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A Conversation with Andy Garcia

By Brennen Matthews

From his breakout role in the 1987 gangster classic The Untouchables, Andy Garcia’s distinguished presence has continued to light up the silver screen for decades, making him more than a household name. Accolades aside, Garcia is much more than the sum of his compelling performances. In this open conversation, get to know the man with an outstanding work ethic, deep convictions, and most of all, unwavering commitment to family.

Photographs by Alexei Hay

You came to America, from Cuba, when you were five. Have you been back since?

Well, metaphorically, I did go back to the Guantanamo naval base in, I believe it was ‘93. When I went, there (were) 16,000 rafters, people who tried to leave Cuba by rafts that were picked up, and they had to ... for many years, up until the Clinton administration, if a rafter fleeing was picked up in the Florida straits in the middle of the ocean, or happened to land in Marathon Key or Key West or even in Miami ... They were seeking political asylum and they were taken in and processed and given permission to stay. But Clinton changed that law to what he called a “wet foot dry foot policy,” meaning that if you touched ground, then you were permitted. But if you were caught at sea, technically, they would send you back, which is, you know, sending you back to Cuba. Once you’ve tried to escape, you’re not going to receive a good reception.

I know five is quite young, but do you have many memories of when you guys were first settling into Florida?

Oh, five and a half. I have memories specifically of Cuba. I remember the day that my mother said we were leaving Cuba. She didn’t say we were leaving for good. You know, she just said we’re going to Miami. It was like a vacation. I remember leaving through the airport. They had a thing called the fish tank, which was basically a Checkpoint Charlie before you left, and you get put in this glass enclosed processing center. The people that were staying could see you go, and then in that processing center, there was the militia. And they would go through all your possessions, you were only allowed to take a bag, and whatever you had on.

The Cuban government had betrayed the promise of democracy and declared themselves Marxists and so forth and so on. So, I remember that process, because they would strip you of everything, if you had anything on you that that was of any worth, whether it be a ring or watch.

Photograph by Sarah Walor.

I remember the farm that my father had, and swimming, you know, impressionistic stuff. I was there during the Bay of Pigs and I remember the gunfire — anti aircraft gunfire in Havana.

I remember being underneath a bed while that was going on. Going out the next morning and finding all these 22 millimeter shells or something — anti-aircraft shells that were on the ground.

I have a lot of memories of that time — I guess your mind freezes them because there was some kind of a traumatic thing — and of course my time growing up in Miami Beach. I was very fortunate to land there in a predominantly Jewish American community. It was a really great place to land.

Before fleeing Cuba, your dad was a lawyer. Did he consider trying to qualify in America?

No, he would have [had] to take the bar again. And his English wasn’t very good. He never practiced law again, or farmed. He started doing odd jobs, like many exiles or immigrants to our country. You know, what’s the first job available when you land? Another Cuban exile said, “Well, there’s janitorial work at the Fontainebleau Hotel.” So he said,” Okay, I’ll be there.” And you go from there to another job, to another job, and selling sneakers from the back of a truck. And then [he] eventually [built] a company, a little wholesale company of hosiery, and building that up, and eventually, almost 17 years later, we started in [the] fragrance [industry.] I was working with him and my brother René at the time. And through my father’s contacts we started the fragrance side of the business, and that quickly became very lucrative, [but] my brother is really the one who carried and built that business. I chose, at that moment, when things were taking off, to pursue my life as an actor and move to LA. 10 years later my father passed away.

Were you close to your dad?

Yes, very much. He was 74 and was ill for a number of years with Myasthenia gravis, but we kept him alive as much as we could. There was no real cure for it at the time. I think now there’s more sustainable drugs for it, but in those days, it was just basically Prednisone, and it’s kind of a double-edged sword. We almost lost him two or three times, but he bounced back. And then eventually his body just gave out on him.

I’m sorry to hear that, Andy. It is always very painful to lose a father. Is your mom still with us?

Yeah, she is 98 years old! She is a very powerful lady.

Is it true that Mickey Rourke was your Little League Baseball coach?

Yes. (Laughs)

He seems very intense. What was he like as a baseball coach?

I would not say intense. I would say eccentric. He’s got kind of an easygoing eccentricity. As you can imagine, Mickey as he is now, that’s the way he was when he was 15.

He’d call me slugger, and to this day when he sees me, he still calls me slugger, because I won the batting championship. Believe it or not, I played 647, which is an important number if you know about baseball. So, he would ask some of the kids that would go up before me to crowd the plate and make sure that they got hit by the ball, so that they could get on base, [and] I could come in and knock them [home.] He would have kids sacrifice themselves so they could get on base. (Laughs)

You moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to pursue a career in film and TV. That was quite a decision.

