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June 2005
Land of the Dead: An Interview with John Leguizamo

Land of the Dead: An Interview with John Leguizamo

By Todd Gilchrist

John Leguizamo is an actor whose career has enjoyed too many different twists and turns to keep count. Television series and starring roles in features followed his turns in movies like "Casualties of War", but the thespian seldom said no to off-kilter projects, appearing as an obese monster in "Spawn", a diminutive artist in "Moulin Rouge", and most frighteningly, Luigi in the 1993 video game adaptation "Super Mario Bros." In first six months of 2005, Leguizamo appears in not one but four new films: "Assault on Precinct 13", "The Honeymooners", the forthcoming "Cronicas" and this week's long-awaited follow-up to George Romero's beloved series of zombie films "Land of the Dead". In the film, Leguizamo explores his inner action hero as a Cholo, soldier of fortune who works for, as he describes them, Œthe haves and the have-mores' who run an isolated utopian society long after zombie hordes swarmed over the world's continents.

Positing a few of his own questions to us, Leguizamo recently sat down with Blackfilm to discuss the new zombie epic, and the prospect of working with horror maven George Romero.

John Leguizamo: Everybody saw it last night- everybody? Don't lie. What did you think, because I really loved it, because I thought it was really- I was hoping it was George's masterpiece because I haven't seen it. I only saw the first fourteen minutes at Cannes, and, I mean I really thought it was an ambitious flick. It's part, I mean, it's an apocalyptic world, it's part action movie, it's part political satire- did you catch the satire? (Laughs) Just curious- just curious, you know. Who do the zombies represent?

The proletariat.

JL: Yeah, that's what I thought, is that they, yeah, no, it was definitely the proletariat, and then what was curious is what did me and Simon represent, that's what I couldn't totally politically figure out. I mean, we're not the bourgeois, we're either- anybody? I know it's early but it's not that early, come on. Hmm, prophets, John Kerrys-

You use a lot of spanish profanity. Was that all ad-libbed?

JL: Yeah. There's a lot of ad-libbing. I mean, I didn't know what to expect working with george. I mean, I admired him of course- Night of the Living Dead is one of the great movies of all time, outside that it's a horror movie and it started the whole zombie genre, but it's still a great movie and I used to watch it in New York. I saw Chiller Theater, we used to have that in New York, and Creature Feature- I was it there, and I didn't know George was going to be, how he was going to be with real actors. I know he's got the horror thing down and he's got certain rules he has to have how a zombie's got to move slow, because they have rigor mortis- how can they move fast? He doesn't tell them how to move because he doesn't want them all to [look] like CGI armies, so he lets everybody find their inner zombie, which is pretty cool, and he's good with the acting. You know, he really let us loose, but he would also reign us in, you know, he was really watching the acting. I was really impressed with that, so I was making up shit all over the place. Some of it stuck, some of it will be on the DVD. It will go somewhere. It's never wasted.

This film has a classicism that most modern movies don't possess. How did that affect the way you and the crew worked?

JL: I've never done a horror movie in my life. This was the first, and it's hard, it's just as hard as doing a comedy. I mean, it's a lot of work to make things real and natural, you know what I mean? That's what's tricky- to make it all believable you work extra hard, and I think the difference between this movie and all of the other horror movies is he's always got a sense of humor about it. I think, I really responded to the script. I thought the characters were really well-defined- I'd never seen them that well-defined in a horror movie before. I mean, my character had a whole character arc, I had, you know, ulterior motives, very Iago in a way, but that really appealed to me. Political commentary, social commentary in it, I thought it was pretty deep- kind of operatic in a way, and that's what I- what appealed to me in the script, so I haven't seen the full product, so I don't know if he succeeded. Hopefully he did.

What do you think playing this character will do for your career?

JL: Uh, well you never know what a movie's going to do for you. You know, I let go of those expectations a long time ago. I always improvise, you know, I mean that's my thing. Luckily I'm a writer, so I always try to- the fact that there's great writing, improvising just adds a little bit more to it, just kicks it to anther level, because an actor, believe it or not, really knows his character more than anybody else, more than the original writer, more than the director. At some point, we know that character better than anybody else. Especially if you've connect with it, then there's infinite possibilities that can come out of you, and I think that the better directors know that they have final cut, and the more they let you go the more choices they're going to have in the editing room to create a performance or to change things. I mean, you just give them crazy choices and they can do whatever- the smart directors, the more confident ones who I've experienced know that in the editing room it's all theirs, not a problem. It's the newer cats who I've had experience with, sometimes they're a little too precious about their own words. But I mean I really enjoyed being part of this film. I don't know- maybe some action flicks will come my way out of this, from being the zombie killer. It would be a spin-off.

What do you think the movie is trying to say politically? Did you know that Dennis Hopper was a Republican?

JL: I learned that he was a Republican on Super Mario Bros., so I learned never to bring politics up because- I really dig the guy, you know- (in Hopper's voice) ŒDennis Hopper is so cool, man.' He'll always sort of be that hippie cat. Even at his age right now he's still like, Œman, everything's going great- so cool, man, I love working with you.' We did Super Mario Bros. together and we did this, and this was much more exciting to both of us because the way he was playing the villain was so much more realistic, and the scenes between us, even though we were in this heightened reality, this heightened world, we still were playing everything for real and for keeps. You know, I was in Canada, and Canada, you know, Canadians have their own point of view of America, and they were really rooting for Kerry and hoping that was- they were really disappointed in Americans, and you know, so was I, but there's always, you know, the next election. So it was really fun doing the movie at the time because, you know, Dennis Hopper's character, that was reflected in certain aspects of haves and have-mores.

Talk a little bit about working with Simon Baker, and improvising opposite him.

JL: I trained a lot when I was growing up, you know, I really loved acting, and to me I always felt movies and plays could really illuminate people and help us understand why we do things- it wasn't just purely entertainment. So I've always tried to go deeper with everything I'm doing, and working with Spike Lee and Baz Luhrmann, there's always a big rehearsal period, so because I was coming out of another movie, and George wanted to rehearse, like all great directors have a good instinct for that, that you've got to rehearse. I wasn't able to be there, but me and Simon would get together in our hotel rooms, in our trailers before scenes, we would rehearse the scenes together, talk about it, argue, and it was such a creative atmosphere. I was really full of respect for Simon and had a great time working with him because I knew it was tough in the horror genre to make it real. You have to work a little extra hard to make things look more natural, make them look, let them flow a little bit more. You have to work a little bit harder, and so we did, and then we would- like a show and tell for George and go, Œwell, George, see if you like this,' because a director, it's better to show them than to tell them because usually things don't explain themselves as well as when you see them.

What was it like working with KNB effects?

JL: Well, Greg Nicotero is out of his mind. He's great. I mean, they had, after they went through a lot of zombie bodies they would have them outside of the trailer, and it looked like a mass burial ground of zombies, and I guess to keep themselves in good humor, they made them all anatomically endowed. They were all naked, and they put pubic hair in all of the right places. It was very disheartening when you saw all of that stuff.

We heard that a lot of the movie was left on the cutting room floor.

JL: Yeah, the movie's cut tight. I mean, it's an hour 28, I mean, that's brutal.

Was there anything you were particularly fond of that didn't make it into the final film?

JL: Yeah, there's a lot of stuff. There's a lot of great- I mean, I always think my ad-libs are great, but I guess you'll be the judge of that on the DVD. I mean, there's a scene on the motorcycle where I was, the kid that gets killed on my motorcycle, I was saying a lot of stuff to him on the motorcycle, like Œyou're a virgin, bitch, I'm gonna make sure you get laid,' some stuff like that, but much better said, funnier.

Are you signed for a sequel?

JL: I don't know, because George is getting excited about, [but] I guess it all depends on how it does. No, no option. I have points, though, on this one.

What are some of the other mistakes you alluded to earlier that young filmmakers make?

JL: Well, I think, hey I've worked great directors, and I've worked with a lot of newbies, a lot of new cats, and you know, Baz Luhrmann, Spike Lee, Tony Scott, De Palma, I mean, they are confident that their script is a blueprint, a jumping off point, and then you cast actors and you've got to trust them to let them do what they want to do. Pacino and I improvised in Carlito's Way. Me and Wesley improvised a lot in To Wong Foo, you know, just let people do their thing and they're going to take it to a whole another level. I think that's usually a problem sometimes that especially writer-directors sometimes fall in love with their dialogue too much and they want you to say it grammatically perfect, and you don't get the best performances out of people. It's better to have actors be in the moment, and I think some directors are afraid of rehearsing too. I think rehearsing is a great time to find out the mistakes in your script, the weaknesses in the writing.

Having done so many different projects, which genre do you enjoy the most?

JL: I guess I like the drama the best. That's my favorite. I think I can throw the best in a drama. Comedies are tough because that requires a lot of lot of work, you know, so I'm kind of lazy. So definitely a drama appeals to me most.


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