“I learned to give love and get love unconditionally. You just have to accept people for what they are. And I learned the greatest gift of all: the saddest thing in life is wasted talent and the choices that you make will shape your life forever.”— Those were the immortal lines delivered by Lillo Brancato as Calogero Anello in “A Bronx Tale.” It was his first role as an actor and yet it’s one of the most powerful performances ever put to film. Brancato would have no idea in that moment that the words uttered in his teens would foreshadow his own life in so many ways. After his debut in Robert De Niro’s 1993 directorial debut, Brancato was widely considered to be “the next De Niro” and went onto star in high profile films such as “Renaissance Man,” “Crimson Tide” and the landmark series “The Sopranos.” Unfortunately, as many child stars before, Brancato became embroiled in the underworld of Hollywood. He became addicted to drugs and was arrested for the murder of an NYPD officer during a drug excursion that took a terrible, wrong turn. Despite being cleared of the murder charge, he still spent more than eight years in prison on an attempted burglary conviction. During his time in prison, the once-heralded actor was finally able to get clean and sober. Now, free from the chains of addiction, Brancato is sharing his story in the hopes of helping those who may be headed down the dark paths that he once haunted.
Director Steve Stanulis (“Clinton Road,” “The Fifth Boro”), a decorated and retired NYPD officer himself, is the man bringing Brancato’s story to the screen. The no-holds-barred documentary, “Wasted Talent,” traces Lillo Brancato’s rise from obscurity to movie stardom, to his crushing fall from grace, while shining a much needed light on the opioid crisis that paralyzes so many Americans from all walks of life. Of the project, Steve Stanulis states, “When Lillo approached me to direct the project, I told him the only way I would consider it is if it was an impartial piece from both sides; as many people think he deserves a second chance, there are just as many that do not. That objectivity was very important to me as a former NYPD officer. We look forward to people finally seeing the resulting film and to audiences forming their own opinions.” Also featuring insights from Drea de Matteo (“The Sopranos”), music producer Damon Dash, Fredro Starr, Paula Devicq (“Party of Five”) and legendary columnist A.J. Benza, the film recently won “Best Documentary” at the New York City International Film Festival.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Lillo Brancato for an uncensored look at his past struggles, what it took to turn his life around, and the work he is doing as an outreach coordinator to help others escape the crippling grip of addiction. Along the way, we also get a glimpse of what the future may hold for him, both on-screen and off.
You first came onto everyone’s radar with your classic role in Robert Dinero’s directorial debut, “A Bronx Tale.” How did you land the role way back when?
I was just on my summer vacation after finishing 10th grade back in 1992. I was 15 years old, going to be 16. I was on the beach on July 5th, 1992. There was a scout who was walking around handing out flyers that said they were looking for a boy who was 16 or 17 years old with no acting experience to play Robert De Niro’s son in a film that would be De Niro’s directorial debut.
It’s interesting that they wanted someone with no experience. Was it ever explained why they wanted to go that route?
I guess he just wanted authenticity. He was looking for the film to be as authentic as possible. I think when you watch the finished product, it definitely worked!
I couldn’t agree more. The film had a tremendous buzz surrounding it when it was going into production. Did you have any idea that the film would go on to become a true classic?
I thought it would do well but not nearly as well as it has done through the years. The film just celebrated its 25th anniversary on September 29th and it’s like the film just came out! People quote it all the time and things like that, so I don’t I knew it could have the impact that it has had on people.
What is it about “A Bronx Tale” that still resonates with people a quarter century later?
The film runs the gamut of so many things. I mean, you have the wiseguy/monster thing that people really gravitate to and love. Then you have the whole love story between a young boy and girl. Then you also have the whole father and son dynamic. There is just so much going on and there are so many moving parts in that movie. I think it’s a movie everyone loves because it does cover so much ground. In addition, every aspect of it was done so well and so tastefully that people really, really like it and it stands the test of time.
How did your world change once the movie was released?
You know, you had people coming out of the woodwork. There are the people you knew when you were younger showing up and you hadn’t spoke to them in years. Everyone wanted to be your friend and be around you. With all of that comes the temptation, the drugs and the women. At 16 years old, you don’t have nearly enough experience to be able to navigate through all of these outside forces and put yourself in a position where you’re going to be able to move forward in a successful way.
Tell us a little about you struggle with addiction. When did these dark forces begin to take hold?
