TAMPA — Three friends from the Tampa Bay area packed their bags and headed to Hollywood in 2005. But first they made a pact: Achieve fame and fortune in entertainment and do it together.
Every day, people make a similar pact as they set out for the city that chews up and spits out the dreams of the starry-eyed. Most of them return home dejected.
Bobby Camposecco, Brandon Rodriguez and Arnie Pantoja proved to be an exception.
Today, all are still in Los Angeles. They still are friends. And while none has reached the household name status they aspire to, all have enjoyed a measure of success.
Camposecco, 30, whose “Hollywood” last name is “Campo,” played lead in the 2009 3-D blockbuster “The Final Destination.” He has since landed meaty roles on TV in “Law & Order” and “Grey's Anatomy” and in the Hallmark Channel's Christmas movie “Snow Bride.”
After early commercial success, and a recurring role in the 2006 TV series “Surface,” 29-year-old Rodriguez pursued a career behind the camera. Today, he is part of the casting team for hit TV series, including “Wilfred.”
And Pantoja, 29, acted alongside former “it girl” Amanda Bynes in her 2007 breakout movie “Sydney White,” following it with a major role in 2008's “Hamlet 2” featuring David Arquette and Elisabeth Shue. He plays lead in an upcoming Snickers commercial that may premiere during the Super Bowl.
“I've seen so many people arrive in LA and wash out a few weeks later,” Rodriguez said. “The fact that we're all still here and doing what we love is special. I'm proud of us. But please don't think we've peaked. We're just now hitting our stride.”
Pantoja is the veteran of the trio. As a child, he had a regular gig with Radio Disney and leads in national commercials.
He met Rodriguez at East Lake High in Tarpon Springs, where he took part in the drama club.
The Rodriguez-Pantoja duo turned into a trio when they met St. Petersburg native and Seminole High School graduate Campo during an acting workshop.
The three friends' personalities are strikingly different. Rodriguez is an in-your-face free spirit. Campo is cool and confident. Pantoja is peppy and upbeat, an optimist.
But they clicked from the start, brought together by their talent and Hollywood aspirations.
They received their first Hollywood breaks as a group, cast together in “Vampire Bats” — a 2005 CBS movie produced in New Orleans about mutant bats terrorizing a small town.
The exposure they received from the film landed them agents and managers in LA, and off they went.
Rodriguez and Pantoja shared an apartment; Campo lived next door. In the evenings, they would sit on their apartment complex roof, drink beer, watch the city and talk about a future when they owned the city.
“In those early months, we were always together,” Rodriguez said. “We experienced a lot together, good and bad.”
On one of the trio's first nights out, while snacking on late-night food and joking around in the parking lot of an In And Out Burger, someone in a nearby car took offense at the laughter. He brandished a gun and asked what was so funny.
“We all just mumbled, 'Nothing,' and got the heck out of there,” Pantoja said.
Rodriguez experienced his first on-set Hollywood reality check while filming his three-episode arc on “Surface.” After a break from production for a few days, he returned to the set to learn that an actor he shared scenes with had died of a drug overdose.
And everywhere they went, together or separately, they were approached by some of the shadier elements of Hollywood — crooked managers and agents among them, trying to sign them away.
“So many people will take advantage of you if you are not careful,” Campo said.
What got them through those early times was experiencing it all as a team.
“Everything is easier when you have friends with you,” Rodriguez said.
They took turns climbing the ladder of success.
First it was Rodriguez with “Surface,” a lead in a Microsoft commercial, and a few small parts in sitcoms. Next it was Pantoja and back-to-back years in movies with theatrical releases — “Sydney White” and “Hamlet 2.” Then Campo was cast in the fourth installment of “The Final Destination” series, backed by Warner Bros. with a $43 million budget.
Campo thought the film was his “it” moment. He expected roles would start coming to him.
“I looked around and asked, 'Where's Tiger Beat Magazine' ” he quipped. “And they never called.”
Pantoja recalls a similar letdown.
“After 'Sydney White' I thought big things were coming,” he said. “And then I got 'Hamlet 2,' and it was a huge hit at Sundance and I just knew it was going to keep getting better.”
Instead, his career slowed.
The trio continued to get cast in projects, but their success was short of the steady big-budget roles they had come to expect. At times, they would go months without booking a role in a big production.
“It's how this industry is,” Pantoja said. “One day you're a star, the next day you can be a waiter, and a week later you can get booked for a trilogy. You just have to keep pushing.”
Pantoja kept going during the dry months because Rodriguez and Campo would book parts then.
“I thought that meant I was next,” said the always upbeat Pantoja. “I thought we all would keep taking turns.”
Campo and Rodriguez said it was bittersweet to learn the other had been cast — happiness tempered by envy.
“I was so happy for Campo when he got 'Final Destination,' and how I could I not have been? He was in a major movie,” Rodriguez said. “But part of me also wondered, 'Why not me?' ”
“We we are competitive by nature,” Campo said. “And sometimes we'd let that competition drive us apart.”
Rodriguez said the pact they made as they headed to LA brought them back together.
“We want to succeed together,” he said. “We always see the value in our friendship. We're boys.”
Almost nine years after moving to LA, the three feel like they have finally “arrived.” Not in terms of success, but rather understanding what they need to do to make that step from working in the industry to “working the industry.”
“We all grew up a lot in 2013,” Campo said. “We realize what we need to do.”
Campo said it was the year he began moving beyond his typecast as “college-age leading man.
He recalled one day early in the year when he spent the morning playing a feature role as a murderous henchman in the TV series “Justified” and later in the day portrayed a gay prostitute in an episode of “Masters of Sex.”
For Rodriguez, 2013 was the year his career in production blossomed.
He stepped away from acting a few years ago to pursue it.
“As an actor, I always felt like I was a piece of a puzzle. What I enjoy is helping put that puzzle together,” Rodriguez said.
His successes in front of the camera provided him contacts for jump-starting his production career, but he still had to prove himself to win a spot on big project casting teams.
“I'm getting to where I want to be,” he said.
Rodriguez also cut his teeth as a producer on the independent scene in LA and is primed for a leap to the big time in this arena, too.
One project he is developing as a producer is a TV series that has drawn the interest of networks. One of his partners is Pantoja.
“Can't say more until it is done,” Pantoja said. “We're still putting together the marketing package, and then we will officially pitch it to the networks.”
If the series does get picked up, will there be a role for Campo?
“Of course,” exclaimed Pantoja. “That's the dream, right? We basically get paid to play make-believe for a living. To get to do that with your friends like when you were a little kid, I don't think it gets better than that.”