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A Spirit of Independence

Andy Garcia built a movie career by acting in Hollywood hits, and today he’s following his passion by writing and directing films of his own
By Marshall Fine | From Andy Garcia, March/April 2014
A Spirit of Independence

Andy Garcia takes a sip of Havana Club Añejo Reserva rum and sets down the shot glass on the patio table. He’s sitting in the yard behind the Sherman Oaks, California, house that is home to CineSon, his production company.

“You can control what you decide to do with your life,” says the star known for such films as The Godfather: Part III, Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels. “In my case, I have ideas, passion and a lot of stories I want to tell or at least approach. That is something I can focus on, whether I’m acting, producing or directing. If someone thinks of you for a part, great. But I can’t sit around and wait for the perfect creative opportunity.”

He draws on an Arturo Fuente Don Carlos and continues: “If you’re Modigliani or Picasso, you don’t wait for someone to hire you. Those guys woke up painting every day. If they ran out of paint, then they’d sell something or borrow money—anything to get more paint. I always have things I want to do, films I want to make.”

Approaching the age of 58, Andy Garcia is busier than ever. Two films in which he starred—At Middleton and Rob the Mob—will be released by the end of April. He’s just completed a five-minute film about one of his favorite subjects, the late Cuban master musician Cachao, and he hopes to direct his second feature film before the end of the year.

That new feature—a film about Ernest Hemingway set in pre-Castro Cuba—will require exactly the kind of terrier-like persistence and passion for the projects that drove him to direct his first feature. He spent 16 years trying to make The Lost City, an elegiac drama about a way of life that disappeared when Fidel Castro toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista (before turning Cuba into a communist dictatorship of his own). Garcia’s debut as feature director, the film was finally made and released in 2005.

But it took him so long to get the film up and running that he had time to learn to play the piano in the interim. Trained as a percussionist—he won a Grammy and was nominated for a second for producing albums by Cachao—he was taken aback when he first read the script by the late Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who died before the film was released.

“In the first draft of Lost City, the protagonist plays the piano and it’s pivotal,” Garcia recalls. “I was always interested in the piano; my aunt and grandmother both played. But we never had a piano in the house when I was growing up. So when I was in Rome doing Godfather [Part III], I rented a piano and started bashing away on it, with two fingers, then three fingers. The movie ended up taking me 16 years to make,  and I ended up composing the original score on the piano. The movie gods seemed to be saying, ‘When you can play the piano, you can make this movie.’

“Now I play every day. It’s a great place of solace for me.”

Garcia is almost ready to take the plunge again, several years into the planning process, on his next film as a director. Hemingway & Fuentes will focus on the Nobel laureate’s friendship with a Cuban fisherman who inspired him to write The Old Man and the Sea. Garcia cowrote the script with Hilary Hemingway, the writer’s niece, and will star opposite Jon Voight later this year.

“If the movie gods are with us, we’ll shoot it at the end of the summer,” says Garcia. “I’m already four years into this project.”

Garcia’s production company has found and refurbished a couple of aging Wheeler Playmates to stand in for the 38-foot fishing boat, Pilar, that Hemingway owned and kept in Cuba and Key West. Sitting on the patio outside his office, Garcia pulls out an iPad and shows a set of photos of fishing skiffs being built for Fuente to pilot in the film, modeled after boats of the period, the late 1940s and early 1950s.

“If this were a studio movie, it would probably cost $30 million to $40 million,” Garcia says. “I’d be happy if we could get to $15 million. Right now, we’re going to make it for $11 million to $12 million.”

Garcia is well aware of the fragility of the ecosystem in which most independent movie deals are nurtured. The film, after all, had been announced at Cannes in 2012, with Anthony Hopkins set to play Hemingway. But the ways of financiers in the independent world can be mysterious and chaotic. That’s the game, and Garcia knows it.

“You always have to look for money and it’s a real challenge,” he says. “All the movies I’ve produced I’ve done independently, outside the studios. So I’ve had to raise the money outside. The studios don’t do much, though occasionally you sneak something through. But look: Even Lincoln was a struggle to get made. It was almost a movie for TV—because you can’t open it on Friday night on 3,000 screens and have 15-year-olds go see it. Do you think they even know who Lincoln is?

“The movies I grew up on in the ’70s—all of them would have been independent movies today: Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, even The Godfather. If it wasn’t a best-selling book, the studios would say, ‘Really? A gangster movie?’

“Before, movies were nurtured. They’d hang around in theaters forever. Now it’s extremely difficult.” He stops, then smiles as he reaches for his cigar and says, “But I’m a filmmaker. This is what I do.”

Garcia has had the chance to act opposite some of the biggest names on the screen, including many of his heroes: Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, as well as George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and the rest of the Ocean’s Eleven cast.

