John Leguizamo arrives at the Sydney harbourside café for our interview with a walking
stick - but smiling. His black hair is cut in drastic pudding cup fashion and his youthful
face is sprouting a ratty moustache and a little goatee beard. He does not look like any
of the John Leguizamos I've seen on screen so far, like the swanky Italian from the Bronx
in Summer of Sam or the outrageous drag queen in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything Julie
Newmar… or Benny Blanco in Carlito's Way, with Al Pacino and Sean Penn.
"working with Luhrmann, on what he knows will be
Why the walking stick? Because of his haircut and the facial hair. He is shooting
Moulin Rouge at the Fox Studios with Baz Luhrmann directing, in which he plays Toulouse
Lautrec, the French painter who was responsible for launching poster art on the world
and who plays cupid to the Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor characters. So Leguizamo does
his work on his knees, with little stilts attached. It's a musical, so he has to dance as
well. His knees are copping it.
But he wouldn't quit for quids, working with Luhrmann, on what he knows will be
"something." He's worked with Luhrmann before, on Romeo + Juliet.
"That is one of the seminal films to bring Shakespeare to American kids… and
it makes a big difference working with a director the second time. It's nice to be asked
back to the party! Baz is extremely inventive, extremely collaborative, so confident in
his ability -there is no insecurity, which allows for total freedom. A lot of directors
get insecure of you make suggestions and that make the actors insecure. But Baz was an
actor once and knows how to really talk to actors, he really knows how to make a scene
work and to push people's buttons, and how to move the camera and make a scene really
exciting. He's on top of both those things, and he's an auteur, like Spike Lee. They
create their own vision…." Leguizamo is like a top AA battery - energised.
In preparing for the role as lautrec, Leguizamo took the historical figure very
seriously. He studied the painter's life and spent time learning about his background.
"It's like drinking acid"
"I've read a lot of biographies of Lautrec…he was the product of first
cousins and very wealthy, but he had a lot defects, so his parents stopped having children
after him. He was born a dwarf with an enlarged tongue, so spoke with a lisp, he drooled a
lot, he had big sinus problems and he was a decadent little man who loved attention. He
loved to be noticed. He found a way through partying; he loved to drink and he drank
himself to death. He died of syphilis and absinthe poisoning. I've tried absinthe - it's
wild stuff! It's like drinking acid…burns a fucking hole right to your gut."
Another physically demanding role…"I keep pickin' em," he says with a
half hearted smile.
To Wong Foo was tough, too. "It was very physical…and the make up and all
that shit! I lost a lot of eyebrows from being plucked too long…it was really
annoying. I never got that back - they'd didn't tell me that. We had really big clothes
and we had gender-benders…so your male parts were withering away from lack of blood!
It was hot in Nebraska…it was really a struggle. And then, because we had to wait for
Wesley Snipes and then me, Priscilla (Steph Elliott's Australian movie) was released first
and got all the critical acclaim and we got the blame for pinching the idea."
It took a lot of energy "to keep the character full and alive but to stop it
becoming ridiculous." But then Leguizamo trained for it. "Mind you, Latin people
are very emotional anyhow…." But for formal training, he went to the Lee
Strasberg Institute in New York and to the Uta Hagen Studio, at the other end of the
spectrum. "She's the acting Goddess of America, but the opposite to Strasberg, and I
was studying them at the same time, I was so hungry and obsessive. And I was bad at both.
One is much more technical - Uta - it's about previous circumstances, and props and how to
make an entrance, and Strasberg is 'how you feel' . . . what happened to you when you were
five. So I would go to both classes and I was really bad at both because I was really
confused by both. But in the end I blended something and I felt creative and happy."
"the first time I really understood what film acting
was for me"
He loves it all, and when asked what stand out, he likes to talk about Carlito's Way.
"I loved working on Carlito's Way, with Brian de Palma - it was so exciting and
the first time I really understood what film acting was for me," he says, eyes
glinting in the morning sun off the harbour. He's in jeans and his body language is
totally relaxed. We are sitting on a two seater, the coffee table in front of us. In 15
minutes, he'll be whisked off to the Fox Studios set for more kneecap dancing in Moulin
Rouge. But he's sanguine. It's his job.
Anxious to cover all the bases, we switch to talking about the movie he is here at the
café to promote, Summer of Sam.
In Summer of Sam, Leguizamo had his first Spike Lee experience. "It was my next
best film experience; I don't know if it was because it was in New York and something I
knew and we had a nice, unusually long rehearsal period of two weeks, a luxury … and
Spike really trusted me and I really trusted him. That made a big difference, and we did a
lot of improvisation. We all hung out a lot together, to develop that relationship,
talking and touching each other so we got that sense of being friends."
"I knew those characters"
But when he first read the script, he thought he was reading the part of his friend.
"I said Spike, I don't understand…it's going to be tough but….and Spike
said, no not that part, you fool, the other guy. Oh oh oh! I can play that… !"
He laughs with that infectious Latin warmth. "I knew so many guys growing up like
that. So I use a Bronx Italina ccent, as opposed to a Queens New York accent, like in
Carlito's Way or the Spanish accent I used in Wong Foo which is Latin New York
sound…it's a bit different, but I knew those characters. So macho but they couldn't
stop themselves being unfaithful and hating themselves every time they mess around with
other women….they hate themselves EVERY time…but they can't stop."
A family man (his family is here in Sydney with him), Leguizamo doesn't like to talk
about his private life too much, and he's anxious to get back to work. "They invented
these weird, bizarre stilts for my knees…it's not like those silly, crazy false feet
with shoes that stick to your knees!"