Family, loyalty, murder and food—sounds like a mob movie basis, and that’s sort of what actor Shiloh Fernandez’s latest role in ‘The Birthday Cake’ is about. But more so, Jimmy Giannopoulos’ feature film debut has a centralized focus and intertwined dynamic about self-discovery and family, or exploring what that word really means beyond DNA.
Set over the course of one night, Gio (Fernandez) sets out on the 10th anniversary of his father’s death (and birthday coincidentally) with a cake that we learn his mother makes every year for his Uncle Angelo’s (Val Kilmer) party. On the way to the house of his Uncle with obvious mob ties, Gio makes a few stops. It’s during these interactions (with just an insane amount of recognizable faces for the cast) that Gio uncovers more and more about his family and who actually has his back.
As Fernandez puts it, part of the film is inspired by his friend Giannopoulos’ own experience with mobsters past their hey day, so this film examines where they are 40 years in the future and how they live and make their money along with the added pressures of gentrification. But for Fernandez who also helped write the film, this story is about relationships and the journey of the main character.
How did you get involved with this film?
Jimmy and I have been friends for years, and he’s actually an incredible musician and helped with the soundtrack as well. Meanwhile, he has this hankering to want and start directing films… So we were kicking a couple of ideas back and forth, and then he brought me about 30 pages of this loose story that became ‘The Birthday Cake,’ and I’m interested in writing, so we decided to team up. Basically it was me helping him to tell this story and we collaborated as we went on.
We didn’t know if we were going to do this film ourselves with a camcorder and no money, but we both had friends [in the industry] and as we started to talk to them, they started signing on and this movie became bigger and bigger. I didn’t necessarily think I was right to play the main character, but after spending all this time with Jimmy developing the character, he sort of told me you’re the only person who could do this and [to] please come and do this with me on my first adventure as director—that’s how it came about.
What can you tell me about your character, Gio?
The movie takes place over the course of one night and it’s on the 10th anniversary of his father’s death which happens to be his birthday as well. His Uncle Angelo [Val Kilmer] is sort of a mob boss and he always throws this party for Gio’s father. On this night [Gio] is on his way to bring the cake that his mother always bakes to his uncle’s house, and all these things are being revealed about his father’s death and about who his family really is and what they’re really doing.
So he begins to put together that some things he thought were true are not true and on this night, he has to become a man and stand up for himself. He finds out that family is always blood, but maybe there are people who actually have your back more than just the relatives you call uncle and what not.
The cast in this film is just stellar and Gio has interactions with practically everyone. Do any of those scenes or moments stand out to you?
It was pretty incredible, I’ve been doing this for quite a while and I’ve made friends [in the industry] who are just incredible actors. Sending it out to people like Aldos Hodge, Jon Magaro and Emory Cohen—they all said yes. Then of course we have Val Kilmer, Ewan McGregor, Lorraine Braco, William Fichtner—some of the best. If I had thought about it from the beginning, I probably would have been very overwhelmed at the fact that I had to act with a lot of these people, and the interactions are sort of one on one, but I took it one scene at a time and was able to connect with each person.
Lorraine and I, she signed on pretty early and we really dug deep into the backstories in our relationship which was awesome. Then with Luis Guzman who plays the Uber driver, [he] was so hilarious… When I watched the film, I can tell when I walk up to the window to get the cake [in that scene with him] that I was almost cracking up because of what he was doing—the improv he does is just hilarious. Then Ashley Benson came and we’ve done a few movies together now. Everyone was just really great and just brought so much to it…We just wrote these characters and sent it to our friends, and they showed up just bringing their A-Game and just really killing it for us. But it was unreal [to have] all of these people and all of the great work they did.
What can you tell me about Gio’s journey from start to finish throughout the film?
To me, it was really important to create an arc and because it is sort of is a coming-of-age story, to also have Gio be able to learn something and be able to stand on his own two feet and stand up to his family. It’s something he’s never been able to do and in the beginning I think that’s because of his heart and being a bit of a punching bag. He’s looking at his mom who’s trying to protect him, and who knows if that’s the best thing or if you should let your kids to get some scrapes and bruises on their own.
Working with Jimmy, it was his first film and to him, I think this movie was really about life and a night of, and for me, I really needed to make sure that Gio had this arc. It was important for me to make that speech about what he’s learned and what his mother has taught him and I think to me, the movie was about family secrets, and we all have them on a certain level. In this family, that includes murder, the stakes are a little bit higher. But I just think that family secrets just perpetuate and create such trauma. [This film] is about telling the truth, learning and growing and making sure that things are out in the open.
So then, what do you hope audiences take away from ‘The Birthday Cake’?
I hope that they enjoy the ride, and I hope they can connect to my character and root for him. I hope that they can go home and start telling the truth—these family secrets cause generational trauma and telling the truth is always best. You have to be open and really look out for each other… Not in a way where it’s necessarily caused by loyalty where you would do anything for someone no matter if it harms you or not, but more so looking out for each other in the right way and making the right decisions for your family.
‘The Birthday Cake’ is now in theaters and On Demand.