But even when he was starting out as a young actor, Garcia was thinking beyond his on-screen roles. He would watch the interplay between the cinematographer and the director, eavesdropping or sitting in when he could to learn how they talked to each other about what they did, then studying the finished result to get a fuller understanding. At various points in his career, he has worked with directors such as Francis Coppola (The Godfather: Part III), Brian De Palma (The Untouchables), Sidney Lumet (Night Falls on Manhattan), Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels), Stephen Frears (Hero) and Ridley Scott (Black Rain).

“I love acting and I continue to act, but I was always interested in being a filmmaker,” he says. “Thank God, as an actor, I got the opportunity of being associated with some of the greats. To go to dailies with Conrad Hall (cinematographer on Jennifer 8) or Ridley Scott or Hal Ashby, these experiences were like a master class. I had extraordinary experiences and continue to learn from the movies I’m in and the people I work with.”

The one he mentions most often is Coppola. “The Godfather turned my life around,” he says. “When I saw the first film as a young man, I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do—to be part of something like that.’ Then to get the opportunity to work with him, and to watch Francis in the process of making a movie—that kind of education is extraordinary.

“If there’s a Mount Olympus of filmmakers, there would be all these other gods. We all know who they are. And Zeus would be Coppola. He’s not only a filmmaker but also a philosopher, a teacher and a great friend to young filmmakers.” But it wasn’t just Coppola whose example Garcia has followed over the years: “If you just do your work and go home, you might not catch it. But you can learn a lot by paying attention, if you want to. I’m constantly soaking up the artistry of people I admire.”

That includes cigarmakers he’s gotten to know over the years. When he was making The Lost City, he turned a favor from pal Carlos Fuente Jr. into an opportunity to put out his own brand of cigar (under the Fuente banner) as a promotion for the film, while benefiting charity. Garcia and his crew went to the Fuente tobacco fields in the Dominican Republic and shot them as a backdrop, prior to harvest, during some preproduction filming. But Garcia knew that when production on the film actually began, it would be summer, when the soil is resting between crops. He commented as much to Fuente, mentioning how much better it would be to have the tobacco crop as a backdrop for a scene with actors.

“Carlito says, ‘How many acres would you need?’ ” Garcia recalls, “and I said it would be great if we could have an acre or two. He says, ‘Would five acres do?’ ”

By the time Garcia returned to the Dominican Republic for production, there were several acres of tobacco plants on Chateau de la Fuente, the company’s wrapper farm, ready for harvest and perfect for the camera.  “But you don’t plant tobacco in the summer usually, because it turns out too harsh,” Garcia says. “When this tobacco was harvested, it was fantastic. So we used the tobacco and created a special Lost City edition, with the money going to the Fuente [charitable] foundation. But the incredible hospitality that Carlito showed? He’s a real brother, I’ll tell you.”

Cigars were part of Garcia’s heritage growing up in Florida: “I was aware of the great Cuban brands. That’s part of the culture I grew up in,” he says. “My grandfather used to smoke cigars in the afternoon. When he got to this country, he said that all he wanted was an ashtray, some matches and a cutter, a rocking chair and radio and his harmonica. And a little manicure set because he was a very fastidious man.”

Garcia smokes “when I’m playing golf in a tournament, to calm my nerves. Or in a situation when there’s conversation, when I’m writing sometimes—always outdoors. I like the Don Carlos; it’s a great cigar, very mild. The OpusX is a big, hearty cigar. You have to have a full stomach and prepare yourself for one of those. Maybe work out a little.

“On the Cuban side, if I’m out of the country, I like a Montecristo—if I can get a good one. There are a lot of counterfeits and quality control isn’t what it should be. But when you get a good one, you understand why they’re famous.” [The Montecristo No. 2, a torpedo, was ranked No. 1 Cigar of 2013 in Cigar Aficionado’s February issue.]

Still, Garcia downplays his cigar-smoking habits, calling his own use of fine tobacco “occasional—it’s not on a daily basis.” But his long-time pal, comedian George Lopez, tells a different story.

“We smoke cigars all the time,” Lopez says with a laugh. “He’s always got a cigar with him and he’s always ready to smoke one. He knows how to cut them just right and he looks good smoking it.” Indeed, Lopez ventures, Garcia looks good doing anything. The two have shared numerous rounds of golf, including nine years when both played in the highly competitive AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. (Garcia won the tournament, playing with Paul Stankowski, in 1997.)

Mention it, however and Garcia demurs: “I had a much higher handicap then and Paul was a Top 10 player. I ham-and-egged it pretty good. My handicap now is eight, but I hardly ever break 80. In a blink, I’ll shoot 90. It’s a sublime game, but there’s a very thin line when you suddenly can get sucked into a much higher score. And yet you’d have said you were hitting the ball well.”

