Queens Café Owner Johnny Solo Lands Role in Ed Burns Movie
ASTORIA — Reclining in his chair at a Queens café, Johnny Solo described his unlikely ascent from slumlord to hardcore rapper to school principal.
Solo was recounting his many roles from TV and film. The co-owner of Grand Café on 30th Avenue has been busy running one of Astoria's most popular hangouts while also pursuing a budding profession as an actor.
"This is the life that I want," said Solo, 36, of midtown Manhattan. "I want to act, I like the restaurant and if I could have both, that would be ideal."
His multi-faceted career seems primed to reach new heights.
Actor Ed Burns, who was born in nearby Woodside, hit it off with Solo while shooting a movie last year and then offered him a role in a comedy-drama he wrote called "Newlyweds."
Since the movie debuted late last month on Video On Demand and iTunes, Burns's gamble to release the film only through digital distribution has paid off with media attention and subsequent sales that put it in the black.
Solo has also raised almost half his goal to pay for a soundtrack to accompany a romantic comedy he produced, "Love Magical," which was filmed largely in Astoria and Sunnyside. He is running a campaign for the project on Kickstarter.com.
He said he owes much of his success to a dual career as a restaurateur and an actor because both sustain him financially and emotionally.
"Acting is priority," Solo said. "That's my passion, that's my love, that's what I put all the marbles in.
"But instead of having a regular job waiting tables or doing something else, I found a way to be creative in this business."
Solo forged an unusual path to where he is today.
After graduating from New York University with a political science degree in 1998, he took some bartending classes in an attempt to make ends meet while he sought acting roles.
He teamed up with some buddies to open the Grand Café in 2006.
Solo's big break came last year after he met Burns on the set of the movie "Man on a Ledge."
Solo had secured a small role in the film as a police officer that included only five lines and was eventually cut. But he spent three-and-a-half weeks filming scenes with Burns and the pair hit it off.
Just a month after filming ended in January 2011, Burns called Solo and offered him a part in "Newlyweds."
Solo admitted he sometimes shares a bit too much in common with the extremely passionate and sensitive characters he thinks he plays best.
"Sensitivity and passion could lead them to burn themselves out," he said. "That's what I do at times. I work so many hours and I'm running around because I love what I do. But sometimes you've got to rest."
When Solo and his business partners opened Grand Café in 2006, they had a tough time explaining the concept of brunch to old-school Greek residents of Astoria.
"Some of the old neighborhood guys were, 'What the hell is brunch? What the hell are you doing?" he said with a laugh. "It was really weird."
But his style caught on, and now Grand Café has a strong and loyal customer base.
Solo, who is married without children, said he hopes to reach the point where he shoots a few films or TV shows a year and spends the rest of his time at Grand. But he stressed that his acting comes first.