Vince Rizzo, the NYC corrections officer portrayed by Andy Garcia in the new Moonstruck-meets-Manhattan film City Island, has a secret ambition: to be an actor, à la his hero, Marlon Brando. It’s a furtive wish of transformation and escape to which Garcia relates. When the actor was a young man in Miami Beach, growing up in a family of Cuban exiles, he faced the sort of ridicule that Rizzo fears when he announces his desire to move to Los Angeles and act.

“The conceit of wanting to act was already strange enough,” says the Miami Beach High graduate, who has played Mafia villains, tortured artists and hardworking dads. “Being in theater was out of the sphere of normal things to do. If you would say to someone, ‘I’m moving to Los Angeles to try to work as an actor,’ it would turn into ‘Hollywood’ and become a thing people could easily poke fun at. Your nickname would become ‘Hollywood.’”

Garcia ignored the jeers, made the move, and became a wildly successful star of such iconic blockbusters as The Untouchables, The Godfather: Part III and Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen, as well as more art house-oriented films such as Modigliani. He’s Hispanic by birth but Italian by casting. “I’ve metamorphosed by now into part Italian out of sheer eating of pasta and movie parts,” he laughs.

The actor has become not just a Hollywood star but also a cinema mover and shaker, having produced and directed several films. His agent gave him director/screenwriter Raymond De Felitta’s script for City Island, a story about a family torn apart by secrets, and Garcia signed on as main man and producer. “I read it and fell in love with it. It spoke to my sensibilities. It’s funny, touching, human and surprising in construction.”

Garcia called on friends from previous films for the small ensemble cast, including Julianna Margulies as his hardened wife, Joyce; Emily Mortimer as a friend/muse; and Alan Arkin as his acting teacher. Steven Strait and Ezra Miller play his sons. The actor says he did not weigh in on the decision to cast his daughter Dominik Garcia-Lorido as Rizzo’s daughter; it’s the third time they’ve been in a movie together. Garcia’s younger children are also actors. “I’m proud of my kids, they take their work seriously.”

Rizzo is a man unable to communicate with his loved ones, in part because he has never told them about the child he fathered with another woman before he met Joyce. When he brings that son home from his job at the jail, well, not surprisingly, all hell breaks loose.

In part, City Island is a meditation on acting. Mortimer’s character is Rizzo’s acting partner and the film’s philosopher. “Acting is one of the strangest things you can do,” she says. When Rizzo gets a callback for a Scorsese film at his first-ever audition (okay, this isn’t social realism) and feels guilty for having used a speech made by his son at the tryout, she reassures him that’s what acting is: “You co-opted someone’s experience and filtered it into your own.”

Garcia says one of the few changes he made to the script was to emphasize Rizzo’s adoration of Brando. That, too, is true to life for the actor. “There’s a lot of acting gods out there. Brando is Zeus,” he says. “Ask any actor. Brando changed the way people thought of acting. I’m a fan not only because of On the Waterfront and The Godfather and things like that, but also because of his eccentricity; he seemed so interested in sending everything up. He revolutionized the questions you ask and permitted a new level of authenticity of human behavior.”

Pushing the levels of the craft of filmmaking is one of Garcia’s goals. It’s why he takes on movies such as City Island, which he knew would not get major studio backing (it’s being released by Anchor Bay Films on March 19, with a special screening at the Miami International Film Festival earlier in the month). The film was shot on location in New York in less than a month) and won the Audience Award at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

“The family was built, we sat down at the dinner table, and one of the scenes came out,” Garcia says. “The behavior between all of us was there from take one. We never rehearsed it. We sat down at the table and began.”

Garcia has a house on Key Biscayne and remains very connected to South Florida. He’s co-executive producing a made-in-Miami film called Magic City Memoirs. He’s also codeveloping a film about the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and Carlos Fuentes.

“You go where your sensibilities take you. To me it’s about the existence of the films. Just because it’s an independent film doesn’t mean it can’t have life. It has the ability to reach a very wide audience. Movies have their own legs; people will get to them. The important thing is the movie exists; we created a piece of work.”

TOP IMAGE: Andy Garcia

BOTTOM IMAGE: The cast, seated from left: Steven Strait, Garcia and Ezra Miller. Standing: Garcia Lorido and Julianna Margulies

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