There may be no contemporary actor as theatrically flexible as John Leguizamo. Cutting his teeth in the competitive 1980s New York stand-up comedy scene, the Colombian-born actor would eventually thrust himself into a career-defining, award-winning trio of one-man Broadway shows: Freak (1998), Sexaholix…A Love Story (2002) and Ghetto Klown (2011). Meanwhile, Leguizamo, 52, snagged television and film roles of nearly all varieties, including a stint on E.R., a Schwarzenegger flick, a DeNiro/Pacino joint and managed to become one of the most beloved big screen animated characters—Sid the Sloth from the wildly popular Ice Age franchise.
His newest project, Perros, however, finds Leguizamo in his grittiest role to date. Shot entirely in Spanish in an abandoned prison in Facatativa, a town outside of Bogota, Colombia (where the actor was born), Leguizamo plays Misael, a farmer arrested for committing a horrendous crime who, after losing everything important to him, finds a friend in Sarna, a dog that lives at the prison. Laughspin recently caught up with Leguizamo — days before Perros premiered at the 2016 San Francisco Latino Film Festival — to chat about his dark, dramatic turn, his career trajectory, therapy and much more. –dylan gadino
John you were amazing in this film, you never fail me in any of your performances.
Thank you! I’m very proud of the film. The stuff you saw me going through, I was going through. We were shooting in Colombia and the director; he had a plan of torturing me.
What is it like for you to not only prepare for a film like Perros, but also decompress after it’s finished? Does it wear on you emotionally?
Yes, you want to be as real as possible. There is no way around it. There are no shortcuts. I went to spend time at the biggest prison in Bogota, Columbia. I spent time with the inmates, the guards– also the warden, who was a female, which is fascinating. In some way it’s more humane than American prisons and in some ways it’s rougher. It’s more humane in that they only have three yards and everyone is together. There is a lot of human communication and contact. There is no isolation. Then it’s rougher in that sometimes you sleep in the rain or sometimes there are six or seven guys to a room.
I also noticed, in the film prisoners wore their own clothes. Which, obviously, that doesn’t happen in the American prison system.
Right. They get to wear what they came in with or what their family brings them. In America you have to wear that orange suit.
And during one scene, all of the prisoners celebrated together with the family members. Not that I have been in either type of prison, but it seems like that’s different from something you’d see in an American prison.
Exactly. American prisoners are extremely isolated. It’s wild. The incarnation rates in the US are the highest in the world. It’s like a business here. Over there it’s not. In Colombia they want to make people pay for their crimes and then get them out as soon as possible. They have limitations as well on how long someone can be kept in jail. This was a real prison where we filmed. It was closed a year before we shot. Prisoners that were freed actually joined and became part of our cast. So it was weird for them, but they became our consultants in a lot of ways. “What would you do here?” Sometimes they frowned upon things we were doing. So, I would go to the director and say, “You know they’re saying that’s not the way it would happen.”
Everything was really legit. We really tried to make it as real as possible. We didn’t want to fudge anything. We didn’t want to take dramatic license. Everything was in the exact rooms where they did everything. The security guards would stand outside. Even the restroom was an “al-fresco” type of thing with just a curtain.
I know you’ve spoken about using ‘sense memory method’ acting in previous interviews. Once you spoke about recalling the time your dog was run over by a car. Your relationship with the dog is very interesting in this film. Can you tell me a little more about that?
You know, I have always been a dog lover. I’ve always used sense memory method acting. It was very important in my acting formation as an actor. Also using a lot of Meisner and Uta Hagen. You have to use all the different methods of all the great acting techniques. But yeah, you know you don’t really want to work with animals on camera. It was rough to get that dog to do a lot of that stuff. It was painful, it was hours and hours. Then, sometimes, after he was fed, he didn’t want to perform anymore. We still had a lot of scenes to shoot and he doesn’t want to participate anymore. Or he was tired, he wore himself out.
So he was like any other high maintenance actor? He was fed, tired and grumpy!
Yes! He was a diva! He wasn’t up for it and if he did good, he wanted his treats.
As an audience member watching this film, the scene when you’re playing with the dog and the sock, and the scenes when your cellmate was snoring, I found myself feeling a sense of relief. Were these scenes placed there on purpose to break up all of the intense emotions we were watching your character Misael go through?
