Frank and Ava, an interview with Rico Simonini


Frank and Ava the award-winning biopic of the tumultuous love affair between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner is distributed in the United States and Canada by Gravitas Ventures and is available on Amazon Prime Video and iTunes.

Brooklyn native Rico Simonini, a well-known Los Angeles cardiologist at a leading Medical Center, who portrays Frank Sinatra also did the screenplay adaptation of the stage play by Willard Manus.

In 2014 Simonini originated the role of Frank Sinatra in Manus’ play which was developed in the Actor’s Studio. It was then that Simonini, who had a connection to Sinatra, knew he had to turn the play into a movie.
“Creating the film was a compelling opportunity to tell the story of Sinatra from the viewpoint of a period in his life represented by his downturn and despair that preceded the eventual comeback that catapulted him to iconic stardom.”
“It was a labor of the heart, both mine and the cast who virtually made gifts of their craft in order to create the magic on screen,” said Simonini.

It’s 1949 and Sinatra, the former king of swoon who once enchanted millions of “bobby soxers,” is at the downturn of his career, as the once golden “Voice” is now compromised by a hemorrhage to his vocal cords, while his reputation is lambasted by the press who parade his alleged Mafia connections, liberal sympathies and extramarital affairs. In the midst of his despair, he falls hard and fast for Gardner, MGM’s sultry starlet with whom he shares proclivities for passion, whiskey, obstinacy, and sexual infidelities.

Directed by Michael Oblowitz, Frank and Ava was shot on location in Rome, Italy; Hollywood, CA and Sinatra’s home in Palm Springs, CA. In addition to Rico Simonini as Frank Sinatra and Emily Elicia Low as Ava Gardner, the film features Eric Roberts, Lukas Haas, Richard Portnow, Domenick Lombardozzi, Neil Sandilands, Jonathan Silverman, Terry Moore and the legendary Harry Dean Stanton in his last feature film appearance.

Cinema Without Borders: What motivated you to get involved in Frank and Ava?
Rico Simonini : The story was brought to me as a two-character play developed here in LA at the ACTORS STUDIO written by Willard Manus. I did the play in Hollywood, which was well received, as it revealed a vulnerable side of Sinatra most of his fans were probably unaware of. The love story was in itself quite compelling, but when the players are Sinatra and AVA GARDNER how can you resist?

CWB: How close is Frank and Ava to reality?
RS: As close as I could afford to make it. There were dozens of Sinatra stories in tabloids and newsreels, but I had the privilege of interviewing eyewitnesses and even a woman who lived with him in Palm Springs. Some of the stories were so irresistible I had to incorporate them into the screenplay.

CWB: Please tell us about the screenplay vs writing stage.
RS: Adapting a play to the screen goes both ways. On one hand you have a story with a beginning, middle and end, on the other you have a LOT of exposition and dialogue that has to get discarded or resigned as it were and have the audience “see” it rather than hear it. There are many great plays that translated to the screen with very little changes, but those were often in the 1950’s and 1960’s when people didn’t mind dialogue and character evolution as the primary special affect.

CWB: How did you go about casting Frank and Ava and how did you work with your actors?
RS: We were fortunate to have MEGAN FOLEY and CHUCK MARRA as casting directors with a couple of “rabbit out of the hats” by STEPHEN SNYDER (additional casting).

Megan helped us find EMILY LOW after searching through lists of actresses. We used a couple of the “runner ups” in other roles in the film. Quite a number of the roles were filled wonderfully by actors I had worked with and come to know as part of my community in Los Angeles. Some approached me wanting to work in the film—it was kismet as many of these actors were perfectly suited for the roles and I would write scenes to accommodate their “rhythms.”

CWB: Please tell us about visual style of Frank and Ava?
RS: Director MICHAEL OBLOWITZ also supervised and did a lot of the camera work, using his lighting crews, except in Rome where we had Danielle Poli and his Italian crew bring magic to the screen. Michael chose the style and kept it consistent through an inconsistent shooting schedule.

CWB: How has your personal and professional experience helped you in acting in Frank and Ava?
RS: It was on the job training — learning about production and finding the right help. I suppose years of experience working in busy Italian restaurants, overcrowded hospital wards, and running a laboratory gave me the wherewithal for multitasking and finding good production assistants.

Handling all the personalities and making sure they played well in the sandbox together is another art form in itself, as is dealing with the one or two characters who still think the word ME is in TEAM (at times putting it all at peril). In the end you’re fighting every minute for what you want to get done, not taking no for an answer ever, and believing in your dream and vision (which was a lot like what Frank did).

As far as my work as Sinatra, using these aforementioned wants and dreams against long odds actually helped keep me (and Frank) hungry and Emily was always giving inspiration to work off of.

On a more personal note, the film was dedicated to my father, Mike the Waiter (his name around town) who introduced me to Frank when I was just a boy. Like Sinatra, he was a 5’9″ blue-eyed charismatic Italian guy who knocked around the night life sharply dressed with a cigarette between his fingers usually surrounded by … well, anyone from the underworld to show biz big shots and glamorous women… who always had HIGH HOPES.


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