Interview by Brad Balfour
Andy Garcia smiles [pic: B. Balfour]
Nestled up alongside the Bronx is a place called City Island, a sweet gem of a seaside neighborhood with the kind of New Yorkers that have been driven out to New Jersey or other parts of the tri-state area. It's made up of classic borough ethnics, working class folks struggling to survive laden with family issues that don't usually make it into films populated with superheroes and otherworldly villains.
Situated in this environment is the story of City Island and troubled middle-aged prison guard patriarch Vince Rizzo ( Andy Garcia), the husband of Joyce (Julianna Margulies) and father to Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido) and Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) -- who have various issues of their own. Though his wife thinks he's having an affair, the only flirtation on his mind is an acting career; and he's afraid if anyone he knows finds out he will endure endless ridicule.
Manhattan-based director Ray De Felitta has made other local films, but this one really hits its mark as a fine dramedy, with heart, some twists and turns and unique touches. It hit its mark with festival audiences as well, having won the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival's Audience Award.
The 53-year-old Cuban-born, Miami-raised Garcia has played his share of villains, Hollywood heroes and, in recent years, the lead in films he passionately supports, sometimes as director, sometimes as producer. Though he was Oscar-nominated for The Godfather: Part III, he has really been driven by movies with authentic roots such as the self-directed The Lost City (2005). He signed on to produce City Island because he so connected to the story -- understandably so, since it also starred his daughter Dominik.
Q: This is such a feel-good film. It’s so rare that we get those types; what did it take to get into this film?
AG: Well Ray sent me the script — we share the same agency — and then my agent said, “There’s a script I read, Raymond wants to talk to you about it and you could produce it if you want.”
So I sat and I read it and I had the same feeling that you guys had with the movie; I went, “Wow, what a beautiful script. You mean this thing is having trouble getting off the ground? What kind of world are we living in?” This is a beautiful script and I knew it would attract great actors because of the quality of the writing.
So we met and hit it off. We had a lot of similar interests in music and piano and all these things. I watched his movie, Two Family House -- which was terrific -- and then I signed on. It’s easy to say romantically, “Hey, I’m a producer in the movie,” but I’ve done six of these independent things and when you sign up to produce a movie, it’s a commitment you’re making to the director, to the piece and to yourself -- to challenge yourself to get this thing made. I want to fulfill that challenge.
When you challenge yourself, you want to be successful, and not in terms of money. I’m talking about just the achievement, because the fact that the movie exists is success enough already. The fact that you’re going in saying, "We’re going to do this," you want to fulfill that.
So it’s not like anything that comes along I go, “Yeah I’ll produce it!” because it takes a lot of work. Unless you go to Warner Brothers, where they say, “Great script. When can you start?” That’s easier. But when you’re on your own, raising money from your dry cleaner, it’s different.
Q: How is it producing in this economic environment?
AG: It’s a very, very tough environment. Most of the independent distributors are gone, the ones that were part of the majors, the Warner Independent, Paramount Classics and all that, most of those closed down, so it’s very difficult. It’s hard to raise money internationally if you don’t have a distributor. The pre-sales are very soft, so it’s possibly the worst time to try to produce a movie. But yet again, here I go.
Q: What strings did you pull to put this movie together?
AG: Well, [how about] Alan [Arkin], Julianna [Margulies], and Emily [Mortimer]? They were friends and colleagues and I had worked with them before.
Q: Was it fun working with your daughter Dominik García-Lorido?
AG: It was great. For us it’s like baking bread together. It’s pretty natural because we’ve...worked together before. Of course I’m proud of her and look at her from a distance going, “She’s doing her thing.” But it’s like you want to also make it not a big deal like, “Hey, I’m really watching you,” kind of thing.
First of all, she doesn’t need my help. I need her help as much as she needs mine because as actors we need each other, so it’s as simple as that. You just let it be relaxed, have fun and do your thing. If there’s an idea that I feel I can articulate to her or to a fellow actor or a fellow actor to me, I want people to be comfortable to express ideas. I’m not one of those actors who goes, “Mind your own business.”
