'The Wannabe': Nick Sandow's Farewell to Old New York

04/23/2015 09:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015
Portrait by Leslie Hassler

Actors make their living being other people. Even while they channel all their personal experiences into a role, if they do their job well, an actor will somehow hide behind another name, another face, in the story of someone else's life. Actor/Director Nick Sandow (Orange is The New Black), with more than 60 film and television acting credits to his name, has one of those faces you've seen before, but that you don't quite know where to place, which is to say he has excelled at his job.

But as I talk to him about his second feature film as a director, The Wannabe, it seems to me that writing a character and directing someone else playing his life hits a little closer to home for this artist.

The Wannabe, executive produced by one of the Godfathers of the mob film genre, Martin Scorsese, is a tragic goodbye love letter to the mafia as an institution and to Old New York, based on true events. The film follows Thomas Greco (Vincent Piazza), who wants nothing more than to be a part of a world where mob ties equate to social currency, as he embarks on a drug-fueled romance and a downward spiral with a local fading beauty named Rose (Patricia Arquette).

As Sandow sits in front of me he whispers:

This is hard...

Are you scared of this part of it, is that what you are saying?
This part, yes, it is scary. I mean of course getting something you made out into the world, it's always very hard, it's just vulnerable, you know, I think directing is less vulnerable for me than acting, acting is just you, and when you are directing it's ok, it's the movie, even when you are making a painting it's there, it's a painting, but when you are acting there is no where to hide.

But as an actor you are the assistant of a storyteller, while when you are a filmmaker...
You are the storyteller, yeah certainly, yes that is true, you see now you are reminding me how vulnerable it really is. Trying to talk myself off the ledge...(laughs)

You don't have to... It's a good ledge to be on, come on. Let's try to make it easy. In your words, what is The Wannabe?
On the surface, it's about a couple who fall in love, it takes place in the nineties in New York City, the backdrop is the John Gotti trial and they attempt to fix the trial, they go into this really wild ride, underneath it all, it's about this tragic desire to be something you are not. It also deals with the mythology of film on our culture, of how it informs who we are, and I think the movie is about identity and the desire to be what you are not. The wannabe.

How was the process of writing, and crossing the boundaries between the facts and fiction?
There are a bunch of facts in there but I had my way with it all. I didn't treat anything as precious. It is based on real characters, but there was very little information about them, there were very simple facts about where they went and what they did, and I just put myself there and tried to imagine. I could imagine the single protagonist, the fanatic, we've seen that in films, but this time it was a couple and that is very complicated, but we kept saying, 'we need to make them strong, we need that relationship between them,' and for me I always wanted to cast somebody a bit older than him.

Patricia is fantastic...
She is unbelievable, she is great, both of them are really incredible.

What did they want?
The way I saw Thomas was, if he had grown up in Ohio, he probably would have worked in a video store or something, I just felt like he was always an outsider. I don't think he would have acted on it if he didn't meet her, she sort of ushered him in and gave him the power to act, to get what he wants, I mean it's demented, what he really wants, but she sort of deliveries that to him.

I think her desire, I hate to make this the woman who wants to care of a man, and I don't want to, but I think there is something really natural, something maternal, about their relationship, a little strange, but real, that developed between the two of them that I thought was fantastic. But then drugs get in the way and things start to fall apart.

This genre is really attractive but it hasn't been done in the form in of film in a while. How do you feel it translates to our culture today?
How does it play itself today? I feel like I made the movie in the early nineties as far as the genre goes, because organized crime, especially in New York, was on its way out. We went from Old New York to Giuliani's New York, so I get that he represented New York. For me, acting early on, I am from the Bronx, so I was going to play gangsters and I sort of shied away from that genre, I think everybody did in a way, and to me this was an angle that I've never seen before. I want to see somebody hurt somebody and then feel bad about it, because you don't always see that, we always see the sociopath and for me growing up it wasn't like that.

So, you grew up in the Bronx just like Thomas?
Yes, I grew up in an Italian neighborhood where there is no such a thing as "mafia." It was normal, people made money how they made money and nobody questioned it, and yes of course, I related. I always felt like Thomas, I always felt like I was on the periphery of all that stuff, and this desire of a wannabe, well, I am an actor, I spent the last 25 years pretending to be somebody else.

A character in the film makes metion: "Mafia as an institution is gone." Do you believe that to be true or you are just not in the Bronx anymore?
No it isn't, of course people are going to still make money illegally. Is it as organized as it was? I mean, I think what Thomas was searching for was this loyalty, this idea of family. Do I think there are guys still in my old neighborhood, yes of course they are, are they making money in a different illegal way, yes. But it is not what it was, still there, but it has a different face.

Thank you, you see? This wasn't that hard...
This wasn't, but now I have to do some camera stuff...

Just act (Laughs)

The Wannabe premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival