Paul Sorvino and Ginette Reno star in "Mambo Italiano."

Veteran film ‘heavy’
likes lightened
mood of indies

Editor's note: Some biographical information in this story was provided by the Hawaii International Film Festival.

Veteran film, television and stage actor Paul Sorvino chooses his roles the old-fashioned way.

"The best writing makes the best scripts, and that makes for the more challenging roles," says Sorvino, who appears in two films, "The Cooler" and "Mambo Italiano," at the Hawaii International Film Festival. "Acting is easy for me, but it's good material that counts and that's hard to find but even harder to be offered."

In "Mambo Italiano," Sorvino plays husband and father Gino who, with wife Maria (Ginette Reno), emigrated from Italy to Montreal in the 1950s and married after their arrival in "the new world," a world they still haven't quite gotten used to.

Their world is shattered when their son, Angelo (Luke Kirby), decides to get a place of his own. They're relieved when Angelo's childhood buddy, a police officer, Nino, decides to move in with their son. But their relief is short-lived when they find out that the two are lovers.

"Gino is a good man and not a gangster," says Sorvino, who has played more than his share of criminal types. "He's just an average Joe, understanding, funny. But he's suddenly under this gargantuan pressure about his son, and he and his wife start to have difficulties."

Sorvino decidedly rejects what some critics have called the "gay 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' " description of "Mambo Italiano."

"I think the film is original on its own merits," he says. "The story explores the subtleties and complexities of this typical Italian family that straddles two cultures, and all its traditions.

"I liked the script because the stage play's writer (Steve Galluccio) took the time to understand the Italian immigrant community and capture the nuances of that way of life.

"There are very true-to-life moments and anecdotes about melodramatic aunts, uncles and grandparents. It's all there, and I knew within 30 seconds that I wanted to do this film."

What also attracted Sorvino is that the Italian culture of working-class Italian immigrants who came to Montreal in the '50s and '60s is captured accurately and "not ridiculed."

At an early age, Sorvino knew he wanted to pursue a career in show business. At 16 he trained to be a dance instructor at an Arthur Murray studio but was fired for being underage. He later sang at charity events and on the Catskills circuit as "The Romantic Voice of Val Sorvino" in his early 20s.

"I'm still a singer," Sorvino says. "I love to sing."

Not long after he landed his first chorus job as a gypsy in the short-lived Broadway musical "Bajour." Sorvino then took a job as an advertising copywriter to support himself and his family, rising to vice president of the agency.

But the lure of acting was too strong, and Sorvino eventually resumed acting, first in commercials and then in movies. He made his film debut in the 1970 comedy "Where's Poppa?" He garnered a Tony nomination as the successful businessman Phil Romano in the original Broadway cast of Jason Miller's "That Championship Season," a role he re-created in the 1982 film version.

Sorvino then went on to star in several network TV series, but he was better known as Detective Phil Cerreta on NBC's "Law & Order" during the 1991-1992 season.

In feature films, Sorvino has usually been cast in ethnic, blue-collar roles, appearing in "Panic in Needle Park" (1971) and "Reds" (1981). He had a rare lead as a newspaper columnist who romances a dying ballerina in "Slow Dancing in the Big City" (1978). In 1990, he accomplished one of his finest performances as mob boss Paul Cicero in Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" in 1990.

Sorvino also portrayed Henry Kissinger in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (1995), Claire Danes' tyrannical father in Baz Luhrmann's "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" (1996) and a platinum-haired lobbyist in the Warren Beatty political satire "Bulworth" (1998).

WITH SUCH a résumé, it's not surprising that Sorvino said it wasn't too difficult for him to portray the lounge lizard singer and heroin addict Buddy in "The Cooler," screening tomorrow at 9:45 p.m. at the Signature Dole Cannery multiplex as part of the film festival.

"Well, like I said, I am a singer," he says. "And again, the material was very good."

In the film, Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is the unluckiest man in Las Vegas. Looking to knock out their highest rollers, one of the last mob-run casinos in town, the Shangri-La Hotel and Casino downtown, decides to use Bernie as a "cooler" to defuse their lucky streaks. The scheme goes fine until Bernie falls in love with a cocktail waitress who becomes his "lady luck," much to the chagrin of the casino's crooked director (Alec Baldwin), who wants to break up both the romance and Bernie's newfound luck.

Sorvino plays the hotel lounge's aging singer and lead attraction.

"It's all about expression and the universality of art, whether you're a singer, actor or sculptor, and I'm all three," he says. "In a movie, you deliver pieces of the script, and you have very little control of the final product. But I learn from every role I do, and it adds to the mix, to the resource."

"The Cooler" was "a very pleasant experience," in part because everyone on the film "was so happy," Sorvino says.

"In independent films, there is less meddling and muddling," he says. "Big egos aren't permitted because there isn't enough money to pamper anyone.

"In a big-budget film, there are always lurking suits, studio executives, fiddling with the product. In indies your judgment and craft seems more expected."

But this veteran tough guy, who has played his share of heavies on both sides of the law in films, has also shed a few tears publicly.

On Oscar night in 1996, viewers caught Sorvino's soft side when his daughter, Mira, in accepting her Oscar for her role in Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite," wept and thanked Dad for his inspiration, love and support.

Sorvino was caught on camera in the audience, weeping uncontrollably.

"It took me two weeks to prepare that crying scene," says Sorvino, laughing. "OK, it was completely spontaneous. I tried, but there was absolutely no stopping the emotions and the tears."

Did his soft side hurt his bad-guy career?

"Nah, most of the viewers have children, so they knew why it happened. It was a validation of family. When children acknowledge that we parents are part of their success and their joy, it's a moving experience for everyone."

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