Jeff Bridges taught me that the first time we worked together many years ago in 8 Million Ways to Die. I didn’t know the man, but I played the antagonist to him, so my job was to make it miserable for him as much as I could. And the first thing he said to me was, “Hey man, if you have any ideas of something I could do that would make it better, please let me know.” And I went, “Okay. Wow.”
Q: He’s like that, isn’t he?
AG: He’s the most generous individual and generous actor I’ve ever worked with. And he set a great example to me of how to behave as a protagonist in a movie. He always said, “I consider the protagonist really the most important supporting actor because I’m here every day and you’ve got guys coming in to a new set. It’s my job to make them feel like, "Hey man, come in here and let’s play and don’t worry about it. What do you want to do? Let’s just do it.’”
He’s so supportive that way and it was a great lesson for me in one of my first movies. I feel that way; it’s a collaborative art form. The most important thing in any creative collaboration is respect, and the deeper the respect, the deeper the love, and the deeper the generosity, the deeper you can go into hatred and all the other dark characters because you’re going in there together. You can push each other’s buttons and at the end of the take go, “Hey man, that was pretty wild.”
You went there together and it feeds you as a creative unit. You don’t have to really hate the guy to hate him. So Jeff really personified that for me and it’s been a philosophy that I’ve adhered to and I’ve followed.
Q: Though your character didn’t struggle too much because he gets a part right away, for non-actors just the audition, the huge line of actor wanna-bes, is unnerving, but at the same time…
Q: Did you struggle a lot?
AG: Oh yes, very much.
Q: Was it like that?
AG: Pretty much like that. I had a lot of embarrassing auditions. I had a lot of struggle: years without even an audition, without agents. I was still going to class, I was doing improvisational theater. I was staying active in my craft but I was making a living as a waiter or as a roofer or as a mover. I was not getting any acting work because first of all, I didn’t even have an agent that would pay attention to me. So for me it was very difficult for me to get an agent to begin with.
I moved to LA in ’78, I started making a living as an actor in ’85. So that was like seven years, and it was really like the last year and a half that I actually had an agent and was making a little progress. The other six years or whatever were like Death Valley days; nothing was going on for me.
Q: Did you ever feel like giving up during that period?
AG: I had nowhere else to go. I had moments of insecurity. I had moments of sadness. And I had to really deeply soul-search; those years weren’t always a party. They were lonely years. I was there alone, really. I had some friends I had made, but I wasn’t around family, and wasn’t married until ’82.
It helped me when I got married. That empowered me more and grounded me more with my wife. We had Dominik right away. The first thing I did to make a little bit of a living is I used to do what they call "walla," which is the background voices on all the show. If you’re in a restaurant scene, it's all those people. You go in as a group and you would do all those voices for the mixer to fill in, and I used to do that for Cagney and Lacey and other television shows. When they rerun you get a second check, so I used to do that two or three times a week with a group. Barbara Harris was the leader of the group. That kept me afloat and got my daughters in Pampers, and paid the rent. I was waiting to find a niche.
Q: Was that the only thing you were interested in doing?
AG: That was it.
Q: How long did you know this?
AG: It was always in me as a young man, but I was involved in competitive sports all the way until my senior year in high school, baseball and basketball mainly. But in high school I concentrated on basketball, because the seasons overlapped and they wouldn’t let you play both sports.
Q: So you didn't go professional?
AG: Of course I wanted to play professional basketball, but the likelihood… I was a little guy, I weighed 150 pounds. I’m about the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life right now and I’m not that heavy.
I was very good at point guard but had physical limitations ultimately. I could have played college ball at a small college but...I got very sick my senior year with an illness that put me out, and during that time of limbo is when this other interest really grew. I was vulnerable for that other virus because it really was something in the pit of my stomach. I started feeling this kind of intense thing inside my body and I really related to it like a virus, like a huge cramping feeling that I needed to attend to, and it was this thing about acting.
Q: You must have found it ironic to play a character that wants so desperately to be an actor?
AG: There’s a reason why I made this movie — because I related to him, I related to his dream. I remember there's one scene where I’m telling my son, Tony, played by Steven Strait in the movie, and he discovers me with this thing and I tell him I want to be an actor.
