the process as a multi-layered approach.
“When you’re writing a story, or a film, it’s like painting,” he explained. “You have a vision, a beginning, a middle and an end to the story. For a TV series you have to write for characters that are already established, and there are about 18 different points that have to carry over from the previous episode. You have to introduce about 18 new points into the story, and leave it all set up to continue down the road. It’s a challenge.”
But it’s a challenge Labrava sees paying off. Not only is he pursuing writing, his first love, he’s also setting himself up to move into directing.
“I want to direct,” he said. “It’s like everything I’ve been doing is helping to get me to that goal. I think the best directors have acted, written and even done other jobs on the crew. I’m getting the opportunity to do all that, and I’m learning from some great people. I have a great crew, and some of them have become my best friends.”
Labrava said the 14-hour days during the shooting schedule has allowed strong bonds to form between himself and his cast mates. The long days also allow him to stay disciplined with his writing.
“Overall, the entire crew works really hard,” Labrava explained. “You have to remember, if a movie company does two movies a year, they’re doing a lot. That’s a great year for them. In terms of screen time, SOA is doing five movies in a few months. We’re doing 75 or 80 setups a day. Everyone is working hard. I try to use some of the downtime to write and learn more.
“For me, it’s fun to act. I get to run around doing whatever the script calls for and not have to worry about getting in trouble. It’s like, ‘Let’s play make believe,’ for a few hours. My character isn’t on screen a lot, so you learn to make the most of what you’re given. You learn to make an impression with a look. Even though I prefer to write, I enjoy the acting… and I get to do it with a great group of people.”
The cast, according to Labrava, is made up of actors who truly love the industry. “These people have a great appreciation for film,” Labrava said. “We’ll sit around playing film trivia, and these guys know everything; not just the actors, but directors, locations, writers… everything. Some of them know that stuff going back to the black-and-white films. It’s been quite an education.”
It hasn’t been a one-way education, either.
“I’ve become good friends with these guys,” Labrava said. “We do a lot of stuff off set. A few of us ride every day. They all have a couple bikes, I have a couple bikes, and so we ride. They might not have been riding when the show started, but they do now and they ride well. They keep up with me. It’s just that bug… once you’ve got it. You can’t quit.”
Four seasons into SOA, Labrava said he has no idea what the next plot twist will be for the club from the fictional town of Charming, California.
“I don’t have a clue,” Labrava said. “These shows are generally planned for a seven-year run. Seven years is a long time to do anything. Really, I think the only person who knows what’s going to happen is Kurt (Sutter). It’s his vision, so I’m sure he knows where it’s going—but I don’t. I’m sure it will all work itself out, but I’m wondering what’s going to happen with some of the stuff the show’s gotten into.”
For now, Labrava is enjoying the ride, wherever it takes him.
“It’s a lot of fun. I’m trying to enjoy everything. It’s kind of odd to go from being a pretty private person to being recognized as Happy at least once a day, but I’m learning to go with it. I am truly grateful and appreciative of the opportunities Kurt Sutter has given me. I want to make the most of that. I’m proud to be part of FX, the only channel out there that’s taking chances producing new, original, edgy programming. Pretty much everything that has come with being part of SOA has been great.
“The best part is making my mom proud of me. I wasn’t easy; I know that. Knowing that I’m making her happy just trumps everything else for me. Plus, I still get to live my life. I ride almost every day, I stay close with my friends I’ve had for years and I’m able to have made some great new friends. That’s what’s really important.”