The Reluctant Star
Actor Andy Garcia chooses roles that rouse his passions and cement his reputation as one of Hollywood's most likable nonconformists.
From the Print Edition:
Andy Garcia, Mar/April 2004
Flee your homeland when you're five years old, never to return. Grow up hearing of a life lost in Cuba, of a country that over the years fades into a collage of mirages, of a land that when mentioned brings tears to your eyes. Imagine that personal journey, and you may glimpse some of what makes actor Andy Garcia who he is. You begin to understand why he's been struggling for 10 years to finance a film called The Lost City about Havana in the years before Fidel Castro's revolution.
"You have certain scars from when you were 10 years old. You carry those scars with you and subconsciously you make decisions off of those things," Garcia says. "There is a reason I want to tell the story of The Lost City. America has given me an extraordinary opportunity to explore my dreams, and my father made great sacrifices for me to have that opportunity. That's why we left the country that we loved, because freedom is not negotiable.
"I only get involved in things that I get stoked about," says Garcia, trying to explain a project like The Lost City, which was written by exiled Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. "When I see material that I get passionate about, I go with it."
That's Garcia's career in a nutshell. In the late 1980s, while in his early 30s, the Cuban-American actor had Hollywood in the palm of his hand. Roles such as federal agent George Stone in 1987's The Untouchables, opposite Kevin Costner and Sean Connery; as investigator Raymond Avila in 1990's Internal Affairs, opposite Richard Gere; and as hotheaded Vincent Mancini in The Godfather: Part III the same year put him on the fast track to superstardom. He inherited the thinking woman's sex symbol mantle from Clark Gable, Connery and Al Pacino. He was considered for nearly every action hero or sexy male lead in big-budget movies at the time. His celebrity seemed sudden, and, to him, overwhelming. Not that the brush with fame was not enticing. Garcia had endured years of struggle and rejection in Hollywood, often with hints about or even direct barbs at his ethnicity, before he scored what he considers his first major role as Ray Martinez in The Mean Season in 1985. In the end, he didn't succumb to the lure of easy money and fame.
"It's always been my nature to shy away from overexposure, and the first onslaught of fame, when it came from those pictures, I did not embrace it. I went the other way," Garcia says. "I felt that you lose something; there's a price you pay by just letting yourself into that world. They might pay you a lot of money, but…you ask, is it really what you want? I did not become an actor to do those kinds of movies."
Sporting a well-worn, bulky tan coat, Garcia runs his fingers through his thick tousled hair. Even as he talks, the surroundings echo his words. He sits in the backyard of a small bungalow in a residential neighborhood in Sherman Oaks, California, out in the valley, over a range of hills from Beverly Hills. This modest home, which now houses his production company, Cineson, was the place where he raised his family until a few years ago. You could drive by and miss it, sitting amid a long row of single-story, ranch-style homes on a tranquil street.
But the quiet persona, and the devotion to smaller, independent-style movies, doesn't mean that Garcia shuns big-studio movies with star-studded casts and subjects designed to appeal to mass-market audiences. He played casino executive Terry Benedict in 2001's gambling heist remake Ocean's 11, opposite George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, and this April he begins filming its sequel, Ocean's 12, with the same cast plus a still-secret extra cast member. And, he can currently be seen in the Paramount release Twisted with Ashley Judd and Samuel L. Jackson. In the film, Judd plays Jessica Shepard, a homicide detective whose past lovers wind up dead. Garcia portrays her partner, Mike Delmarco, who, along with the police commissioner (Jackson), begins to believe she may be the serial killer. "So I try not to sleep with [her]," Garcia says with a grin.
Garcia decided to take the part in the thriller after getting a call from the director, Philip Kaufman, whose last film was the critically acclaimed Quills in 2000. "For me, it was all about Phil Kaufman. He's done some extraordinary films—The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Right Stuff. It was an opportunity to watch someone work, and collaborate with someone who I'm a fan of."
