Armand Assante Talks About Playing South American Shaman, Financing Indie Film (Q&A)

Armand Assante - P - 2013
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The New York-born actor known for his gangster roles explains a challenge of working in the recessionary climate: "I've never seen a time when the financial end of film was so fragile."

SARAJEVO – New York-born US character actor Armand Assante, known for his roles as an underworld hard man, is to play a native South American Indian shaman in an Argentine film due for release next year.

The actor, whose past roles include Dominic Catano in American Gangster, Henri Tremont in Private Benjamin and Caesar Castillo in The Mambo Kings, plays a Chaco Indian spirit man who exclusively delivers his lines in the indigenous tribe's obscure Qom language.

Assante, who is also appearing in a Kazakh thriller he is co-producing, The Whole World at Our Feet, says he is in talks with Russian and Georgian producers for roles in features in those countries too.

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The actor, who was at the Sarajevo Film Festival to promote a short film, The Fix, written and directed by fellow New Yorker, Ante Novakovic, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges of working as a "jobbing actor" in the continuing recessionary environment in the film industry.

THR: You play a native Indian shaman in Argentine director Diego Rafecas' First Law (Ley Primera). How were you cast in that role?

ASSANTE: The film is about the eradication of the Chaco Indian population and the abuse of the Amazon by multinational corporations. I was invited by the Chaco Indians to play a shaman and needed to learn their language, Qom. It's not an easy language. I speak a little Italian myself, but this is totally different. It was a wonderful invitation. I'm not Chaco, and I don't endorse non-native people playing indigenous roles, but Diego told me they wanted me to be their representative.

THR: The film is due out next year and you are in talks with some big names for some additional roles.

ASSANTE: The last leg of the shooting is in New York now and we've hoping attract a major actor for two or three scenes, such as Robert De Niro.

THR: You've also been working in Kazakhstan.

ASSANTE: I have several years of experience spending time in Kazakhstan and made a short documentary for the World Forum for Spiritual Culture, Dialog from the Steppes. The invitation came out of my involvement with Romanian film California Dreaming. Then I was asked to appear in and co-produce a thriller by Salamat Mukhammed Ali. It's about the world of warlords and is privately financed by a Kazakh industrialist. I'm also working on delivering a perfect English and Russian version.

THR: You've also been asked to appear in a Russian and Georgian film.

ASSANTE:There's a Russian feature project in which I've been asked to play [Alexander] Pushkin. It's called Duel and takes up the idea that had Pushkin lived 20 years longer and associated with [Russian writer Mikhail] Lermontov, they would have had a major impact on the development of Russian society. They're asking me to commit to shooting in Moscow in December. The Georgian project is about a hijacking that took place in the 1980s and I would play a lawyer, but both these projects are still under discussion.

THR: You describe yourself as a "journeyman". How tough is the independent film world today -- even for an actor with your long experience in both Hollywood and European films?

ASSANTE: I've never seen a time when the financial end of film was so fragile. Projects come and go on the capacity of whether people have the financial ability, even for the lowest budget projects. It shows what has happened since 2008.

THR: And yet you're still willing to appear in a short film, such as Ante Novakovic's The Fix.

ASSANTE: I've known Ante more than 20 years. We're like family. He's worked [as crew] on some major movies. He understands the value of every cent. He still needs to pull in the financing for the feature he wants to develop from The Fix, and we're still working on the story, but it's a great project.

THR: You've often spoken on the importance of supporting young, talented filmmakers.

ASSANTE: I consider it an obligation to get behind young people who are immensely talented. I was lucky to have producers like Ralph Nelson, Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer watching over me early in my career.