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January 2005
Assault on Precinct 13: An Interview with John Leguizamo

Assault on Precinct 13: An Interview with John Leguizamo

By Todd Gilchrist

John Leguizamo has worn many creative hats throughout his career- as a comedian, an actor, a producer, writer and director- but often, his greatest contributions to the silver screen can be simply by showing up and adding a little spice to a heady ensemble. He first showed promise as Benny Blanco in "Carlito's Way", then popped up in "Too Wong Foo", "Executive Decision", "The Fan", "Doctor Dolittle" and "Moulin Rouge". This month, he hopes magic will happen yet again in "Assault on Precinct 13", where he stars with Lawrence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke; Leguizamo recently spoke to blackfilm.com about playing the role of a crystal meth addict, and discussed what it means to be a zombie hunter in the upcoming George Romero film "Land of the Dead".

How did you come up with the look for your character?

John Leguizamo: That was a nasty, unhygienic experience for me. I didn't enjoy doing that. All of the dirt and the grime is disgusting every day- that was my real hair, and they put tons of gunk and grease in it and I didn't wash it, they put oil on my face and I didn't bathe. It was just nasty- I would clear the craft service [table] every day.

How do you make a character like this interesting in an ensemble piece?

JL: It was tough, but I had a great f*cking director and a great writer, man, and I just told them from day one Ślook, we need to get gets levels here. We need to get a lot of humor out of this, and there's a big chance here for this character to serve a really important purpose in the movie, to relieve the tension. I can do that for you.' So I said this guy needs real history, so we came up with all of this political stuff. He is ghetto and street and wanted to be a lawyer but he couldn't afford it, so he dealt and started using [drugs], fell down, hit rock bottom, and as we catch him in the movie he's hitting rock bottom, but he still thinks he's going to be a lawyer. He thinks he's going to pass the bar as soon as he kicks meth.

Why did you want to play this role?

JL: Because I loved the script and I loved the original. I loved Jean-Francois' movies and I watched them before. Ethan Hawke and Lawrence Fishburne, I always wanted with them and I think they are super talented actors. So those were things I considered when I met with Jean-Francois, and we talked and his translator was helping us. We came to like-mindedness about it. He was written as a heroin addict but that didn't work, so he made it meth because he wanted to put that paranoia that is happening in America, he sort of feels a mistrustfulness and lack of faith in things. And then we put a lot of politics in it and legalese, and it became a lot of fun.

Presumably there wasn't a lot of hands-on research for the role.

JL: No. I went to drug centers in Toronto and talked to drug counselors and former addicts. It's tricky because you don't want to- a lot of their mannerisms are kind of cartoonish, so I had to like pick and choose to make it not seem way over the top.

Did you know that "Rio Bravo" was the real inspiration for the original film?

JL: Yeah I did. I did watch "Rio Bravo" to see what I could take from it. But the only thing you could take away from any of those movies was survival- it's about survival, and that's what the West was about, regardless that I was always rooting for the Indians.

Would you like to make a traditional western?

JL: I would like to, but definitely not traditional. I'm part Indian, and I don't see the world that way- I see it from the other point of view. It's gotta be a totally different twist on the whole situation- how the country was lost, absolutely. I have a lot of Edward Curtis photographs at home to remind me of the situation.

You're also going to Sundance this year, right?

JL: I'll be there. The movie is really dark- it's called Cronicas, and it's my first Spanish-language movie, based on these two serial killers that could only happen in Latin America because of the Civil War and poverty. One guy killed 200 boys, another guy killed over 100 young girls, and they got away with it for a long, long time. The movie is not about a thriller, is not about the serial killings; it's about morality. It's about what decisions you make every day and I play a journalist who's tracking them down and has the opportunity of exploiting the situation for my own benefit- that kind of thing.

Did you do a lot of research for the role?

JL: Yeah. When I was in Ecuador I went with a lot of investigative reporters, I went to the morgue every morning at 7am to find a dead body and from there talk to the parents or whoever is willing to talk. You go to the location of the crime. I did that for about two weeks.

Does having a French director on "Assault" create a different atmosphere than with an American one?

JL: That's a good question, because I really think, I mean, hanging out with European people and Latin filmmakers, there's a different sensibility about storytelling- forget about a world point of view, just storytelling. I guess for us as Americans, storytelling by the numbers is so part of our whole molecules, and it's so hard to snap out of that, but they don't see it that way. They're more interested in character development, they're more interested in politics, and subtleties, where we just want to move on.

There is also more violence.

JL: You're horrified, because you really like Ethan Hawke and all of a sudden he's doing these despicable acts. That's him too- he's watching the news about Iraq in Europe, not here, and you see it on the news. Violence has to count- it can't just be a video game.

Do you think that for a filmmaker, background prepares you better for directing?

JL: Absolutely. It totally does, because you saw it, I felt it, you saw it happen. I mean, there were scenes that didn't work; yeah, they worked when you read the script, but when you bring them out and you do them- the Mexican stand off and there was another one afterward- but you get actors who have been in theater and, okay, stop. We stop everything, even though the producers are biting their nails, and we go Ślet's break it down. Why are we here? What is your purpose?' like we break down a scene in a play, find out each actor's motivation and you realize who's got the most power. Do the hierarchy and you look into each other's eyes- who do you trust and who do you mistrust- and the Mexican standoff works; otherwise it becomes this cheap gimmick you've seen too much.

Why do you think this story holds up through so many different incarnations?

JL: To me, it's like boxing. There are certain things that are primal, really primal, and defending your territory, defending your loved ones and defending yourself, and I think we all have those crazy feelings when, you know somebody cuts you off in your car or somebody comes up to your door, and you think Ścan I defend my family? How will I defend those that I love?' I think we all live with that, especially what happened in New York; can I defend, can I rise to the occasion, what would I do in that situation? What kind of man am I? And who are the real heroes in the world- who are the real heroes? I think that's what's taught to you.

Is any possibility of returning to the stage some time soon?

JL: In a couple of years. I've been working on it, and I want it to be my masterpiece. The other ones I just loved- I was having a great time- but with this I want to take my sweet, sweet as time. It's going to be about my career from movie to movie, that matters to me.

Which movies would you include?

JL: It would include "To Wong Foo", the shit that went on in that movie; it would include "Executive Decision". ["Moulin Rouge" is in there too.

Would you include "Ice Age"?

JL: I'm not going to include that because there was no- it was too much fun and it was easy. There was no drama, and there was nothing to assault.

Is it tough to relinquish creative control on projects after you enjoy it on the ones you authored yourself?

JL: I have had that experience early in my career, but I was always pretty cocky and arrogant anyway, so that's why "Executive Decision" is in there, but I was ad libbing a lot in that flick and certain people were really offended by it and aggravated, but all of my ad libs stayed in the movie- every single one of them. So it's like, Śwho won?'

What about "Land of the Dead"?

JL: I'm hoping that [Romero's] that's his masterpiece. I have a lot of high hopes for that because I love the man; he 68 years old and he's still building his career; and he's at the top of his game. We're doing all night shoots, exteriors, he's smoking, drinking tons of coffee.

Who do you play in the film?

JL: I play a zombie killer. It's an apocalyptic world and it's very political too, but it's more of an action [movie]. It's very operatic too, it's a very ambitious piece. It's an action movie, it's political, it's got a little bit of comic relief as well. The zombies have taken over, and there are only certain patches of right-wing people controlling everything, and then the working-class people like me and Simon Baker come in and to try to help get supplies from the zombies. It's amazing, man. I felt blessed; I mean, I'm not religious, but all of a sudden I felt like Śwow.'

What do you think of the recent Śzombie renaissance' with movies like "Shaun of the Dead"?

JL: The guys from Shaun of the Dead are in the movie. It's a weird thing; I've got my own hypothesis too about that. I think it all has to do with the situation with the war in Iraq and all of that and our sense of- I think it lightens things up when you can't take death so seriously. It lightens it up and plays with that anxiety. I think it has to do with a sort of right-wing, neo-conservatives controlling things and corporate power.

Are the zombies fast or slow?

JL: They are slow. He will not do fast [zombies]. He has real strict theories on zombies; he created it and he's part Cuban and zombies and voodoo and all of that comes from the Carribbean.

Is it gory?

JL: Yeah- crazy gory. That's ridiculous; I've never worked on a movie where there was so much f*cking- except there's a lot of blood in this, but not like that. I mean, they put real guts into mannequins and pull out spleens and intestines.

So it won't be G-rated.

JL: Hell no.

Is Tom Savini doing the effects?

JL: No. It's Greg Nicotero of KNB.

What do you think of the idea of fast zombies?

JL: I think that was cool. It has its own fascination, but zombies can't be fast, man. They're dead people, corpses. How are they going to move fast when they have rigor mortis and everything? There's a lack of logic in those movies. I mean, they are still fun because fast is scary, but...

Are the "Shaun of the Dead" guys in the movie as a joke, or do they just appear in the background?

JL: I didn't see that getting shot, so I don't know, but the beauty about Romero is that there's always been a sense of humor about things. I mean, there's always a little bit of a wink to it.

What else are you working on?

JL: What else. You need more? I'm working on some stuff. I mean, I'm doing "Ice Age 2" now, just finishing that up. It's good- Drea de Matteo plays my girlfriend and she plays a female sloth. Queen Latifah is Ray Romano's mammoth girlfriend.

How do you lace your characters with so much humor and humanity?

JL: I've always tried different things, trying to figure out yourself and test yourself, and in this movie something I was working on was trying to figure out I love being in dramas, but to be funny in a drama but still be real but let it really come from a character, not from just jokes. That's what I was really working on. I really enjoyed doing that, you know- it felt like that's what I would like to do more of. I did a little bit of that in "Land of the Dead" too; I had to try to add humor to a very serious, dark zombie horror movie.

You seem to tread the line between comedy and tragedy very delicately.

JL: That's my favorite kind of comedy and humor, is something that's really real and can still be funny, but in a real story. I tried to do that with Beck, I tried to add as much as I could; he was this f*cked up human being who was at rock bottom but could still be funny but could still feels that he has this pathetic quality about him. That's what I love- I had a crazy childhood and everything was always really dark, and I always was trying to be the funny guy and try to lighten things up that were really heavy, so that's the thing I love.

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