Making his sensational film acting debut as Calogero Anello in the classic New York gangster based movie 'A Bronx Tale' actor Lillo Brancato Jnr had the acting world at his feet. But despite being taken under the wing by Robert De Niro and going on to appear in films like 'Crimson Tide' and 'Renaissance Man', as well as playing tragic wannabe gangster 'Matt Bevilaqua' in The Sopranos - it just wasn't enough for the now 39 year old actor, who unfortunately went on to cultivate both crack cocaine and heroin addictions, something which ultimately led to the death of an off duty police officer and a 10 year prison sentence.
One night back in 2005 Lillo Brancato Jr and a friend, both coming down from a recent crack binge, were desperately looking to score some heroin to take the edge of their withdrawals. They couldn't find any, so instead made their way to the house of someone Lillo knew in the Bronx who would be in the possession of some prescription/opiate based tablets, which would give the same hit as snorting heroin.
It all went fatefully wrong. Brancato smashed a window to gain entry and was caught coming out of the premises by next door neighbour and off-duty police officer, Daniel Enchautegui. He was hit by three gun shots, losing his spleen and resulting in a collapsed lung. It was at that moment Lillo's accomplice, who was waiting by the car, opened up on the off duty officer, killing him instantly.
While fighting for his own life in hospital Brancato learned of the death of the police officer. From their Lillo Brancato went on to receive an 10 year prison sentence, during which he learned to take responsibility for his actions, get clean and turn his life around, as well as gain a degree in business management.
Having left prison over a year ago, Lillo Brancato has continued to not only re-establish his acting career but live an altogether different lifestyle to the one that saw him almost throw it all away. Here he talks openly about the night that changed his life, his own feelings over the death of the off duty officer and why it all happened. Plus his acting career, looking back on working with Robert De-Niro and James Gandolfini, as well as his future and why he's determined to see his own prison-drama film eventually come together.
Hello Lillo, can you firstly tell us how things have been for you since your release from prison?
Lillo - So far so good, I got home new years eve 2013 and for the first year it was a little tough as far as getting work. There were people who just didn't want to risk giving me a job because of any backlash, so it was difficult, difficult to get back to where I wanted to be unfortunately.
But its not really about saying that your going to do the right thing but actually doing it. So that's what 2013 consisted of, me showing people through my actions by using my experiences and going along to talk to college students and high school students as well as places like addiction centres. Using my own experiences to try and deter them and help them with their own drug problems, I know what tough battle it is because I've been through it myself.
But that's from the heart, I'm not doing it so everyone says 'look, he's doing the right thing', its something that comes from the heart because it has an intrinsic value to me. It keeps me on the right path. Though I'm always aware you're not going to help change everyone you talk to, but if you can help just a few here and there to make changes then that's big, that's huge.
What kinda reactions have you had in your home town of Yonkers since coming home?
Yeah, the people locally to me have been supportive of me and what I'm trying to accomplish and the fact that I did turn my life around so yes, for the most part they have been very supportive.
I understand NYPD protested at your return to acting believing you do not have a right to work in the industry any more due to what happened, was this hard for you making your return to acting?
It was yes, early on I was meant to be in a music video that they protested and wanted people to boycott, which is something myself and my management team knew would happen so we were ready for it. You know, you just have to deal with it, you can't change the way things are in life so you just deal with it in the best way you know how to, and that's what we did.
As for the boycott of the video, it was the police benevolent association president who was calling for a boycott and I understand that loyalty he has for his guys. I'm a loyal person so I identify and relate to that loyalty he has for them, but the flip side to that is I wasn't the only person involved in the project/video. So when you boycott that video your hurting other people who don't deserve it. Not to say I do but people who have nothing to do with anything. They're going to suffer for bad decisions that I made in the past and I just don't think that's fair.
The off duty police officer 'Daniel Enchautegui' lost his own life after doing what was his duty, and as a well respected officer I'm sure his passing has been a great loss to both his family and colleagues.
At the same time though, how about the thought that you've been hard done by yourself? Though present at the incident, you didn't have a gun, you were shot 3 times yourself and critically wounded and you've also had to suffer backlash from both the police and media on your release. Your thoughts?
