No-name Franky G. finally is initial hit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - His name may seem better suited to a hip-hop magazine than to a movie marquee, but Franky G. is no budding rap star. "The only thing I wrap are presents," he says.

Franky G. is a film actor who embraced the initial years ago when he found that there were too many actors in the Screen Actors Guild named Gonzalez. He has no regrets.

"They love it in Hollywood," he says.

And they apparently love more than just the name. In less than a year, Franky G., who reluctantly revealed he is in his "late 30s," has gone from a no-name actor kicking around "off-off-Broadway," as he put it, to a promising new talent sharing screen time with big names in the movies. He plays Dustin Hoffman's dimwitted henchman in the gangster flick Confidence; he is a mechanic in The Italian Job, the high-octane ode to the Mini Cooper starring Mark Wahlberg and Edward Norton; and he will star as a rookie detective opposite Val Kilmer in Wonderland, a true-crime tale due in September. His mailbox, once empty, now overflows with scripts, he says.

"I don't think the Hollywood world has ever seen someone like him," says director Eric Eason, who cast Franky G. as the lead in the family drama Manito, which opened in New York June 22. "He has these action-star good looks, but he can do comedy, and he has a rare ability to really tap into his emotions."

Franky G. is lounging at a park in Flushing, Queens, where he has lived since he was 17. The swing sets are rusted, and the basketball hoops have no nets. Dressed in his standard baggy jeans, sweatshirt and Timberland boots, he looks less like a Hollywood "it boy" than a neighborhood guy looking for a pickup game. Nothing about him screams star.

But one need only read about Franky G.'s turn as an ex-convict named Junior in Manito to know that he has something.

The film, set in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, follows the lives of Junior Moreno, a conflicted ex-convict trying to mend his broken life, and his brother, Manny, the first in his family to attend college. As Junior, Franky G. is at once a sweet-talking philanderer, a tortured son, a struggling father and a loving big sibling. One moment he is a volatile brute, wielding punches, the next he is crumpled and crying, a victim of unforeseeable circumstances.

"I love the role because it shows I have range," says Franky G., an animated man whose hands punctuate every statement. Tapping his chest, he continues: "As soon as I read the script, I felt Junior. I felt his pain, his emotion."

This much was evident to Eason, who said he cast Franky G. immediately after hearing him read for the part. "I must have seen over a hundred people, but I had no question in my mind that he was the guy," Eason says.

Born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as the middle child of seven, Franky G. found acting late in life. His first love was football, and after studying criminal law investigation at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, he became a running back for the Long Island Tomahawks, a semipro team. Then a knee injury cut short his career.

"I loved the game, and I was good at it," he says wistfully. "But I guess the big man had other plans for me."

It took him years to discover what those plans were. The only thing clear to him, he says, was that he "didn't want to work 9-to-5 jobs" for the rest of his life. Instead he took jobs as a strip-club bouncer, a security guard, a construction worker. He became a competitive body builder. (At the height of his beefcake days, he says, he could squat 510 pounds.) And he enrolled in acting classes.

Though Manito would be his big break, Franky G. has no plans to move west. He continues to live at home in a Flushing rowhouse with his mother, older sister and nephew and spend time with his girlfriend of three years. (His father lives a block away.) "My sister and I take care of my mother. She went through a lot with my family, and I like to give back."

When he is in Los Angeles, he stays at places like Best Western, he said. No Mondrian for him. "I keep it real ... real cheap," he says. He is given to cheesy lines like that. Ask him about Hollywood, and he replies: "Nice people. But it's filled with phony baloneys." Ask him about himself: "I don't play games. Tricks are for kids." One gets the impression that Franky G. would rather talk sports scores than Strasberg. Still, he takes acting seriously.

"I don't want to be seen as a muscle head," he says, adding that he has turned down a batch of roles that would require him to be nothing more than a walking bottle of creatine, uttering lame one-liners like "I'll be back" between explosions.

Still, he cannot escape comparisons to Vin Diesel, who has fashioned a lucrative acting career by playing the muscular gun-toting hero in action adventures like XXX.

"I respect Vin Diesel immensely, but me and Vin Diesel are two different people," Franky G. says.

"I don't want to be limited," he adds. "I want people to know that I am an actor."

He does not want everyone to know, however. Franky G.'s bench-press buddies at Gold's Gym in Queens still have little clue about his celluloid life, he said. He plans to keep it that way.

"They always ask me why I'm out in California," a grinning Franky G. says. "I tell them I'm on vacation."

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