‘Goodfellas’ grad reflects on role in Scorsese classic

Vancouver actor finding steady work again 20 years later

By Mary Ann Albright, Columbian Staff Reporter

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It’s difficult to maintain an upward trajectory in the acting business when your first job is a pivotal role in a Martin Scorsese film.

The 1990 mob film “Goodfellas” catapulted Christopher Serrone to fame when he was just 12. Serrone, who recently moved to Vancouver, has struggled over the past 20 years to replicate that initial success. With a new movie out in November and other television and film projects in the works, Serrone believes he’s finally about to get his second big break.

“I think I found my niche,” said the 6-foot, 4-inch Serrone in a marked New York accent. He still sometimes gets recognized for his breakthrough role as young Henry Hill even after all these years.

“It’s a lot of ‘I know you from somewhere. Where have I seen you?’” Serrone said.

Among family and friends, he’s still the young Ray Liotta character who dreamed of growing up to become a gangster. Serrone’s nickname to this day is Little Henry, or — as Joe Pesci’s character pronounced it — Little Hendry.

“I can’t imagine my life without it,” Serrone said of the role. “It’s such a part of me now.”

But Serrone, now 33, doesn’t want to just be known as the child actor from “Goodfellas.” So he moved to an apartment in Cascade Park from Eugene, Ore., in May to establish himself in the greater Portland area’s burgeoning film and television scene.

Empire State start

The Northwest may be where Serrone’s present and future lie, but his roots are planted firmly in New York. Serrone grew up in Queens attending the annual Fourth of July neighborhood parties thrown by the late John Gotti, the Gambino family don. Such experiences would later prove to be good background for “Goodfellas.”

Serrone’s blue-collar upbringing contrasted starkly with the glamorous world into which he’d soon be thrust. His late father, Anthony, was a maintenance engineer of Italian descent, and his mother, Cathy, is a retired accountant born in Colombia.

From an early age, Serrone was a performer.

“I was one of the kids during the holidays doing shows for the family,” he said. “I guess it was always in me.”

Serrone attended Catholic school growing up and, though an only child, had an expansive network of cousins with whom he was close. One of them, Jessica Prunell, helped him get into the film industry.

Prunell modeled and acted as a child. She played Stacey McGill on the early ’90s television series “The Baby-Sitters Club.” One day she was going to a modeling audition and Serrone asked to tag along. He was 7 or 8 years old at the time. When he saw how much money a model could make, he wanted in. His first job was a print ad for Sylvan Learning Center, for which he earned $300.

“That’s huge for a kid,” Serrone recalled.

It was in his modeling agent’s Manhattan office that he first heard about the “Goodfellas” role. Serrone just happened to be there when a call came in from a casting agent about the part of young Henry Hill.

“As she’s talking to (my agent), his eyes are getting wider and wider. And he says, ‘I’m looking at (young Henry) right now.’”

Serrone left right away to meet with the casting agent about the part. He stopped at a drug store on the way to buy gel for his hair to help create a ’50s gangster look. He also ripped up his best jeans in the bathroom at the casting agent’s office, even though he knew he’d be in trouble with his parents later.

The audition went well enough to keep Serrone in the running, though the callback process lasted about six months.

After a favorable meeting with Scorsese — or Marty, as Serrone refers to him — the part was his. Serrone filmed primarily in Queens during the summer of 1989.

“It was absolutely amazing being in that caliber of film with that caliber of people,” Serrone said.

The industry veterans took young Serrone under their wings.

“It was almost like having 20 dads on set,” he said.

Once, when they were filming in the middle of the night, Scorsese surprised Serrone with a box of cannoli. The actors were equally friendly.

“Robert De Niro is so unassuming,” Serrone said. “He’s such an amazing actor, yet when you talk to him, he says, ‘Call me Bobby.’ He’s a nice, quiet guy. It wasn’t like you were with Mr. De Niro. You’re hanging out with Bobby.”

The film was released in September of 1990, and Serrone got to attend the New York premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. There he saw Madonna, Tony Bennett, Christopher Reeve, Ellen Barkin, John Turturro and Bianca Jagger.

“It was just a grand, fantastic, amazing experience,” Serrone said.

After such success, Serrone only wanted to try for lead roles. The “Goodfellas” buzz got Serrone many auditions and meetings, but the competition was fierce. He was up for the role of Jack “Cowboy” Kelly in “Newsies,” Charlie Simms in “Scent of a Woman,” Calogero “C” Anello in “A Bronx Tale” and Robin in “Batman & Robin.” Actor Chris O’Donnell won the “Scent of a Woman” and “Batman & Robin” roles, Christian Bale snagged “Newsies,” and Lillo Brancato landed “A Bronx Tale.”

Serrone did, however, score a part in an off-Broadway production of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” He also filmed four episodes of the early ’90s CBS show “Brooklyn Bridge,” though the series was canceled before they aired.

Off-camera life

Serrone had school to focus on during those years, as well as his career. He attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts as a drama major. “Entourage” star Adrian Grenier was a classmate, and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” actress Sarah Michelle Gellar was in the class below his.

After high school, Serrone studied liberal arts at Queens College, though he left after three years. He later finished college online.

Serrone wanted to try infiltrating the Hollywood scene, so he moved to San Jose, Calif., in his mid-20s.

Serrone modeled and bartended in California for six years before deciding to move to Eugene, Ore., where a friend from Queens College lived. It was in Eugene about 2½ years ago that he received a fortuitous call from Portland filmmaker Curt Sindelar.

Sindelar, co-founder of Portland Independent Films Inc., knew Serrone from “Goodfellas.” He thought Serrone bore a striking resemblance to real-life World War II paratrooper Capt. Neal McRoberts, a central figure in a film he was working on called “Pathfinders: In the Company of Strangers.”

Sindelar went online and tracked Serrone down in Eugene, despite an Internet rumor that he’d died.

Soon after that initial contact from Sindelar, Serrone began filming “Pathfinders” in Portland and Southwest Washington. The film tells the story of the paratroopers tasked with landing 30 minutes before the Normandy invasion, locating and marking strategic “drop zones” and setting up the top-secret navigation equipment needed to guide the main airborne assault on D-Day.

Serrone, who considers himself a Method actor, immersed himself in the role of McRoberts, and doing so helped him deal with a personal tragedy.

Just as filming was about to begin, Serrone’s father died of a pulmonary embolism.

As hard as that was, Serrone knew his father would have wanted him to go forward with “Pathfinders.”

“If anything, I used losing my dad as a source of strength to go on,” he said.

While back in New York for the funeral, Serrone visited the assisted-living home where his father had worked. There he had the opportunity to speak with veterans and conduct research for the role. Focusing on work helped distract him from his loss.

“It was a way to dive into something else, to lose myself,” he said.

Back in the spotlight

Filming for “Pathfinders” wrapped a few months ago, and the movie is now in post-production. The film has a worldwide distribution deal and is set for release on Nov. 11 — Veterans Day. Sindelar isn’t sure yet where it will screen.

In addition to “Pathfinders,” Serrone is attracting attention with the 20th anniversary of “Goodfellas.” GQ recently contacted Serrone through Facebook to interview him for a “Goodfellas” retrospective in the magazine’s October issue.

Serrone has a number of projects in the works with Vancouver colleagues, as well. He is collaborating with Joe Hill and Jay Tormohlen of Duck Up Productions on “Mob Diaries,” a fictional exploration of Portland’s organized crime scene. Serrone describes it as “The Sopranos” meets “Dexter” meets “Law & Order.”

So far he and his collaborators have written a 30-minute script. Serrone, who will act in the project, said it could work for either television or film.

Serrone is committed to filming “Mob Diaries” in the greater Vancouver-Portland area using local talent. Showcasing the community’s gifts is a hallmark of another project he has in the planning stages, as well.

Serrone and Clark-Vancouver Television director Cary Ray are working on putting together a show for local public access station Fort Vancouver Community Television similar to “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Serrone would serve as the emcee for the variety show, which would feature performances by local musicians and comedians, as well as skits.

Serrone will also appear at the 2010 Chiller Theatre Toy, Model & Film Expo in New Jersey over Halloween weekend alongside such celebrities as Barbara Eden, Larry Hagman, Patty Duke, Patrick Duffy and Lesley Ann Warren.

Serrone believes that success comes in cycles, and that now is once again his time. Despite the disappointments over the years, he’s never given up.

“Picture 20 years of people saying, ‘Chris, you’re too tall.’ ‘Chris, you’re not tall enough.’ ‘Chris, you’re too thin.’ ‘You’re not thin enough.’ ‘You’re too New York.’ ‘You’re not New York enough.’ ‘Too Italian, too Spanish.’ ‘Not Italian or Spanish enough.’ I should have the worst self-esteem,” he said.

But he doesn’t. Serrone, who is single, likens getting cast to finding one’s soul mate: It just has to be the right fit. And since nothing else he’s ever done has compared to the challenge and excitement of being on set and bringing a character to life, he’ll keep searching for that perfect match.

“I knew (acting) is what I wanted,” he said. “It’s the only thing that truly made me happy.”

Mary Ann Albright: maryann.albright@columbian.com, 360-735-4507.