Andy Garcia owns two magnificent houses – one is in Hollywood where he works, and the other is in South Florida where he grew up. But home is in Havana, Cuba, which he fled as a young boy, and Garcia says he will never go back until his native land has been freed from Fidel Castro's tyranny and repression.
"I am opposed to the regime," the 50-year-old movie star said during a recent interview with NewsMax, adding that he would have liked to return to his homeland for a visit but "in honor of all the people who have died and suffered under the [Castro] regime, I'm not able to make that leap."
Instead, Garcia has applied his considerable skills as a filmmaker to recreate the Cuba of his memory and his imagination. The result is the recently released film "The Lost City," his opus to freedom.
The movie is his directorial debut. It's also a film he co-produced and stars in.
It took Garcia 16 years to bring the film to the silver screen. "I couldn't get any support; I couldn't get financing," he said. "Selling a Cuban story to Hollywood wasn't easy."
For a long time Hollywood has been sympathetic to Cuba's longtime dictator, even though Fidel Castro gets failing marks from liberal groups.
Amnesty International cites Cuba's "illegitimate curbs on freedom of expression" and its "detention of dissidents for the peaceful expression of their beliefs." Human Rights Watch in its 2006 report condemned Castro for continuing "to enforce political conformity using criminal prosecutions, long- and short-term detentions, mob harassment, police warnings, surveillance, house arrests, travel restrictions, and politically-motivated dismissals from employment. The end result is that Cubans are systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, movement, and due process of law."
Cuba has also persecuted minorities like Havana's Jews (almost all were forced to flee Cuba) and gays – in past years hundreds were thrown into forced labor camps.
But stars like Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio have made pilgrimages to Cuba, and Nicholson went so far as to gush that Cuba is "simply a paradise."
Garcia is not quick to point to politics as the key reason for his struggle to get his story onto film.
"Can politics have an influence on someone's decision?" Garcia asks. "It's possible, but I can't say for sure because that was never articulated to me."
Then, almost as an afterthought, he said: "A lot of movies are set against a political backdrop. My favorite film last year was 'Good Night and Good Luck.'"
That movie, directed and co-written by George Clooney, recounted broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow's effort to bring down Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It won rave reviews and six Oscar nominations. But "The Lost City" was a film Andy Garcia was determined to make, and it didn't matter to him how long it took.
"Not telling this story was never an option," he says. "I figured I could outlast everyone who said no, that if I didn't play [lead character] Fico I could always play the father, or just direct and not play anyone."
Finally, Crescent Drive Entertainment said yes, backing "The Lost City." The movie was filmed in an unusually quick 35 days in the Dominican Republic for $9.5 million – a modest amount for a major production.
Garcia says his film recaptures "a time when Havana was the Paris of the Caribbean, a vibrant, elegant and cultured city threatened and subverted by violence and social injustice, then torn apart by a revolution that became misguided and, finally, betrayed."
The screenplay was written by famed Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, an exile who died in London in February 2005. It's based on his 1967 novel "Tres Triste Tigres." Co-starring Bill Murray, Dustin Hoffman and Spanish beauty Ines Sastre, the film is set in the late 1950s. It tells the story of a middle-class family ripped apart by the Cuban Revolution.
The history of the Cuban Revolution is clear-cut. Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by rebel Fidel Castro in 1959. Castro appeared to many as a hero at first, but he soon became a pawn of Russia – an alignment that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
In his fictional account of those days, Garcia plays Fico Fellove, the owner of a Havana nightclub. Two of his brothers become Castro supporters and join the revolution while Fico, who is apolitical, desperately tries to avoid taking sides – only to see his life destroyed by Castro's repression and Che Guevara's ruthlessness.
About Guevara, Garcia says, "Che has been romanticized over the years, but there is a darker side to his story. People wear his T-shirt like pop art. They don't know who he is. He looks like a rock star, but he executed a lot of people without trial or defense."
"The Lost City" was a big hit at the Miami International Film Festival, where Garcia received a standing ovation from 1,600 moviegoers, mostly Cuban-Americans. Dozens of viewers told him, "This is my story."