For Garcia, it is always about the material, or the director, or the challenge. Those motivations led him to Ocean's 11 and Ocean's 12. "You're working with Steven Soderbergh, a great director. You're working with Warner Brothers and great actors and a great script, and everything is there. Don't get me wrong. There's great value in that. It makes the journey more interesting. But there's no mystery in the destiny of that film," Garcia says.
His star-making turn as Vincent Mancini in The Godfather: Part III garnered him his first Oscar nomination in 1991 for Best Supporting Actor. But even with the critical acclaim, Garcia is more concerned with the moviemaking process than what happens when it's finished. "I haven't seen that movie since 1992," Garcia says. "The real memories you have are not about the final product, but the process is the memory you take with you. I remember the whole film, the making of the movie. It's about the relationships and it's about your life. Life is what happens while you're making a movie."
However, Garcia's relationship with Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola is more than just a memory. The experience changed Garcia's life, and to this day, Coppola remains a friend, a mentor and a go-to guy for Garcia.
The relationship developed slowly. Garcia was completing Internal Affairs when Paramount president Frank Mancuso suggested he pursue the role of Sonny Corleone's illegitimate son in The Godfather: Part III. "But you know with Francis, being suggested by the studio wasn't exactly the best part to play," Garcia says. He first put his name in the hopper in May 1990, and it wasn't until August that he was asked to meet with Coppola.
Nearly a month went by after their meeting, and Garcia kept asking his agent to find out why other actors such as Val Kilmer and Alec Baldwin were being screen-tested, but he wasn't. Finally, he was invited to visit Coppola at the Niebaum-Coppola winery in Napa Valley, California. He met with the legendary director, who gave Garcia instructions and scenes to act out. That night, the power went out at the estate and Garcia scrambled to find candles just to be able to read his lines. Nevertheless, he felt the screen test went well, and Fred Roos, a casting director and longtime Coppola collaborator, invited him to stay in Napa for dinner with Coppola that night. "Fifteen minutes later, Roos said 'Never mind, go home to Los Angeles, and we'll be in touch,' " Garcia says, with a laugh. But at 8 the next morning, Garcia's agent called and said he had the part, instructing him to report for rehearsals the following Monday morning. "He [Coppola] waited until the end to test me, and then he gave me the part," Garcia says.
"Francis inspires you to dream," says Garcia. "There's a Robert Browning quote that 'man's reach should be greater than his grasp. What's a heaven for?' Francis inspires you to go out and try things. That's why he inspired a great director in his daughter [Sofia]. He has that effect on you.
"I see [Coppola] as the man on the mountain you go to for advice and knowledge," adds Garcia. "He's done it for me. I've shown him movies and he's taken time out to sit in a cutting room for 48 hours straight, to talk about it philosophically, and why is that scene there, and why are you going there."
Garcia says that he was just beginning to think about making The Lost City when he met Coppola. He has often said about making The Godfather: Part III: "I went into that movie an actor and I came out of it a filmmaker." He credits Coppola with instilling his desire to direct.
"That's why I began to pursue that aspect of my life more aggressively," says Garcia. To date, the actor has produced and directed documentaries, dramas and thrillers but The Lost City will be his directorial debut. "There were some other opportunities that I've had to direct feature films, but I have this sort of loyalty to The Lost City to do it first."
While he won't divulge many details about the film, Garcia does say that he was motivated to find a story in which he could highlight the culture, music and artistry of late-'50s Havana, prior to the revolution. In addition, he says it's a story about impossible love and the tragedy of exile. He's quick to mention that some of his Hollywood friends, such as Robert Duvall and Dustin Hoffman, have expressed a desire to be in the film, but with the financing almost in place, their participation will depend on their schedules. "If the movie gods are willing, we will be filming The Lost City this summer," says Garcia.
It will be another stage in a career that began shortly after he entered Miami-Dade Community College South Campus in 1974. Garcia had acted in community theater as a child, but "I wasn't all that adept at it," he says. He focused on athletics: baseball and then basketball. But he caught mononucleosis and had to sit out from sports for nearly a year. "My freshman year in college, I took an acting class and it refueled my interest in it," he says. He continued to study acting, first at Florida International University and then in Los Angeles.
