John Leguizamo has been a storyteller since the late 1980s, with close to 150 acting credits in the last 30 years. He’s an Emmy-winning actor that thrives in nearly any environment, starring in animated films, stage productions, one-man shows, dramas, comedies, and any genre under the sun. In 2003 he directed the television movie Undefeated but it seemed it was a one-and-done in terms of being on the other side of the camera. Leguizamo’s course changed when he heard the story of Miami high schoolers who won the U.S. National Chess Championship. From that his new feature film, Critical Thinking, was born. With it, Leguizamo takes another shot at directing and also stars in a Latinx story for good measure. I was lucky enough to speak with him about this new film, his passion for telling important stories, and his advice to youngsters working in the film industry.
MF: How’s it going, John? Thanks so much for the time.
JL: Of course, man. Of course. I’m good, all things considered.
MF: It’s a crazy time, man. I know.
JL: It’s wild. It makes you appreciate family and friends and all things you have.
MF: I am, I am. Let’s jump right into it. Why did you pick this story as your feature directorial debut? What stood out for you to put it on the big screen?
JL: The story was so important because I felt like I grew up like these kids. Underprivileged, underserved, underseen. There are lots of brilliant kids out there that just weren’t nurtured. They weren’t being seen. I knew I could bring this story to life. I knew it, man. And these stories are what we need right now. We need uplifting stories, especially right now. And it’s a true story. It’s a true story in one of these least-served communities. All you have to do to make these stories come to life is add a little bit of water and boom, they bloom.
MF: How’d you hear about the story in the first place?
JL: Carla Berkowitz had the rights for 20 years and she offered it to me. She just held onto it. And she sent over Dito Montiel’s script and I just fell in love with the script. I mean, Dito can write dialogue like nobody’s business. You never see these stories, and we’re just all dying for them, man. There are so many Latinx stories to be told. Less than 1% of our stories are being told. But we make up 25% of the box office. We just have so many stories. We’re one of the largest ethnic groups in the country and one of the oldest ethnic groups. We just have tons of stories. We have stories up the wazoo. I want to see myself represented up there.
MF: How was it working with the young actors? I know you play a teacher in the film. Did you feel like a bit of a teacher on set, just giving tips and tricks to the younger actors?
JL: It was a blast. I fell in love with these actors, man. They gave absolutely everything they have. They were incredible. I scouted and scouted, and auditioned thousands of actors. I chose the creme de la creme. They all fit the parts perfectly, just exactly like they kids in the movies. I just loved these kids. They were all so talented. They were so up for the challenge. You know, I told everybody to rehearse for two weeks and then come to set with all of their lines memorized. But they had to have all of the moves memorized too. You know, the kid that plays Marcel, Marcel Martinez. There were over 60 moves in that last game of chess, and he had to memorize them all. The pressure was on. And they just delivered.
MF: Are you a big chess player yourself?
JL: No, no, man. A bit. I’m a big method guy, so I wanted to get good. I went to Washington Square Park to play with the guys that play there every day.
MF: You did? How was that?
JL: It was tough. They whooped my butt. I’m not very good, man, but the real guys were on set every day of rehearsal, and every day of shooting. I needed them. They helped so much.
MF: Every day?
JL: Every day. You know I told them, “I can’t do this without you.” I couldn’t. I needed them there.
MF: Is this the type of stuff you want to be making in the future?
JL: Yeah, baby! These stories are it. That’s my MO, man.
MF: Anything in the works?
JL: Yeah, I was working on a comic book called PhenomX. It’s a Latinx superhero and it just got picked up and I’m excited about it. I hope we can adapt it into a series or movie or something. It’s awesome.
MF: That’s killer. I can’t wait to read it. Going back to your direction. Did you always know you wanted to direct and be in the industry? Why wait?
JL: I kind of always thought I wanted to direct. And then I directed a bit, and honestly it was really painful. And I said oh, well I’m done with that. But then I got my hands on this script and I took to it like a duck to water. I’ve worked with the greatest directors in the world. Spike Lee. Baz Luhrmann. Brian De Palma. Tons of others. I realized I have a backlog of so much information that I’ve learned over the years that I can use to bring out the best in actors and storytellers.
MF: And do you have any advice for someone just starting out in the industry? An actor, a director, or anyone getting their career started?
JL: Oh, definitely, yeah. Find any way of getting it done. Any way. Malcolm X style, by any means necessary. Just get it done. Get it on stage. Get it on film. If you can’t get it on stage, get it done in your living room. Set it up and get it done there. Don’t stop for anything. Don’t stop. Don’t let anything stop you.
MF: Inspiring stuff, man. Thanks so much for your time and for chatting with me. Appreciate it.
JL: Of course, man. Thank you. Stay safe during your social distancing. Bunker down.