“I thought I[’d] shoot him first,” Steve told a detective, “because I thought he was going to shoot us.” The cop, though, fired first, says Lillo. He told a detective, “He shot Steve and Steve shot back,” as if Lillo had seen the exchange. Later, Lillo said he was already running when he heard Steve’s shots. To Lillo, the cop’s rounds sounded dinky, like firecrackers. Then Steve’s gun, a .357, discharged. “I hear, BOOOOOOMM! That gun, it shook everything. It shook the ground.” Then Lillo didn’t hear anything else.
In January, a month after the killing, Lillo is at Rikers Island. He’s charged with second-degree murder and being held without bail while awaiting trial. In prison, he’s detoxed (even cigarettes are mostly gone) and quickly gained twenty pounds. Lillo feels terrible about the dead cop. “Too painful to talk about,” he says. Still, he’s not sure why it involves him. “I was in the wrong place, wrong time,” he says. Like drugs or acting, murder happened to Lillo. People misunderstand. “It kills me every day, being in here, knowing that I’m innocent,” he says. “I’m not a person who should be here. I am a good person.”
Lillo still looks remarkably like De Niro, the fleshy nose, the soft eyes. He sometimes imagines he could be a better actor than De Niro. “He can do some things I can’t, and I can do some things he can’t,” says Lillo. In his last movie role, Lillo had been cast as De Niro. It wasn’t a compliment. It was a one-day gig as a kind of tribute band. That’s behind him now. The prison’s interview room is the size of a closet. A steel grate separates Lillo from visitors. Lillo, five seven, wears a gray jumpsuit many sizes too big. He doesn’t seem to mind. He propels himself out of his green plastic chair, launches into his repertoire. He does De Niro and Pesci. Lillo’s lawyer, Sachs, looks on. (Passing guards shout to Sachs as if he’s the celebrity; not long ago he won the acquittal of a corrections officer accused of murder.) Sachs laughs appreciatively at Lillo’s easy gifts, his obvious talent. Encouraged, Lillo shifts. Perhaps, in his mind, it’s just a slight shift. He’s going to be a filmmaker. Like De Niro. “That was what I was put here for,” he says, referring to this Earth. Lillo hasn’t yet written, directed, or produced a film. He started one script but couldn’t find a ghostwriter to his liking. Prison, though, is bracing. “I think one day I could be one of the best filmmakers, ” he says. “It’s in me.” Once he gets out, he’s going to do a movie, one he’s long contemplated. It’s about his life.
“In a way, I’m glad I went through this stuff,” he says, “because I can capture it on film and would know how to do it.” His bottom lip juts forward, and he nods slowly. He’s casting the parts. “I want to get Richie from The Sopranos to play my father,” he says. He’s thinking through shots, angles, music. Lillo works himself up. His movie is about family relations, two sons, one good, one bad. “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” the father says to the bad son, the character Lillo will play.
As if in answer, Lillo, in that floppy gray suit, sings, “I’m wicked and I’m lazy!”—an old David Byrne lyric that he definitely wants in the movie. “And then you see me in the living room still in my clothes, sleeping,” he says. “I want to make everything real.” In the tiny interview room, he’s blocking his movie, thinking out loud, as if pitching a script. “No,” he says, redirecting the scene. He decides it will open on a clock. It’s 2:18 in the afternoon. The camera pans. Lillo puts his forefingers and thumbs together to represent a camera, and slides them slowly across the steel grate. Then in the movie, you see Lillo. He does his own line now: “Oh, shit.” He’s late. He kisses his mother. “Hey, Mom, I’ll meet you guys later,” he says. And then boom, the scene cuts to kids playing dice against a wall. Lillo narrates the audience’s view: “You’re saying, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’ ” Lillo likes that. He smiles, showing his teeth, going dark in spots. Before, he needed a ghostwriter. Now he feels invigorated, focused. “I should be out, home, with my laptop, writing,” he says. “I think I’m a pretty good writer.”
Lillo has long counted on others’ forgiveness. In prison, he’s found a way to repurpose the past, make it come out better. Maybe the killing will show up in his movie, Lillo unluckily ensnared. There’d have to be a love interest. Perhaps Little Stef would inspire a character. The neighborhood sweetheart who finds her way back to Lillo, realizing his goodness, redeeming his troubles. Why not? Since the killing, Lillo feels their relationship works better. “She just does it for me,” he says happily. Stef visited Lillo at Rikers. She sent him a Valentine’s card. In Lillo’s mind, she finally understands. “Ultimately I took bullets, even though it was, indirectly, because of her,” he figures.