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INT: John Leguizamo


John Leguizamo returns to the screen as Cholo in George Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD . I’m not exactly sure what Cholo means. I can’t help but think of the El Cholo restaurants here in Los Angeles (which are really tasty). Here’s one explanation that I found. See, you learn things here at Why? Because we care about you and your children’s future.

Anyway, Leguizamo is one of the highlights of the movie, as the “kick ass and take names” stool pigeon to Dennis Hopper’s slimy character Kaufman. But Cholo is a dangerous guy as well. It’s the kind of multi-faceted character that Leguizamo can bring life to: a guy who is funny, but selfish and cold, as well as scary. By the end, Leguizamo even makes you sympathize with him a little.

Leguizamo sat down to discuss the film and working with the legendary George Romero during the recent press day here in Los Angeles . Of course, he turned the tables on my fellow journalists and me by asking the first question.


JOHN LEGUIZAMO: What did you think? I was hoping that it was George’s masterpiece, because I haven’t seen it. I only saw the first 14 minutes in Cannes . I thought it was a really ambitious flick. It’s part apocalyptic world, it’s part action movie, it’s part political satire. Did you catch the satire? (The room laughs) Just curious to know. So who do the zombies represent?

(People toss out a number of suggestions)

Yeah that’s what I thought. Red states. What was curious, what do me and Simon (Baker, who plays Riley) represent. That’s what I couldn’t totally politically figure out. We’re not the bourgeois, I don’t know. Anybody? I know it’s early, but not that early, c’mon!

Was a lot of the Spanish ad-libbed?

Yeah, there was a lot of ad-libbing. I didn’t know what to expect working with George. I admired him. Of course NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is one of the great movies of all time, aside that it’s a horror movie and started the whole zombie genre; it’s still a great movie. I used to watch that in New York . I saw Chiller Theatre we used to have in New York and Creature Feature, and saw it there. 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 down, and he’s got certain rules he has to have, the zombies gotta move slow, because they have rigor mortis. How can they move fast? He doesn’t tell em, how to move, ‘cause he doesn’t want them all to look like CGI armies. He lets everybody find their inner zombie, which was pretty cool. And he was great with the acting, he really let us loose, but he would also reign us in. 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’ll go somewhere, it’s never wasted.

How different was it working on this, as opposed to some other horror films?

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

What do you expect this movie will do for your career?

You never know what a movie’s going to do for you, so I let go of those expectations a long time ago. I always improvise, that’s my thing. Luckily I’m a writer, so if I get this great writing, improvising just adds a little bit more to it, just takes it to another level. Because an actor, believe it or not, really knows his character more than anybody else, even more than the original writer, even more than the director. At some point, we know that character better than anybody else.

Especially, if you connect with it then there’s infinite possibilities that can come out of you. And I think the better directors know that they have final cut. And the more they let you go, the more choices they’re gonna have in the editing room to create a performance, or to change things. You just give them crazy choices and they can do whatever. A smart director, the more confident ones, who have experience, know that the editing room, it’s all theirs, it’s not a problem. It’s the newer cats, who haven’t had any experience, who are sometimes a little too precious about their own words. I really enjoyed being a part of this film. Maybe some action flicks will come my way out of this. I’ll be the zombie killer. Maybe a spin off.

Were you surprised to find out that Dennis Hopper is a Republican?

I learned that he was Republican on SUPER MARIO BROS., so I learned never to bring politics up because it would just…I really dig the guy. Dennis Hopper, he’s so cool man. He’ll always be sort of that hippie cat. Even at his age he’s still like “Hey man, everything’s going great. It’s so cool man, I love working with you.” And we did SUPER MARIO BROS. together and we did this, and it was, this was much more exciting for both of us. 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. I was in Canada, Canadians have their own point of view of America. They were really rooting for Kerry, they were really disappointed…in Americans. And so was I. But there’s always the next election. But it was really fun doing the movie at the time, because you know, Dennis Hopper’s character and that world represented a certain aspect of haves and have mores.

Can you talk about your process of working with Simon?

I trained a lot when I was growing up. I really love acting. 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 or Baz Luhrman 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 gotta rehearse. I wasn’t able to be there, but me and Simon would get together, like in out hotel rooms, in our trailers before scenes. We would rehearse the scenes together, talk about it, argue. 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 harder to make things look more natural, let them flow a little bit more, you have to work a little harder. And we did. We would present, like the show and tell for George, and go “Well, George see if you like this.” Because with 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.

You previously worked with KNB on SPAWN. What was it like to work with them again?

Greg Nicoterro, you know, he’s out of his mind. He’s great. I mean, they had…after they went through a lot of zombie bodies, they’d have them outside of the trailer, it looked like a mass burial ground of zombies. I guess to keep themselves in good humor, they made them anatomically endowed. So they were all naked, they put pubic hair in all the right places, it was very disheartening when you saw that stuff.

We heard there was a lot of stuff shot that didn’t make it into the movie.

Yeah, the movie’s cut tight. I mean, it’s an hour, 28 minutes, that’s brutal.

Is there stuff that you were fond of that didn’t make it into the theatrical cut that we might see on the DVD?

Yeah, there was a lot of stuff. There was a lot of great ad lib, I mean I always think my ad libs are great. I guess you’ll be the judge of that on the DVD. There was a scene on the motorcycle where I was…the kid that gets killed on my motorcycle, I was saying to him a lot of stuff on the motorcycle like “You little virgin this…I’m gonna make sure you get laid, la da da. Some stuff like that.

Could you elaborate on some of the some of the other mistakes that you see more inexperienced directors making?

I worked with great directors, and I’ve worked with a lot of newbies, a lot of new cats, Baz Luhrman, Spike Lee, Tony Scott, DePalma, they’re confident that the script is a blueprint, is a jumping off point. And then you cast actors, you gotta trust them to let them do what they want to do, you know? And Pacino and I improvised a lot in CARLITO’S WAY. Me and Wesley improvised a lot in TO WONG FOO… You just let people do their thing and they’re gonna take you to a whole other level. I think that’s a 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. 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.






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