What’s in the movie is the first take because the second take I started weeping, and the director said, “It might be too much. Would you be weeping in front of the son? You haven’t even told him he’s your son; would you be weeping in front of him? It might be too much because this guy’s so cramped up that he’d be evasive.”
But I related to Vince so much that I had this reaction, and if you look at the movie again you see in the scene that it’s there underneath and it’s coming. He wants to be an actor but he doesn’t think he knows anything about acting. He thinks he’s terrible about it. He’s insecure. He’s embarrassed.
There’s a great line that was an improvisation that always gets a laugh, and it’s always very gratifying for me because I come from an improvisational background. When the character starts to speak, and Raymond was very good about saying, “This is yours. Go with it.”
He knew that I worked that way a lot. When you stay out of the way of the characters, they start to speak for themselves. And there are some lines in the movie that come out that the character says that you can see the audience relates to because it’s not even Raymond or me or anybody, it’s the guy. There’s a moment where Emily says, “No, no. You channeled your son’s experiences and incorporated them into yours. That’s acting,” and I said, “That acting? You can do that in acting?”
And that’s just him; that’s just me in it there and that’s what came out. There’s another one at the end where I kiss him and I say, “You’re my son now, you’re my boy now, I’ve got you now,” and then I turn around, and I turn to Dominik and I say, “Hug your brother.” That just came out. At that point you’re just a vehicle for the guy who is in it.
Q: Dominik said that in the scene in the cul-de-sac you decided to play it straight. Was that how it was written in the script or how you worked it out?
AG: There was no rehearsal in this movie. The first scenes we shot in the movie, we sat around the dining room table in the morning, they brought the pasta, I looked at Julianna and she looked at me and said, “Here we go,” and that was it. [There were] two cameras, we kept moving them around, shot the two scenes and went home.
Q: In 27 days?
AG: 27 days. But that scene is basically as written, aside from these little embellishments and things that come up. I knew that this scene was designed, for me anyway, as sort of farcical. All the stories are coming together, everybody’s coming in and out of the door, the stories being tied together in this one scene. I knew that it was my responsibility in the comedic structure of the movie and the comedic structure of the scene to drive this scene. If I didn’t drive the scene it would just lay flat because it was just too much information, too many storylines to complete.
I knew that I needed to hit it because I was at the center of the vortex. After we did the scene inside the house where he runs away, I knew that when I hit that street we had to be powerful until I finally say, “I walked out on you.”
So I knew that was the way it needed to be played; that was just my own thing. Other than that it was in the material, the relationships were there, and you’re in it. But you make that directorial choice in a way of how the scene should be designed.
Q: I’ve always liked how you make your characters really organic in your films. How do you get into these characters to make them so real?
AG: Thank you. My training has been one to try to personalize the characters and find the parallels in my own life, to feel their emotional weight, their joys, pains, whatever. I try to strive for a sense of truth in the work and stay present in the moment and be free and relaxed and spontaneous and take my performance as much as I can from my fellow actors. You just got to stay in the moment and make sure the stakes are high, and the only way the stakes can be high is that I try to do as little acting as possible, basically.
Q: Do you have a favorite role of the many you’ve done over the years?
AG: This one’s pretty close. But it’s like children; you’ve got to be careful when you pick a favorite child. But this character was... unique. First of all, I’m playing against type because I’ve played a lot of gangsters or tough guys. People who know me see me in a much goofier, looser fashion, but you get known for a certain persona, thank god, because it’s a job, but you get type-casted to that persona.
Q: What’s next?
AG: I did a movie called Georgia directed by Renny Harlin, about the conflict in Georgia. I played the President, Saakashvili. I might have done something else; my memory is so bad. Right now I’m involved in a script that I wrote called Hemingway & Fuentes, with Hilary Hemingway, who is Ernest’s niece, about the relationship between Hemingway and Gregoria Fuentes, who was the captain of his boat for the last 20 years of his life. I’m going to direct that. I’ve committed to trying to raise the money for that.