A Portrait of the Artist as a Madman: A Conversation with Andy Garcia

In the film Modigliani, Andy Garcia plays the tortured Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, who was renowned during his lifetime for his wild lifestyle and celebrated after his death for his vast contribution to the world of art. The story takes place in Paris just after the end of World War I, focusing on the final year of Modigliani’s flamboyant and tragically brief life. Garcia’s performance in the film is typical of his body of work – at times subtle, at others soulful, but always engaging. filmcritic.com recently sat down with Garcia and asked him a few questions about acting, Modigliani, and art.

Q: What did you, as an actor, bring to your portrayal of Modigliani?

A: It’s in the eye of the beholder, ultimately. I brought everything. I brought all my baggage to it. Everything I am is in the movie. As a golfer, the terminology is, I left nothing in the bag. So I tried to live as fully within the parameters of the time that we had to explore the material. I tried to live as fully as possible. And as freely as possible and as deeply as possible… I walked away and said I left nothing in the bag.

Q: Do you think this film is a flattering portrayal?

A: Yeah, and I think it’s an accurate one. I think there are certainly things in the film that did not happen, like the competition didn’t happen. But in terms of the Modigliani I learned from, it’s not made up. The way I interpret what I researched is what formulated my characterization.

Q: As far as showing all sides of the character, do you think it ultimately comes off as flattering or more pathetic?

A: My interest is not to make him flattering or pathetic. It’s not a popularity contest, for me or for him. It’s an interpretive art form. Everyone will play Hamlet differently, and will relate to Hamlet in a different way. Someone else will play Modigliani and might see him a little differently – or completely differently.

Q: In your research did you find any particularly interesting about Modigliani, about his personal life?

A: He was a very enigmatic character. I think one of the most interesting things to me is that he was a legend before his work was legendary.

Q: I heard Modigliani was in the habit of getting naked when he got drunk. Was that something that was maybe suggested in the script and you said no, or was that not the case at all?

A: There was a particular incident in his life that’s in the movie where he dances around the sculpture of Balzac. And according to Jean Cocteau he danced with a scarf, like a sarong… wrapped around his waist. Naked, otherwise. But there just wasn’t a scarf long enough for me to… [laughs] I don’t think it’s about being naked. I think it’s more about the spirit.

Q: Did [director] Mick Davis let you improvise?

A: Yes, he did let me improvise a lot. I think we both understood that there was a certain appetite and freedom [in the way] Modigliani lived his life… Very specifically in this movie, you had to have the freedom to approach the work in that way.

Q: What do you see as Modigliani’s growth through the course of the film? Do you just see it as his artistic development, that he gets better as an artist, or do you think that there’s something greater that he grows through?

A: I think he stopped growing because of the way he chose to live his life. I think he had a fairly prolific life as an artist-he created a lot of paintings. But think of how many paintings he did not create because he was busy recovering from the extraordinary hangover or detoxification of the previous three nights or whatever. So you think of how many days he was not able to paint because of his condition. That’s the tragedy. He was a very self-destructive individual and yet he did manage to get the work done as much as he did. You think with that kind of lifestyle, how much can he really get accomplished? Unfortunately he died when he was 35 years old… You’ve got tuberculosis and you’re drinking and smoking hashish and doing cocaine and opium. How long is that going to last?

Q: Modigliani was Jewish and Jeanne Hébuterne [his wife] was Catholic. What do you make of the interfaith aspect of their relationship?

A: They were living in an anti-Semitic time. Unfortunately that kind of racism is still part of our society around the world. But that was part of the fabric of Modigliani’s story. When you research it, that was part of it. And he was a Sephardic Jew, so obviously they were already moving around to escape that kind of persecution.

Q: In real life, it’s the opposite. Elsa Zylberstein [who plays Hébuterne] is Jewish and you are Catholic. Did you play off that in your performance?

A: I grew up in a Jewish community in Miami Beach. So I was really exposed to that culture very strongly. All of my friends were Jewish. I was included in that world culturally, because they were my best friends. I had many Passovers and bar mitzvahs. It’s a beautiful religion and I’ve always looked at it with great respect. There’s a very strong correlation between the essence of Judaism and Catholicism. And the family structure of the Jewish culture and the Cuban culture is very similar. So I could relate to it and be proud of it and speak for it, as though I knew it intimately.

Q: Why do you think she was so obsessed with him?

Because she was crazy. [laughs] There was madness. These were people who lived life differently than most of us. And there’s that classic thing about being attracted to the one thing that will destroy you. And there was a madness to their love, or as Mick liked to say, a beautiful madness. And a lot of people are in abusive relationships. And you say, why is this man with that woman, or this woman with that man, but yet there’s a codependency there that you have to be a psychologist to begin to decipher. Why people get into those situations and die for them.

Q: What intrigued you most about playing this role?

A: He was just such an intriguing individual of the 20th century. The contradictions of his life, when you start to think about it, it was just like eye candy. It was just too compelling. I didn’t think about it much. When I had lunch with Mick, he said, ‘I’d like you to play Modigliani.’ And I said, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ I didn’t even read the script. I just knew. He said, ‘Do you want to read the script?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll read the script. But I’m telling you, let’s go make the movie.’ Because I knew about him as a writer. I knew his talent. You see the intelligence of the man, where he’s coming from. You get an instinct and you say, ‘Well, whatever’s not working in the script, we’ll work on it. We’re not going to do this movie tomorrow.’ And that’s the way I look at it. You’re compelled to do something, and it’s something you want to do. You make it happen.

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