There's no question that it was an excessive sentence based on the conviction. Although there was a sentencing guideline from 3 and a half to 15 years so I could of been sentenced within that range. So my 10 year sentence wasn't the max, 15 years was. My lawyer Joe Tacapina, who is a very well known US criminal defence attorney worked really hard on my case and I owe a lot to him.
How did you feel personally about the sentence you received then?
For me I believe it was God that really imposed the sentence of 10 years because he felt that was the time necessary for me to get my life on track. Which I feel I have done by using that time wisely.
I earned a degree in associates which is a 2 year degree in business management from an accredited school, Ashworth college in Georgia. Which I paid for out of my own pocket to have the material sent to me. And so I was able to earn a degree which also gave me a 6 month time cut on my sentence. So I was able to come home at the end of 2013 as opposed to the middle of 2014.
You also kicked your drug addiction while locked up too didn't you?
Yes, I got sober in jail too, though I was still using when I got there and after about a year ended up overdosing in jail, but continued to use so was sentenced to 80 days in-punitive segregation. It was in the hole for those 80 days where I did some serious soul searching on where I wanted to go with my life. It's where I came to the conclusion that my drug use and what I was doing had to end, because I wasn't only hurting myself but a lot of people around me who love me and wanted to see me get through this.
So I decided on November the 18th 2006 that I would never touch a drug again in my life, and I haven't. This November will be 9 years in which I've been sober.
So how is life sober, are you an NA member?
Yeah, I go to NA meetings 3 to 5 times, I'm not going to say I go every day but I do go regularly. Part of working the steps is giving back, so I share my experiences with others in hope to deter them going through what I went through. It's good for everyone involved, the people I'm sharing these feelings with and of course myself which has helped me become stronger through doing so.
How about some of the people you've worked with? Maybe it's a bit too soon but would you like to one day meet up with Robert De Niro and other actors which you've worked closely with in the past?
For the most part no, I haven't reached out to them. I just don't want to reach out with them thinking I'm only doing so for a job, because that wouldn't be the reason. It would be more to make amends to the people I might of hurt in the past. And of course maybe a guy like De Niro who gave me an opportunity of a life time, as well as Chazz Palminteri who wrote 'A Bronx Tale', which was his own life story (played lead mobster 'Sonny') were probably hurt by what happened and more by the fact that some one lost their life behind my addiction.
So I just don't want it to be misconstrued as me going to them to seek employment, it'd be more about me apologising for the bad decisions I made. But I'm here now and I'm a better person so maybe in time we could be friends again, but along those lines and nothing more.
You were incarcerated when you heard the news of James Gandolfini's passing, what effect did it have on you at the time?
I remember walking in the hall way of the Hudson Correction facility and my friend James was on the phone to his dad, I didn't know and it was him who told me saying "Hey Lillo, I don't know if you know but James Gandolfini passed away".
At first upon hearing that it didn't really hit me because he was a young guy and was such a powerful character in The Sopranos, its like he was invincible. But when it really sunk in I was really torn up about it, it was very upsetting, he was a great guy.
I also worked with James on the film 'Crimson Tide' in 1994 when I was 17/18 years old and though we didn't have scenes together I knew him and had conversations at length and he was not only a great guy but a fantastic actor, one of the best I've ever worked with, no doubt about it. Personally I feel really blessed to have worked with some one with that calibre, to look back and say 'wow I worked with that guy'' is a real blessing.
Has the last ten years also changed you as an actor and performer too?
I'd say absolutely, I have a lot more to draw from now, you know I felt emotions and feelings while being away and facing the rest of my life behind the prison walls thinking I was never coming home. I felt feelings of fear and sadness and it was such a really dark time in my life that I had never felt anything like it before, and to be honest with you I didn't realise those emotions existed inside of me until I was actually there.
So now yes, definitely, as an actor I have more depth because of what I have experienced, and now because of that experience I can draw from so much emotion wise.
So work wise and acting what are you up to right now?
I've done a film called 'The Mobsters of Mulberry Street'', it was my first film home and I played the role of a priest which enjoyed playing very much. I play a young priest called Father Caldino and I just thought it would be a perfect role for my first film home and after all that had happened. It sent a positive message which was important to me.