It's Andy Garcia's story as well, and it's his wife's story, too. In 1982, Garcia married Marivi Lorido, a Cuban-American whose story parallels his own. They have four children – Dominik, Daniella, Alessandra and Andres – and a commitment to each other that has never wavered despite his status as a Hollywood leading man and his selection by Esquire as one of the 100 sexiest stars in film history.
"I left Cuba when I was 5 1/2, and I remember everything," he says. When he closes his eyes he can still smell his father's farm, and recall how the soil felt when he walked on it, and he can feel the cold terrazzo tile floors of the family's home and hear his grandmother playing her piano.
Garcia also remembers what happened after Castro took over: "Conditions became progressively worse for us. The government took our land. Money that was in the bank was taken, too. The state passed a law and parents lost their rights to their own children."
And he remembers the Bay of Pigs Invasion of April 17, 1961, when 1,300 armed Cuban exiles landed in an ill-fated attempt to topple the Castro regime. He remembers the strafing of Havana, hiding under his bed, and going out the next morning to collect spent shells from the anti-aircraft batteries.
Then one day in mid-1961, his mother brought him a glass of orange juice and told him, "We're going to Miami tomorrow." He sensed right then that they weren't coming back, at least not for a while, so he paid close attention to everything that was happening around him.
The next day Andy, the youngest of the three Garcia children, his brother Rene, sister Tesse, mother and paternal grandmother headed for the Havana airport. His father remained behind.
At the airport, the family had to pass through a final glass-enclosed checkpoint before being allowed to board their flight to freedom. It was called the fishbowl, and it was where everyone who was leaving Cuba was searched by Castro's thugs, the Revolutionary Guards, and anything and everything of value was taken from them.
His 12-year-old sister was wearing bangle bracelets, but they wouldn't come off over her hand, so one of the thugs picked up a pair of clippers. "I thought he was going to cut her hand off to get the bracelets," Garcia said. Instead, the thug cut the bracelets.
When they landed in Miami, they were so empty-handed that his mother had to borrow a dime to make a call on a pay phone to relatives who had already fled Castro's Cuba. The five Garcias took up residence in a single room in a motel off Collins Avenue in Miami Beach.
One month later, Garcia's father arrived in Florida and went to work for a catering company, which he later bought. He was also in the sock business, delivering socks to retailers on consignment. Every night after dinner the Garcia family would sit at the table and sort the socks, putting them on little plastic hangars. "I was pretty good at it," Garcia says proudly.
He was pretty good at Miami Beach High School, too, where he played on the basketball team and dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. But in his senior year an illness prevented him from playing so he turned to the drama department.
After graduating from high school he enrolled at Florida International University, where he continued his drama studies. From there he went to Hollywood, landing a role as a Latino gang member on TV's "Hill Street Blues."
That was in 1981. Other prominent roles followed – he played a cocaine kingpin in 1986's "8 Million Ways to Die," one of Eliot Ness's men in 1987's "The Untouchables," and a detective in 1990's "Internal Affairs." But his career soared after he landed a starring role in "The Godfather Part III."
Along the way he studied the techniques of master filmmakers such as Sidney Lumet and Francis Ford Coppola, who directed him in "The Godfather Part III." And he reconnected with his Cuban roots, especially with the island nation's music from the '40s and '50s, producing four albums and a documentary.
In 2000, he starred in the HBO film "For Love of Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story," about the Cuban trumpeter great whose passion, like the character Garcia plays in "The Lost City," is music but whose dream is freedom.
Says Garcia, "'The Lost City' is about many things, but it is the music that runs deep in my veins. Neither blockades nor artistic repression can contain it. It is inexorable; like water, it will always get in and out."
Meanwhile, Garcia believes that Castro's tyranny will be swept away. "It breaks my heart that Cuba is not free, but I'm optimistic that one day it will be," he says.
He's certain that day will come. "Absolutely," he says. And when it does, Andy Garcia will, at long last, be able to go home.
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