“He’s very meticulous on the course, as he is in life,” Lopez says, adding with a chuckle, “He takes forever. I always just put the ball on the ground and hit it. He always wears great hats, great sweaters—he looks like Ben Hogan or Sam Snead with those great shoes and slacks. He also looks different every time I see him. He can grow a beard in two days, I swear.”   

Born Andrés Arturo Garcia Menéndez and the son of Cuban professionals, Garcia was five when he and his family went into exile, leaving Cuba shortly after the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961. They lived with family in Miami, where Garcia’s parents started over. Garcia grew up with an exile’s fervor to return to his homeland, to immerse himself in its culture and history.

“Mr. Infante used to say that the tragedy of exile is exile,” Garcia says. “There’s such a profound nostalgia for the country, because the exile’s exit from his home country is different from the immigrant’s. The immigrant wants to leave; the exile does not. It’s not that you dislike where you’re at, but that, in your heart, you want to go back.”

Garcia believes that will be impossible until after the deaths of Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl, who have been in power since 1959. He was wary talking about a brief encounter between President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, photographed shaking hands for the first time ever at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in December 2013. He doesn’t believe it should be anything other than a moment of diplomatic courtesy.

“I don’t believe anything positive can come out of a relationship with Raúl or Fidel,” he says. “They can tell you things are changing. If you choose to believe them, then you’re in trouble. I know that Cuba has been under a dictatorship for 55 years of suffering and human rights violations. Everything else is secondary to me.

“You can’t lose hope about a free Cuba. But that will not happen while one of the Castros is in power.”

A high-school basketball star with a game good enough to play “at a smaller college,” he says, Garcia started acting as a senior in high school, after a bout with mononucleosis benched him for the season. Encouraged by a theater teacher, he decided he liked being an actor and began college as a theater major. But he quickly decided he wanted to throw himself into it and moved himself to Los Angeles.

“As an actor, your choices are New York or Los Angeles,” he explains. “As a young man, I was already interested in film. And all my childhood heroes—guys whose work informed me as a young man, people I responded to—I ended up working with them.

“When I was a kid, Sean Connery was the hero of the day. And he was amazing to work with. James Coburn was the coolest. Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro—they did not disappoint when I worked with them. And Mick Jagger? We thought of him (for The Man from Elysian Fields). But then we said, ‘What are the chances?’ Three weeks later, he was on the set with us.”

Garcia relishes, even cherishes, the creative process of discovery, the sense of exploration he’s had on the movies that meant the most to him. On one of his very first films, 8 Million Ways to Die, he played a crazed drug lord opposite the film’s hero, Jeff Bridges, for director Hal Ashby. The film was a flop, but the role got Garcia noticed, for his take-no-prisoners
energy in what could have been a clichéd role.

“Jeff is one of the most generous people I’ve ever worked with,” Garcia says. “We had this respect and love. We’d do crazy shit and surprise one another and when Hal said, ‘Cut,’ we’d look at each other and say, ‘That was pretty wild.’ And Hal is incredible. From take to take, he’d say, ‘That was interesting. Now try something else.’ He’d never pass judgment, never say anything to get in your head. He’d rather let you take off and watch you and then say, ‘Yeah. Keep going in that direction.’ ”

After playing that unhinged character for Hal Ashby, Garcia found himself offered all the crazy gangster roles there were: “They wanted me for Frank Nitti in The Untouchables,” he recalls. “I related more to the George Stone character. So I auditioned for that one instead and they gave me the part.”

With those roles, along with The Godfather: Part III and films such as Internal Affairs and Black Rain early on, Garcia established himself as a leading man with an air of mystery. He had charm, but also the hint of a dark side, even when playing an ordinary guy in a comedy like Stephen Frears’ Hero, opposite Dustin Hoffman and Geena Davis.

“I always loved Internal Affairs,” explains Raymond De Felitta, who directed Garcia in the upcoming Rob the Mob. “There was this crackly, dark, weird stuff between him and Richard Gere. And I remember seeing 8 Million Ways to Die; Andy wasn’t a name then. As I watched it, I remember thinking, I know this is not a good movie but these two guys, Andy and Jeff Bridges, are brilliant.

“Andy is a special cat. There’s not a proper English word for it, but he’s got a lonely thing within him that speaks to me. He’s unknowable in that way. He’s his own island. There’s a real isolation in his performances that I find very moving.”

Notes Lopez, “Look who he’s acted with—some of the greatest that ever worked. He’s got that intensity. He’s showed the ability not only to appeal to Latino audiences but to act in any part for any audience.”

Acting is both his art and a kind of currency for Garcia, in terms of the stardom he has earned, the celebrity he has accrued since breaking out in the late 1980s with 8 Million Ways to Die and The Untouchables. They not only allow him to continue to earn a living as an actor, but to develop the network of contacts that lets him contribute as a producer and a collaborator.

“When Andy signs on, it’s not for a vanity producer credit,” De Felitta says. “When we did City Island (2009) together, we got the cast we did (which included Julianna Margulies, Emily Mortimer and Alan Arkin) because of Andy’s phonebook. When he commits to you, he commits to you for everything. When you have his word, he has your back.”

Producing his own films also allows Garcia to range farther, in terms of the kind of roles he plays. He’s able to show off his comedic skills in smaller films, which come as a surprise to some viewers.

At Middleton, which hits DVD in April, teamed Garcia with Vera Farmiga in what Garcia refers to as a romantic dramedy. The film played the festival circuit (including Seattle, Woodstock and Montreal) before its theatrical release in January. In the film, Garcia plays an extremely proper and uptight surgeon who is changed by his encounter with the free-spirited Farmiga; they play parents who meet while accompanying their children on a campus tour of a prospective college.

Like City Island, an arthouse hit that ran in some theaters for 24 weeks, the film offered Garcia a chance to play comedy—an anomaly in a career marked by roles of great emotional fire. The humorous roles are actually a return to his roots.

“When I first came to L.A., I was part of an improv group at the Comedy Store,” Garcia says. “People who knew me said I should do comedy.”

Indeed, it was City Island, a low-budget comedy about a large and fractious family in a distinctive New York locale in the Bronx, that led filmmaker Adam Rodgers to think of Garcia for At Middleton.

“I’d known him from his most dramatic work,” Rodgers says. “But I’d seen City Island and he was compelling to me in that. He’s got a great comic sensibility. At the first meeting we had, it was clear he was someone who got the comedy going in.”

De Felitta knows he was considered bold to cast Garcia in the comic lead of City Island, a film that won the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival and still enjoys a strong cult audience. Garcia played the patriarch of a family, a corrections officer who doesn’t realize that his wife and children are keeping as many secrets from him as he’s keeping from them.

“I remember I went through this little reel in my head: What’s he done where he’s played something like this?” De Felitta says. “I think of him as an actor. But as soon as I met him and started talking to him—I mean, one of his screen idols is Jacques Tati and that was such a strong reference to me. Part of what he loved about the role in City Island was that the character is such a good-hearted but lost soul in the city. People think of Andy as this dark, brooding person, but he’s got a softer, funnier sense of humor.”

Garcia’s two oldest daughters, Dominik (30) and Daniella (25) Garcia-Lorido, both are actresses who have worked in films with their father. Dominik played his daughter in City Island, and Daniella played a college student who helps Garcia’s tightly wrapped surgeon in the course of his college tour in At Middleton. Garcia hasn’t discouraged their ambitions, but he’s also been honest with them about the business.

“It’s a tough racket and they had the benefit of knowing that going in,” Garcia says with a shrug. “I’m able to impart some wisdom because I’ve been through the same situations. But they know what it’s like to deal with rejection. I just encourage them to be the best they can be.”

It never gets easier for newcomers to break in, Garcia says, though the kind of overt typecasting by ethnicity is less prevalent than when he started. With the expansion of original cable and even Internet programming, there are more opportunities to make a living.

“In the 1970s, there weren’t as many opportunities if you had a Hispanic name. The most difficult thing for me was actually getting auditions,” he says. “It took a while for me to find good representation. Now, my daughters get more auditions in a week than I used to get in a year.”

With a career that has covered as many bases as Garcia’s, what’s left to do that he hasn’t done?

“I’d like to go back to a free Cuba,” he says immediately. He laughs, then says, “There are still stories I want to tell. I’m writing something right now. And I want to record my own music, which I haven’t done.

“I’ve been offered opportunities to work on Broadway, but I had four kids. My youngest is only 11. Someone had talked to me about doing something onstage in London, but it would have been a five-month commitment. I’m not going to be away for five months. I don’t want to disrupt their lives like that. I wake up as a father first. That’s my job.”

So he moves onward with projects he can launch from the house in Sherman Oaks (he lives in Toluca Lake), where a large shed in the backyard doubles as an editing room. It is exactly the independent approach that Garcia likes best.

“I’ve always been enamored with filmmakers who work independently. I love the idea of going off with a group of friends to make a movie,” he says. “Because, when you do it independently, no one cares, nobody is telling you how it needs to be done. You can change things, discover things. Going off with a group of friends who are committed to telling a story—that’s a very romantic thing. Even if you’ve only got 60 cents, well, that’s what you’ve got and you’ll make it work.

“There’s a romantic ideal related to that, an independent spirit that is an important part of the industry.”

Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, Follow him on Twitter @hollywoodnfine.


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