Andy Garcia might be best known for tough-guy roles, but his new picture, Raymond De Felitta’s delightful “City Island,” shows his comic chops. He plays Vince Rizzo, a New York prison guard with a troublesome family and a deep secret—he’s so enamored of becoming an actor that he’s secretly enrolled in an acting class. But he’s shocked to discover that he has an even bigger problem—a son he never knew he had, a convicted thief he brings home with him on work relief. Many complications follow, all of them remarkably enjoyable.

In a recent Dallas interview, Garcia was asked whether the picture was as much fun to make as it is to watch. “Yes, it was,” he replied. “And it was as much fun to read as it was to make. From the get-go, I found this material to be so charming and so emotional and funny and surprising that I was really taken by it. [Raymond’s] sensibilities are very similar to mine. It’s based on real human issues. If you think of what these people are going through—especially what Vince is going through—it’s kind of a drama. He’s got a child he’s never thought of that he’s never responsibility for. He’s got a dream that he’s too insecure about to acknowledge as a middle-aged man. That’s heavy stuff—you can easily write a drama from it. And in a sense he did, but the circumstances he puts everybody in make it funny. But you’re playing it for reality, obviously with a third eye for the tonality of it and where the humor in a scene might be. But never abandoning the sense of truth and the stakes involved with the characters.”

Vince Rizzo, Garcia said, is a great character. “It’s the classic thing—like with the Chaplin characters, or Keaton, or Jacques Tati. They’re always in over the heads, but they’re powering through. This is not the sort of character people would normally come to me with, so I was very pleased that Raymond thought of me for the part. I’m not sure if he ran out of options or not, but I’m lucky I got it, and I really related to it.”

Garcia waxed especially eloquent over the picture’s audition scene, in which Vince, called back for a reading in front of the casting agents on Martin Scorsese’s next movie, lapses into an imitation of his idol Marlon Brando. “It was a great opportunity as an actor to be thrown into that situation,” Garcia said. “It was a scene that was very well written, but Ray throughout the movie always let me embellish and let the character live within it and improvise. I was always free to go wherever I needed to go in the moment. He embraced that. I could have played that scene on Broadway for twelve weeks!

“The Brando thing is an idea that I had.” Garcia pointed out that in the original script, Vince decorated his cubicle with movie posters and didn’t hide his dream from family and colleagues. “I said to Raymond, personally I don’t think this guy is comfortable enough to let anybody know that he wants to be an actor or is enamored of this situation. I should be a very private thing, and I don’t think it should be so many people—it’s too diluted. It should be one person, and it should be Brando, because all these guys on the wall are gods, but Brando is Zeus. And he should have a little boy he carries around that he protects with his life and God forbid anyone should see it.

“And then, I said, when we get to the audition, out of complete inadequacy and being so nervous and out of his league, he channels Brando without even knowing he’s doing it. The only thing he can think about of good acting is Brando. He’s been watching him for so long, that he kind just metamorphoses, like an allergic reaction to the audition.”

Another standout in the talented “City Island” cast—which includes Julianna Margulies, Emily Mortimer, Steven Strait, Ezra Miller and Garcia’s daughter Dominik Garcio-Lorido, is Alan Arkin, who plays Rizzo’s bitter acting teacher. “He said something that really touched me,” Garcia recalled, when he called Arkin after sending him the script. “I worked in another movie with Alan, and we’re good friends. Alan is like a genius, one of the most genial actors ever to grace the screen or the stage. And a great writer and director. And Alan said, ‘I’ll do this movie—I love the script. But I’m really doing it because I want people to see you in this part.’ He wanted me to have this opportunity.”

Arkin was also responsible for a speech in which the teacher excoriates his students for Brando-like pauses in their performances. “Being a great writer, he wrote this whole thing about pauses but then channeled it through Brando to dismantle Brando right in front of me,” Garcia said. “So he put my character in an even deeper state of confusion. That’s just Alan knowing what’s good writing and what would contribute to the story on a deeper level.

“Then afterward I said to Raymond, ‘What if, when I get to this long audition line, Alan is in the line? What if my teacher is in the line?’ And Raymond said, ‘Oh, that’s so funny, but that would entail Alan to stay an extra day.’ I called Alan and said, ‘Alan, I have an idea—there’s no pressure for you to do it, I just wanted to share it with you. But it would entail you staying an extra day. What if you were in this acting line that wraps around the block and at some point we come to you, and you’re in the line rehearsing your lines?’ And without a beat he laughed [here Garcia mimicked Arkin’s horse-like laugh], and I thought, I’ve got him. He said, ‘I’ll do it—I’ll stay an extra day.’

Recalling his audition scene and Arkin’s speech reinforced Garcia’s appreciation of the way De Felitta worked with his cast. “That’s the only way to work—when everybody’s conspiring and helping one another to try to squeeze all the juices out of the material, and take as much raw material with you to the editing room,” he said. “My philosophy, which I think Raymond also embraces, is that it’s a gathering or raw materials—options and ideas—not a time for judgment per se. Let the judgement come in the editing room. Gather as many interpretive ideas as the actors might have; don’t stifle that. Just do it. The movie is sometimes asking for things that you’re not even aware of at the time. Characters try to express themselves a certain way that might not make sense in the moment, but when you start assembling the movie you say, it’s great she did that—it was great the way he wrote that, but it’s now perfect. So I’ve learned over the years not to pass judgement on that, just to let it flow.”

The thought led Garcia to remember director Hal Ashby, with whom he worked on “8 Million Ways to Die.” “He loved a improvisation, he loved a very loose, exploratory set. And his whole thing was always after you’d do a take, he’d go, ‘That was great—we got that, try something else.’ Keep working, keep discovering…those moments that have that resonance, little things that…you can’t buy.”

It reminded Garcia, who’s also a musician, of how great pieces often happen. “They just play,” he said. “They play off one another, and then they do another take, and they do it again, and keep personalizing it and peeling the layers of what’s going on. When something is well written, the theme is there, and then you can improvise off the theme. But you have to have that direction and structure. Then you can be free to build on that.”

What Garcia and his colleagues built in “City Island” is a charmingly offbeat domestic comedy-drama.