City Island (2009) An Interview With Andy Garcia

Andy Garcia City Island

As an actor, Andy Garcia is best-known for either his cool, what-the-hell demeanor in films like The Untouchables and Black Rain or his brooding intensity in movies such as The Godfather, Part III, Internal Affairs and the Ocean’s films.

In his latest, City Island, which he also co-produced, the actor reveals another side of himself, one rarely seen on screen. The 53-year-old Garcia goes for laughs in this comedy-drama that casts him as Vince Rizzo, a New York corrections officer who encounters the son he abandoned years ago and brings him home to spend time with his eccentric family.

Garcia pulls off the part wonderfully, garnering yuks and plugging into the vulnerable side of the befuddled Rizzo, who harbors a secret desire to be an actor.

Shot in about a month on a small budget by Big Apple-based writer-director Raymond De Felitta (Two-Family House, Café Society) , City Island is a bona fide crowd pleaser, a movie that had audiences laughing  and applauding during an advance screening and buzzing about it afterwards, too.

“For my character, here’s a man who’s my age, 53 years old, who has never taken responsibility for his life,” reflects the Havana-born actor, in Philadelphia to discuss the film. “It’s a very painful thing, you know. This is a guy living a life on auto-pilot, and never having the guts or the courage to say, ‘I’m doing this.’”

In City Island, named after the bucolic seaside fishing area of the Bronx in which the Rizzo family lives, Garcia’s Rizzo tells his wife (Julianna Margulies) he’s taking poker lessons while he’s secretly attending acting classes with a woman (Emily Mortimer) he befriends. His wife suspects that Garcia is having an affair.

“Seems like now he’s exploring it (Rizzo’s desire to act), but he’s embarrassed to tell anybody because he’s so insecure about his real talents, and people are going to laugh at him. Then he has a son (played by Steven Strait) that he knows he has, he’s never tracked him down, he knows he hasn’t taken responsibility for that. He knows he’s out there but he’s never reached out for him. He doesn’t know how his wife will react, how the son will react. Again, it’s lack of courage.”

“This is a guy who has tremendous guilt and if you play it for reality, the audiences connect to him, and that’s why I connected to him.  Then there are ridiculous situations, like going for an audition and there are thousands of people there. But the audience has empathy for him, they go ‘Poor guy.’ We got to show this guy the light at the edge of the tunnel at some point.”

City Island is a film about secrets—and not just those of Garcia’s character. For example, Vince’s daughter (played by Garcia’s real-life daughter Dominik Garcia-Lorido) is a college student who has dropped out of school and is working as a stripper. His younger son (Ezra Miller) has a fetish for watching obese women eating large meals on the Internet. And his wife seems to have a thing for the hunky convict her hubby has brought home, while having no clue he’s actually her stepson.

According to Garcia, City Island is not a message movie, although Garcia explains “the message can be construed as that ‘My family is not the only crazy one in the world.’

“If you want to get serious about it, it has to do with honesty and being up front with things,” Garcia relates. “The film says that secrets only speed out into complications in life, and it’s better to be straightforward in life. But it’s a very human story, which is what I loved about it. The humor came out of the situations that this family was put into. There are no jokes in the movie, but there are a lot of funny things. But underneath it all there’s a serious, emotional base to it, in terms of stakes.”

Some of the best parts of City Island take place in scenes involving Vince’s burgeoning acting career. He worships Marlon Brando, takes acting lessons from a coach (Alan Arkin) and eventually auditions for a part in a new Martin Scorsese film.

“At the beginning, Raymond (director DeFelitta) had this idea of the Brando thing that wasn’t in the script,” says Garcia. “He (Vince) was obsessed with Scorsese and Coppola and De Niro and Brando and he had posters on the wall. I said, ‘Ray, this guy can’t have posters on the wall.’ He’s got one book that he guards with his life, like a money belt sewn to his chest.  No one can see this book. It is too embarrassing to him.”

As for the brief but memorable work by the Oscar-winning Arkin, Garcia says: “The beauty was, Alan was going to do the part because he loved the script. He said, ‘I teach acting and there are some issues that I think can be funny.’  Ray said, ‘Alan just rewrote the monologue.’ You know he took what Ray had written, the bit about exhaustion of the (acting) process, and rewrote it with the pauses and added the dismantling of Brando. That’s all Alan!

“Alan Arkin is a genius. He’s also a genial writer. He saw in the script what was funny and saw it in the context of the story, and figured out what he could write that would service the story in a unique way.”

Arkin was originally slated to work one day on City Island, in a scene set inside his character’s acting class, attended by Garcia and Mortimer’s characters. But another scene, set before an audition session for the fictional Scorsese film, was conceived during the production. This presented a problem in terms of Arkin’s schedule.

“That (scene) would entail Alan showing up for one more day at work,” recalls Garcia. “He worked one day inside the room and we shot the (audition) line scene the day after. I called Alan and said, ‘Alan, I came up with a line and Ray embraced it, but you don’t have to do it because it would mean you have to do another day on the film. And he said, ‘What is it?’ (I told him) I thought that maybe when I was coming around the audition line and there was a line wrapping around the street, that maybe, at some point, I see your character in line rehearsing your lines. And he went ‘Ohhhhhohhhhohhhoh!’ That’s how he laughs. And he said ‘That’s hilarious, I’ll be there!’”

