Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
“Talking to you, I just realized that I’ve been a part of a lot of firsts,” John Leguizamo tells The A.V. Club halfway through our look back at his nearly 40-year career. And he’s not wrong. From his pioneering stage work to his creation of the all-Latinx sketch show House Of Buggin’, the Colombia-born actor’s path has been paved with barrier-breaking roles—and now he adds his latest project, Critical Thinking, to the list. Leguizamo’s debut as a feature-film director tells the story of five Black and Latinx students from a Miami neighborhood who rise to become chess champions with the help of their mentor and teacher (Leguizamo). Based on a true story, Critical Thinking centers on themes that audiences have seen played out dozens of times, but Leguizamo conveys the boys’ lives in the barrio with a sense of realism lacking from many similar films. (It also finds a way to make chess way more cinematically captivating that you’d think possible.)
Below, Leguizamo discusses the importance of telling stories like Critical Thinking, the roles he almost lost to Benicio del Toro and Rowan Atkinson, and how he decided to prioritize his mental health over a starring role on ER.
The A.V. Club: You not only star in, but also directed and executive-produced this movie. What made this a story you wanted to tell?
John Leguizamo: Well, I just felt like the film spoke to me because I was a ghetto nerd, you know. I was that kid who loved reading, loved information. And these kids are the same. They’re ghetto nerds: They love their chess, they love facts, they live in that intellectual space. But what do you do in these tough neighborhoods where your schools are defunded by people like Betsy DeVos, who defunded public schools by $9 billion when the magic bullet for schools is not vouchers, it’s money. You just need money. They figured out that that’s the magic potion for public schools: money, just give them money.
And obviously the Latin and Black public schools—because of the neighborhoods they’re in—are the least funded. So that was in the script as well: how difficult that climb to success is if you’re Latin and Black and you’re in these tough communities, impoverished communities, forgotten communities. And yet there are all these geniuses—all these ghetto intellectuals, all these gifted children—that just aren’t nurtured, aren’t celebrated. And the ones that do make it are proof, like these five guys [played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Angel Bismark Curiel, Will Hochman, and Jeffry Batista, Corwin Tuggles].
AVC: As their mentor and teacher, your character gets to put on the personality of a historical chess figure at one point. That moment was very reminiscent of your one-man show Latin History For Morons.
JL: I had a teacher who was like that, my philosophy teacher. He was so great, and he had so much fun. I was like, “Oh, my god, if I would ever play a teacher, I want to play a teacher like that. Who just makes it fun, that makes learning a joy.” You know? Why does it have to be so buttoned-up and mechanical? You can have a lot of fun by including the kids doing fun things.
AVC: We’ve seen a lot of “based on a true story, teacher helping students rise from difficult circumstances thanks to [insert extracurricular here]” movies, but this one has an authenticity to it that most others lack.
JL: I definitely tried to stick to the facts. I actually played the exact games that these champs played. That last national championship is 60 moves, and they’re the exact moves that Marcel Martinez and Harutyun Akopyan played. And my actors had to learn how to play it, and then do it several times, which is really tough. I depicted the world they came from and the struggles that are real coming from a neighborhood like Overtown, Liberty City, or Allapattah, as they call it now in Miami. It’s hard to make it when you’re in these neighborhoods. How do you succeed? You can’t do it without a mentor. And this man, Martinez, was really special. He really loved these kids because he was one of those kids, and he wanted to give them every possible opportunity to make it.
AVC: Your character talks to the kids about how the Black and brown people who influenced chess over history were kept out of the history books. As you put it in the film, they “paint you out.” That topic is even more timely now than when you began filming in late 2018.
JL: It’s called psychosocial erasure, and it’s a big term, because if the hunter writes a story, you’ll never know the lion’s side of the story. And that’s what happened to us Latin people and Black people throughout the history of America. Latin people have been here for 500 years. We didn’t just get here. And before that, we were indigenous empires. And we built America. We found it, we built it. And then, it was sold to Britain, and then the rest was stolen from us. And we aren’t mad—we just want parity. I just want our contributions in textbooks and movies and literature, because we’ve contributed, and we’ve had heroes, and we’ve had generals and admirals and lieutenants who fought in every single war America’s ever had, and they’re never in any of our textbooks. So how can a child see themselves as a hero if he doesn’t see himself? How could he see himself as a success, if he doesn’t see himself?
We have to do the extra work to try to help our kids make it even though there’s so many microaggressions by this psychosocial erasure. Latin kids are the least represented in children’s picture books, and we’re the largest ethnic group in America. We’re almost 20 percent including undocumented immigrants. I want 20 percent of the films to be about Latin people. I want 20 percent of streaming stories to be about us. I want 20 percent of the published children’s picture books to be with the faces of Latin children. I don’t want more, but I’m not going to settle for less.
AVC: On IMDb, this is listed as your first credit. Was it really your first time on a professional shoot?
JL: Yeah! I had heard that Madonna was into Latin guys, and I thought, “Yo, instead of her trying to find me, maybe if I’m there.... I’ll help her find me.” ’Cause you know, she was the hottest pop star of the time. And so, I did this video, but I didn’t get to meet her or nothing. I got a pat on the back and a sandwich. That’s all I got.
AVC: It would be unheard of these days, but you actually played two different characters on Miami Vice—one that showed up in seasons two and three, and then a completely different character in season five.
JL: I know, I know! First I was a son of [a character played by] Miguel Piñero, one of the great Latin playwrights. I played his son, which started the whole series. And then they made me somebody else. It was towards the end of the series, so they weren’t really paying attention to details anymore. [Laughs.]
AVC: The show was a big hit by the time you joined. What was it like coming in to that well-oiled machine?
JL: It’s not easy because it’s a machine, and everyone is already doing their thing. You’re new and open-eyed and optimistic and wanting to ask questions, and they’ve done it too many times. They don’t really want to be answering questions. They just want to get it done and go home. And you’re like, “So how do you do this?” “What do you do that?” “Why do you think my character is doing this?” And you have all these questions that nobody really wants to be answering, and it makes you feel like a newbie. But that’s part of the process.
JL: That was my introduction into Hollywood—and the superficiality of Hollywood—because I had auditioned for it on video, and they offered me “terrorist number two.” And then, when they lined us up, and I was the shortest guy and the youngest guy, I got demoted to “terrorist number seven,” and I was so bummed. And then they stripped me of a lot of my lines. And then I died with a hood over my head, so you didn’t even know it was me. They dubbed my voice. I told my friends, “I’m starring in Die Hard 2.” I wasn’t.
AVC: Well, Die Hard was good practice for actually starring in a big action movie. Super Mario Bros. was a big step for you.
JL: Well, here I was, the highest-paid Latin actor of the time, in a co-starring role, and I’m playing this, this great white actor’s brother, so we’re crossing racial lines—which is so great and before its time. So I appreciated all of that. And I made a great friend in Fisher Stevens [who played Iggy], and we’ve stayed friends. The movie was a big deal for a lot of young people, so I’m not going to denigrate it. And I got to work with Bob Hoskins, who I have huge respect for, and Dennis Hopper. And we had incredible times together with the great Shakespearian actress Fiona Shaw, who organized Shakespeare readings on the weekends with all the young actors. It was a special time.
AVC: That’s a big switch from Shakespeare on the weekends to...
JL: A video game. Right? But we had to do that. We had to do something that was challenging our minds.
AVC: But I’m sure you learned a lot while working on a film that had so many technical aspects.
JL: You do learn a lot. The bigger they are, they become almost a military operation. You have so many different legions of crew members doing different things. And how do you monitor this? And how do you finish your day successfully? How do you deal with the studio and their notes? It takes a massive toll, and it takes a really strong person to navigate that—and I saw that. I was like, “Wow, you have to really be on top of your game on so many levels.” Your social skills and your leadership skills and your artistic skills—because you still gotta be an artist at the end of the day, because you’re a storyteller.
JL: I was so proud of it, because it was the first Latinx show, following the great and important In Living Color, which was so phenomenal and groundbreaking. Here we had a chance, but the thing is, they didn’t have any Latin Nielsen home boxes. There may be three or four [percent], even though we were 15 percent of the population—and they had very few Black homes as well. I’m sure if that weren’t the case, my show would have still been on the air. And we’re still not there yet. I don’t think we’re at 18 percent yet, with Nielsen home boxes. I’m not sure how it is for Black family homes, but I don’t think they are at parity yet either.
But I created that whole format and that whole crew, with doing remotes and doing live scenes. And when they asked me to fire my whole cast and reboot it with the right actors, I said no. So they fired me. I had to stand my ground. And then it became MADtv, with the same directors, same producers, same writers, same format, same studio—except I wasn’t there.
AVC: And you did all this—going from movies back to TV—when that was a really uncommon practice.
JL: That was a taboo back then. Back then you couldn’t do commercials or TV if you were a movie star. It tainted you.
AVC: Was that a concern for you?
JL: Absolutely it was a concern, because you were stigmatized if you did TV. They thought you belonged on the small box, not the big silver screen—as they put it back in the day. So yeah, it was a concern of mine, but I thought the risk was important: I want to show people how funny Latin people are.
JL: You know what? Talking to you, I just realized that I’ve been a part of a lot of firsts. I mean, this is groundbreaking. For Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes—two lead action heroes—to take those roles, that takes huge courage. And I’m so proud of them for doing that. It could’ve ruined their careers. People were stupid back then, and they would question their sexuality, which was.... People can be really ignorant. But they did it, man. And they went balls out, if I may use such an inappropriate term. And it was a blast, man. When we did the dance sequences together, to see the three of us trying to dance like drag queens... I would pay anything for that ticket. That was so, so funny. I was laughing all day long.
AVC: You mention there were concerns for Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes, but did you have those concerns as well?
JL: No, because I was lesser known. So my only thing was, “How do I steal the show?” That was my only concern. [Laughs.] And I wanted to portray it respectfully. I really wanted to portray it respectfully for the community. And, you know, Chi-Chi Rodriguez became a transgender icon, and lots of teenagers have come to me and said, “Thank you for that movie, because Chi-Chi gave me the courage to come out to my family.” I was very proud of that.
AVC: It was clear you all were portraying the community from a place of reverence and respect.
JL: I think we have to give credit to Beeban Kidron, the director, and Douglas Carter Beane, the screenwriter, because they really wanted to make sure that we weren’t making a joke or clowning these characters. They wanted to give them dignity and respect. And they did all the research. And we did all the research. Patrick and I went to Escuelita, which was a big drag-queen ballroom where everybody competed and vogued and sang and dance. And we went to a couple of other famous institutions of the day.
AVC: What was it like physically stepping into that character?
JL: Yo, I had Laritza Dumont, who was my coach—a Puerto Rican drag queen of the time—and she really helped me out. She gave me so many great tips, like how to walk in the heels so my feet wouldn’t hurt. “Just lean front.” And she taught me moves and how to walk. “You have to put one foot right in front of the other,” that kind of thing. We had a dance hall studio with mirrors, and she would make me go through the paces until my feet [got] bunions—until it worked. And I was glad for the coaching and the tough love. And she gave me great lines that I borrowed from her. And the way my character spoke, I spoke as best as I could like her. I just tried to imitate her.
AVC: We were speaking of Shakespeare earlier, but you actually got to do it on camera in this film. Did you ever expect it would explode the way it did?
JL: Well, how many times in life do you get a Baz Luhrmann? Only once every century. He’s incredible. His genius, that eccentric genius of his and that showmanship. And that doesn’t happen by chance. He made us rehearse—about a month of intense rehearsals. Auditions were really brutal. It was between me and Benicio del Toro for Tybalt, and luckily he mumbles, so I got it. So that was incredible. Thank you, Benicio. And Baz is just... He’s galvanizing. He makes you feel like you’re so integral to the story and your collaboration is so vital. And that taught me so much. I tried to bring that to all the directing of Critical Thinking. I tried to bring that same sort of generosity of spirit that he brings to all his work, and demand that he brings as well, of excellence.
AVC: And you got to work with him again on Moulin Rouge!
JL: Yeah, that was—that was tough. That was, like, a month and a half of rehearsals and speech classes, singing classes, dancing classes in Australia. And then eight months of shooting—the longest shoot I’ve ever been a part of my entire life. But it was successful. It brought the musical back. It had been dead since 1972. Grease was the last successful musical until Moulin Rouge! And then, of course, you got Glee after that—everybody using the jukebox musical.
AVC: Did you tell Baz you wanted to work with him again? Or did he approach you?
JL: Well, I know Baz wanted me to be the Unconscious Argentinian [played by Jacek Koman]. And I was like, “Unconscious? I don’t want to be unconscious the whole, entire movie.” That’s how simple I am. I was like, “I want to be the conscious guys, what other role...?” So I had auditioned for Toulouse-Lautrec, because he wanted Rowan Atkinson, and I convinced him that I could sound British and play this part, because he saw me more as Tybalt.
AVC: I can’t imagine what it was like dealing with all the technical elements of that film.
JL: Oh, the angles. I mean, he had 27 angles on some scenes. So we had to do a take hundreds of times.
JL: I couldn’t believe I got that part. I mean, Todd McFarlane with Spawn... You know, the comic book industry was dying in the late ’80s. It almost went under. And single-handedly Todd McFarlane with Spawn... His drawings—dark, edgy, sexual. He brought vulgarity, he brought death—real—that was lacking in the comic books, because they were all like Superman and Peter Parker. They were all kind of cute, and you didn’t really feel the reality. The were almost from another century. And he brought that greenness, and the comic book industry started borrowing from him. And then I got a chance to be in the movie of that series. That was an incredible opportunity for me.
And [director] Mark Dippé allowed me to improvise like crazy, so I made up crazy amounts of dialogue—silly and grotesque, vulgar. It’s mostly in the R-rated version of the director’s cut, not so much in the PG-13 release. But it was grueling. The first day of test makeup was eight hours. I was under makeup for eight hours before I hit the stage. And then we got it down to about four hours. But I had blisters on my face—blisters, callouses on my neck. Oh, it was brutal.
AVC: I heard Jim Carrey was told to put a pebble in his costume and rub it up and down his thigh as a distraction from the claustrophobia when he was filming How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Did you have to have similar coping mechanisms?
JL: I had to take some breaks some times, and I had to quit some times. It was like, “I can’t do this much longer. I’m feeling claustrophobic.” I had giant contacts and fake, giant teeth. I had a prosthetic head. My whole face was covered up to my eyeballs. It would become too much, and they didn’t have a great cooling system back then. So I was sweating up a storm. You would see water leaking out of my costume, and I wasn’t urinating. That’s just how much sweat was coming out. It was like a human condom. It was like wearing a human condom.
AVC: It was still rare at the time for someone who played heroes like Luigi to play a villain. Were you concerned about that affecting your future roles?
JL: I wasn’t your conventional leading man anyway, you know? I was a Latin man in Hollywouldn’t. I knew my chances weren’t great. And so I decided to do it my way. I wasn’t going to play by their book, because there was no book for me. So I just took the roles that turned me on. I did the things that challenged me and let me show my versatility and what I could do. It gave me an incredible sense of freedom.
JL: Oh, my god, that movie was supposed to break me out as a new big comedy star. And it didn’t do so well, but kids loved it. It became a cult favorite. Every time I tour, twentysomethings always come up to me: “Oh! I love that movie. Can you sign my VHS, my DVD?” And I’m like, “Oh, my god, they still make those?” And they’re all, like, worn out, all scratched. I think Super Mario Bros., like The Pest, found its audience. It’s like It’s A Wonderful Life—it bombed when it came out and got horrible reviews, and now it’s a Christmas classic. Stranger things have happened.
AVC: You competed for charity on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? You don’t get to take the money home, but did you still feel the pressure?
JL: You think, “Eh, I can handle it. I’m used to having pressure.” But all of a sudden you feel pressure, like, “Is my intelligence in question?” “Is my IQ in question?” And then you’re there for your charity, and you believe in your charity, so you want to win that money, and you get really competitive. And then I had the right answer, and the audience talked me out of it. They made me doubt myself. So I was only able to get my charity—the East Harlem Tutorial Program, a brownstone in Spanish Harlem that had computers for kids who didn’t have computers to do their homework—I was only able to get them $30,000 when I could have got them $125,000. I was so bummed.
AVC: You first voiced a rat in 1998’s Doctor Doolittle and Gune in 2000’s Titan A.E. But your voice work you’re most known for is Ice Age. When you signed on for that, did you ever imagine you’d voice the character for more than 15 years?
JL: I’ve always been a huge fan of animated voices—since Mel Blanc. Mel Blanc was one of my comedy heroes, and the voices he did for Warner Bros. just blew me away. They were so real. And the magic of him was that you believed that voice came from that creature. You didn’t believe that voice could exist outside of that character. And I think that there’s a magic to that. And when I did Sid the sloth, I wanted people to believe that voice only existed through that being. So they came to me. I was the first person cast. And there were different Diegos and a different Manny, and they let go of the previous actors, and Denis [Leary] and Ray [Romano] came in, and it was the perfect triumvirate.
AVC: How did you find Sid’s voice?
JL: [Co-director] Chris Wedge—who did a brilliant short that I saw that was Oscar-nominated—I told him, “Look, I’ve got 50 voices for you.” He was a sloth, so I started talking like I was from the South, with a drawl. And then I said, “What about Southeast Asia? Or I could do it ghetto.” And he wasn’t buying it. So I said, “All right, let me study Discovery Channel stuff on sloths.” And then I started looking at all this documentary footage on sloths, and I found out that they stored food in their cheek pouches, and that they got drunk from the food because it got fermented, because they eat so slow.
So I started walking around the house with a sandwich, and I was like [Affects a full mouth.], “How am I going to come up with this voice? It’s just not going to happen.” And I was like, “Oh, my god! Wait a minute, wait a minute. Back up, back it up. Let me see.... Oh, my goodness. This is the voice!” So I called Chris Wedge, and I go [Affects a full mouth.], “Chris, guess who this is!” And he couldn’t. And I said, “It’s Sid the sloth! I found myself!”
JL: What a well-oiled machine. That was one of the great times, because David Zabel and the whole writing crew on that was so tight. They were so welcoming and allowed me to have input. I was supposed to be the new doctor to take over for George Clooney, and become the head doctor until the end. But I came from doing theater and movies where you give 300 percent. And working 16 hours a day, I was so burnt out after the first few episodes that I was like, “I think I’m going to go mental. I can’t keep up. I can’t keep going at this pace.” And so I resigned. It was the first time I resigned from anything, I quit anything. But it was so demanding, such hard work. Now I know why they get those big dollars, because that shit is brutal.
I was just so used to giving so much of myself, and I was giving it to them all. And it was just like, “Wow, this is brutal, man.” I just had no life. You’re up there so early. Those guys were so hard, man. You’re up there, like, at 5 a.m. talking to the real doctors, who are there to talk you through your dialogue to explain it to you—because it’s all real operations and real cases, and you have to know it and understand it. And then they have to show you how to do the operation so you don’t look like a moron.
And then, they shoot 80 pages for 50 minutes, where everybody else shoots 50 pages for 50 minutes. So you’re having to learn 30 extra pages of dialogue. And you have to have it verbatim because they shoot oners most of the time. And you have to talk fast as fuck. It was tough, man. That was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I was like, “Thank you for this experience. I didn’t know that it could be this, this rough.” It made me appreciate going back into independent film. I was like, “Oh, this is so easy. Ten pages a day. What a luxury.”
JL: Dude, working with Keanu was so awesome. What a generous, kind, lovely guy. So, I got to ask to be this, this sort of thug helper, and I had a blast. I talked to some mechanics, I did a little research, and then I just made him like a New York street guy, a toughie. I had so much fun with the directors [Chad Stahelski and David Leitch]. A producer friend of mine, who I’d worked with on a ton of other projects, brought me on, and it was a blast, and then I got to be in the second one.
