I've been lucky enough since the early 1990s to have seen every one of John Leguizamo's one-man shows either in New York or in Chicago, where he often test runs his productions before taking them to Broadway or Off-Broadway. And although I'd seen him in films like CASUALTIES OF WAR and DIE HARD 2 prior to his first show, "Mambo Mouth," it was through these performances over the years that I became impressed with him as an actor.
By every definition of the expression, Leguizamo is a classic example of a working actor, capable of doing pretty much anything from comedy to drama, supporting roles and the occasional lead. He's worked with so many great directors and certainly done his share of forgettable films as well--forgettable in large part because the filmmaker didn't make good use of Leguizamo's talents as an actor (RIDE ALONG was a big hit, but Leguizamo barely got to speak, which is a cardinal sin in my book).
Look at his credits to see the range of his abilities: SUPER MARIO BROTHERS, SPAWN, CARLITO'S WAY, SUMMER OF SAM, EXECUTIVE DECISION, THE FAN, ROMEO + JULIET, MOULIN ROUGE, COLLATERAL DAMAGE, SPUN, the voice of Sid in the ICE AGE films, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, VANISHING ON 7TH STREET, THE LINCOLN LAWYER, KICK-ASS 2, and the list literally goes on and on.
His most recent film is as Jon Favreau's right-hand cook Martin in the Favreau-directed CHEF, which opens in a whole bunch of theaters this week, after a limited release last week. The Martin role is one of Leguizamo's best in a quite a while, and really gives him a chance to dig into a character and give him some depth and resonance. And CHEF happens to be a damn entertaining movie on top of it. I had the chance to sit down with Leguizamo for the first time during the SXSW Film Festival, where CHEF served as the opening night offering, and I was able to talk with him about his string of one-man shows, among many other CHEF-related things. Please enjoy my talk with John Leguizamo…
Capone: I want to say before we get started, I have seen every one of your one-man shows. I saw Mambo Mouth when I lived in New York. I live in Chicago now, so I’ve seen like all the rest there.
John Leguizamo: Chicago is sort of my second birth place.
Capone: You test out a lot of the shows there, so I’ve seen a couple of those, pre-New York runs.
JL: Yeah, I don't know why I ended up in Chicago. I guess because it’s a great theater town, and it really nurtures talent, especially playwrites, so that’s why I was there. I did "Spic-O-Rama" there, and it ran for like four months at the Briar Street Theater.
Capone: Yeah, that’s the first one I saw in Chicago; I actually lived just a couple of blocks from there was that was playing.
JL: Yeah, and I remember the Bulls were playing [in the championship]. And then I did "Freak" there, and it didn’t go so well.
Capone: But the last one you did, I was there the day after the massive snow storm, and thankfully there’s a subway stop right across the street so I could still make it.
JL: Somebody came in a snow mobile, somebody came on skis [laughs].
Capone: There were a lot of people in the audience, but it was so much fun. There was even a documentary that was on PBS, and a big part of it focused on that in that particular preview in Chicago. Jon was talking about it last night, that to play a chef of this level, you can't just make it look like you know how to cook; you have to make it look instinctual. Who did you learn from?
JL: I think you’ve always got to "De Niro it." That's an acting technique. "De Niro" is kind of method where you’ve really got to immerse yourself in it, and Jon did that. He studied for two months with Roy [Choi] in the kitchen, and I did a little less time. I did three weeks, maybe four, with Roy. I did three weeks at New York at The Line, and then I did about a week and a half with Roy at Sunny Spot [in Venice, California], and a little bit at A-Frame [in Los Angeles], and on the food truck. And he was there all the time. You can’t fake that stuff, man. You can’t. It shows. You’ve start to look like you're faking it, like you’re doing TV or something.
Capone: Jon was really good to make it clear that it was you and him. It wasn’t like it was someone else’s hands.
JL: Yeah, like when they do ballet movies, and you see the top part of the body, and they cut to somebody else's feet [laughs]. Or when someone plays piano in a movie.
Capone: And you guys are going to hot and humid places in the summer, like Austin, Miami, and New Orleans.
JL: Oh my god, when I signed up I forgot we were going shooting in August in Austin, New Orleans, and Miami in a food truck, cooking, with movie lights. That shit was unbearable.
Capone: But you were all gritty and sweaty; it made it seem very real. You never see that. You just got grease and smoke in your face.
JL: You're afraid of getting cut, you’re burning, it’s so freaking hot, I can't let the food burn. You've got to look like you know what you’re doing. Luckily, we had real tasks, and Roy made us work through a process of what he had to do, so we had to do it for real, all the time. Half your acting job was done. If you picked up the skills, now the job is to maintain. Keep toasting it, turning it around, then it goes to the next step, which is getting it off the grill, putting the new supply, passing it on to the next station. You dream for those moments that are "Uta Hagen moments"--I studied a lot [laughs]. I love what I do, so I studied. It’s about having business, a real business. A lot of fake actors, sorry, they just stand there and deliver lines, but they’re not engaged.