Yes, we want to audience to find some kind of comfort and relief. Misael found that kind of comfort in the dog. He was a loner. We spent a lot of time with what you would call pheasants (farm workers) down in Colombia. You know they work for a landowner and raise the cows, they do the farming, they do everything. They get room and board and a little bit of money. I spent a lot of time with them because that’s who my character was supposed to be. He was not a criminal. You know we see Making of a Murderer and we all have that fear of being incarcerated wrongly, you know? My character did a crime of passion, it wasn’t a premeditated crime. He killed somebody that had harmed his family in the moment.
Right, we know that he was protecting his family so we were routing for him. Almost in the same way we were routing for Samuel L. Jackson’s character in A Time To Kill. We want him to be free because you can understand if you were in that position, you would probably do the same thing.
You’re so right, but the twist is the crime that the prison system creates criminals. Almost intentionally. It becomes the college of hard knocks. You come in one type of criminal and you leave a much better criminal. You graduate from the prison college system.
Which is what the final scene proves.
Right, he had also lost everything he cared about. He lost the woman that he loves, the love of his life, he lost his son’s respect. The man has nothing.
And since he did lost everything he had, in the end, at least from my interpretation, he decided to go back into the prison system, which he had become comfortable with.
Right, because it’s easier. You know the rules, you’ve learned to operate in the system and the outside world has become too difficult to manage. Too complex, too chaotic.
What is your overall goal with this project?
You know there is this huge movement in new Latin cinema, especially in Latin America. You know the last three directors that won the Oscars were all Mexican. I just want to be apart of that new Latin cinema which is taking huge risks, doing very gritty work, doing very innovative work, and I just want to be apart of it. I was hoping I could help bring it more to the forefront and celebrate all of this talent we have in Latin America.
When we see comedic actors take on dark roles like we tend to get uncomfortable. We seem to only want to see Jim Carrey be funny. But, with you, we’re always on the ride– funny or dark, it doesn’t matter. Why is that?
You know, I can only guess, but Uta Hagen was one of my instructors for a very short time and her big phrase was, ‘Don’t love yourself in the art, love the art in you.’ What it boils down to in my mind is, you have to love the art of acting, not how good am I, or how famous am I. It’s about the work, loving the work. It is work, you know I still go to acting classes, I experiment, I get tested by my teachers, because I love it. I really respect it. Mickey Rourke, Brando, they both studied really hard. That’s what separates actors who continue to do good work, because they love the work, not the celebrity.
You have spoken before about getting performance anxiety on stage, did you feel any of the type of anxiety when you were working on Perros?
I think it’s more when I am working on live stuff. That’s when my anxiety kicks in. There is so much more pressure. So much more can go wrong. It’s all on you, that’s when I have a little panic attack. Sometimes I am freed by it, sometimes I am not. Luckily in film, you’re always safe. You know the director is there, there is only a few people watching you, you can do it over and over until you get better. Especially with digital, you can get 40 takes. You get the chance to warm up, improve it.
Did you ever get, in your live performances, the scabs ripped off, in a sense? Did you go through that?
Sometimes I’m not even aware of it, like when I was doing Ghetto Klown. There were some days when I just felt like I was in a funk. I didn’t understand what was going on with me. Why am I feeling so down and so blue? It was like, ‘Oh my god,’ you keep peeling back all of these scabs that have happened to you. Everyday! Ghetto Klown was really hard for me. I was glad when it was over. I don’t have to relive these things anymore. I can stop pouring vinegar into that wound. But you have to go there, if you want to get the audience to invest in those scenes. It’s not always fun. You feel proud of yourself for being brave, but it doesn’t feel great.
When I’m out and about in comedy clubs, there is always a discussion among young comedians about therapy. They have this theory that therapy will make them less funny. What’s your thought on that?
Without therapy I would have broken down at some point. That’s why comedians have breakdowns. You feel like you have to be perfect and you have to be funny. You have to be the funniest, but perfect can’t be. Then they have these breakdowns and their lives get chaotic. But therapy saved me. It saved me as a kid and it gave me my acting chops in a lot of ways. I have to go to those deep places that the method makes you go to, but therapy is kind of like an acting class.
Do you ever miss the days when you were performing in the hallways of a theater verses the big venues and movies?
You know after I had my breakdown, I learned not to allow people to make me skip the process. When I was doing Sexaholix, it just started moving too fast and out of control. I wasn’t in control of the ride. You get so successful; everyone wants a piece of you. When I got to Ghetto Klown, I learned to enjoy it, and let it go as slow as it needs to be. I’m not going to race it. I’m not going to skip any moments. I’m going to go to the smallest venues, smallest clubs. I’m going to enjoy it. I was just going to enjoy being in clubs with people. I’m a storyteller. And I’m going to do it my way.
John even makes us want to switch cable providers!