Eric Roberts and a friend of mine Frankie Monterro wrote it whose also a leading character in the film too, I was blessed to be a part of it, it was a really cool film and I believe its going to do well.
Also I have just done a film with my good friends Paul Bodazzi and William De Mayo where I was given a wonderful opportunity to be in a film with these guys, Alec Baldwin, Mike Tyson, Danny Glover, a really great great cast.
You're also planning to put a prison film together aren't you, showing a whole different and very real side to being locked up, what's it called?
Yeah, well I've got a really strong management team now behind me and right now were trying to get the film off the ground. It's called 'Valhalla'. It's a movie about being in the county jail but its a very accurate depiction of what its like fighting a case while locked up. Because there's a big difference between prison and jail. If your in jail your not yet convicted, you can be convicted but only if its less than a year. But if they sentence you to a year and a day you go up-state, you're now a state prisoner.
Is that something you did a lot of yourself?
I did, when your in jail your usually fighting your case, because the only thing you can think about is going home and fighting your case so a lot of the film takes place in the 'Law Library'. Reading up on the law is a really important aspect of being incarcerated, and a lot of people don't know that so its what I want to really show that through the film. Because I believe others who were, or are incarcerated will recognise that and really relate to it. Don't get me wrong there is a lot of violence in prisons, not to say I experienced much of that but you do see a fight here and there but I'm not going to blow it out of proportion or say I had a rough sentence, it wasn't like that.
But I did see a lot of people using typewriters, typing out motions, using law books and just learning on the law because the most important thing to anyone locked up is there freedom. And the only way to get that is by learning the law itself, to win a case or over turn one. So it's that importance of studying the law while incarcerated which the screen play is all about, and its why I'm adamant about getting this film made. I've got a friend Don Capria who wrote it who will also be directing it and also my business partner Ray Vanercore who is one of the producers on the film, and were just trying to secure financing as we speak. We've had some bites but I'm positive we'll be able to lock up the financing very soon as we have some people interested, but officially have not said yes.
Its sounds like a role and film perfectly suited to you right now, is it frustrating trying to get films/projects your into so much off the ground?
Yeah, but its all about the love of the art and the process of what it takes to get a film made too, and I understand all those elements. I mean, what I've learn-ed in life is things happen when there meant to happen, not when you want them to happen. So maybe there's a reason why its not happening right now, the same reason why it could happen in say 2 months but in time things do reveal themselves. So I can't say when but I do know one day it will.
Do you find the film industry a slightly different place to the one you worked in during your younger days. Not as much money about maybe, harder to make films come together?
Yeah, definitely, people are much more hesitant nowadays investing in film as they were back in the day, simply because we're experiencing tougher times. But that's like what goes up has to come down - and what goes down also comes back up. It's all about dealing with what comes your way the best way you know how.
All in all you sound focused and level headed about your future, is this from using your time wisely, gaining some wisdom while in prison?
Yeah, but though the wisdom I acquired while incarcerated has really helped me in my life post-incarceration, it should never have been at the expense of someone losing their life, and that's something that I live with every day.
Not a day goes by without me thinking about it, how I wish I could have the power to change it so that police officer Daniel Enchautegui would be alive today. But in life we can't do that, we can't go back, but by learning from our past we can try and make today and the future better. It's what I now strive to do every day, to be a better person.
And is the best still yet to come from Lillo Brancato 'the actor'?
I really hope so...but I've got to be honest and say a film like 'A Bronx Tale' would be really hard to top. I mean that was Robert De Niro's directorial debut which is something you only do once, you know what I mean. As a director he was really raw and I think he really captured that particular part of Bronx and what went on on in that time as good as you could of possibly done it . And the fact he went with unknown actors to play the roles and carry the film was a very important reason why it was so successful. Its a classic film and to this day everyone loves it.
But just to be in a film with Robert De Niro, never mind be directed by him as well as working with Chazz Palminteri, and to better that?...well I really hope so but its going to be a tough one to top. Its something I get asked many times and I still can't believe I was part of film history. And once again I'm blessed, and its these blessings which god bestows upon us which obligate us to help other people. I recognise that now and its something I'm trying to do, when you help others it just makes you feel good, and when you feel good you do good.