Capone: There is something about seeing a person at work, no matter what the job is. There are so many movies where we don't ever really know what the person does for a living, and here, you see a team of people working and there's a process and a skill, and it informs us about the character as much as dialogue.
JL: Absolutely. It makes it feel real. It makes it feel like, I mean, that’s the big Uta Hagen thing is to have the real activities that ground the character. I'm giving you an acting lesson, by the way.
Capone: Bring it on. You talk a lot about your acting classes in your one-man shows.
JL: Yeah, it’s true. I love what I do. All the greats before me studied hard. De Niro, Pacino, James Dean, Marlon Brando. They all studied all their lives with acting teachers, coaches. It’s no joke.
Capone: It seemed like, especially between you and Emjay [Anthony, who plays Favreau's son], there were a lot of scenes of you guys just bullshitting with each other. Were you just improving?
JL: Yeah, Jon actually said we were going to improvise a lot, and I go, “Aw, shit, yeah. That’s my forte.” And so we threw down. It was a lot of fun, and Emjay jumped in, and Emjay is a very capable young actor, and he loved it. He never did it before.
Capone: A role like this really allows you to tap into a lot of your strengths. Is this what you live for, something that lets you dig in and play a fully realized character?
JL: Yeah, yeah. And I’m also somebody that’s obsessed with details. I love that too. I love that contradiction of improvising, but being obsessive with details. I love that, because it gives the best of both worlds. It gives me the ability to just go up and create a lot of stuff, but at the same time, create a character, give him a real dimension.
Capone: You’re a great talker, but I’ve seen you in movies where they don’t let you talk that much. I saw RIDE ALONG, which I liked, but you barely got to speak.
JL: Right, right. It’s a different thing. I was walking a fine line, because I wanted it to be more like 48 HOURS, where the action is as real as the comedy is funny. So with that character I tried to be more of a straight guy.
Capone: Your impression of Sofia Vergara reminded me of like all those female characters that you played in your one-man shows. I was like, "There’s that voice." Or more specifically, the work you did in TO WONG FOO.
JL: What area are you from?
Capone: I’m in Chicago.
JL: You said you saw "Mambo Mouth" in New York?
Capone: I lived in New York for two years after college, in the early 90s, so that's when I caught it. All the rest were in Chicago. There are a few choice lines of dialogue in Spanish in the film that aren’t translated, and these Austin people got it. They were laughing. You might not get that in some cities.
JL: They're going to get it in Miami, Boston, they're going to get it in California, New York, Jersey, Connecticut, Chicago. So, I tour around the country with my shows, and I try to use a lot of Spanglish and Spanish, and some people don’t get it and others get it.
Capone: I don’t get it half the time, and I still think it’s funny.
Capone: Jon said last night about the film playing at SXSW, "It will never get better than here."
JL: I don’t know why he said that. I don’t know. I’ve been to a lot of film festivals. People don’t respond like that; they just don’t. I don’t know. I’ve been to Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, and people are very industry; they’re very poker faced through the whole thing. You get some laughs, but not like last night. It played amazingly. I saw it by myself the first time, so I didn’t know how funny it was. Also, the heartfelt moments were really beautiful. They’re really honest and simple. I love that. I think they give the movie a lot of weight.
Capone: Yeah, the bigger picture theme of the artist being torn down by both critics and corporate thought--
JL: Right, right.
Capone: Can you relate to that?
JL: I think we can all relate to that. Especially if you sit around wanting to be an artist, and you have things to say and things to have value. It’s a tricky navigating between studio movies, art movies, how you pay your bills, how you do something that’s meaningful. It’s a hard juggling act. You've got to do the big movies because they pay; little movies don’t pay, especially right now. They’re paying the least that they’ve ever paid. So how many movies can you do for scale? They feed your soul, but then you've got to feed your family. I’m not a big fan of commercial films. I’m just not. It’s just not my thing. I love DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, SHORT TERM 12, 12 YEARS A SLAVE. They rocked my world, man. And the foreign films this year were phenomenal, man. OMAR, THE MISSING PICTURE, THE HUNT. Holy shit. I mean, they killed me man. But that GREAT BEUATY one? Those Oscars…
Capone: It’s old people voting.
JL: I know. It is. Everyone’s over 90. I thought it would win too, because it’s the easiest to digest. The other ones were about really difficult subject matter. ACT OF KILLING didn’t win either.
Capone: That was shocking to me.
JL: ACT OF KILLING was one of the most outrageous documentaries I’ve seen in my entire life. It captured the sickest elements and twistedness of humanity that you’ve ever seen.
Capone: Well it was good to meet you, man. I’ve been really looking forward to this.