His first break was a small but pivotal part in The Mean Season. "That was the role that took me away from waiting tables and doing things other than acting," Garcia says. He then scored a role as a villainous kingpin opposite Jeff Bridges's alcoholic ex-cop in Hal Ashby's 1986 film 8 Million Ways to Die, which he says got him noticed in the film industry. After seeing him in that film, veteran director Brian De Palma cast Garcia in The Untouchables, which was the final piece of the puzzle. "That film showed the industry that I could be a marketable commodity," he says, "and that opened up a lot of choices for me as an actor."
Independent cinema, however, has been the lifeblood of Garcia's more than 20-year career. He enjoys donning a producer's cap for many of the independent films he makes and he finds it fulfilling to collaborate with directors.
"I want the movie to exist and then see what happens," Garcia says. "Real success, as William Saroyan says, is that it exists. The real success is that you've been able to create the film."
As he talks about his personal projects, Garcia's speech picks up speed. His voice becomes charged and he stares intently across the table. "I'm not trying to be in the Forbes 500. I've made a comfortable living. I'm financially secure. I don't need to go to work for cash…sometimes the movies that you are the most proud of are the least commercial of the films you do."
There's another element, too, even more personal perhaps. His devotion to the independent film world, and his desire to do more directing and producing, has meant that he can control his commitments and limit the time away from his family. "I can fit it around my schedule…you're more on your own time."
It's not just lip service to hear Garcia talk about how his life revolves around his family. He's been married to Marivi Lorido Garcia since 1982. The couple has three daughters, Dominik, Daniella and Alessandra, and a little boy, Andrés, who turned two in January. Only twice in the last 20 years has he been away from them for longer than five days. Once was for Black Rain, when Maria was pregnant with their second daughter and he spent four weeks in Japan filming the thriller with Michael Douglas; the other time was last summer, when he shot a film about Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani in Romania. The family had actually planned to join him there after Alessandra's elementary school graduation, but his eldest daughter caught mononucleosis. By then, Garcia had shot one week of the film, returned to the United States for the graduation, and realized that Romania wasn't going to be a great place for the family.
"Generally, we all go or I pass," Garcia says. "Certain movies deserve packing everybody up and going, and other movies it's just not worth it. Life is what happens while you're making movies, and the life is your children."
His personal projects also reflect an abiding bond with the land of his birth. He was born Andrés Arturo García Meñendez in Havana, Cuba, on April 12, 1956, and fled with his family to Miami in 1961 with not much more than the clothes on their backs. "We had to borrow a dime when we got there to make a phone call at the airport to call a relative living in Miami," Garcia says. That link to Cuba has involved Garcia in one of his most passionate pursuits, Cuban music, and led to his collaboration with the world-famous Cuban bass player Cachao. Garcia has filmed two documentaries about and released several CDs with the musician, who is 85. One recording won a Grammy award in 1994 and a second was nominated for a Grammy in 1995. Garcia recently finished the second film about the making of a new Cachao CD, which was composed and recorded in 36 hours—three days of 12-hour sessions. Garcia even played conga drums on some of the tracks. The film is scheduled to be released in April.
Those Cuba-related projects are Garcia's way of keeping the memory of Cuba alive. "I'm a Cuban, or more specifically, I'm Cuban American, and I'm proud of it. I have the benefit of two great cultures and I love both of them," Garcia says. But that reality of his dual roots doesn't diminish his feelings toward Cuba. "The tragedy of exile is exile. We didn't come as immigrants. We came as political exiles. You are always at a loss for the one thing you most cherish, the country you were born in."
Cuba's political system and particularly Fidel Castro receive nothing but scorn from Garcia. Although not a radical activist in the Cuban-American community, Garcia nevertheless holds very sharply defined beliefs about the Cuban leader. "The great hypocrisy of the Cuban regime is that the Cuban revolution has never fulfilled its promise. The Cuban revolution was not a Marxist-Leninist revolution. It was motivated and financed by the middle and upper class, the intellectuals, the people who were embarrassed by the lack of pluralism in the [Fulgencio] Batista regime, his corrupt government and his abolishing to a great degree of the Cuban constitution," Garcia says.
