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Sunset Park native finds his Brooklyn roots are a boon to his film career

for The Brooklyn Paper
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So there’s this Italian-American kid from Brooklyn - Sunset Park, to be exact - who goes to LA to make movies. And what role does he bag his first time out? A ’50s Italian-American gang member from Sunset Park!

Playing one of the Deuces in the Brooklyn-set drama "Deuces Wild," opening on Friday, actor Ronnie Marmo, feels like he’s come home. Born in Sunset Park, he lived on 47th Street till he was 6, but with cousins throughout the borough, he split his wonder years between Park Slope and Windsor Terrace.

Back in New York to promote the film, which stars Stephen Dorff, Brad Renfro and Matt Dillon, Ronnie spoke about his work in "Deuces Wild" and other projects over lunch at Mazzola’s on Court Street.

When did he get the acting bug? He said he always knew he would act, but did "absolutely nothing" towards that goal. Too busy with his friends, he worked - as a waiter, as a sanitation worker - at anything but acting.

How old is he? "How old do you want me to be?" he joked, but did admit that he plays a 20-year-old in the film, "And I’m not 20!"

Seven years ago his mother died of brain cancer. It was the impetus for Ronnie to finally get moving, he said. He did community theater, and it was a revelation. Later, he got the role of Tony in the Philadelphia production of "Tony & Tina’s Wedding."

Between that and working in the national touring company of the show for six months, "I’ve been married about 700 times," said Marmo.

Three and a half years ago, he took the plunge and moved to Los Angeles. He swears the story of his "big break" is true: He was in a pizza joint on Melrose called Brooklyn Pizza. A guy - the location manager for "Deuces Wild" - walked up to him and gave him the name of the film’s casting agent. Ronnie pretended to be his own manager, snagged himself an audition and landed the role of gang member Moof.

The film takes place in Brooklyn in the late 1950s, at a time when guns and drugs were creeping into the street culture. Dorff plays Leon, the head of the Deuces, and Renfro is his hotheaded brother Bobby. Both lost another brother, Allie, to drugs three years before.

Seems Allie was given the fatal dose by Marco, head of the Vipers, a rival gang that ran their business literally across the street. Now Marco’s about to get out of prison. He sends his pals to open a "social club" on the Deuces’ side of the street, where they’ll score by dealing heroin. He also wants revenge on Leon, who helped send him away, and aligns himself with Fritzy (Dillon), the neighborhood boss. The fighting that ensues is over turf, but also respect.

"It’s not about guns, it’s about brotherhood," says Marmo. "In those days, you fought, you got a black eye, and you went home."

Although it tries to be a ground-breaking drama about the era, "Deuces Wild," directed by Scott Kalvert ("The Basketball Diaries"), doesn’t really achieve any kind of edginess. There are some sleek camera movements, and stylized fight scenes, but they don’t add any spark to the film. What it does create is an opportunity for these talented young men to play that classic outsider, the rebel without a cause. Funny - those are movie titles - which proves it has been done before.

But just as every actor wants to play Hamlet, many want to play these iconic street characters. And the "Deuces Wild" cast does a good job of bringing them to life.

Marmo’s character Moof ("I’m 28th banana on this film," he boasts) is one of the only gang members that actually articulates the problems they face, and the options they have.

How did he prepare to play a character from a generation ago? "I’ve always felt I should have been born then," he remarks. But his dad, Joe Marmo, was, and he flew to LA to tell the young cast how they used to make weapons from belts and car antennas, said Marmo.

There are love interests for both Leon and Bobby in the film. Bobby’s girl Annie (Fairuza Balk) is the sister of one of the Vipers’ honchos. So there are references galore to "West Side Story" and, more classically, "Romeo and Juliet."

The few parents that appear are ineffectual, giving us more than a hint as to why these kids are so disaffected. Bobby and Leon’s mother is an alcoholic (stemming, no doubt, from the death of her first son), and Annie’s mother, played by punk diva Debbie ("Blondie") Harry, is just plain nuts, playing Christmas carols in the middle of the summer.

The movie was shot on a Paramount back lot and other locations around Los Angeles. Marmo described a cemetery scene where the camera had to be positioned between two palm trees. Look closely and you’ll find some discrepancies - for instance, the school at the end of what is supposed to be 47th Street is PS 29, but everyone knows it’s on Baltic Street in Cobble Hill!

Marmo doesn’t get star struck often, he said, but he had plenty of idols on the set. Matt Dillon was "fun to watch, because he’s such a pro," he said. As for Harry - "’Heart of Glass,’ I played that record four billion times as a kid, it was my pick-up record!" And he has struck up a "great" friendship with Vincent Pastore (the ill-fated Pussy of "The Sopranos"), who plays the local priest.

In fact, Pastore called during the interview about Marmo’s play, "West of Brooklyn," which will be produced in June at the 68 Cent Crew Theater Company in Los Angeles, which Marmo founded.

"When I wrote it, my dream was to get Vinnie to do a role," he said. "And he is. Dreams really do come true."

Coming on the heels of "Deuces Wild," there are more film projects, including "Irish Eyes," in which he’ll play Jimmy "The Bomb" Varelli.

Is he afraid of being typecast?

"I was afraid, but I’m not anymore," said Marmo. "I embrace it. However I get in the door is fine."


Marian Masone is the associate director of programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chief curator of the New York Video Festival at Lincoln Center.

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