Andy Garcia: Untouchable in exile

Andy Garcia is one of Hollywood's aristocracy. But he tells Elaine Lipworth that Cuba is still his home and his inspiration
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The Independent Culture

The walls are covered with black-and-white photos of Cuban men and women and pictures of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, along with old Havana newspaper cuttings. "The photos are all here because I've been developing a movie about Cuba for the last 15 years, The Lost City," says the actor, glancing at a wonderful shot of an old man with a craggy face.

"We've finished making the movie, but the photographs haven't come down and I probably won't ever take them down, I guess." Garcia talks quietly and deliberately. He's wearing cream linen, his black hair brushed back off his face and, at 49, he still has the intensely handsome features that made him a star in the 1987 hit The Untouchables.

"I've been collecting Cuban music all my life and I love it," he says, walking over to a piano at one end of the room where he proceeds to play a song from the soundtrack of the new film. Garcia is an accomplished musician and composed much of the music for the movie himself. The piece is emotional and dramatic. "I've always found Cuban music creatively stimulating," he tells me as he walks back to the sofa. "They called Havana the Paris of the Caribbean and that wasn't just a tourist slogan, it was a simple truth.

"The Lost City is the story of impossible love set against the cabaret world of Havana in the Fifties, and the Cuban revolution," he continues. It was written by the late Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who lived in London and died earlier this year. "I was interested in the nightlife, the cabaret world and all its inhabitants, so initially I was looking for an excuse to put the music to film and weave a tapestry. And I realised what I was trying to do had parallels to other great films like Casablanca, Doctor Zhivago, Cabaret - even The Godfather: Part II."

He says the project has taken so long to get off the ground because it was hard to get backers in Hollywood due to a general indifference to Cuban affairs, thanks to the political chasm between the United States and Cuba. "They have a completely distorted, old-fashioned view of the Cuban people," he says. There isn't a release date yet, but the actor considers it to be his best work so far, and shows me clips from the movie that depict a romantic and colourful Havana with smoky bars, and attractive couples dancing to pulsating Latin music.

If the trailer is anything to go by, the film will be a fascinating take on pre-revolutionary Cuba. Garcia directed the film, which was shot in the Dominican Republic, and he has a central role as a Havana nightclub owner. Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman also star.

"I made this movie because it is so personal to me and dear to me," he says. "I guess Martin Scorsese keeps revisiting his Italian-American roots for same reasons - you do work that stimulates you."

Often described as the most notable Latino actor of his generation (he became famous long before J-Lo), the actor dislikes being categorised. "You don't say about someone: 'Well, he's a great Irish actor or American actor. If you are going to qualify someone by where they come from, you really have to do it to everyone, to be fair. And I don't consider myself Latino. Specifically I'm Cuban, or Cuban-American because I grew up in both cultures."

The high point in Garcia's career was landing the coveted role of Al Pacino's hotheaded nephew, Vincent Mancini, in The Godfather: Part III. It led to an Oscar nomination and comparisons to Pacino himself. He beat some of the leading actors of the time, including Alec Baldwin and Val Kilmer, to win the part. A string of hits followed, but there have also been misfires - Jennifer Eight, Night Falls on Manhattan, Hero and The Man From Elysian Fields, which he produced. Recently he's found success and critical acclaim again as the creepy Terry Benedict in Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Twelve. But Garcia seems unperturbed by his shifting fortunes. "I don't live my life under the umbrella of fame and success," he says.

Ultimately, nothing in Garcia's career matters as much to him as the country he left when he was five years old. His family were refugees from Castro's regime and he has never been back, though he still refers to the country as home. That long-standing passion for everything Cuban has been a driving force with Garcia for as long as he can remember. If there's a heavy dose of romantic nostalgia in Garcia's perception of Havana, it's tempered by a realism that stems from personal experience. Garcia says that the struggles his parents, Rene and Amelie, faced had an indelible impact on his personal and professional life.

"We left Cuba in 1961 with nothing. We moved to Miami and I didn't realise we were leaving for good, I thought we were going on a short visit. The transitional process was a little difficult, you know, because you can't speak the language, but I learnt quickly.

"When we arrived in the United States my mother borrowed a dime to let our relatives know we'd arrived and my father, who was a lawyer, followed us a few months later. He hit the ground running and just began to provide for his family in any way he could. He couldn't fry an egg but he started working for a catering company and was soon organising the entire business. My mother was an English teacher in Cuba and she had to get work as a secretary. I had a fantastic childhood," he says. "The important thing for my parents was the opportunity for their children to to pursue their dreams.

"That's the why The Lost City is so important to me. It is a story about impossible love, which is the central metaphor of an exile's life. The thing you cherish you can't have, so you find solace in the things that never betray you, like your music and family."

The actor has been married to Marivi Lorido Garcia for 23 years. They're practising Catholics, and have four children; the three older ones are all pursuing acting. I pick up a copy of an American celebrity magazine. Garcia's oldest daughter, Dominik, 21, is featured in a section on "children of the stars" as one of America's most beautiful young actresses. Is he concerned about his kids growing up surrounded by wealth and privilege? He laughs - for the first time since we met several hours ago. "Well, wealth and fame are a lot better than poverty. I'll tell you because I've been there," he says, then looks thoughtful again. "My family has been a blessing to me. Marivi is an extraordinary lady and an incredible mother and she's been great.

"And having a spiritual focus is important. It's important to have faith," he says. "I think it can bring companionship and solace in your life at very trying times. I think it's a good thing. I'm not a fan of Karl Marx's quote that religion is the opium of the people. I was raised Catholic and I'm still Catholic. The children were all raised Catholic. I think the only way to teach them about religion and values is by example. You can't say: 'You should do this but I'm going to do something else.'"

The phone rings. Garcia has an excited discussion about his other new film, Modigliani, which has had a limited cinematic release in the States. It's a traumatic story about the Italian artist's tragic life. The film examines his rivalry with Picasso, and his self-destructive character.

"As an actor, that tragedy is extraordinarily appealing and I was a great fan of his painting," says Garcia. "I thought it was a great opportunity to live in his shoes and lose myself in that world. I thought it was so interesting that he was a legendary figure in the art community in Paris, in Europe, at the time but nobody was buying his work; they didn't understand or embrace it. But Modigliani was as famous for his character and behaviour as he was for his art. He had so much self-destruction and fear and I could understand that. I mean, you have to have an understanding in order to play him, so I could bring my emotional life to the performance."

Garcia's portrayal of the artist has received mixed reviews in the States, but Garcia says he doesn't let box-office potential govern his choices. "I won't make movies I don't want to make because they're offering me a lot of money. I just look for stories that move me; you have to respond to the material."

Returning to his favourite subject, Garcia shows me more Cuban photos and artefacts that he's collected over the years. I wonder whether his native country has become somehow symbolic rather than tangible for the him, and whether he still believes he'll actually return one day and live there. He looks wistful and sighs. "That's a very complicated question. I don't support the regime and therefore I don't belong there so I have an emotional boycott against the regime - not the people. Obviously I'm very pro-Cuban. I think about going back every day of my life, so the question is when the appropriate time is to do so. I don't know when that's going to happen.

"But, you know, I'm more interested in what happens to the Cuban people, that they retain their civil liberties and are able to pursue their dreams and move about without the dark cloud of psychological and physical oppression that they live under now. If I could trade the Cuban people's freedom for me never going back there, that would be fine with me."