Fast chat with ‘The Happening’ co-star John Leguizamo

[12 June 2008]

By Joseph V. Amodio

Newsday (MCT)

John Leguizamo’s been busy. This year alone he’s appeared in the crime drama “The Take,” the indie black comedy “The Babysitters,” and Friday he hits the big screen in M. Night Shyamalan’s psychological creepfest “The Happening.” Later this year he’ll play a detective alongside Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in “Righteous Kill,” a washed-up boxer dad in “Where God Left His Shoes” and a member of a dysfunctional Latino family in the holiday heartwarmer “Humboldt Park.”

Not bad for a kid from Bogota, Colombia (his family immigrated to New York when he was 4) who was nearly expelled from high school.

After attending NYU and acting school, Leguizamo hit the stand-up comedy circuit. His 1990 Off-Broadway one- man-show, “Mambo Mouth,” garnered an Obie Award; 1992’s “Spic-O-Rama,” a Drama Desk Award (and four Cable ACE Awards after it aired on HBO). In 1998, he hit Broadway with “Freak,” grabbing another Drama Desk, Tony nominations (and an Emmy for the HBO version).

Along the way he’s appeared in 50-plus films, including “Carlito’s Way” (as cocky Al Pacino nemesis Benny Blanco), “Moulin Rouge,” “Spawn” and the “Ice Age” and its sequel. He’s married with two children, Allegra, 8, and Lucas, 7. He spoke recently with Joseph V. Amodio.

Q. In “The Happening” you’re a math teacher fleeing with your family from ... something ... weird. So tell us: Is M. Night Shyamalan demented or what?

A. He’s very precise. Very Hitchcockian, that way. His horror isn’t just slashing. It’s something more - he terrifies you down to your bone, to your stem cells. He shakes up your DNA. It’s more gruesome than you thought ... and more human. That’s the beauty of M. Night.

Q. You call him M. Night?

A. I call him Night. `Cause we’re tight like that. And he calls me J. Legs. Johnny Legs.

Q. You’ve played detectives, thugs, a drag queen and now ... a math teacher.

A. I used to tutor people in calculus in college. (He laughs.) They didn’t pass ... but I tutored them. I didn’t like math - but loved calculus. Something about calculus made me feel like there was an answer to everything in the world. That there was a finite number of problems, and if you just figured it out you could solve any- thing. I liked that. But I didn’t enjoy drawing the parabolas.

Q. Do you get back to Queens?

A. I lived on Denman Street. Our family was loud - not just because we’re Latin but because we lived right next to the elevated No. 7 train. Forget about watching TV. You could never watch a mystery. As soon as they were about to reveal the killer you’d hear, “And the murderer is ... pfffrrrifswhsihtff.” We got good at reading lips. Today, it all looks more decrepit than when I was there.

Q. Oh, that means it’s time to buy real estate there.

A. Exactly, before the developers put up another glass building, so it looks like Houston. New York is turning into downtown Houston. That should be Night’s next movie. (Adopting a mock horror voice-over): “The developers co-o-ome and tear away all-l-l-l the history of Manhattan.”

Q. How’d you wind up in acting classes?

A. My high school math teacher suggested it. They were going to expel me because I’d never stop being the class clown. ...

Q. So when was your “aha” moment - when you knew you had to be an actor?

A. There’ve been three. One was in acting school. My first scene ... was from (the Sal Mineo film) “Dino,” about a street kid. I rocked it, man. I thought, wow, I can’t do anything right, but I can do this. The next time was (in a performance art showcase). I went on last, 2 a.m. and I was like, nobody’s gonna care, but everybody stayed and I got a standing O. I thought, holy (expletive), I can make these white people laugh. They get me. The third moment was in “Carlito’s Way” - I realized, this is what acting is about.

Q. Any plans for another stage show?

A. Yeah, but I want it to be a masterpiece so I’m just marinating on it. But there are two things I’m really excited about. I’m gonna be in “American Buffalo” on Broadway this fall. And this little movie I did, called “Where God Left His Shoes,” comes out in November. It’s a true story, beautifully written. The kid who plays my son - phenomenal.

Q. Another dad role.

A. It’s cool because it’s the thing I’m most proud of. Being a dad is everything to me.

Q. What’s your take on the immigration issue these days?

A. (It’s all) a code word for racism. They’re not talking about building a wall between the U.S. and CanadA. (I wish) there was more outrage from Latin groups, from the ball players. People are ... sheep. They want to go about their lives, not make waves, just take care of their own needs. It’s hard. That’s why people who are heroes are heroes. They defy those odds.

Q. You’ve shot a slew of films lately. Are you taking off this summer?

A. Yeah, we’re staying upstate and horseback riding. All that country stuff. I’ve become the barbecue king. Finally. `Cause, y’know, I didn’t grow up like that. I’ve got the perfect burger.

Q. Perfect? Is there some secret seasoning?

A. Ohhh, there’s no seasoning, man. It’s plain, it’s juicy.

Q. Pure meat.

A. Yeah, I’m a beef purist. Four minutes on each side, and baby it’s done.

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