John Cassini. You may know him from such locally made television programs as Robson Arms, Da Vinci’s Inquest, and the much-missed Intelligence. The Ontario-born actor came up through the usual B.C. shows, like Wiseguy and Neon Rider. He also garnered small parts in U.S. movies like Se7en and Get Carter, and he has produced some features of his own, including an updated Hamlet and last year’s indie-minded Hit ’n Strum.
An intensely compelling presence in comedy or drama, the long-time Vancouverite has alternated between playing cops and robbers in crime-oriented series like the rez-set Blackstone and sci-fi Continuum. And he also does stage work, recently as co–artistic director of the Railtown Actors Studio. Right now, however, he’s most excited about his involvement with The Resurrection of Tony Gitone, an independent feature opening Friday (May 31). In the Toronto-filmed tale, he’s one of 10 sharp performers—nine Italo-Canadian men and one Mexican-born woman—contributing to a group-crafted script.
“It was all done at the Gatto Nero, a restaurant that has been on College Avenue for about 50 years,” Cassini explains, calling from his Vancouver home. “It’s ground zero for Little Italy. We had to wait until the place closed and then worked until the sun rose, shooting on six hot August nights last summer. It was only the cast and a very small crew, and we spent a lot of time hangin’ out and drinking coffee. The whole thing reminded me of my youth in Toronto. And it was a chance to speak Italian, which I never do unless I call my mom.”
Cassini, who has already received a Leo nomination for his supporting work in Gitone, says the film’s central inspiration came earlier, from writer-director Jerry Ciccoritti sitting for days in that fabled joint and watching the passing parade of Italianate personalities. Finally, he approached the owner, who okayed the shoot as long as it didn’t interrupt business.
The story, as it took shape, would involve a rising actor from the neighbourhood, played by Fab Filippo, returning to show off his new Hollywood girlfriend, a star from Spain (Paula Rivera). Veteran players like Tony Nardi, Louis Di Bianco, and Nick Mancuso would join the cast, with Cassini as a working-class stiff panicked by a cheating spouse.
“I was the only one from Vancouver,” the actor recalls, “and I flew out twice, for rehearsals at the Canadian Film Centre. After a lot of improv, we went away for two months; Jerry worked up a draft with two other writers, and we went through it again, adding some things on the go. It’s such a wonderful and unique thing to get permission to improvise, because the molecules in the room change when you’re actually shooting. We shot pretty much two takes on everything, and that was it.”
This is one case in which the process was even more rewarding than the product.
“Profound is a pretty strong word, but it really was like going home. As an actor, and as a person, Vancouver has become home to me, but there’s no place like the town where you grew up. Of course, I once went to L.A. for two weeks and stayed for 12 years, but that’s a story for another day.”