I started using marijuana when I was 16 years old and cocaine when I was about 17. I would say that my early 20s was when the addiction really got a hold of me and I just couldn’t stop. It obviously continued to spiral further out of control with every single time that I used.
What was rock bottom for you and what ultimately started to turn things around for you?
Obviously, there was the fateful night of December 10th, 2005, where a heroic New York City police officer lost his life at the hands of my addiction, which is something I take full responsibility for. You would think that would be rock bottom, but it wasn’t. When I was incarcerated and charged with murder, I was still using. On November 12th, 2006, I overdosed in my cell and I still continued to use. On November 18th, I got an attorney visit from a friend and my cousin. They were really, really disappointed in me. For some reason, that day something just clicked. I made the decision that I didn’t want to live my life like that any longer. I decided what was important, and that was fighting my case in an effort to go home. I stopped using drugs and I started learning more about the law and started to get more involved in everything that was necessary for me to prevail. It was a really, really dark time in my life because I didn’t have much experience in being incarcerated and what I was up against, so I just learned day by day. It was a very dark time in my life and I thank God every single day that he got me through it.
As I explain the the documentary, “Wasted Talent,” when you’re in a situation like I was…I always say, “When you’re in prison or the hospital is where you see who your real friends are.” I say that because in those two places, you have nothing to offer people. Nothing. It’s all about what they can offer you. A lot of times people might have an ulterior motive and it’s what you can do for them but when you’re in those two places, you can’t do anything for anyone. A lot of people I was very close to growing up were no longer there. When you’re in prison, you don’t see these people anymore and a lot of people left my side. One person who never left my side was God. I saw that with my own eyes and realized that he really does exist. Once I saw, I became much closer to Him. There were times in my life where I doubted God and I doubted faith. A lot of bad things happened in my life and I couldn’t find a way to explain them, or how to explain God letting these things happen and justifying why they happened. It was when I was there that I saw that I was wrong. As the days went by and I got sober, I began to see how things started to play themselves out. I saw that it was all to my benefit and God did that. He put me in that horrible situation for me to use the experience to get better. It was day by day that I saw that!
You mentioned the powerful new documentary,”Wasted Talent.” How did the ball get rolling on this project?
I’ve been approached to do a documentary on my life, obviously, more than once. However, the biggest reason I wanted to do it now was because of the whole opioid epidemic we are seeing in this country, which is probably at an all-time high. There are kids dying every single day. I just thought that after all that I went through and knowing what it’s like to be an addict of opiates, and knowing how dangerous they are that this would be the perfect time for the project. I love the whole dynamic between director Steve Stanulis and I, in that Steven was a former member of law enforcement. You know, this isn’t about “Let’s get Lillo back and show what a great person he is.” No, this is about the reality of what drug addiction is all about. I had the world at one point. I had gold. I was offered the lead role in Robert De Niro’s directorial debut, a film that went on to become a beloved classic. People love this film and, in a lot of ways, that was better than winning the lotto. I squandered such a beautiful opportunity that was given to me. It’s all because of drugs. This is what happens and this is why I wanted to show this fall from grace through this film. I want to show kids that if it happened to me it could also happen to them. When I was a kid, like many people, I thought I was invincible and nothing can happen to me, but it happened. I saw it with my own eyes and I want kids to see with their own eyes what happened to me. Maybe they will say, “Hey, ya know what? Maybe I shouldn’t do this. Maybe I shouldn’t try this.”
How did you and Steven Stanulis initially cross paths?
We crossed paths through a mutual friend, Noel Ashman, who was also a producer on the documentary. He introduced us and thought it would be a good idea for us to meet. Steven was interested in doing a documentary, so I met with him and he was a really good guy. He stressed to me over and over, “Lillo, this is not going to be a puff piece.” I said, “Yeah. Let’s do it.” I love the fact that he was a former cop and has that perspective.
No matter who was involved with a documentary like this, it could have gone a lot of ways. Did you have reservations going into a project like “Wasted Talent”?
Absolutely. The way I looked at it was that other than death there is not much worse that can happen to me that hasn’t already happened. The bottom line is that the message would get out there, the message being what I went through and how dangerous it can be if you make similar decisions to use and abuse drugs.
This is a powerful documentary. It was interesting to see this from many different angles. Ultimately, I find it really inspiring to see making the most from your life experience. What can you tell us about the work you are doing in terms of outreach?
