MIAMI – We've so often seen Andy Garcia performing in an Italian-American gangster guise – from “The Untouchables” to “Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead” to, of course, his Oscar-nominated breakout role in “The Godfather Part III” – that it's easy to forget the Havana-born actor's Cuban heritage.
Or perhaps not so easy in Miami, Garcia's hometown from the age of five. Back in town for the Miami Film Festival premiere of his new film “Rob the Mob,” Garcia is greeted with a collective roar of affection by the local crowd packing out the city's spectacular Gusman Theater; earlier that day, when we meet for a chat in the Standard Hotel restaurant, he has the breezy assurance of a man who knows his way around. His old high school, he points out, is a short distance down the street, while a number of his films have played the festival; when I ask if he ever feels like a homecoming hero, he shakes his head. “I still identify, I'll say that,” he laughs.
“He”s actually being modest,” interjects “Rob the Mob” director Raymond De Felitta. “To be with Andy Garcia in Miami is sort of like being with the President somewhere. I once said to his brother, 'You know, Andy could be mayor of Miami.' And he replied, 'Look, I could be mayor because I”m his brother.'”
The men have an easy, jokey rapport that has been cultivated over two features together: “Rob the Mob” follows 2010's “City Island,” a jaunty ensemble comedy in which Garcia played the paterfamilias of a loving but chaotic New York household. Garcia acted as producer on both films; for New York City native De Felitta, they continue an engaging run of warm, character-focused stories set in and around the Empire State. He was Oscar-nominated (in the same year as Garcia, funnily enough) for his AFI graduate short “Bronx Cheers”; 2000's “Two Family House” was an Audience Award winner at Sundance.
“Rob the Mob” is a return to that territory, though it's De Felitta's first foray into crime drama. It tells the true, tabloid-headline story of Tommy and Rosemarie Uva (played with vigor by Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda), a young, destitute couple who resorted to raiding Mafia social clubs to make their fortune – a short-lived scheme with an inevitably unhappy outcome. Garcia takes a supporting role this time, once again donning his Mafioso fedora as weary crime boss Big Al Fiorello, whose initially passive response to the Uvas' Bonnie-and-Clyde is tested by deeper violations of Mob privacy. It's a tale that benefits from De Felitta's natural affinity for local color, though he'd like to venture further afield at some point.
Having enjoyed their collaboration on “City Island,” the star and director immediately sought a reunion. “We talked about doing a very ambitious project that I would still love to do,” says De Felitta. “A big story about Cuban history based on a novel by the late Oscar Hujuelos, which would be a perfect big scale thing for us to do. We just haven”t found the place to do it yet.”
In the meantime, New York came calling once more, when De Felitta – who usually writes his own work – found himself intrigued by Jonathan Fernandez's “Rob the Mob” script. “One of the guiding things we wanted to do with this film was not make anything a cliché in it, to find an original wrinkle on mob guys,” he explains. “Because you can”t do the normal mob movie anymore. You”re not gonna beat the 'Godfather' movies. You”re not gonna beat 'Goodfellas.' What can we do that”s different?”
Garcia, meanwhile, was willing to return to the genre to play a twist on a stock heavy character. “From the beginning, what we were talking about really was: Who”s the Don who you”ve never met? And Big Al, this grandfather in the kitchen, is that. He doesn”t really feel it in his soul anymore. He makes a fatal mistake because his heart is too big for the job.”
“The mob has been so glamorized,” adds De Felitta. “It”s also been shown in more of a disgraceful way. They”ve done everything but humanize it: they're just guys with a job, whether you like what they do or not. We thought it'd be interesting to start over and say, 'What”s your life like, Al Fiorello? What”s actually going on there?'”
Garcia was unfamiliar with the story of the Uvas, but “immediately saw its cinematic potential,” he says: “We kept making comparisons to things like 'Bonnie and Clyde' or 'Breathless.'” De Felitta adds that several people have mentioned 'Sid and Nacy' to him: “I can't say I really thought of that, but sure.”
Does De Felitta find the New York stories, or do they keep finding him? “If you only saw the trunkful of unmade scripts that I have…” he laughs, trailing off. “For some reason, the ones that I get made are these regional ones, and maybe that's by God”s design or whatever. But I”ve written Hollywood stories. Writing a big historical movie is a great ambition of mine. I mean, I”m running out of boroughs. I”ve done the Bronx and Queens. So I”ve got to branch out, get the train out of the city.”
De Felitta took a more improvisatory route than usual with his actors on “Rob the Mob,” which Garcia found stimulating: “Even with stuff that's scripted, you have to be impulsive. Because at that point it”s the character talking. The character”s something that”s already been created by what”s been written, and what”s been worked on between the actor and the director, so it”s a question of letting things naturally progress as they should. We didn”t have the luxury of a rehearsal period, so the time you”re shooting is also your rehearsal and your exploration. You have X amount of time for a scene, so you want to walk away feeling you”ve squeezed as much juice as you can out of it.”
De Felitta agrees, describing his “looser approach” on this film as something he wants to continue in future work. “Some actors believe in the words and want to do that, which is fine. But if a really good actor likes to play a little, you”re a foolish director not to let them do it. They”re gonna bring you great things. Once actors feel free of that constraint, the performances become genuine, the moments become human. At the end of the day, you get to sit in the editing room and decide. And even if you don”t wind up using the improv, what”s there that”s scripted doesn”t feel scripted anymore. Many really soulful elements in the film are not ones we could ever have just set up and directed.”
“That”s the beauty of working in the independent cinema or spirit,” adds Garcia. “If it”s a studio movie and you propose that, people on set will be going, 'What are we doing here? In the studio world, there are so many more eyes on the thing. In an independent movie, as long as you stay on time and on budget you can do whatever the hell you want.”
They both laugh. One wonders where – or to what borough – that freedom will take them on their next collaboration.