He argues that Castro betrayed the 26 July Movement's basic principles, including the restoration of the constitution, democracy, elections and the understanding that its members would not seek political office. He says that within a year Castro had imposed his personal agenda on the revolution, and then quickly consolidated power by eliminating or imprisoning his rivals. "There's been a huge betrayal of humanity there. There have been a lot of atrocities against human beings and human rights in Cuba for 40 years," Garcia says.
Garcia also echoes one of the themes of America's Cuban exile population, that the embargo against Castro should not be lifted until Castro is held accountable for his human rights record. "There are two embargoes that need to be lifted. Yes, America's embargo on Cuba, but Castro needs to lift the embargo of human rights for the Cuban people," Garcia says. He acknowledges that hard-liners exist in the exile community who emphatically state that they will never make a deal with the devil. "But who stops it? Fidel…he's the first one who doesn't want the embargo lifted, because for now he still has his enemy and he can blame the United States for all his troubles."
Technically, Garcia has never set foot on Cuban soil since he left in 1961, but he did visit the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay in 1995 to take part in a concert with fellow Cuban-American Gloria Estefan for 16,000 refugees who had fled Cuba but failed to reach the U.S. mainland. "Oh, I was definitely in Cuba. The only word I can find is it was ethereal. You could hear the wind blow," Garcia says. His voice fades away as he struggles for a more detailed description of what it was like to be there.
"To me it's all a great tragedy. It is a very sad thing. All you can hope is that someday it will change. I think there are people there who want it to change, but in order to survive in that society, you have to have two faces," Garcia says. "Why were we dealt this black card of destiny? The island doesn't deserve it. The people don't deserve [it]. But unfortunately, we are in a bit of a standstill…there's nothing that will happen until he [Castro] dies."
Besides Garcia's love of Cuba and its music, he also enjoys smoking premium cigars on special occasions. "My grandfather smoked cigars until he died and my father smoked cigars and cigarettes when he was younger. It was just part of Cuban culture," Garcia says. "I try to be moderate about it because I really don't want a chain cigar habit."
His favorite smokes include Cuban Montecristos and the Dominican Fuente Fuente OpusX. "I've had the Montecristo No. 5 leadoff, followed by No. 4 batting second, the No. 2 bats third, and then in the cleanup spot, I have the OpusX," Garcia says.
"I smoke because of the camaraderie of it. It's a cultural thing ultimately, and it taps into your subconscious," Garcia says, as he puffs on an A. Fuente Don Carlos. "There's a certain companionship because it's part of the culture I grew up in. It's about sharing more than anything else."
Another pastime is golf, which Garcia became obsessed with when he rediscovered the game in 1985. But he found that he didn't have enough time to play to earn a single-digit handicap. "I have a 10 handicap now, which isn't bad for a weekend golfer," Garcia says. "But I have to start playing here because I'm going to the AT&T Pebble Beach in a few weeks." He's been paired with Paul Stankowski for the last four years, ever since they won the pro-am part of the tournament the first year they played together. "We haven't made the cut since," he says.
The actor first picked up a club when he was young and living in Miami Beach. "It was during the time of Arnie's Army, and some of the kids bought clubs, so we all bought clubs," says Garcia. "We used to sneak out before the course opened in the morning to save the $1.50 greens fee," he adds with a laugh.
He's laughing because the clandestine rounds tell all anyone needs to know about the reality of his childhood in Miami. He remembers that all his friends had odd jobs, scrambling to make pennies. His older brother, Rene, worked for Murf the Surf, a legendary Miami Beach figure, who, according to Garcia, ran the pools at several of the old Art Deco hotels along 71st Street and Collins Avenue. "My brother used to go there before school, lay out the mattresses for the tourists, go to school, come back in the afternoon and pick up the mattresses," Garcia says. "He used me to pick up cigarette butts with those dustpans on a handle, and for that he used to let me swim in the pool."