Onscreen, the scene elicits mixed response from the audience.

“It was funny and sad too,” says Garcia. “Sometimes at screenings I see people laugh and other times they just sigh. There’s a silence. I always said that ‘If my teacher’s in line, what chances do I got?’  It even makes the stakes for this character (Vince) worse. He’s an expert and I am an idiot.”

But Garcia certainly hasn’t been an idiot with his career. The son of prosperous parents who fled Cuba after Fidel Castro took over the country in the early 1960s, Garcia thought about playing baseball when he was young—Mickey Rourke, of all people, was one of his Little League coaches—but always harbored a secret love for movies.

After some small roles in TV shows and even smaller roles in movies, Garcia got a decent part when he was 29 years old, in 1985’s thriller The Mean Season with Kurt Russell and Mariel Hemingway. “It was my first part that had some substance,” recalls Garcia, wearing jeans and tortoise shell glasses. “I immediately felt some buzz. Some TV shows approached me to do a series, but the crossover from movies to TV was already delineated. If you went into TV, you were stuck there and there was a hand you had to play depending on what you wanted to do.

“I came to L.A/ to pursue a film career. So I decided to hold back and roll the dice. Then I got an opportunity to work with Hal Ashby in 8 Million Ways to Die with Jeff Bridges, who was a dream of an actor to work with. They took the movie away from Hal Ashby, but I was able to play a character (a flashy drug dealer) who was really flamboyant. And I got to sink my teeth into it. Some members of the industry got to see the movie and there was a buzz that came off it for me.”

Garcia’s next big role was as one of the racket-busting federal agents in Brian De Palma’s 1987 hit The Untouchables. “They called me in to play (villain) Frank Nitti. I read for that. I told them I’d rather play George Stone. One of the Untouchables, they were a little hesitant about that. I met with Brian. He kind of checked me out. Then I read for him, and he gave me the role. That kind of opened the door for lots of opportunities. It was a very commercial film. Then you become a commercial entity for a producer.”

After The Untouchables, Garcia scored a number of high-profile roles in such efforts as Stand and Deliver, Black Rain and Internal Affairs. Then came an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Vincent Mancini, the illegitimate son of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, Part III.

“The Godfather, to me, is the greatest film ever made, and the movie that had the biggest impact on me, and the reason I went into acting,” says Garcia, who has been married 28 years to Marivi Lorido Garcia, with whom he has four children. “It’s amazing that I was cast into one of the installments. Granted, it wasn’t the great film that the first Godfather was or the film Godfather II was, but there are some beautiful moments in it.”

Was there ever talk about Garcia repeating his role and starring in a fourth installment of the series?

“There was talk of a fourth one involving me and Leonardo DiCaprio.” admits Garcia. “There was a lot of heat, but then Mario Puzo died. You couldn’t do it without Francis, and I think he’s just into making his little experimental films now. This is stuff he always talked about, and now he’s doing it, and I give him a lot of credit for it. Maybe Sofia (Coppola, the director’s daughter and Garcia’s co-star in The Godfather, Part III) could do it, but unless Francis is involved, there won’t be another Godfather movie.”

Working with an impressive array of filmmakers like Coppola has really paid off for Garcia, who now prefers to have a hand behind the scenes in his films, and is looking to direct for the second time soon. When asked upon his reaction to directors, Garcia was quick to respond on what impressed him.

Garcia says Francis Ford Coppola is “like Sophocles, a god that dispenses great wisdom and information.”

Garcia claims “I learned a lot from Hal Ashby. He let me into his editing room. Before he was a director he was the top editor in Hollywood. He would give his actors lots of space. Jeff Bridges is one of the greatest persons I ever met in the industry, and we became friends. The movie was disappointing, but it was fascinating to make.”

According to Garcia, director Ridley Scott is “the greatest visual stylist in Hollywood. He’s constantly looking through the camera, composing. We were making Black Rain, and me and Michael Douglas are waiting to shoot a scene and Ridley is framing things in the camera. I said ‘Ridley, should Michael and I take a break while you’re trying to get that noodle perfect in the shot? His brother (Tony) is the same way.”

“Brian De Palma,” according to Garcia, “is a master technician. Obviously, his greatest influence is Hitchcock, but it’s amazing to watch him work his technique while making a film.”

Then there is Andy Garcia himself. Under his belt as a director is 2005’s The Lost City, a film set in Havana in the late 1950s, just as Castro and the Communists are about to take over. Garcia played the owner of a nightclub, one of three brothers dealing with the political and social turbulence going on around them.  And Garcia is hoping to go behind the camera again soon, directing Sir Anthony Hopkins as Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway and Fuentes. Garcia would play boat captain Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway’s inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea.

“I’ve been like a sponge, soaking up these influences,” says Garcia. “I am trying to raise the money for Hemingway and Fuentes now. The Lost City took me 16 years to make. It was a personal story and I had opportunities to direct other movies during that time. But it just seemed right to make this the first film I direct.”

Here’s Irv’s review of the movie: