Actor. Writer. Producer. Director. Comedian. Playwright.

John Leguizamo has been called many things, and for a guy who above all else doesn’t want to get “pigeon-holed,” that suits him just fine. From drug lord to drag queen, this consummate scene-stealer is a veteran of more than 40 films (not to mention countless stage and television productions, including a regular stint on E.R.).

The former class clown spoke with MM about his formidable body of work and why it’s always better to “pick the shit part” in a great movie.

Jennifer M. Wood (MM): Did you always want to be a performer or did your career path come about more as a result of other people telling you that “you should be a performer”?

John Leguizamo (JL): It was a combo of both. I mean, I was the class clown in high school in a very competitive school for class clowns. And as most class clowns, I was failing in academics. So my math teacher, Mr. Zufa, suggested I go into acting so as to re-channel my disruptive antics. And I did. Who knew.

MM: Who was the first actor you ever remember really looking up to—thinking that his or her career would be the kind you would most like to have?

JL: Richard Pryor. I saw what he was doing both in his concerts and in films and it looked so amazing and clever. And I just thought, ‘Damn. If I could be that clever, I’d be proud of myself. ‘

MM: You’ve come at performing from all different angles—stand-up comedy, theater, television and film. Which is your preferred medium and why?

JL: I don’t know if it’s fair to make me choose. Maybe that’s my weakness, that I can’t pick one—or maybe my strength? Theater is the Olympics of acting. You gotta train hard and it takes everything out of you. But it’s the most rewarding just because it is the hardest and most natural—because it’s you and only you up there playing emotional and verbal tennis with other actors. There are no retakes and cuts when you’re sucking; there are no editors creating a performance where there was none. Either there is a performance or people are gonna walk out and you and the other 2,000 people there are gonna know about it. So in a long-about way, I’ve gotta say theater.

MM:  One of the hallmarks of your career is its absolute versatility. You’ve really been able to go back and forth between indie films and big Hollywood movies, comedies and dramas, etc. relatively easily. Did you ever establish a sort of “master plan” for your career? Is your constant versatility a conscious decision?

JL: I wish it were that strategic. I mean, I know what I want to play next and I’m trying to be like a smart gambler and pick the next thing that either doesn’t suck too bad or that I know I will have a great time in. Because it’s easy to just say ‘Yes’ and then be in Regret City for a long time.

When I do a drama, I usually feel like I want to do something lighter. Conversely, when I do something very broad, I want to get back to something more observational, something more real or raw. I feel like I’m always chasing a certain feeling you get from acting. You can dig deep or you can just coast. If I’ve got a lot of demons, a drama just lets me get it out and no one is hurt. Truthfully, I don’t like to repeat myself and I don’t like being pigeonholed as ‘the comic actor’ or ‘the character actor’ or whatever. I want to be label-less—even to myself.

MM: Your most recent slate of films—The Honeymooners, Land of the Dead and Crónicas—is a true testament to this versatility. You’ve got the big-budget comedy, the classic horror flick and then you’ve got this taut, Sundance thriller. What was it that drew you to each of these films specifically?

JL: With The Honeymooners, I was drawn obviously to a great classic comedy and Cedric [the Entertainer], who I really respect and after working with him have come to really root for; he is such a great comic presence. Dodge, my character, was a great chance to do some really silly fun stuff and rock. (Hopefully it rocked.) He’s this really slippery, oily diplomat hustler and I loved his inventiveness and all his problems. We all know those dudes who’ve got a ton of problems and excuses to go with them.

Now with Land of the Dead, that was a great Iago-type role—a very competitive character who had a lot of dark feelings. So those elements in the character really attracted me, and also the fact that the script was really taut and George Romero, the king of horror, was at the helm. So it was a no-brainer. And the fact that I had never, ever done a horror film in my entire life—what a crazy ride. They spend so much more time on the close-ups of the horror than they do the leads.

Crónicas I picked because of the resurgence of Spanish-language films—they are the best in the world right now. They are so exciting and inventive. I felt I had to be a part of that movement. (“Nuevo Latino Cinema,” as I call it.) Alfonso Cuarón working as a producer on it was also very inviting. The script too was not exploitative or a genre film, but trying to really reveal the human condition, which is the real reason I act. I want movies or theater to help us understand why we do what we do.

MM:Which of these three roles was the most challenging for you?

JL: I’ve got to say Crónicas, because of the complexity of the role and the fact that it was in Spanish. The language really made it very challenging for me. I didn’t have the freedom I usually have with my instrument. I had to really, really focus and concentrate on what I was saying because it just got muddled in my head.

MM: Which was ultimately the most satisfying?

JL: I think Land of the Dead was the most rewarding because of the complexity of the role. I really enjoyed the existential and nihilistic world that George Romero created. It just paralleled my feelings about America and what is happening—or not happening—to take care of the masses and how just a few are making a killing.

MM: Though you’ve played everything from a gangster to a drag queen, your characters often seem to share a sort of basic humanity—however hidden it may be. How much of this comes from you directly? From the back stories you create and work from with your characters?

JL: I always try to come up with an extensive back story and a character arc, no matter how small. So all the lines and actions add up to something the character is questing. I also have to put myself in the role even when it’s a big stretch; you still need to be under some of the layers you’re putting on or otherwise it’s just a caricature.

MM:When moviegoers talk about the few “scene-stealers” working in film today, your name is often one of the first mentioned. What’s the best way for an actor to stand out in a supporting role and/or ensemble cast?

JL: You’ve gotta be as specific about your character as you can. And you’ve got to connect with it completely. When you do that you are so vital and in the zone, no one can take their eyes off you.

MM: Speaking of supporting roles: You’ve certainly got the clout, talent and resume to be demanding leading roles only, yet you still seem to gravitate more toward supporting roles. Why? Is there something special that these sorts of roles allow you—or should we be preparing for some ego-tripping from you one of these days?

JL: The truth is the leads aren’t always the best characters. It’s usually the second or the villain which are the meatier roles. The lead is usually just a point of view for the audience. Not always, but most of the time. When I see a lead that’s “meat” that I know I can handle, then I do it. Like Empire, Summer of Sam and Crónicas. Otherwise, give me that great supporting part and I’ll rock it for ya. MM

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.