Working in comedies, musicals, and dramas, John Leguizamo has one of the most diverse filmographies in all of Hollywood.

Leguizamo started out doing stand-up on the NYC comedy circuit in the mid-’80s, before breaking out in 1992 in the role in Christopher Crowe’s Whispers in the Dark. MovieMaker sat down with Leguizamo to get his tips on how he has kept himself on track and doing what he wants to do.

Find inspiration in the journeymen.

Working with great actors—be they stars or not—doesn’t matter. But it’s usually the non-stars that are the impressive actors because all they do is work on their craft. I study them and watch them and see how they finesse and massage their characters. So I got to say my inspiration in acting is the journeymen—the working character actors.

Have several idols.

I have different idols for different things. But for comedy I gotta say Richard Pryor. For stage, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin and Eric Bogosian. For regular acting, I gotta say Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Sean Penn—I had the unbelievable luck of working with all of them, and twice with Penn. Those guys don’t mess around. They get in there and they commit way before the director says ‘action.’

Shallow people make shallow work.

Writers and directors have influenced my work a lot, because everything stems from the writing and you’ve got to have a deep well of experience to create great roles. Shallow people write shallow shit. The deep ones are the ones who really write about the human condition. Spike Lee and Alexander Payne are two I’ve worked with who have a huge understanding of life—and they put in on the screen.

You can make something out of nothing.

“If it ain’t on the page it ain’t on the stage.” I try to blow up that motto every time I get a part. Sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t. But I love to destroy that myth, because a lot of roles I have reworked with the writer or director and made something out of nothing.

Choosing roles

It’s better to be in a shit part in a great movie than have a great part in a shit movie. There are no little parts, only little salaries. I don’t care how small the part is; if it rocks and there’s compensation, I’m down. I do one for them and one for me. One studio flick and one indie flick is how I work things.

Give it all

I have never phoned in my performances and I never want to. I go in there to do art even if at the end it don’t look like art. I know I was in there trying to make art no matter how cheesy or shallow or ridiculous the movie was. MM

John Leguizamo’s latest film Mike Newell’s adaptation of  Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Image courtesy PBS.