In a basement rehearsal room in Spanish Harlem, exposed pipes snaking overhead, Armand Assante nervously taps out the drum rolls that he hasn't played since last May, when he shot this scene for "The Mambo Kings." The New York premiere party starts in 24 hours, and he's supposed to re-create a bit of movie magic, live on stage, for celebs, investors, groupies and paparazzi .
Thin lips pursed in concentration, lank hair falling in his eyes, Assante paces one corner of the room and raps out the clave, the intricate 2-3 Afro-Cuban rhythm that gives the mambo its distinctive swivel. His 16-inch sticks never stop, beating his black-jeaned thighs, his black cowboy boots, the cheap tweed fold-out couch--whatever comes to hand.
As he steps up to the timbales, standing next to legendary Latin bandleader Tito Puente, he shoots a drowning-puppy look at director Arne Glimcher, watching a few feet away. "You can do this," Glimcher prods, in a tone that rules out any thought of quitting unless Assante wants to consider, say, a heart attack.
"I'm worried," Assante pleads. "There's a lot of tricky stuff in there."
"There'll be a lot of noise," Glimcher soothes.
Puente gives the cue. Jackhammer horns, congas. Timbales. Assante and Puente hammer out a duet.
"Terrible," he mimes at Glimcher, his face reddening with embarrassment.
Take two. Assante attacks the timbales again. Stops again. "I don't know what the (expletive) I'm doing in this place," he blurts.
"Armand, you can do it," Glimcher repeats.
"I can do it," Assante says. "But I wanna do it great."
The stakes are high for Armand Assante, king of the miniseries, on "The Mambo Kings." Assante, of Italian and Irish extraction, raised in Washington Heights and Cornwall, N.Y., is an unlikely choice to star in a movie about Cuban immigrant musicians in 1950s New York. He can hardly claim that the mambo runs in his blood.
Assante, 41, admits that he speaks only subway Spanish, and that until "Mambo Kings," which opened Friday, his musical taste tended more to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Chopin than to Machito, Puente and Tito Rodriguez.
Sure, he played the drums in high school, for a band called the Phaeton IV, but that was rock 'n' roll, not clave.
"The difficulty of doing it in the film was that it wasn't in my system," he says. "I immersed myself with all those musicians. I hung out in clubs. It's impossible to mambo if it's not in your body."
He's a bit defensive about the absence of Latinos in leading roles (unless you count Spaniard Antonio Banderas), but suggests that the story, in some Shakespearean way, transcends ethnic boundaries.
"I always felt very intimidated about doing it, because I'm non-Cuban," he says. "But I don't think the film is trying to be the last will and testament about Latin culture at all. I think it's just trying to deal with the story, which is a universal story."
Ethnic typecasting has been a staple of Assante's career--and a hindrance.
In "Private Benjamin" (1980) he played a cad French gynecologist who seduces Goldie Hawn with two words: "I'm Jewish." The movie was a hit, but the box-office stardom that it seemed to promise never materialized.
Instead, he paid the bills--handsomely, acquiring a house in Los Angeles and a 215-acre farm in Orange County, N.Y., where he lives with his wife, Karen, and their two daughters--with a string of TV miniseries ("Napoleon and Josephine," "Jack the Ripper," "Passion and Paradise"). In 1990, he staged a comeback d'estime in Sidney Lumet's "Q&A."
He showed a knack for accents--playing Napoleon, a Cajun faith healer and a Puerto Rican drug kingpin--but behind the voice, it was hard to find the man. "None of these accents have served my career," he laments. "They've helped my work, but they haven't really served my career."
He pauses, then, like Cesar Castillo, the ambitious loser he plays in "Mambo Kings," explodes: "I don't have a career. I've never had a career. I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. I've been lucky. I always worked, thank God, but I'm getting a little tired, in the sense that I don't want to be a hired gun anymore."
In "Mambo Kings," he's found both the prestige vehicle and the Hollywood star turn that he's been waiting for. If the movie succeeds, he could achieve the bankability that has eluded him for more than a decade.
Assante is gung-ho, but edgy. Would he like to be a matinee idol? "If the movie makes a nickel, yeah," he says.
He is quiet, attentive, not inclined to make jokes. With his high cheekbones, furrowed brow, and cleft chin, it's easy to understand why he's often been cast as Casanova. He likes the color black. He owns a 13-year-old black Porsche. He probably sleeps in his black jeans--he wears them at rehearsal, at the preview party and for an interview in his hotel room.
He insists that he is always miscast. In real life, he says, he is more like the painfully brooding Nestor of the movie than the swashbuckling Cesar.
"To tell you the truth, Antonio is more Cesar and I'm more Nestor. I'm much more withdrawn and, in a way, afraid. He is much more extroverted. Watch him at the party. He's a wonderful performer. He can jump up and just go. I had to rehearse."
With his dark jeans, and slurry, Brandoesque voice, he exudes Angst. On second thought, forget matinee idols. If this picture works, he wants to play losers.
"I want to do roles that are frail. I think life's real fragile. It's a tragic situation. It's hopeless. That's why I love this story so much. To me, that's like life."