I only knew one person in LA, Steven Bauer, who was a friend from Florida, and I went and crashed at his house for two weeks, and then I didn’t want to intrude anymore so I found the worst storefront apartment in Los Angeles history, down on the corner of Fountain and Sycamore. It was a storefront apartment with a big living room. It was a studio, so all you had was a living room and a bathroom and a little kitchen, one divided up room. But it had floor to ceiling windows, and it was on the ground floor, so the people who walked on the sidewalk in front of the apartment, I could see their silhouettes at night. I was sleeping on the other side of the curtain, on a mattress on the floor. I just had a mattress, a Naked Crate, a small black and white TV, and my Conga drums. That was it.

I just started to see if I could get an agent and figure out what to do to crack this thing.

Did it take you long to find one?

I sent out like a hundred photographs to all the franchise agents, and I got maybe four or five calls back. And the agents weren’t of any prominence. A couple of them said, “Well, I’ll send you out and see how you do.” And they’d asked me to bring in my resume, and they would stamp their name on [it.] But it was very rare that I got an opportunity to go out and audition. Maybe once, twice, three times a year. In those days, there weren’t a lot of opportunities, because there were only the five studios. There were three networks and then PBS would be a fourth. There was no cable or anything. So, there was a limited amount of work. And especially because my name was Garcia, there was not a lot of call for what they would consider Latin actors. The roles were mostly gang members. And the times that I would go in, they would look at me and say ... in the hallway to audition there were like, real gang members! And I’d go in and they’d go, “No, come on. You look like the diplomat’s son. Get out of here.” Yeah, the opportunities weren’t there. But I stayed in the game.

I was doing improvisational theater. I was part of one of the house groups at the Comedy Store and we performed around town and in La Hoya. I was working on my craft, studying, and eventually, little by little, you know, people would see my work and, as time passed, I got a gig on Hill Street Blues. I ended up doing two or three other shows within the course of their seasons.

I was able to get an agent who was a little bit better, that kind of thing.

When you arrived it was suggested that you work on toning down your accent, did you have a very heavy accent?

I did. I went to work with a speech therapist who pointed out where I was and where I needed to get away from. It took a while, but I developed an understanding for it. English is my second language. The city of Miami ... a lot of times you spoke Spanish in those days. Most agents wanted me to change my name, but I just couldn’t. I don’t pass judgment on people who do, I just couldn’t introduce myself as someone other than myself. I just couldn’t do that.

Over time you landed a key role in a major film, The Untouchables. That was a major opportunity for you.

It was kind of a long journey, though. I did a movie called The Mean Season with Kurt Russell and Mariel Hemingway. There was a role in there for a young Cuban detective who was investigating the case of this serial killer, played beautifully by Richard Jordan. So, I did that movie, and I got some attention. I was in a movie with a character that actually has something to do with the story, not just one scene or a waiter, but someone who’s integral to the narrative of the picture. And I got some attention, and I remember getting a call at the time, and my agent said, “They’re interested in you doing a reoccurring role as part of the new season of Cagney and Lacey?”

But in those days, if you wanted to do film, television was kind of taboo. In those days, if you got stuck in that world, you could be there forever. At the time I was making a living doing what we call walla. It’s the groups of people that come in and do all the background voices and all the background sound in a movie for the mix. Like when you have crowd scenes or someone in a ballpark is selling hotdogs, or whatever, the walla groups would dub those voices. I was doing that two or three times a week, and, I was paying the rent well with that.

I had a young child and decided to say no, that’s not why I came here. I wanted to roll the dice and see if I could get into another movie.

Then shortly thereafter, there was an opportunity to audition for Hal Ashby and Lynn Stalmaster, one of the most important casting directors in the history of our business, for 8 Million Ways to Die. There was a part for the antagonist, and Lynn wouldn’t see me because he had seen me in The Mean Season and thought I was more like a diplomat’s son and they were looking for an urban tough guy. My agent pushed and I went there in character and I got the part. And I got a lot of attention for it. I got some heat, as they used to say.

[Afterward,] Lynn was casting for The Untouchables. We got a call from him saying that they were interested in me playing the role of Frank Nitti, who was Capone’s killer. I got the script and I read it and I said, “No, I want to go after the role of George Stone.” I met with De Palma, and he wanted to know why George Stone. It became a whole process. I ended up reading for the part of George Stone and then I got it. I [share] that story because it was not like I was sitting at home and got a call for The Untouchables.

It’s all connected. One thing leads to another to another. I mean, prior to all that I was a waiter for many years at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in the banquet room. I worked at the roadway docks loading trucks, 40 foot trucks or stripping them down with Bryan Cranston. I put shingles on roofs ... you do whatever.

That is surreal, though, to go from doing whatever to pay the rent and then acting opposite Sean Connery. What was it like to finally meet him and work with him?

It was a privilege to be there. That’s why I wanted to play George Stone, because I wanted to work with [Connery.]

Sean was ... he was one of my heroes growing up, he was James Bond. That’s who I used to go to the matinees to see the double features of. I’d sit through them twice in the day and spend the entire day in the theater. So, it was a great privilege. And Sean was great, you know, but at the end of the day, you have to be responsible for why you’re there. Once the work starts ... you know, the boards is the great equalizer. If you don’t come prepared to do your thing, and you don’t get your character down, no matter who you are, the people who have their character down are gonna run circles around you. Sean’s ready all the time! I know it’s my responsibility to be ready all the time. So, we met as actors ... I mean, the tremendous amount of respect that I have for him, and I’m pretty laid back when it comes to [letting] the man who needs the focus and the respect have it. But when it’s time to do the work, then it’s time to do the work

I’ve read in several places that in 1990, when you were doing Internal Affairs, that you and Richard Gere actually didn’t get along, and that some of the fight scenes were actually based on a lot of the antagonism that you guys had towards each other. Is that true?

No, I liked Richard very much. But Richard was just looking after his character and I was looking after mine.

So each brought intensity to it?

Yeah, that was it, you know. So if [he] pushed a button, I’d have a response. And that just went on every day, as you see [in] the movie. It’s nothing personal to me, it’s nothing personal to Richard, at all. I’m looking after the character, I’m showing up, and I’m ready to go, and if you want to mess with me off book, or you want to improvise, then you also have to understand that there will be a response. That’s the nature of it.

I’ve never disliked Richard as a person. We went to dinner. He’s my friend. There’s a different thing about the exploration of the material, and I learned this a lot when I worked with Jeff Bridges, in 8 Million Ways to Die. There was a very antagonistic relationship that we had. But me and Jeff, from day one, we held hands together through the whole process. The first thing that Jeff said to me was, “Hey man, you know, if you see anything I should be doing that’ll help, just let me know, alright?” And I said, “Likewise.” And I think there was so much love and respect for one another, that we became very good friends during the course of this antagonism that we went into it together. So, basically what happens is, the greater the love and respect, and generosity, the deeper you can go into the antagonism. Because you can permit each other to do things that, if you said, “I really don’t like you as a person, I really don’t like you as an actor,” then it stifles the exploration, because you’re not in a creative process together.

So, I think that maybe people saw the energy that Richard and I created with one another on the set, or in a rehearsal or something, and they might have said, “Boy, those guys really don’t like each other.”

Afterwards you were offered a key role in Godfather III. Were you a fan of the previous films?

Oh, I would say that the reason I decided to become an actor was when I saw Godfather I

Which is the best of the trilogy?

One, because one is number one. And I don’t think there’s ever been a better sequel to a movie than Godfather II. That’s a hard one to pick, but one is one.

Were you very nervous about entering such an iconic franchise and being a lead in the film?

You know, I felt like I had been preparing for that part all my life. God gave me the stamina and opportunity to fulfill my dream.

I was loading trucks [when] they announced that they were going [to] do this movie, and that there was a young part in it, and I thought to myself, that’s my part. That’s my part. But I didn’t have anything to show for that part, nor did I have an agent to submit me for that part, but I got lucky that the thing was delayed for 10 years, and then by the time it came back around, I had done The Untouchables, Dead Again, Black Rain, Internal Affairs. [During] Internal Affairs, Mr. Mancuso Sr. — the father of Frank Mancuso Jr. — was producing the movie, came to the set and said, “What are you doing in September? I want [you to] talk to Francis [Ford Coppola.] I want you to play Vincent.” I told him I’ll check my schedule and get back to him. (Laughs)

And then it became a process. It was in May. And it became a process of meeting Francis. I think I met him in August. And then I was the last person to screen test on a Thursday, and I got a call on Saturday that I got the part. Rehearsals started on Monday. I don’t know man, I just ... that was my part.

When you were doing the reading for it, did you know that De Niro and Stallone were also lobbying for the role?