I was doing a lot of this through my social media. People would reach out to me and tell me what an inspiration I was to them and someone took notice. They said, “Why don’t you keep doing what you’re doing but we would like to work with you as well.” I’m a national outreach coordinator for a company called Amatus Health. Basically, what I do is try to get people into treatment. I’m living proof that you can overcome addiction. That’s important because when you are in the grips of the addiction, it robs you of almost all of your ambition to ever want to get better. I’m showing people daily that recovery is a possibility. I’ll put it this way, I know God didn’t get me through everything that He got me through to come out and be the same person I was. He did that to help me do his work, which I intend to do until the day I die.
In addition to the work you are doing for others, you have ventured back into the world of film. In fact, I see you recently wrapped shooting a film with Steve Stanulis called “The Fifth Boro.” Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about your role?
This is a great role. It’s the second lead in the film. My character’s name is Sonny Finici. The story is basically about Steven’s character, Nico, whose daughter has cancer. The cancer treatment drugs cost a lot of money, so he goes back on the street to commit crimes to get enough money to pay for his daughter’s treatment. My character is one of his close friends and we go on quite a ride together in this film!
One of the projects you took on shortly after your release was “Monsters of Mulberry Street.” You play Father Palladino in the film. It’s a great role. How did it come to you and what did you bring to it?
Initially, the kid who did the film, Frankie Montero, went to Sacred Heart High School in Yonkers, which is where I went. Obviously, he is a lot younger than I am. He came to my house with a script and a box of cookies and wanted me to play the role of Rocco in the film. When I read the script, this is literally a few months after I came home, I saw that the character was involved in all this violence, gunplay and this and that. I just didn’t think it was something I would want to do at that point in time. I felt it would be a slap in the face to the family of members of law enforcement in general. I said, “Listen man, I can’t do this. This is not what I want to do right now at this point in my career.” He said, “Well, we really want you to be in this. There is the role of a priest in this script. He’s written a little bit older but we could write him a little bit younger, if you are serious and want to do this.” I thought to myself, “Wow! A priest! That’s definitely something I would want to do.” And what better role to play than a priest, a man of God, as my first film after all that had happened. So, we did it! This character, this priest, had also made some bad decisions earlier on in his life and turned his life over to God, so there were certain parallels between the character and myself.
What’s your typical process for bringing a new character to life?
If there is a profession the character is involved in, I try to delve into that first to see what that entails. Usually, a lot of these characters are pretty similar to what I am. Based on what the character is and the way he is written, I try to get myself in that headspace to play that character the best way I know how.
We have seen you grow as an actor from your first role to the point where you are now. How do you feel you have most evolved as an actor?
For one thing, after everything I went through and going to trial — that’s nerve-racking. Before, I thought being in front of a camera was nerve-racking but that is actually a blessing. That’s the way I perceive it now. One of the biggest ways I’ve evolved as an actor is that I just don’t feel that nervousness or tension. I can take those moments, not anticipate what’s going to be said and it becomes much more real. I have the ability now to dig deep inside of me and channel into the emotions that I had never felt prior to being incarcerated. These are emotions I probably would have never felt had I not been incarcerated. So, I know that I now have these emotions in my arsenal and I can bring that depth to the characters I portray and convey on film. As an actor, I think I have evolved a lot in that way.
What else do you have on your plate at the moment when it comes to acting?
I was in a movie called “Dead On Arrival,” which you can get on Amazon TV or VOD. It’s out there right now. It’s a really awesome independent film. I also have a film called “The Fury,” which is probably going to come out around March or April. In the film, I play a member of law enforcement, so that is going to be pretty interesting.
What are you looking for in the material you take on these days?
If you remember a film I did call “Renaissance Man,” I recited Shakespeare in the rain. I’m not necessarily saying I want to do Shakespeare for the rest of my life but I think I am much more capable than the roles I’ve been playing. I just want people to be able see that. I guess, I’m just looking for something that is really challenging to me. You know what I mean?
I definitely do and I’m really glad to see you getting some of those opportunities. I ask this question of a lot of people I speak with, but I think it’s very important to ask you. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?
All I can say is that no matter how bad things might get, they always get better or your ability to deal with them get better. It’s important to not make impulsive decisions. I think that is what you can take away from my story.
Lillo, I thank you for your time today. I will definitely keep in touch as you move forward. I’m truly looking forward to seeing more of your work and hearing more about the work you are doing behind-the-scenes.
Thank you so much, man! I appreciate that, I really do.
‘Wasted Talent’ will be released on November 13th via Freestyle Digital Media. Follow Lillo Brancato’s story and connect with him through social media via Instagram.