Hollywood's Tough Guy
Armand Assante has made a Hollywood career out of playing cigar-smoking characters with a hard edge.
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Perhaps it is that air of confidence that has made Assante so adept at playing—and so frequently cast in—the stalwart roles of cop, spy, military officer or gangster. Especially gangster.
Part of it is about appearance and bearing; at 5 feet, 11 inches, Assante holds himself almost military-erect—shoulders out, spine straight—and his stride when he walks is long and assured. He's also built like a fighter—a testament perhaps to the home gym that occupies a room in his home and to the very real, physical work that he does around his 225-acre farm in upstate New York—but it is also about the square jaw, the "you wanna piece o' dis?" stare and, currently, a slightly messy, grown-out version of a flattop haircut.
But even when his look is slightly softer—as it was in the second half of Gotti, a role that earned Assante an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special and for which he gained 50 pounds during the shoot in order to "span" the real John Gotti's lifetime—there's just something about the way that the actor holds himself, narrows his eyes and glares into a camera that's made the guy the one whom directors turn to when they need a mob boss.
Take his recent, well-received role as Dominic Cattano, the quietly powerful mob boss in American Gangster. Although it was, essentially, a secondary—even tertiary—role, critics and audiences alike had trouble taking their eyes off of the screen anytime Assante had a few lines.
If there doesn't seem to be any limit to an audience's love of movies or television shows that depict wiseguys and gangsters, Assante's in luck. Few actors portray them as effectively as he does. Part of it, Assante theorizes, has to do with his having done his homework; the rest of it, he believes, has to do with a cultural yearning for rules. Or, in this case, for a code.
"The Godfather was released just after the Vietnam War when America had blown apart every single value known to man. I mean, we blew it out of the park. There was drugs, sex, whatever...we trashed it! Dragged it into the street and burned it. I think when The Godfather came along, there was a subliminal structure [and storyline] to The Godfather that enforces family value within the story and I think it had an unconscious effect on American audiences. They loved the idea of 'code' and I think the American psyche got caught up in The Godfather as a yearning for rules, as something that was left intact. I think that's [part of] America's fascination with gangsters and the Soprano-esque way of living.
"Of the mobsters that I've interviewed over the years, " Assante continues, "I would say the majority of the real mobsters that I've met in my life were borderline schizophrenic or bipolar. Very frightening people. And," Assante pauses for a moment, puffs on his cigar and then grins, "they were some of the funniest people I've met in my life in terms of comedic sensibility. They will literally set the house on a roar. Some people have commented that I was either self-parodying a mobster or being outlandish, [but] in truth I have met those characters [and] they are far, far, far more outlandish. They are outrageous. I have seen them pull stunts in public that will literally stop a restaurant.
"That was something I desperately wanted to inject into the [Dominic Cattano] character because I don't see it too often when I watch mob movies. I see all this hard-core threat, threat, threat, threat when in fact some of them are the funniest 'batties'—and when I use the term 'bat shit' I mean it in the most complete embodiment of whatever bat shit means!—and in fact I wanted to inject it into that character. Now, those characters," Assante adds, "as fun as they can be, are also as deadly as they can be. As deadly as cold ice, unapologetically, and it's amazing to be in the presence of that."
To emphasize his point, Assante tells the story of how he accompanied a scientific research team to Africa whose mission it was to tranquilize lions in the wild, draw their blood and test for AIDS. The problem arose, Assante says, when an adult male lion, already hit with two tranqs, refused to yield position as king of his jungle. Not to sleep, not to humans.
"I remember," says Assante, shaking his head, "being in the Jeep, facing this lion for 30 minutes who wouldn't go out even with a second dart. That lion stared at me and literally assessed whether he was going to bite my torso off for 30 minutes," he says, laughing.
It was, says Assante, a moment of revelation. "I truly understood it then; a lion does not apologize for being a lion."
As an actor, Assante has kept what can only be called an insane film schedule for the last two years; besides the international release of American Gangster, he's seen two independent films, When Nietzsche Wept and California Dreamin' (both of which were filmed in Eastern Europe), come out in limited release or at film festivals. He's also made guest appearances in the television drama "October Road" and had roles in the movies Order of Redemption, The Man Who Came Back, Chicago Overcoat and La Linea, all of which are wrapping production or in post-production with 2008 release dates.
