MIAMI — What’s the biggest difference between a character actor and a leading man?
“About 15 to 20 million dollars,” says veteran actor Luis Guzman. “And a private jet.”
Guzman knows what he’s talking about. Since his feature film debut, in director Robert M. Young’s 1977 adaptation of Miguel Pinero’s harrowing play “Short Eyes,” the Puerto Rican-born, New York City-raised actor has appeared in more than 100 movies and TV shows — “Miami Vice” to “Frasier,” “Boogie Nights” to “Anger Management,” “The Limey” to “Runaway Jury.”
Sometimes, Guzman pops up for a single scene, as in “Magnolia,” in which he played a cantankerous game-show contestant. Other times, he’s been the star of the show, as in the short-lived 2003 TV sitcom “Luis.”
But like the best character actors, Guzman almost always leaves a memorable impression, regardless of his screen time. You may not necessarily know his name, but you know his wolfish face the moment it appears. Guzman maintains a Web site, www.myspace.com/paposwing, in which he keeps fans apprised of his latest projects.
Because he doesn’t have to deal with the constant publicity and promotional demands with which big-name stars contend, Guzman lives far removed from Hollywood, on a Vermont ranch with his wife and five children. His rapid-fire speech and Noo Yawk accent are so recognizable they have even brought him voicework, including the role of one of the canines in last year’s “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and two installments of the hugely popular video game “Grand Theft Auto.”
“I’ve been really fortunate, because I’ve worked on so many good movies with so many good directors,” says Guzman, 52. “It helps a lot to have been in so many memorable movies. Also, not to take anything away from other actors, but you can have one line in a movie, and nobody will remember it. I’m one of those guys who can have just one line in the movie, and people remember me from it.”
“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” which opens Friday, marks Guzman’s fourth film appearance this year (after “He’s Just Not That Into You,” “Fighting” and the straight-to-video “Still Waiting”). A remake of the 1974 late-night TV staple about the hijacking of a New York City subway train, the movie stars Denzel Washington (as the subway dispatcher originally played by Walter Matthau) who negotiates with the lunatic (John Travolta, taking over from Robert Shaw) holding the train and its passengers hostage.
Guzman, in Miami recently to promote the film, plays Phil Ramos, a former subway employee who helps Travolta carry out his dastardly plan. The role is too small to have attracted a big-name star but too essential to hand over to an inexperienced nobody.
Enter Guzman — who, like the best character actors, can make a thinly written, limited part memorable and often doesn’t have to chase after roles anymore. They come to him.
“I met with ‘Pelham’ director Tony Scott, and he said ‘I’ve been wanting to work with you for the last 10 years, but every time I want you, you’re working on something else,’” Guzman says. “I didn’t have to formally audition or anything like that. We just hung out for two hours, and he talked to me about this project. I love the original movie — it’s a classic — but Scott made me understand this was not going to be anything like the original. It’s a whole lot bigger picture, and the style of performance is a lot different. So it worked out great.”
Like many other Hispanic actors, Guzman started his career playing a lot of gang members and criminals until Sidney Lumet cast him as a detective in 1990’s “Q&A.” Although the bad-guy roles kept coming — most notably in 1993’s “Carlito’s Way,” where he played Al Pacino’s crony Pachanga — other offers arrived, too, including some from A-list directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh, who have cast Guzman in three films each.
“My career has all been a matter of gradual steps,” Guzman says of his longevity. “”“Miami Vice” was my introduction to the business at this level. “Q&A” was another step. “Carlito’s Way” was another step. “Boogie Nights” was another step. “Carlito’s Way” really put me out there, because it’s such a cult movie with people. “The Count of Monte Cristo” really inched me up, because no one had ever seen me in that kind of role.
“Those are all very different directors,” Guzman says. “Sometimes they want to keep you on the leash and be very hands-on. Other times they just let you run. But my compromise with every director in any given film is the same: I’ll give you whatever you want. Just let me have the last take, and let me play. Because then I can feel like I’m really a part of this.”
One perk of being a character actor is that your work can often be appreciated outside and beyond the movie around it. That remove comes in handy when a film turns out to be a bomb.
“Many years ago, I did a really bad movie — I’m not even gonna tell you the name of it — and I had one scene in this movie,” Guzman says. “When it came out, it got panned by EVERYBODY. But one review had one little paragraph that said the most notable performance in this movie is by Luis Guzman. That gave me a certain level of pride, because it felt like I had done my job and got noticed for it, even in a bad movie.”
Guzman may well be talking about the 2002 Eddie Murphy debacle “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” about which the New York Times’ Elvis Mitchell wrote “Luis Guzman is all lowlife sparkle as an admiring small-time thief who calls Pluto the Tito Puente of smugglers.”
Although “Pluto Nash” was bad enough to derail careers — its director, Ron Underwood, has yet to make another studio-backed feature in Hollywood — Guzman emerged from the wreckage unscathed.
“That’s one of the biggest advantages of being a character actor instead of a leading man,” Guzman says. “We last a whole lot longer than lead actors. The lead actor is the guy who has to sell the movie. We’re just the foundation, the blue-collar guys who show up to the set in our pickups. And it’s one of the best jobs in the world, man.”
THE MAN OF 100 FACES
You may not recognize his name, but you certainly recognize his face. Actor Luis Guzman has appeared in more than 100 movies and TV shows. Here’s a sample:
“Traffic” (2000): Instead of the stereotypical cliche of a drug dealer, Guzman played a DEA agent on the trail of narcotics traffickers in Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning drama.
“The Count of Monte Cristo” (2002): Despite his contemporary, from-the-streets persona, Guzman proved he could play period pieces as Jacopo, the dutiful servant of the hero of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel.
“Punch Drunk Love” (2002): In Paul Thomas Anderson’s cracked romance, Guzman played Adam Sandler’s increasingly befuddled but always supportive co-worker, who helps the comedian with his plan to rack up free airline tickets by buying pudding — lots and lots of pudding.
“Dreamer” (2005): Guzman showed off his family-friend side playing a horse trainer who helps Dakota Fanning get her thoroughbred filly into racing shape.
“Yes Man” (2008): In one of the most memorable scenes from December’s Jim Carrey vehicle, Guzman played a suicidal man talked off the ledge by the comedian, who serenades him with the Third Eye Blind song “Jumper.”