You know how happy you are to see Luis Guzman when he turns up in a movie (even when he's playing a cold-blooded murderer)? Seeing him in person is awfully close to nirvana. I imagine this is what winning the Super Bowl feels like. It's an elation comparable to the birth of one's child - only your newborn kid didn't play Pachanga in CARLITO'S WAY. I've known this bliss twice in my life: once in 1999, when I interviewed Guzman in my first ever assignment for Ain't It Cool News (he was being honored by the Screen Actors Guild in New York City), and again two weeks ago, when I chatted with him about his fun supporting performance in Kim Ji-woon's THE LAST STAND.
For his part, Guzman always seems happy to see just about anybody. He's as warm and convivial as Maurice in the opening scene of BOOGIE NIGHTS, greeting you like a old friend the minute you enter the room. And he's quick to banter, reminding you instantly of his casually hilarious interplay with Don Cheadle in Steven Soderbergh's TRAFFIC. All of the classic Guzman performances come flooding back when you're in his presence; you just want to hang out and walk him through his career role-by-role. And the directors he's worked with over the years: Sidney Lumet, Robert Wise, Brian De Palma, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Tony Scott, Ridley Scott, Anthony Minghella, John Landis, James Foley, Richard Linklater and Johnny Depp. There aren't many actors alive today who can match that resumé.
I only had ten minutes to hang with Guzman during the junket, but any time with the man is good with me. We talked about his first Arnold Schwarzenegger experience, how Korean director Kim Ji-woon adjusted to making an American action movie, and about that time he told De Palma, Al Pacino and Sean Penn how to direct a scene on the set of CARLITO'S WAY.
But first we had to deal with my departure from New York City. I'm not gonna lie: it was touch-and-go there for a minute.
Luis Guzman: You're in L.A. now or do you still live in New York?
Mr. Beaks: I'm in L.A. now.
Guzman: Bro, you gave up on us?
Beaks: I didn't give up, I just--
Guzman: I don't want to talk about. Right now, this isn't going too well for me. But go ahead and shoot away, man. We'll just take this up at the end after the recorder's off. Don't worry. You're still my boy. I was your first interview. That's huge.
Beaks: You know, I rode in a tank yesterday with your costar.
Guzman: Are you kidding me? (To publicist) Please make a note of this. (Pauses, turns back to me) So how was it?
Beaks: It was great. I'd never been in a tank before. Have you?
Guzman: Never in my life.
Beaks: What's that about?
Guzman: I don't know. I guess Arnold carries a lot of weight. Should anything go down, and you're out of options... you've got a tank. It's good to have some kind of preparedness.
Beaks: Arnold just seems to do it big: big action movies, big guns, he owns a tank. What's the Arnold experience like?
Guzman: He's a real cool guy. He's really freaking smart, very well spoken, has opinions on things from politics to the environment to education, and he's funny. I like him a lot. I believe Arnold is a really good human being. I have no doubt about that. And one of the many thrills in this career I've had was being like, "I'm working with the dude." It's like, here you are working in his first movie that's he's a lead in again, his comeback movie. I'm thrilled to be a part of it.
Beaks: How much input did you have with your character? How much leeway did they give you to make the character yours?
Guzman: I'm not going to say I had free rein, but I had pretty much of a free rein. (Beaks laughs) That's part of the nature in me that just comes out. If the line is just "Nice day," I'm like, "Yo, man, it's a really nice day today, man." You just give it a little bit of your signature - not because it's a bad line, but because it's part of your nature. And when something is part of your nature, and you give it your interpretation, I just think it makes it more wonderful, more colorful and more meaningful.
Beaks: And they wouldn't hire you if they didn't want that, right?
Guzman: I don't know. That's one of the toughest questions I've ever been asked right there. I think that they knew what they were getting, and they were pretty pleased and happy with it.
Beaks: Because you are one of those actors who leaves an indelible signature. When you show up in a movie, we know what we're getting.
Guzman: You've seen the movie, right? So you know when we're shooting at the meat, and Arnold shows up, and I'm like, "Ray! How are you!" That's the way I'd greet one of my buddies. "How you doin', man!" And since I know he's about to get on my shit, I'm just trying to defuse it a little.
Beaks: This is not just Arnold's first film as a lead in a long time, it's also Kim Ji-Woon's first American film. Could you sense that he was getting comfortable as he went along?
Guzman: Ji-woon is a real visionary kind of guy. He did stuff in this movie that when I finally saw it, I was like, "Wow." It's not stuff you usually see while you're doing the movie, but it's mindblowing to see when you see it on the screen. On the set, you're like, "Huge explosion. Oh. Okay." But when you see it all put together, and the rhythm and timing of it, and the rush of it. I mean, when I first saw it, I I thought I was going to have to go out and smoke four or five blunts just to bring me down, man. It's a rush. So I said to myself, "This man is the real deal." I know he's huge in Asia, but for him to come over here... he really collaborated, and we collaborated with him. It wasn't one of those things where you get a director who's huge in his country, and then he comes over here and is really adamant like, "We're doing this my way." Even though there was a language barrier, he got that and we got that about him.
(The publicist says "Last question".)
Guzman: No, this is my boy. He's gonna hang out.
Beaks: (Laughing) The range of directors you've worked with is just incredible. Going back to Sidney Lumet, and then Brian De Palma, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh and so on. These are some of our greatest filmmakers, and they each have a very particular way of working. Do you feel like you have to adjust your approach when you work with these guys?
Guzman: I don't think I go through an adjustment. I go into a discovery stage. Every project you're discovering something new, something different, as opposed to, "I've done this before, so I know where to go." I never approach things wanting to do the same thing again. Every time I work with a director, and it could be a director I've worked with three or four times, as far as I'm concerned, I've got a new canvas, and that's what I'm going to put my stroke on. Every movie is different and every situation is different. It could be a new director or someone you've worked with before, but every situation is different. It's a different set of circumstances and a different rhythm. It's a new dance. I don't think too much of what I've done in the past. I just think about where I am at that moment. It's a new deal. It's like, "Let's go paint something different."
Beaks: When you received that SAG honor in New York City, you told a great story about how you helped fix a tricky bit of staging during a club scene in CARLITO'S WAY.
Guzman: It was a scene with Sean Penn, Al Pacino, Penelope Ann Miller, myself and De Palma. I'm like the little kid in the candy store in that scene. So I come in, and... it's like trying to choreograph a dance. De Palma couldn't figure it out. He made his suggestion, but it didn't quite work. Then Sean did his thing, and it didn't quite orchestrate too well. And then Al tried. They couldn't figure it out. So they're going back and forth, and I'm working the shit out in my head. I'm like, "I've got this shit worked out, but who am I?" So finally I raise my hand, kinda like a kid in school, and and I'm like (meekly), "Um, is it okay if I... because I... are you sure? Really? Okay, because what I think should happen is Penelope comes to the table, Sean sees she's upset, Sean takes her out, I'm there with Al, he gives me a look, I split, then Al splits. (Pause. Looks scared as hell.) You think that works? Oh thank you! I'm just trying to help out! Thanks for listening to me!" I don't know if that was the exact orchestration, but it was based on that idea. Like I said, as an artist, you learn things. You're always observing things, so why not throw in your idea and your pitch. It worked. I was proud of it. It was my Academy-Award-that-no-one-will-ever-know moment.
Beaks: Well, everyone loves Pachanga.
Guzman: Are you kidding? Some people think that's my freaking name. "Hey Pachanga!" "My name's Luis Guz--." "No, it's not! It's Pachanga!"
Beaks: You ever get tired of that?
Guzman: Never. It's a homage. That is the impact that you had on people.