Unfortunately the second one was not what I thought it was going to be. I had this incredible backstory and this really funny opening monologue. And then I had a fight sequence, and I got all beat up, and they cut it all out. And then I wasn’t in it anymore. For bad-mouthing it, they cut me out of the rest.
AVC: That has to be tough. You pour your heart and soul into something, and then it’s all out of your control in post-production.
JL: You can’t help falling in love with the characters you create. If you’re a passionate actor, you’re not going to do these things lightly. You’re going to delve into it and give it all you got, and you fall in love with these characters. They feel like living, breathing human beings, and you want to protect them. And so, when my character was cut from the rest of the series, I felt the cut, you know? It hurts. And a lot of actors don’t forgive that easy, especially when they have big roles and they’ve given it all they’ve got, and then they trim the hell out of it. It’s hard for them to be pragmatic and go, “Oh yeah. You know, that’s what happens in the editing room.” You can say that, but that’s not how you feel.
AVC: Going through something like your John Wick experience must be one of the things that makes writing and producing your own stage content so appealing—like you did with your Broadway debut in your one-man show Freak.
JL: Yeah, exactly. I was the first Latinx to be in a one-person show on Broadway, a comedy. And I got two Tony nominations, and then two Emmy nominations when it aired as a special on HBO. And to get it on Broadway was tricky. They didn’t know about the material. “Are Latin people going to come and see me? Are white people going to like hearing about Latin stories?” I knew Latin people wanted to see themselves. I’m a Latin person—that’s all I wanted to see, and I never get to see it. So I knew that hunger existed. And then half my audience—or 60 percent—was Latin, and then the rest was white. And then when they got Tony nominations, then there was no room for Latinx people, because white people took all the seats. [Laughs.]
But that’s how it goes. And then you hope that other people follow after you, like Lin-Manuel [Miranda]. He wrote this beautiful piece in Vanity Fair saying how inspired he was by my work. And that’s what I wanted my work to be. And then Lin’s work is going to be so much more inspiring to other Latinx writers and creators. That’s our job, to pass these batons to the next generation of writers and creators. Because we’re there, we have it. We have the ability and the talent—we just need the opportunities. We just need to be included.
AVC: And it’s circular. I’m sure Lin-Manuel’s success has inspired you.
JL: Yes! Lin has re-inspired me. Seriously. I’m writing three musicals, one that I think is on a short way to Broadway called Kiss My Aztec, about the conquest. It’s like Spamalot meets Book Of Mormon. It’s just hilarious, ridiculous, funny as fuck. And the music is incredible, lyrics are dynamite.
AVC: Sounds like you may have another Tony in your future. It can go next to the Special Tony Award you got the same year you were nominated for writing your most recent one-man show, Latin History For Morons.
JL: Latin History For Morons was a very difficult project to put together because of all the history and information, and getting it to be funny and touching and effective. It was a long journey, because I like to do things right. And it took even longer because I was writing and starring in it myself. But I had a great helper and Tony Taccone, the director, who was really, really incredible and instrumental.
Creating that piece, I did it all over the country. I tested it all over the country. And my Latinos are from Texas to Miami, to New England, Boston, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut to Chicago, Colorado, Washington—they were all pumped by it. They were all moved by it. They were all feeling like they weren’t second-class citizens. They felt they stopped feeling less than, and that was so huge for me. My thing is to get this information into textbooks and to get a museum, a Latinx museum—a real museum, not a wing—I want a whole museum dedicated to our contributions and our struggles. When I started doing all the research, I found out that 6,000 Latinos were murdered between 1830 and 1930—1,000 by lynching, the rest by being burned alive and shot—so they could take their land and their farms and their ranches and their belongings. They did that to get them out of power, just to scare the community, so that they would cower and be overpowered. That information needs to be out there. Our struggles and our pain needs to be out there, and I’m not going to stop until it is.