'Brooklyn' actor straight out of Baltimore


BALTIMORE'S Lawrence Gilliard Jr. has the lead in "Straight Out of Brooklyn." He plays a young man who decides to make it out of a bad Brooklyn neighborhood the hard way -- with a gun.

The film character has good reason to want to leave. His father, disappointed with his station in life, beats his wife, who chooses to remain with her husband despite the abuse.

"So many critics have picked up on that," said Gilliard. "They don't believe that a woman would put up with all that. Well, this one does, and she is not unusual. So many women do the exact same thing. I don't understand why others have trouble with it [the portrayal in the film]."

Gilliard, who was born in New York 23 years ago and came to Baltimore when he was 7 years old, has heard another question over and over. This one, however, amuses him.

"Almost every reporter wants to know if there is anything in my own life that parallels the character I play in the film. There isn't," he says, laughing. "There may be similarities between the character I play and my father, his generation, but there are none between me and the character. I've had a nicer life. Of course, I've known people who did lead that kind of life."

There is another scene in "Brooklyn" that provokes comment, one in which three boys visit an older man and ask for a gun. The older man gives them the gun, which looks like a cannon, then tells the trio that he doesn't want to hear anything from the police about it.

Some critics have wondered how the man expects these three youths to carry a gun that size and not win the attention of the police. But here, too, Gilliard explains: "Those guys live in an area where they could walk around with a cannon, and it wouldn't faze anybody."

Gilliard came to Baltimore when his mother separated from his father. His father remained in New York. "I would see him every time I went to New York, at least once a year," he said.

He is currently living in New York. He returned there in 1985 after graduating from the Baltimore School for the Arts. When he went to New York, he attended Juilliard.

"I majored in clarinet," he said. "I continued to study at Juilliard, but then I decided, in my second year, that I would become an actor. I just couldn't see myself playing clarinet in an orchestra the rest of my life. It was boring."

He thinks his interest in acting was cultured by his familiarity with television as a child growing up in Baltimore. "I watched a lot of it," he said. "It was so much a part of my life. I guess I figured I could do as well as most of the people I saw on television, so I decided to become an actor."

A few years ago, he saw an ad in Backstage, a publication aimed at actors. The ad was seeking actors who were interested in auditioning for roles in a film that was being done by a 17-year-old named Matty Rich.

"I went in there with 2,000 other actors," said Gilliard, "and I was the lucky one. I guess I was just closest to what Matty had in mind. I knew nothing about the plot. Matty did give us a side or two, but we really didn't know what the film was about.

"After I auditioned, Matty said I would hear from him and I did, a few weeks later. My sister took the call. She asked me if I knew a Matthew Rich, and I said I didn't. I had forgotten his name.

"We began shooting a year later, and by that time, Matty had gotten rid of all but three members of the cast. I thought any day he was going to fire me, but he didn't."

When he isn't acting, Gilliard works as an office clerk at a law firm. "My co-workers are excited and proud," he says. "They also treat me differently. They treat me with a little more respect. My family, my mother, brother and sisters are very proud of me. Of course, they've seen the film, but they saw only me."

"Straight Out of Brooklyn" is doing particularly well in Baltimore. It is currently playing at the Harborpark Cinemas.

Gilliard is aware of the film's failings. "Remember, the movie was made for very little money," he said. "It may need work, technically, but it has content. It handles very important issues. It is very educational. Everyone should see it because it is a truthful film, and people need to see a film that tells the truth. The movie says that changes must be made, and if enough people see it, maybe they will begin making those changes."

So what does he plan to do next?

"I don't know," said Gilliard. "Right now, I'll continue working at the firm. Matt says he will do his next film for Universal, and I hope to be in that," he said.

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