The most harrowing and difficult decisions people are forced to contend with in life are often the ones in which they must choose between the love of their family, even though they don’t always agree with their relatives’ actions, and their high moral standards and esteemed profession. Actor Brendan Fehr passionately plays Gaetano, one of the complex and relatable protagonists in the new crime drama, ‘Zarra’s Law,’ who admirably values his job of protecting and serving his community and country as an attorney and veteran, but is also conflicted over the actions of his family. The film, which is now available on DVD and iTunes, and was directed by Juha Wuolijoki, powerfully showcases that Gaetano has prioritized his career over his family in recent years, as he doesn’t agree with the illegal lifestyle his father chose. But after recconnecting with them during a difficult time, he has realized that defending his relatives’ honor is just as, if not more, important as his career.
‘Zarra’s Law’ follows retired New York City police officer Tony Zarra (Tony Sirico), who’s still struggling to move past the murder of his younger brother, who was in the mafia. While he didn’t agree with his brother’s lifestyle choices, he’s outraged when he finds out the man held responsible for his death, fellow gangster Bobby Stax (Wass Stevens), is being released from prison after serving only two years out of his eight year sentence. Tony is determined to find answers about the crime and send Bobby back to jail, through any means necessary. While the FBI warns Tony not to get involved with his proclaimed enemy, as the organization is investing Bobby in their own case, the former police officer vows to seek his own revenge.
Tony is joined in his search for the truth by his nephew, Gaetano (Fehr), who is now working as an attorney in Hoboken, New Jersey after he served time in the military. While Gaetano also despised the life his father chose for himself, he joins forces with his uncle to find the truth about his father’s murder. Gaetano decides the best way to find out why Bobby was released so early into his sentence, and what part he really played in his father’ death, is to infiltrate the world of organized crime and gets lost in a labyrinth of greed, dead ends and lies. With the help of Crystal (Erin Cummings), a local bartender who works at a restaurant Bobby and his associates frequent, as well as one of his clients, Vanessa (Kelli Barrett), who’s married to the violent gangster Frankie Andreoli (Brian Tarantina), Gaetano discovers the shocking truth that not only threatens to kill him, but his family as well.
Fehr generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Zarra’s Law’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the Los Angeles-based actor discussed how he was drawn to the crime drama not only because the chance to to play a New York Italian would help him stretch as a performer, but he also wanted the opportunity to film on the East Coast with Sirico, a New York City native; how he read books on the lives of gangsters, and spoke to people involved in the Mafia lifestyle who were willing to speak to him, as well as Sirico, who’s most well known for his role as Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri on ‘The Sopranos,’ in order to better understand Gaetano and his family’s background; and how he enjoys working on lower budget films that allow him enough time to efficiently capture the tone and emotions he wants in a scene, but not too much that they waste time and don’t allow him to keep the material fresh.
ShockYa (SY): You star as Gaetano in the new crime drama, ‘Zarra’s Law.’ What was it about the character, and the script overall, that convinced you to take on the role?
Brendan Fehr (BF): I was drawn to the opportunity to play such an interesting character. To be able to play a New York Italian was something I never really envisioned for myself. So to figure out who the character was helped stretch me as an actor. I’m a West Coast kid, but people always know someone from New York. So to be able to try to capture their vibe, and to see how close I could get to playing them correctly, was a challenge.
Also, I have never shot a project in New York before, but it was always something I wanted to do, so that aspect was also enticing too me. That city truly is one of a kind. As much as I am a West Coast kid, New York does have that allure that I wanted to experience. So to be able to play a native of the city really drew me in.
Also, the story has the Mafia aspect, which is something I’ve never had the opportunity to portray on screen, was appealing. To also have the chance to work with Tony Sirico was something else I was really looking forward to taking part in. I loved the experience of making the film-it was a great time.
SY: Speaking of acting with Tony on the drama, what was your working relationship with him like on the set as you were filming?
BF: We got along really well. Obviously we’re different people, as he’s New York, through-and-through, but I really understood him. I can read people really well, and I think he can, too. So there was definitely an element of enjoying the process of working with him, and understanding who he is and what he does. I also learned not to be intimidated by his impressive acting career.
He’s the type of guy who can see what kind of person you really are-he knows if you’re going to stand out for yourself, or if you’re going to cower. He knows how you’re going to approach him, as he’s a brash guy. I loved that about him, so he and I got along so well. He was one of my favorite guys to work with, as we were able to really talk about the film. I love how he’s true New York, and he says what he means and feels. For me, that’s the easiest way to work. Since he puts everything on the table, we can talk about whether we like what we’re doing. So for me, that was one of my favorite working relationships. We bonded over a few things-we’re both very particular about our hair. That’s something that helped cement the whole relationship. (laughs)
SY: What kind of research did you do for your role of Gaetano before you began filming, in order to understand his mindset and relationships?
