Character actor Luis Guzmán has been a favorite of director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, The Limey, Out of Sight) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love)—and countless other directors over his multi-decade career.
With a new movie, director Georgina Garcia Riedel’s Ana Maria in Novela Land, opening this weekend, we asked the veteran to reflect upon the things that have mattered most to him over the years. In the following heartfelt, humble essay, Guzmán likens making a movie to running a restaurant—and reminds us all to pay attention to “the guys in the back.”
I’m pretty much on the road these days, traveling all around the world going from production to production. I show up to a new place, and each time, I’m a new person. A bus driver, a lawyer, a criminal—I get to experience them all. I have a great job. I’m a lucky man, and I know it.
In my travels, restaurants have become an important part of my life. I’ve tried so many different kinds of foods from all over the world. I have to say, I’ve tasted some pretty cool stuff—for the most part. Of course, there were some meals I wouldn’t give to my worst enemy’s cat… but let’s stay on course with the good stuff.
I’ve eaten at many great restaurants and have met several good servers and hosts. But I’ve always been intrigued by the guys in the back—the people who cook my meals. We go back to these eateries because of the sweat and tears in the kitchen. It’s where the magic happens. I’ve noticed that the majority of the people working in kitchens happen to be immigrants from all over. I would know; I’ve been invited into these kitchens to have my photos taken with the staff more times than I can remember. I love it. I’m very honored to be invited into their world. I love to see how the meal is prepared and to witness all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes by the team.
Recently, while shooting in Chicago, my driver told me about an amazing Italian restaurant that he highly recommended. I decided to check it out. And are you kidding me? The food was fantastic—double yummy. A message came from the kitchen: The owner wanted to meet me.
On my way back, I met the cook, a middle-aged Mexican man. I thanked him for my meal and then I said, “So where’s the owner?” He said, “That’s me.” I found out that this man had been working at that restaurant for over 20 years. He started as a dishwasher. He was just looking for a job and saw an employment opportunity sign by the restaurant window. He worked his way up through the kitchen. The man had many teachers throughout the years who showed him the business. That job became his career and his passion. Two years ago, when the original owner retired, he bought the place. What was great about this was that this man knew that everyone in his place mattered, because he had done every job in the joint himself. He knew that without that team, the place would fall apart.
Many years ago, when I was living in NYC, I needed a job. Some guy I knew from my neighborhood told me they were looking for actors for a TV show that was shooting downtown. I went in, and I didn’t know anything about acting, but it paid and I needed the money. So I auditioned, and I got the gig. I liked it. I went back the next day and the next. I started to learn. I learned from the crew, and I learned from the cast. I was becoming part of something. I didn’t know it on that first day, but that was the day my career began. And over the years, that career has become my passion. That gig was Miami Vice. It was my first major league shit.
Filmmaking is a group effort. It’s the ultimate team sport. There’s a lot that goes into creating the moment once the cameras roll. I always take a minute to look around that set and appreciate every person there, because I know that none of us could make this thing on our own. We all need each other, every one of us.
Life is a journey, and if you suit up and show up, you will be surprised by the places you get to go and the person—or in my case, the people—you get to be. We are all part of a team. The gift is knowing we are all in it together. The guy behind the camera is as important as the guy in front of the camera, and when we know that, there is no limit to what we can create. And when I’m in, I’m in 100 percent. I will stay with it until the finish.
I’m home today; it’s snowing. My family surrounds me, and we are cooking food in my kitchen. At night, I will start packing to hit the road again tomorrow. All in all, it’s a good day. MM
Top photograph by Andrew Evans. Ana Maria in Novela Land opens in select theaters on February 27, 2015.
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