There were a lot of people, everybody wanted that part, you know? I’m sure Francis tested many actors. Listen, all those actors could play that part. I had met Al many times socially prior through Steven Bauer because they had done Scarface and Steven introduced me. We used to play paddle tennis together and throughout my life I’ve always gotten, “You know, you have a resemblance to Al Pacino? You remind me of Al Pacino.” And I said, “Yeah, I get that a lot.” Sometimes I would get Dustin Hoffman and sometimes I’d get Robert De Niro, you know, because it was like an urban sort. So I knew that physically, I could fit in the family. That’s important. If you don’t have that, then no matter how great of an actor you are, if you don’t fit in the visual frame of reference, then that’s working against you. In my case, that helped.

You received an Oscar nod for Godfather III. What was your life like once you found out that you were being nominated?

Well, I took my mother and my father to the Oscars, he was in a wheelchair at the time. So, that was amazing. You know, I have nobody in the entertainment business in my family. It’s not like my daughters, who are two actresses and a model. They know the pitfalls, they know what it takes or not to, you know, they understand because they grew up in the industry. I think about what my father’s process was ... it was harder for him. My mother was like, “You have wings, go. If you break a wing and you have to come back to mend it, come back, but you got to go.” My father was [more,] “What are you doing?” I can [imagine] his thought process was like, “He wants to be an actor. I love my son, but he’s not Humphrey Bogart.” They didn’t know that there’s an industry, that there are people around Humphrey Bogart. So, for him to be at the Oscars, that was pretty wild for him.

It was kind of completely surreal, you know, for me too, but the onslaught of fame that comes with that kind of thing ... my choice, looking back, was to retreat from it. You know, to not get caught up in the hype of it. I felt that someone was going to chew me up and spit me out, and the next guy would come, you know? So, I tried to keep a low profile, limit the amount of interviews I did, just concentrate on the work.

What was the first big purchase you made once you started making some real money?

I had already bought a house in Sherman Oaks. So, that was the first thing that we bought when we had the money to invest. And we’re talking about a house, it costs $185,000, which I still have. My daughter’s living in it now. We were raising a family. I already had two kids. Once we were able to garner some investment money, we bought the house that I’m living in now, which you see, so everything was real estate for the family. The only indulgence was my instruments. I bought this little Steinway Upright from the turn of the century, which I have here. And then when I was doing Night Falls on Manhattan, I bought a Steinway B at the Steinway house in New York, you know, a grand piano. I don’t drive Bentley’s around. (Laughs)

You and your wife Marivi have been married for almost 40 years.

Yeah, we started dating around ‘75 and we got married in ‘82.

You proposed to her the same night you met her?

Yes. I didn’t have a ring or anything. I said, “Would you marry me?” And she said, “Yes.” So, I mean, that’s about as real as it gets. (Laughs)

How did you know so quickly?

Oh, I knew, right away. I just saw her. I just knew. You know, everything lined up right away. It was like, Michael Corleone seeing Apollonia.

I know there’s no set recipe, but what do you attribute your success and longevity as a couple to?

Well, you make a commitment to each other, and we have a commitment to our family and our children. And you live your life in respect to that commitment, and any disagreements or anything, you work them out. It’s kind of like a religious commitment, not that you have to be religious, but it takes that kind of focus. And respect, you need to make sure that you don’t disrespect the family.

You have always chosen not to do love scenes. Have you gotten a lot of pushback in your career when you would ask for love scenes to be removed?

Most of the time, [love scenes] are written into scripts in more of a gratuitous manner. And then they would say, “Okay, how will you want to do it?” and then we would adapt it and say, “We’ll show the foreplay, and then you’re out.”

I mean, people know what happened. To me, it’s about the repartee and the moments leading up to it. That is where the romance is. I don’t need to see two people groping each other.

It’s not my style as a filmmaker even, and it’s not what I would do, even if I was making the movie. So, they have seemed to work around that over the years. And if the movie was too overt, I would just say no.

You’re a father to four kids. They’re all pretty much grown. The youngest is 18.

Yep, off to college.

An empty nest very soon.

Yeah. Just when we remodeled the house. (Laughs)

Are you looking forward to that?

No, I’m not looking forward to it.

What lessons have you learned from your father that you apply to being a dad?

Work ethic, commitment to the family, unconditional love. Certainly his personality has rubbed off on me, as has my mother’s. You become a sponge. Like a magpie, you gather stuff — as actors, we gather stuff to it to put in our creative nest, you know? And as you grow up, your parents become part of that thing you emulate. Some kids have bad experiences with it and other people rebel from it. I don’t want to be anything like that, you know? In my case, I had nothing to rebel against because they were great role models.

You’ve managed to be a relevant leading actor but kept the family together and away from falling into all of the distractions and pitfalls that come with being famous.