BF: Well, I spoke to a few people who grew up in New York, and were in situations where the Mafia had been a presence, and asked them what that experience was like. I also spoke to a few people who had direct involvement in it. It’s one of those subjects that’s interesting to do research on, because it’s more of a hush-hush situation, as no one’s really going to talk about it. So you mainly read books with second-hand accounts.
You also read the script and figure out your character’s backstory, and fill in the blanks yourself. Then you run that by people who’ve had similar experiences, and see if it rings true. But you do as much research as you can, and read some books, and then play the role that was written on the page. You fill it out with as many details as you can, even ones that aren’t there on the page. Like one detail I worked on the question of who Gaetano’s mother was, and what was her role in his life? Did she get along with his father?
With Tony, he was there to guide me. He would say, “I believe that aspect of his life. That’s the way Gaetano would react, based on my experiences.” So having Tony and Joseph Scarpinito, who was one of the film’s writers, on the set was helpful. They would tell you whether what you were doing was ringing true or not. So that was a lot of help.
SY: Did you work with Tony to build your characters’ backstories before you began filming, or did you allow your relationship to form naturally on screen?
BF: Well, with this one, we didn’t do a lot of homework beforehand. The film had a small budget, so we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time. So we just went onto the set and shot our scenes. Tony knew what he wanted to do, and I knew what I wanted to do, which doesn’t make it right. But we had ideas that we had to come in with to the shoot.
But if a scene wasn’t working, we’d talk about why it wasn’t working, and what we could do to fix it. That’s when we would talk about the relationship. We would say, “I was thinking this about the situation, which is why I chose to say it that way.” So all the conversations we had about our relationship came up organically; we didn’t intentionally sit down and say, “Let’s discuss this.” It all came out throughout the film in different scenes, and we filled it out and refined it as we went along.
SY: What was the process of filming ‘Zarra’s Law’ independently on a shorter shooting schedule, particularly compared to bigger studio films you have starred in? Does independent filmmaking offer you more creative freedom when you portray relatable characters like Gaetano?
BF: I generally take the same approach for both. My homework should be done before I arrive on the set. It doesn’t stop, obviously, while you’re filming, as things are fluid and do change. But I should know what I want to do when I step on set. But whether I’m shooting for 15 days, or it’s going to be a 60-day shoot, I want to create a foundation before I arrive on set. That makes it easier to change and add things in the moment while we’re filming.
I like a shorter shoot, but they are getting too short at this point. Now people are shooting movies in 15-19 days, and that’s on the edge of just not having enough time to be able to do what you need to do. There are some big budget movies that probably are a little excessive, but there is a happy medium.
There a middle class movies that aren’t ultra-low budget, but you don’t have the resources to be wasting time, so efficiency is still required. Those are the types of shoots that I love, because I like to keep moving, and don’t like to stay in one scene forever. I want to keep the material fresh, but I also want time to be able to work a scene. But unfortunately, those movies are few and far between. But I have learned to find the joy in those independent, quick shoots, where you can hit the ground running and see something come alive, in a matter of three weeks.
SY: Like you mentioned earlier, ‘Zarra’s Law’ was filmed on location throughout New York, including Brooklyn and Staten Island. Do you prefer shooting on location where the story’s set? How does it influence the way you approach your character overall?
BF: Yes, shooting on location can be helpful, with this film especially. If we hadn’t shot in New York, the story wouldn’t have felt as authentic. But Tony can go anywhere and play the location as though it’s really New York. He’s lived there his whole life, as did Wass Stevens and Brian Tarantina, so they know the city. They can go anywhere and pull off the illusion that they’re in New York.
I can’t do that, because I don’t have as much experience there; I’ve only visited the city a few times in my life. So for me to really feel that with my character, it was essential for me to see and feel the city, and really live it. I stayed in the Lower East Side, and really walked the streets, so that I could really observe the people. That was important for me, as it helped me better understand my character.
I think if we would have shot this in Toronto, and passed it off as New York, I really would have been behind the eight ball. But being on location in such places as Brooklyn and Long Island really helped me feed off the people I saw on the street. I also spoke to some of the neighbors where we were shooting. I picked up their mannerisms and attitudes, as well as the way they talked, which was invaluable to me.
Written by: Karen Benardello.