Film star Andy Garcia’s newest role is onstage at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse in his own adaptation (with playwright Jeffrey Hatcher) of the gangster drama Key Largo, originally a 1939 play by Maxwell Anderson, later an iconic 1948 Humphrey Bogart film directed by John Huston. If you don’t think of Garcia as a stage actor, you’re not wrong—it’s been a good while since he’s trod the boards, though that long absence has not been, as I learned in a recent interview, for lack of interest.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Why bring Key Largo, which started as a play but is best known as a film, back to the stage?
ANDY GARCIA: I’ve always been a fan of the film. I grew up in Miami Beach after my family and I left Cuba, two and a half years after the revolution, and I would frequent the Keys growing up. It was a place that I always been enamored with—just the overall mood of South Florida and the Florida Keys and the Bahamas has been a place where I’ve sort of always found solace. I’ve always been attracted to the sea and I fish; I have a boat. All these themes are things that appeal to me. So when you see a film that deals with a bit with that, then you have sort of a subconscious attraction to it. To Have and Have Not also, and all of Hemingway’s novels that dealt with the sea; although Hemingway was not involved in Key Largo, that’s the spirit of it. I’ve written a screenplay about Hemingway and about the creation of The Old Man and the Sea. So this is an area that that stimulates me.
I knew that Key Largo was based on Maxwell Anderson play. I always thought, Wouldn’t it be great to either remake the movie in contemporary terms or take it back to the stage? It could be a very entertaining piece of theatre. I was performing at the Geffen with my band, which I do a couple of times a year—I have a 13-piece traditional Cuban orchestra, we do classical Cuban music. And Gil Cates and Matt Shakman said, “You should come do a play here.” And I said, “Yeah, that’d be great. I’ve always thought it could be an interesting to adapt the movie Key Largo back to the stage.” They just looked at me without missing a beat and said, “You would do that here?” And I said, “Yeah.” They said, “Okay, we’ll get you a dramaturg to work with and you guys create a new adaptation.” The thing is, I’ve had a blessed creative life, but if I were to tell you the amount of times I’ve gotten “no” in my life, either looking for parts or trying to pitch an idea or finance a film, we wouldn’t have enough time for the interview. So when someone’s embracing something so quickly, you’ve got to go like, “Okay, so I guess it’s on me now.”
So we began, and Matt Shakman introduced me to Jeffrey Hatcher, who has been a blessing. We got together for two days and went through the play and the screenplay individually and came with our ideas, then created this hybrid with some new ideas that are not in the play or in the movie. And here we are.
When I heard about this, I thought immediately about the Bogart connection. But you’re playing the Edward G. Robinson character, Johnny Rocco.
They’re both beautiful parts and emotionally I’m attracted to both, but age-wise I’m more suited for Johnny Rocco at this point.
Was Robinson someone you grew up watching and admiring?
Sure, of course! Who hasn’t?
You’ve certainly played a number of parts he might’ve played.
Yes, no doubt. I have delved into the gangster world. But I must say the Johnny Rocco in our play is very different from the movie. We’re not doing a stylized noir at all. This is a new tone. The malignancy of Johnny Rocco in our play, as I am experiencing it, is more out of control.
Really? What’s interesting is that while Robinson and you have played plenty of smart characters, Rocco is not a smart gangster. He’s pretty much just a brute.
Right, and he’s scared of the rain. The Johnny Rocco of the play is truly a great malignant narcissist. He’s an equal opportunity abuser. He’s a terrible, terrible person.
Which seems a bit against type for you? I mean, you’ve played some bad guys, but I associate you more with quiet, confident guys, not someone’s explosive. Maybe I don’t know your whole body of work, but is this tapping into a different side of you?
I would hope so. I would hope that I’m not repeating myself in any way. There are common themes that you might recognize in my work, though I’ve been blessed to have done a lot of different things. I think anybody in the arts, whether it be music or painting or theatre, if they have the blessing of a body of work, at the end of their life you could probably see a throughline of things that stimulate him—there’ll be some sort of thread there, you know?
Also I imagine it’s fun to play a total bastard. Or is it difficult?
It’s very challenging, because he’s very volatile. He has a lot of things to say about a lot of people in a very abusive way. A lot of times I’m driving the play constantly when I’m onstage, taking control of this hostage kind of situation. That’s a responsibility my character has. He’s always punching.
I know you studied at Florida International University and started on the stage there, but I couldn’t find a lot of prior stage credits for you.
I haven’t been onstage in 40 years. I mean, I’m onstage a lot with my band, with my orchestra. But the last legit play I did was when I first moved to Los Angeles; I worked in improvisational theatre for a number of years, and was a member of a house group at the Comedy Store for several years. I also did a play at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts. But then I started getting work as an actor on film, and I just began to concentrate on that. I had a young family. The opportunities onstage that arose were all usually out of New York; they would approach me and say, “Would you do this or that?” But I didn’t want to take my kids out of school, out of the environment they were in, and I didn’t want to leave them obviously. The days went by and the years went by. I’ve loved the theatre, and I always felt like, “I got to get back onstage.” Then another job would come along. One thing led to another and I realized, Damn, time has passed. This is not good. When this opportunity arose and I got the support from the Geffen so easily, I said, “Okay, it’s time to put up or shut up.”
There’s a hurricane in the show. Did you live through many hurricanes and tropical storms?
Oh, yes. I’ve been through many, many hurricanes since the 1960s. I can’t remember all the names, but Betsy and Cleo were very strong hurricanes we went through. And I lost my home in South Florida to Hurricane Andrew. I was there—not in my home, we had to evacuate the island, but I lost my home. It’s a terrifying thing when you’re in it and it’s just outside your window. And then you come out to the devastation, to a town that’s like Hiroshima. It’s terrifying. So yes, I have a lot of experiences with hurricanes, or, as we call them, hur-a-kins.
Are there other roles you’d like to onstage?
In terms of theatre, I’ve always had a fascination with Cyrano de Bergerac. I hope I can muster the courage to do that soon, before it’s too late and my knees don’t hold up any longer. I love the theatre; I love comedies. It’s always a possibility if someone approaches you and you like the material at the right time. My kids are older now, my son is about to graduate high school, and it’ll free my movement up a little bit. He might even go to school in New York. Maybe if people are receptive to Key Largo and they want to see more, maybe there’s an opportunity to take it to New York for a bit.
Your career seems to have been in an upswing lately, with “Modern Love” and Book Club and Mamma Mia. But looking at your imdb page, it’s not like you ever really stopped.
I think it’s like anything else, there are cycles, you know what I’m saying? There are periods where there are lulls in the storm, the eye of the storm as they say. That’s just the nature of the beast. I’m always doing something on my own; I always have personal things I’m working on that keep me creatively stimulated, whether it be writing or music, my family. I take any lulls as part of the overall scheme of things. I’m in it for the long haul, as they say. There’s a reason why they call it the flavor of the month—it’s only a month. The question is, when the next flavor comes up, are you still on the menu?
I confess until I started researching for this interview that I didn’t know about your music background. I own the Cachao Master Sessions CD but I obviously didn’t check the notes too closely.
Yes, I produced those.
And you play an instrument with your band?
I play percussion. On most albums I produce and play percussion, and I sing. I also play piano. With my orchestra we do some of my own original tunes.