It’s intentional. I wake up in the morning as a father, I don’t wake up as a celebrity actor. I wake up as a father, my duties as a father are first and foremost, my choices as an actor are first and foremost to provide for my family. Within that, you know, I try to make the creative choices that suit my sensibilities. There’s been many movies that I would have made if I was willing to leave for eight weeks to work and leave my family behind — because the kids were in school — and, you know, I would choose to say, no, I’m not gonna go for eight weeks and leave my [family.] So, there’s been those kind of choices, but it’s okay. It is what it is. So, that’s the commitment. It’s my responsibility to have a positive influence and set a positive example for my kids like my parents did for me.

In 2005, you directed a film that was near and dear to your heart called The Lost City. It focused on the turbulent sociopolitical upheaval brought to Cuba by the transition from the dictatorial regime of Batista to the Marxist revolution led by Fidel Castro in the 1950s. It was a great picture and you attracted some Hollywood heavyweights like Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman. How did that come about?

I’ll tell you that story, it’s very funny.

We were playing golf in a tournament at Pebble Beach, a program that we hadn’t played in for many years. In this particular year, we were in the same foursome for three days, and Bill said to me, “Hey, you know, we should work together,” and I said, “Bill, I’d be so honored to work with you. In fact, after 16 years of my life, I finally got the money to do this movie about Cuba and the revolution, and there’s a part in it that I couldn’t think of nobody else that could play it. I mean, that’s the part for you and me to do.” And he said, “Send it to me.”

So, that was February, and about the last week in March, I was in Florida, I get a call on my cell phone. I go, “Hello?” he says, “Andy Garcia?” I go, “Yes.” He says, “Bill Murray.” And I go, “Hey, Bill, how are you?” “I’m fine. Enough with the small talk. I’ve read your script, it’s one of the most interesting scripts I’ve ever read. No one’s going to see this movie, but I’d like to be in it.” Only Bill Murray can deliver that line.

I went on and said, “Well, like you know, Bill, we’re all working for scale. I can only pay your scale. It’s two weeks work.” He said, “Scale. What’s that?” I said, “I think it’s about, like, five grand a week. So, maybe ten grand and 10% for whoever you want here, because you don’t have an agent.” And he said, “Honey, he says there’s two weeks in the Dominican Republic. At scale.” She said, “Do it. He’s a good guy.” And he said, “I’m in,” and he hung up. And then — this shows you how great of a prince he was — we were getting the banking together, so I call him on his 800 number.

He has an 800 number?

Yeah! And you have to leave a message and maybe he calls you back, maybe he doesn’t. It’s a whole process. And I said, “Bill, you know, you have to sign your contract. Because if not, I can’t close the bank loan. It’s because you’re an essential element now in the movie, you need to have your contract signed.” And he said, “Likely story.” (Laughs) I said, “No, I’m serious, Bill.” He says, “Are you by a fax machine? Send me the signature page and wait.” I send the signature page of this document, and it’s like 30 pages long. And I send it off and I wait five or 10 minutes. And the page comes out with his signature on it. He never read the contract. He’s a prince. He was a prince to me. And we became, what I believe to be, close friends. I love the man. He was brilliant in the film.

And then to complete it, Dustin Hoffman, there was a part of Meyer Lansky in the picture. And I said to Dustin at a Laker’s game, “Dustin, I’m doing this film. There’s two days of work as Meyer Lansky, it’s a movie about Cuba. I’d be honored if you would consider it.” We had worked together on Hero. So you know, we had our friendship. “[I’ll be] directing also, but you’d be doing those scenes with me.” And he said, “If I’m available, I’ll do it. Only on one condition.” I go, “What?” He says, “You have to come to my daughter’s wedding.” And I said, “I’m in.”

Okay, so we started doing the movie. He’s in, his daughter’s wedding is on a Saturday in Los Angeles. And we’re wrapping on the following Tuesday. He works in the Dominican Republic on Monday and Tuesday. So I wrapped on Friday, track my way down back to LA. I go to the wedding. At the wedding, he says, “You see that gentleman over there? He has a private plane. If we give him a role in the movie, he’ll take us to the Dominican tomorrow.” And I said, “He can play one of your bodyguards.” So he tries to negotiate, but that didn’t work out. So we got on a plane on Sunday, flew back together, you know, commercial. Did work for two days with him and me and Bill, the three of us in the scene. And we wrapped and he said to me at the end, at the wrap party, “I haven’t had as much fun in the movie in a long, long time.”

So those are my two heroes in that movie. They came to support the film, and they were two princes.

Check out Andy Garcia in Words on Bathroom Walls (2020), Ana (2020) and the upcoming movie Big Gold Brick.


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