In one of those twists of fate, Larry Gilliard, of West Baltimore, drops plans to go into sports or music, finding his way, instead, into movies

A TIME TO ACT

July 05, 1991|By Eric Siegel

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.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

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.

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