When Andy Garcia portrayed Republic of Georgia president Mikheil Saakashvili in the action-thriller movie “5 Days of War,” he did such a convincing job that when he saw photograph of himself in the role, he thought it was the real Mikheil Saakashvili. Garcia does not have a lot of screen time in the movie, but he has a very pivotal part, since the film is about journalists covering the 2008 five-day conflict between Georgia and Russia, when
“5 Days of War” (directed by Renny Harlin) stars Rupert Friend as American TV reporter Thomas Anders; Richard Coyle as Sebastian Ganz, Anders’ cameraman; Emmanuelle Chriqui as Tatia Khetaguri, a teacher who is separated from her family during the war’s chaos and violence; and Johnathon Schaech as Captain Rezo Avaliani of the Georgian Special Forces. A few days before “5 Days of War” had its release in U.S. theaters, I sat down with Garcia for this candid interview at the New York City press junket for the film.
In “5 Days of War,” you play the president of the Republic of Georgia during the conflict with Russia. Did this role resonate with you since your family left Cuba to escape Communism?
I didn’t leave Cuba because of the Russians. I left Cuba because of Fidel Castro. The Russians were a by-product of Fidel Castro. We were gone by then. The relationship had begun, the relationship that had been cultivated by Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro was the one who took the freedoms away from the Cuban people.
How did you research your role of Mikheil Saakashvili, the real president of the Republic of Georgia?
I knew that he had studied at Columbia University. Let me preface it by saying that I was called to do the movie on a Wednesday, and I was shooting on Monday. So I had Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday to prepare for the movie and travel to Georgia.
I was going to Ghent for a film festival where we had “City Island,” and I was being honored there. So I went from Ghent to the Republic of Georgia to shoot on a Monday and a Tuesday when I left. So I had limited time and resources in terms of research and preparing a dialect and stuff like that.
I’m not saying that as an excuse. I just want to put it in parameters when you say, “How do you have time to go to Columbia University?” I had a little bit of time to make my flight.
In “5 Days of War,” you do not have scenes with most of the film’s other cast members. What surprised you the most about seeing the entire film, especially the scenes that you didn’t have?
It goes without saying that Renny’s ability to do this type of genre is quite a genial talent. To orchestrate a war picture like this so effectively is quite a great challenge. Even though if you have all the tanks, all the planes, and all the soldiers, you still have to design that and orchestrate it.
And there is a visceral and brutal reality to the movie. Somebody said to me that [“5 Days of War”] is like the first 12 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” but it lasts two hours. It’s an intense movie. And obviously, it hopefully can enlighten some people about the brutality of these conflicts and how many of innocent people suffer from these conflicts around the world. It’s not about what’s right or wrong. It’s just about the people caught in the middle of that are the ones who take the beating.
Were you aware that you resemble Mikheil Saakashvili before you were cast to portray him in “5 Days of War”?
No, I had no idea what he looked like. Renny did tell me that I was his favorite actor. I wasn’t aware of that either. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. That doesn’t really matter to me.
Obviously, when you’re playing an actual contemporary character or anyone historical character, the resemblance is somewhat important. There’s more too it than that than just looking like someone, to me … How many people know what he looked like?
I played [Amadeo] Modigliani [in the 2004 film “Modigliani”], and how many people know what Modigliani looked like? It’s more important to get the spirit of the character. But of course if you’re playing someone very specific, you want at least an approximation.
Some people are trying to paint “5 Days of War” as a propaganda film because it shows the Georgian side of the conflict, and the Western world didn’t recognize what happened. Can you comment on that?
I wouldn’t say the West didn’t know that it happened. I wouldn’t take that position. I think the West and the East know what happens everywhere. To assume that someone is naïve to a conflict in the world, in terms of the governments, there are people who wake up every day and study world conflicts and world situations. I wouldn’t say they would be naïve. But whether they acted or decided what position they took or why they took it, those issues are complicated issues that you or [I] would probably never know because those decisions are taken behind closed doors.
But when you agreed to do “5 Days of War,” did you think that you would be getting involved in something that might be described as propaganda?
Well, first of all, of course it has Georgian point of view because they are telling their side of the story. The Russians are free, and I would encourage them to tell their side of the story, because we would like to see what position they take on this. It would shed more light on the conflict and why it happened. And maybe that in a sense could prevent future situations like this from happening.
The question is: Who is that the person who saying that it’s a Georgian propaganda movie, that Georgia had an agenda while making this movie? Are you saying that reporters never have an agenda when they’re reporting a story? If the reporter has an agenda to call it a propaganda movie then he’s going to articulate the story his way. So reporters are immune to that unbiased opinion either.
It’s all up to grabs, but the important thing is that opinions can be shared. There’s the freedom to share those opinions, and there could be discussion. Just because one guy says something doesn’t mean it’s true or untrue. He’s not the only side of the story, obviously.
What was it like filming the scene in “5 Days of War” you made that big speech in front of thousands of real Georgians?
It was exhilarating, because obviously those people were very passionate. They were real people. They were extras in the movie, but they were real people. I don’t even know if they were paid to show up. Maybe they gave them lunch. I wasn’t privy to that. But they showed up, and they were very excited to be there. As an actor, to be put in that dynamic is a very exhilarating thing.
You could see very quickly how someone in power could get drunk with his own power. The concept of “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” because I said “up,” and everybody went up. I said “down” and everybody went down. It’s like having a symphonic orchestra in front of you. It’s a dangerous drug, is what I’m saying. Luckily, I got on a plane and went home.
Can you talk about how modern technology and social networking are changing how media outlets are reporting news that happens in foreign countries?
I can give you a great example of that. When we were doing that speech, I said to the director, I said, “There are people out there with cameras: news cameras, film cameras, phone cameras.” I said, “How do prevent this from being out before the movie comes out?” And Renny just said he can’t do it.
By the time I finished that speech, within minutes that speech was on YouTube. There’s no privacy anymore. On the negative side, it’s hard to live a private life anymore. Wherever you go, someone has a camera in their pocket— not only a still camera but a movie camera.
Sometimes I’ll be having dinner and I notice someone with a camera cheating a look … They don’t ask to do it. They just do it. At some point, the barriers have just been broken.
On the other hand, on the positive side, you have situations like bloggers and the Internet, even in a country like Cuba, my home country where the Internet is illegal, they have begun to change the force in governments. You had governments that controlled the media had no free press for many years before the Internet, the propaganda machinery and what is permitted to go out is very controlled. But now with the Internet and bloggers, even though they get out illegally, the information gets out and the injustices are out on YouTube.
And before you know it, it forces the government to be in the world view. And the view on Cuba and Castro is changing because of bloggers in Cuba and people with cell phones who punch in and get it on YouTube. You see the police beating up on women, and you go, “What’s going on over there? I thought that was a paradise.” In that sense, it’s changing a lot of countries.
Specifically when it comes to the fine line between freedom of the press and national security (like with WikiLeaks, for instance), what is your opinion on foreign policies and what should not be revealed to the public?
That’s a moral question. Everybody has to have a moral line that they’re prepared to cross. If you’re crossing a moral line and you’re compromising the security of your fellow citizens, then it’s a decision you have to make internally that for you’re willing to, for whatever reason, expose something that might be harmful to society. It’s kind of a free-for-all situation out there.
If Russia and Georgia respected each other, there wouldn’t be a conflict. If they could ever resolve their differences diplomatically and over a negotiating table, there wouldn’t be a conflict. Obviously, that has not happened. In some situations in our world history, that has happened. And in other times, it leads to violence and conflict. That’s the unfortunate thing.
What do you think about the theory that the Russian/Georgian conflict was over the control of oil?
I would say that if you were going to discuss the reasons why there is always a conflict, I would put that on the discussion table. Why are the strategic elements of any territory in history? That would be something that would need to be addressed.
Whether it’s true or not, you can come to your own determination. But the fact that it is a strategic part with the Black Sea and the oil, that could be a motivating. I think it would be naïve not to at least consider that as one of the study points.
What do you think of the Republic of Georgia wanted to be like Western democracies?
You can pretty much assume that they wanted to be a sovereign state and wanted to run their society in a more Western way. But even Russia has also changed their ways from the old Soviet Union to a certain degree. All of those things are part of this very complicated dilemma that causes this particular conflict. At least the lack of respect for each other and to respect each other’s boundaries in a sovereign state: that could lead to this kind of situation.
How was it doing scenes in the actual presidential palace in Georgia?
It was actually his office … The only anecdote I have is that when I showed up, they asked me, “Can we take a picture of in front of the presidential seal, so we can put it in for art direction and the set decorator?” I said, “Sure.” And they took a picture. I thought it was nothing because they do that all the time in movies … It’s kind of a normal thing that happens. I didn’t think anything of it.
Then we were shooting a scene in the office two hours later, three hours. I’m in the middle of the scene and I said, “Cut the cameras!” They said, “What?” I said, “Sorry, I got distracted, but someone has to take this picture of the president [of Georgia] off the shelf. Of course he’s the president and this is his office, but right now I’m the president, and there can’t be a picture of Mikheil Saakashvili in the room.”
And a person came up to me and said “But Mr. Garcia, that’s a picture of you.” Then I looked at it and said, “Oh, yeah. Sorry!” I didn’t remember taking the shot … That’s my only light moment.
As a filmmaker, what do you think about now new technology is affecting how movies are made?
Well, this movie [“5 Days of War”] was shot on the RED in a digital format. I’ve done movies on a digital format. I have directed not feature films but documentaries on a digital format. I think it’s great because it affords the ability to make a movie at a very reduced price and the artists can express themselves.
We did a movie that’s going to show at the  Latino Festival, “Magic City Memoirs,” that the young kids shot on video. They shot on the RED, which is an expensive camera, but it’s still within the digital domain.
I think it’s very important for the life and future of independent cinema to bring the costs down and still have the where all to shoot the movie on a Canon 5D camera and shoot the movie, and edit it on your laptop at home, and get it to the point where at least you’ve formulated the vision of the film. And then if you sell it, you can augment it and do whatever to do — color correction, whatever you want to do. You can get it to the point cheaply — when I say “cheaply,” it’s all relevant, because even $200,000 is a lot of money — but you can get it to the point where you have a finished film, whereas before, it could be a much longer and expensive process.
Do you think this a new renaissance in independent filmmaking?
Certainly. The filmmakers must fear the independent cinema because nobody cares what they’re doing. There’s no one there to tell them what to do or care what they’re doing. Like I said before, I think the movies that I grew up with initially that were very impactful movies in the 1960s and 1970s, about 85 percent of those movies would be independent films today. They would not be studio movies.
Even “The Godfather” would be an independent film, because you’re dealing with a gangster movie with actors that nobody knows except for Marlon Brando, who they didn’t want in the movie to begin with. So that would have to exist as an independent film.
If you want to make a gangster movie at a studio, think about it. When was the last film that you saw one? They’re very few and far between.
“Coming Home” would not be a studio movie. “Taxi Driver” would not be studio movie. About 85 percent of them would have to exist and shoot on video somewhere.
What this provides us is it gives the opportunity for the independent cinema on all levels to stay alive. When we did “City Island,” we shot it on film, but if you have very little money, you could grab a Canon 5D and your flip [camera] shoot your film. That’s an important tool to have, I think.
How was it working with “5 Days of War” director Renny Harlin?
I worked two days on the movie. All the stuff you saw in the movie that I was in, I shot in two days with Dean Cain and all the other actors in the scenes. It was shot pretty much in chronological order, and it culminated the last night with the big speech. Then the next morning, I left.
I was not privy to him negotiating all the tanks and “Cue the jets!” He’s great at that. I love working with Renny. He gave me a space to work. He let me improvise. I wanted to give him as many options and as much of an exploration as possible so he could see the tonalities he wanted from the film and from the character. It was a very positive experience for me.
The bigger picture for me is the conceit of freedom and the ability to fight for that, if you have to. Who fired first or who fired second? The essence is that in any conflict it’s the innocent people that suffer from it. That’s quite evident in the film, and it’s a thing we have to analyze as a world society. We have to find a way of getting along. We have to have respect so we don’t have regrets.
Out of all the projects you’ve done as an actor, have you noticed a difference in the reactions you get to any of your films in specific countries? Is there one film in particular that you hear about more often than other movies?
In free association, the one thing that people want to know is: “When is ‘The Godfather 4’ [coming out]?” That’s pretty much a daily thing in my life, which is curious because there hasn’t been [a plan] for a “Godfather 4,” but there’s really a demand for the movie for some reason, like a soap opera. I know Francis [Ford Coppola, the director of “The Godfather” movies] is not interested … Paramount owns the rights, but if they want to do it, they could certainly say, “We’re doing it.” That is the number-one question.
I am very proud that a movie I did called “The Lost City.” I get a lot of feedback around the world about the movie, because it was an independent movie that had to operate under its own radar and make its own way. The fact that it has resonance over people, it makes me very proud. I know in different age groups and genres, it is different …
Women really talk to me a lot about “When a Man Loves a Woman.” They say, “I’ve seen it a hundred times.” I’m like, “That’s torturous, but I appreciate it.” Some people go way back for “The Untouchables.” There’s a lot of people I get feedback from who say, “‘Modigliani,’ that’s my favorite movie.” So it depends on the individual, but I will say that the one question I get asked almost daily in my life is “When is ‘Godfather 4’?”
How did you prepare the Georgian accent that you had for “5 Days of War”?
I had one day to work on it. When I got the job, I knew I had to have some sort of accent because the director wanted it. So I worked with Jessica Drake, vocal/dialect coach I’ve worked with before.
I had one afternoon to [go] through the script and break down all the words. She gave me some samples on the tonality on tape that I could listen to. That was Thursday, and on Monday I had to, as they say, “let it fly.” You don’t want to be thinking about the accent, but you want to be comfortable enough where you’re just in it.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of Latin American countries with leaders who have left-wing politics, such Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. What is your opinion of these leaders? And how do you want to see Cuba in the future?
It’s a long question. I still dream for Cuba to be free, to deliver the promises of what the revolution was about which was democracy and respect for the Constitution and respect for human rights and absolute freedom and pluralism. That’s what the revolution was about. We had that even when [Fulgencio] Bautista was there.
Yes, they had a corrupt government and people were embarrassed by him and wanted to get rid of him and all that stuff, but there was individual freedom there. But I’m still waiting for that promise.
If there’s an election and people decide to elect a president, there’s an election. In Cuba, there’s no election. Whether you would vote for that president or not is your individual choice. Whether you believe in their political philosophy and what they stand for, what is important is to have elections. And at the end of four years, they can have another election.
Whenever a situation turns into a dictatorship, then it is what it is. That’s what I feel there is in Venezuela. Whether it’s a dictatorship on the right or on the left, it’s a dictatorship. I don’t support that. Why would anyone support that?
What’s next for you?
I have a movie I did in Mexico that’s still in post[-production] called “Cristiada” which is about the Cristero Wars. I play the general of the Cristero army, a character named Enrique Gorosteita.
That sounds like more than a two-day shoot.
[He laughs.] That was like three months on a horse. The period is 1926. Ruben Blades is in it with Eva Longoria and Oscar Isaac and Catalina Sandino Moreno. They’re still in post. It’s an independent film financed out of Mexico. I just finished a movie called “Open Road” with Camilla Belle where I play a homeless father …
I have some personal projects that I am working on. I wrote piece about [Ernest] Hemingway that we’re still trying to finance. Anthony Hopkins and Annette Bening are people who I’ve spoken to who want to do it with me. I just came back from North Carolina, and we were finally able to find a boat, a 1930s wheeler, to replicate the Pilar. So we have our main prop, our main character, in a way. [The boat] is already in the process of restoration, which is important.
I have two or three other projects that I’m trying to package to produce, Comedies and stuff like that. My philosophy is I can’t really control what people think or who’s thinking of me or when they call. “Come to Georgia and play the president.” That just happens when it happens or when an agent solicits it. I don’t concern myself so much about that. I just concentrate on my own things I want to do. I don’t expect any handouts, so I try to create opportunities for myself.
Will there be a sequel to “City Island”?
We wrote a pilot for Warner Bros. for [“City Island”] as a TV series. It was developed, but it wasn’t greenlit. Maybe Ray [De Felitta, writer/director of “City Island”] will take it to another place.
For more info: “5 Days of War” website
RELATED LINKS ON joltleft.com:
Interview #1 with Andy Garcia for “City Island”
Interview #2 with Andy Garcia for “City Island”
“5 Days of War” news and reviews