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John Leguizamo is one of America's most creative young character actors; this month (November 1999) he's seen in the starring role of Vinny (opposite Mira Sorvino) in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, while he's here in Sydney shooting Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. He had a coffee with ANDREW L. URBAN. . .

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 'something'"

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!"

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