As "Straight Out of Brooklyn" opens, Dennis, played by Lawrence Gilliard Jr., lies wide awake in the room he shares with his sister, silently listening as his father goes into a drunken, wife-beating, plate-breaking rage. As the movie unfolds, the young man robs a drug dealer to save his family from itself and from the drug- and gun-infested streets around it.
The role played by Mr. Gilliard -- who came out of West Baltimore, by way of music studies at the School for the Arts and the Juilliard School, to star in one of the summer's most interesting and acclaimed films -- is hardly autobiographical: Not only did he never resort to crime, but he never even got into trouble. And his father never beat his mother, though maybe that's because she left him when Larry was 7, taking him and his sister from New York to Baltimore.
But the character is not exactly beyond his realm of experience, either: His father was a drug and alcohol abuser who died six years ago, at the age of 36, of cirrhosis of the liver. And the streets outside his family's tiny rented row house in Harlem Park, not far from the Lexington Terrace housing project, are not appreciably different from those depicted in the film.
"I understand," Larry Gilliard says quietly, "where all the characters in the movie are coming from."
He is sitting in the Mount Vernon apartment of Susan Berger, his girlfriend and a fellow School for the Arts graduate, on the last Sunday in June, dressed in a pair of denim shortalls, red shirt and small black derby hat. A soft-spoken and serious young man with a tiny gold earring in his left ear and a slight gap between his two front teeth, he seems younger than his 23 years.
He has come back to Baltimore from his home in New York to see the movie, which opened here and across the country last Friday, with his friends and family. It is his eighth viewing of the movie by 19-year-old novice filmmaker Matty Rich since it premiered in New York at the end of May.
"The first two times, I got to see myself enough to critique myself," says Mr. Gilliard, who made his professional acting debut -- not his film acting debut, but his acting debut, period -- in the movie.
"Since then, I've gone [to see it] with friends. They like to know what I feel about things, like 'Why does the wife stay with the husband who abuses her?' I explain that he is a black man stripped of his self-esteem. No matter how hard he struggled, things never worked out. He built up rage and takes it out on his family. She understands that."
The sociological thrust of the film, coupled with the chance for exposure, were the reasons he decided to accept the part two years ago in a movie by a then-17-year-old unknown director. He agreed to take a deferred payment for his part, and used vacation time from his job as an office assistant for a law firm and two weeks of unpaid leave to shoot the film.
"I did it because of the project," he says. "It was a serious story, a truthful story. It was educational."
It was also not remotely what Larry Gilliard thought he would be doing as he grew up in a family where his mother stretched her salary as a clerical worker to make ends meet. She raised Larry, his younger sister Corliss and, later, half-sister Tiffany and half-brother Timothy in an atmosphere of discipline and warmth.
"It was very hard, trying to support my children and keep them out of trouble," confides Edith Gilliard, who moved in with her grandmother and spent a year on welfare when she first came to Baltimore, before finding a job and a place of her own. "There were times we had pancakes for dinner. But we always ate."
At first, Mr. Gilliard wanted to be a sports figure; then, after taking up the clarinet in middle school, a symphony musician.
"I didn't know a lot about classical music," he says. "But I did like movie music -- 'Star Wars' and 'Superman' -- and they seemed close. Besides, I didn't want to be a stockbroker."
He got accepted to the School for the Arts, after an audition that might have been his first big acting job.
"He hadn't really had any formal musical training at all," recalls Leslie Seyffert, dean of arts administration at the school. "He had gotten a record out of the library and learned a score by ear. He kind of faked his way through the audition.
"He was very musical," she adds. "It's amazing for a student in ninth grade just starting to read music to later be accepted to Juilliard."
The more he played, the more he found he liked it. "There's a feeling you get," he says. "It takes you outside yourself."
Ms. Berger says Mr. Gilliard, as a high school student, was "not only a great musician, but also very quick-witted and funny." She also sees a similarity in attitude between Mr. Gilliard and Dennis, whom he plays with convincing determination. "There's definitely intensity to Larry that goes with everything he does," she says.
When Mr. Gilliard got accepted at Juilliard, after graduating from the School for the Arts in 1985, he says, "I thought my life was set. I'd go to Juilliard for four years, then go across the street and get a job with the New York Philharmonic."
PD But a not-so-funny-thing happened to his plan: the magic he felt
while playing music disappeared. Looking for something else, he took a summer class at the Academy of Dramatic Arts after his sophomore year and thought, "Hey, acting is cool." During his senior year, he studied at both the Acting Studio and Juilliard, leaving the latter a few credits short of a degree.
He got a job as an office assistant and began scanning the audition notices in the trade paper Backstage. In the fall of 1989, he came across one seeking black actors for an independent feature film.
Mr. Gilliard arrived to find "hundreds of people, just like me. I was scared." He read dialogue from an early version of the script and left not knowing whether he had a chance to get the part but feeling good he had gone through the process. "I thought, 'You had the guts to do an audition,' " he says.
A week later, he got called back and engaged in an unscripted argument he remembers left Matty Rich "just clapping. He said, 'Expect a call.' "
The call came, but not for two weeks. "I was sweating," Mr. Gilliard recalls.
Another tense moment came two weeks into the rehearsals in Mr. Rich's Brooklyn apartment, when all but three of the initial cast members were dismissed. "I called Matt and said, 'What's going on?' " says Mr. Gilliard, who had grown close to the others. "He said, 'Larry, you're letting your personal feelings get in the way of the business.' I thought, 'He's right.' "
In what is likely to become part of filmmaking lore, Mr. Rich initially had just enough money to shoot 15 minutes worth of "Straight Out of Brooklyn," which he used to get additional investors for the project. The total budget was under $100,000, and the interior scenes were shot in Mr. Rich's grandmother's apartment, giving the film a sense of documentary-like realism.
"There wasn't a real script," Mr. Gilliard says. "It was more like a skeleton. We were free to change the words."
Since the film opened six weeks ago, Mr. Gilliard says he has "agents calling me, casting directors calling me." He has auditioned for the sequel to "Batman," for which directors are "playing around with the idea of having Robin played by a black or a Latino," and says Mr. Rich has promised him a part in his next film, which he declines to discuss.
Financially, Mr. Gilliard said his take from "Brooklyn," which he describes only as "peanuts," has not changed much for him; last Monday, after the film's nationwide opening, he returned to work at the law firm, though he says, "As soon as I can, I'm outta there."
Emotionally, too, he says things are pretty much the same.
"It's funny," he says. "People on the street treat me like, 'You're up there now.' But I don't feel it. It's nothing really except that people give you more attention."