In addition, Assante has a project that is strictly his own. In the 1990s, the actor was working with a human rights group when he met Jerry White, the founder of the D.C.-based nonprofit Landmine Survivors Network. White, the victim of a land mine a decade earlier, found an ardent student on the issues of land mines—and ultimately an impassioned crusader—in Assante.
"If you can imagine, 400 million land mines have been placed on earth since World War II," says Assante. "The chief victims today are children, women, soldiers and de-miners, in that order. I was born in 1949, when polio claimed 13 million victims, and my mother was [one of] its victims. I have many vivid childhood memories of rehab centers all over Manhattan and so on some visceral level, anything that blindly steals limbs hits me in a place that I have a reflex to.
"Isn't it ironic that about 70 percent of Marine Corps casualties in Vietnam were due to land mines, some of which they had laid themselves? The thought of what young men in Iraq and at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] are enduring does not," Assante says, quietly, "sit well with me."
Even as Assante was slowly learning and gathering more information about land mines, he was filming back-to-back-to-back projects in Eastern Europe, one of the many regions in the world devastated, he points out, by war and the land mines left behind. In his spare time, in between films, he began accompanying de-mining teams as they swept fields for buried mines, some scattered many decades ago, some quite recently. It doesn't really matter when they were laid, Assante points out, since they can stay active for 30 or more years.
In 1999, he decided to put his growing awareness and his skill as a storyteller to work and he began to film a documentary entitled Blind Dragon.
The somewhat unusual title, Assante explains, has significant meaning. " 'Blind Dragon' is a metaphor. A land mine is a weapon that does not distinguish a child from a soldier who is on a border where he should not be, hence it is 'blind.' A dragon lives forever in the earth and a dragon's teeth cuts its victim in half. There have been many metaphors used to describe weapons. 'Dragon' is a popular one."
Assante filmed extensively in Croatia and, with Afghanistan, Angola, Eritrea, Cambodia and Vietnam still on the itinerary, headed to Angola for the next segment. Based on the message he was telling, Assante was hoping for cooperation and, to some extent, open arms from the government. What he got, he says, were open palms and, following multiple demands for bribes, Assante scrapped the rest of the trip. It's his intention to return to filming, with some additional funding, this year.
In the interim, Assante takes advantage of what little downtime he has to rejuvenate on his farm, a practice he calls "seeking solace."
Assante purchased the farm in 1983, renovating and adding on to the turn-of-the-century farmhouse over a number of years. It is now home to not just Assante but to a stable full of thoroughbred horses and nine purebred German shepherds.
It is, according to Assante, the primary gathering place for his very large and very extended family—including his two daughters, Anya, 24, and Alesandra, 19, that he had with his former wife, Karen—and he often sees as many as 40 family members gathered into the farmhouse's kitchen during holidays and special events.
"I knew when I came here [in 1983], to this farm, I said to myself, 'This place can teach me something,' and it's true. It has. There's a stillness here, a peace, for which I'm very grateful. Immensely grateful and blessed," muses Assante. "I'm in my zone here. It's a wonderful place to meditate, to regroup and to find yourself, your inner self and your core.
"I've found extraordinary peace here, solace, on this farm. It's been an extraordinary gift in many, many ways, but the biggest gift for me, besides raising my daughters here, is the incredible quiet and sense of serenity that comes from living here, working on the farm, riding in the woods. I have a very profound connection with nature [and] I stay in the woods a lot. I cut all my own wood, I clear all my own fields, clear the woods of whatever's dead. It's my mental, physical, spiritual gymnasium to be in the woods."
If this doesn't sound like the same man who's repeatedly brought crime bosses to life on the big screen, the answer why is simple, says the actor: those are simply movie roles, nothing more. His life, Assante says, is far, far more interesting.
"I live an incredible life. Incredible. I've lived the life of 10 men. I've been blessed with great health, great stamina, and I live my life very intensely. That is, philosophically, just who I am," says Assante, studying the end of his cigar. "I think that when you live at a certain level of intensity, you have to counterbalance.
"I think the intensity of working as an actor has a price. No matter what they tell you, there's a very intense price to pay. My life with my kids, my home life, my family life...I would have had a bigger career if I'd put my career first, but I put my life first and by that I mean that I really, really enjoy my life.
"I work as much as I do so as to live life on my own terms. I want the freedom to go anywhere on the planet at any given moment with my family or my loved ones or just completely alone. I consider that freedom my principal obligation to the work I am in as well as to myself.
"I live on the edge." Assante pauses for a moment and then grins. "And I love the edge."
Photos by Alexx Henry