The story I’ve read about how you got into acting was that you got sick in high school or junior high…
Yeah, I got a very bad case of mono and hepatitis, at the same time. I was an athlete, but I was out of commission the whole year. I couldn’t exercise. It took me out of my season in basketball, and was in limbo. Because I didn’t have something to focus on, I took an acting class in high school my senior year and I was very stimulated by it. My teacher was very encouraging, a gentleman by the name of Jay Jensen. It awoke something. You don’t pick it, it kind of picks you. It’s like a virus. Then you have to deal with it. You got to say to yourself, “Okay, this is not a conventional way of going about a life.” I didn’t come from a theatrical family, nobody in my family was in entertainment. Not like my kids—I have two actresses and a model in my girls, but they grew up in it, they know the pitfalls, they’ve trained all their life. They understand it. To me it was just a need to do it and to explore it. I had no idea of anything other than, “This is something I got to do.”
Were your parents encouraging or not so much?
They were encouraging and also extremely worried. On my father’s side, he was more practical. He was worried that I’d get lost—that I had other talents I could exploit, basically in terms of business. I grew up in a family business. He didn’t want me to get lost in something that would not reward my talents. He also did not understand the business. Neither did I, by the way. My mother was more reckless. She said, “He’s got wings, you got to let him fly.” But the concept of, how does an actor make a living? Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson make a living; I love my son, but is he Humphrey Bogart? You know what I’m saying? There’s no concept. How do you wrap yourself around that? Really? People other than Humphrey Bogart make a living?
Did you see enough people like yourself on screen or onstage where you thought: I can do that?
Well, I was inspired by people, no doubt. First and foremost in film, because there wasn’t a lot of theatre that came to South Florida. I did see some stuff from the Asolo Repertory Theatre—a great performance of Cyrano, actually, by William Leach. He was absolutely wonderful and it began my love affair with Cyrano at that moment. And also José Ferrer, who played Cyrano, he’s one of my heroes, being that he was Hispanic and had such an extraordinary career onstage. I saw Chris Plummer and James Earl Jones touring Othello when I was in college. Then I started to seeing faces like me, like Raul Julia, and also of course the great performances on film that came out in the ’70s of actors where I could say, “He’s kind of like me”—Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, John Voight, Anthony Hopkins. Peter Sellers—I was a huge Peter Sellers fan growing up. Also Sean Connery and Steve McQueen and James Coburn. These people are heroes of mine, from the ’60s, prior to the Coppola/Scorsese movement in the ’70s. And of course Brando, he changed acting for everyone. He is sublime.
It wasn’t until I got involved in acting that I realized: That’s what I want to do, but now I got to learn how to do this. You got to learn it. Chauncey Gardiner said in Being There: “The garden, you have to nurture it, for it to grow and to flourish.” As an actor, you can have an instinct for it, a natural gift, maybe that someone gave you or that you earned by your focus on it and your love of it. But you got to cultivate that thing and understand it and learn it. It’s a craft, and the craft can be elevated to an art form. But you had better start at the craft level.
It sounds like you have a rich life outside of acting. What do you like to do when you have a moment apart from it?
Well, music, obviously. Music is a part of my life every day. I can no longer participate in the sports I did as a child, just because of knees and ankles and so forth. I stay in shape doing Pilates and stuff like that. And I play golf—golf is my passion. I’ve had a passion for golf all my life. I played since I was an early teenager. I put it down for a while, then I picked it up again in ’85. That’s my sport of choice for many years.
That’s a South Florida thing too, right?
Yes. We used to play in the ’60s, sneaking out into Bayshore Golf Club while the sprinklers were on so we’d save eight dollars.
Golf is also social, right? Who have you played with?
There are many people I’d like to play golf with that are no longer with us. I’ve had the blessing of playing golf with Lee Trevino many times, who is a personal hero of mine. For many years, I’ve been playing in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, so I’ve had a chance to play amongst many pros. I even won it one year with Paul Stankowski which was crazy, and I played in the Dunhill Links many years in Europe.
So this is more than a hobby. You play for real.
Yes, I take golf very seriously. I’ve played it long time and I enjoy the game and I understand the game. The only guy I’ve never had a chance to play with, who was my hero, was Seve Ballesteros. I saw him play in person, but I never played him. He was definitely one of my inspirations.