Many of the former well-to-do, educated Cuban exiles came to America and ended up working low-paying jobs as busboys or parking lot attendants to help feed and clothe their families, according to Garcia. "It was the spirit of the exile," Garcia says. His father, Rene, who had been a farmer and a lawyer in Cuba, first worked at a catering business that fed laborers coming home in the evening "because no one had time to cook for themselves," Garcia says. "And we ate well, too, as a result." The elder Garcia soon began selling sneakers on consignment and later acquired the distributorship for a sock business that produced a very particular style of almost transparent sock popular in the Cuban community. After selling socks for a while with his father, Andy's brother started a fragrance business that turned into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, and eventually, both Andy's father and mother joined the company. Although the original fragrance business was sold, the younger Garcia has started another company in the same industry.
"My father instilled in us a work ethic," Garcia says. "Everybody in our household had to work." He recalls leaving high school basketball practice and riding a bus from Miami Beach to Southwest 8th Street where his dad had a small warehouse. Garcia swept the floors before returning home with his father to Miami Beach, usually after 8 p.m. Garcia's sister, Tessi, is a successful interior designer in south Florida, and Garcia attributes her success to that same family work ethic. "It's inherent in the Cuban culture, but it's also inherent in the exile or the immigrant experience. You have the opportunity to move forward, but there's also the absolute necessity that you have to. You have to provide for your family. When things got tough, we all always had that example of our parents before us."
Recalling his early years in Florida, the actor says, "That's why it was a big deal to save the $1.50 greens fee. We didn't have much. We had to avoid the sprinklers, so you'd wait until the spray had passed by your ball and then you'd run in, hit your ball and get out. To this day, I don't spend a lot of time over the ball."
The teenage fascination with golf faded quickly, but while on the set of The Mean Season in 1985, one of Garcia's costars, Richard Bradford, said he was going to play golf after shooting was done for the day. Garcia recalls saying "Hey, I used to play golf" and tagging along. He was hooked again immediately.
"I still play once a week, and before Pebble Beach, I'll try to play for four or five days in a row to get some tempo," Garcia says. "But it's a beautiful, extraordinary game, and a game you can play by yourself. A lot of times I go out alone, and it's like a walk with a smoke…to me, it's more about the experience of moving the ball forward."
Garcia's description of how he approaches golf could be applied to the way he approaches life. Going out alone. Taking pleasure in the process. Moving forward. Not worrying about the results so much. That philosophy reflects why so many of his career choices have been independent films in which he has a personal stake, and not so much the surefire big-budget studio productions.
Take his answer to the question about his favorite role. He pauses for a minute and says, "I'd have to say it's Modigliani," a film that has been finished but to date has no distributor nor release date. "It's an interesting experience because of the nature of the film, the independence of the film, financed totally outside the studio system by one person with no distributor, with no involvement by anyone," Garcia says.
He admits that before Modigliani, his answer would have been Vincent Mancini in The Godfather: Part III.
"When the director [of Modigliani], Mick Davis, first came to me and said, 'I'm doing this movie and this script about Modigliani,' I said, 'I know what kind of life he led. If the script needs work, we'll work on it,'" says Garcia. "Because of the spirit of Modigliani, who was a free spirit, there was a certain liberty or freedom that I always try to bring to my work. Some parts empower that freedom.
"You are defined by who are, by your choices in life, in all regards, not just in doing movies. What you do. How you conduct yourself. What moral decisions you make. The small decisions in life define you. Who I am as an actor is no mystery. You can interpret or misinterpret it, but it's all there. I have no regrets of any movie I've ever done because the creative process is why I do it, to have relationships with the people who are in the movie.
"You just have to go with it. You have to take that kind of risk. I'm not afraid of risk or failure at all. There is no failure for me," Garcia says. "Sure, the end result will hopefully live up to your dream of what it could be. But if you don't attempt something, then you get back to that quote about not reaching. You just can't have all the knots and loose ends ironed out. Life is not that way. You have to put it out there.
"You have to step on the precipice."
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