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The actor: Luis Guzmán, a reliably excellent character actor who specializes in playing tough guys and clowns on both sides of the law. Guzmán cut his teeth in urban policiers like Q&A;, Black Rain, and The Hard Way, and with appearances in TV counterparts like Homicide: Life On The Street and NYPD Blue, but his versatility has led him to more prominent roles and critical acclaim. Many big-name directors have liked him so much that they've cast him multiple times, including Sidney Lumet (Family Business, Q&A;, Guilty As Sin), Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love), Brian De Palma (Carlito's Way, Snake Eyes), and Steven Soderbergh (Out Of Sight, The Limey, Traffic). Guzmán spoke briefly with The A.V. Club while promoting his new holiday dramedy, Nothing Like The Holidays.
Nothing Like The Holidays (2008)—"Johnny"
Luis Guzmán: I got a call from Freddy [Rodríguez]. He said, "I'm doing this movie in Chicago, and I'd like to know if you would like to do a cameo in it." I go, "Yeah, bro, anything to support you, you're a good buddy of mine." So they sent me the scene—originally it was this scene involving the priest. So I read it, and then we got into a whole conversation, and I said, "It's okay, but I think when a priest shows up to somebody's house, there needs to be more of an impact there. So we need to just beef up the scene, make it worth my while." We talked and I gave him my notes. About a week later, I get a phone call. They said, "Hey man, would you mind checking out the part of Johnny?" I go, "Oh my God, this is right down my alley." Everybody has a cousin Johnny in their family. Everyone has that older cousin who wishes he were still young, and he looks out for all the younger siblings and cousins and stuff like that. I just dug the whole premise of the script, and they were compiling a really great cast of actors. I said, "Oh man, I'd love to be a part of this." I showed up and my whole thing was, "I want to be a part of this family." Pretty much that's how I approached it, and I got so much love from it, and gave so much love back to it.
It's one of those projects that I was totally proud of. Not just because I was making a Latin movie about a Latin family, but because I was making a good movie, a good story, a universal story that could apply to any family in any corner of this country or the world, for that matter, because we always come together, the family at least once a year, or once every couple of years. Christmas is such an important time for family, and you go back to that place that's most important to you. It's great, and at the same time, hell can break loose, or somebody makes some crazy announcement or something like that. It set itself for all the different dynamics that you find in the family. In the role that Freddy played, Jesse, having a cousin that just came back from Iraq… it's all true to the times. It's like, "It's my little cousin, man. He just came back from a trauma. Thank God he made it back." As his cousin, I kind of shelter him and try and look out for him and try to make him feel as comfortable as possible, but at the same time, I ask him questions that I shouldn't be asking, because it's something that he wants to get away from. I want to know, "Yo man, they got any strip clubs there?" It's like I have no clue.
Q&A; (1990)—"Detective Luis Valentin"
The A.V. Club: Is this the movie that put you on the map as a character actor?
LG: Yeah, I would think so. I had done a movie for Sidney Lumet called Family Business. I had only one scene in that movie, and my scene was with Dustin Hoffman. In that one scene, I grew up like, 10 years in the business. Dustin taught me a lot. I learned a lot about my instincts. Sidney Lumet came up to me and said, "Look, I'm putting another movie together, and there might be a little something for you." At the time I was doing one, two, maybe three days' worth of work on movies. When he told me that, I thought, "Oh man, maybe I'll get four days this time." [Laughs.] And it ended up being that role. I absolutely consumed myself in it. I worked with some great actors—Charlie Dutton and Armand Assante, Nick Nolte, and Timothy Hutton, working with the genius of Sidney Lumet. I grew up a lot. I learned a lot. I always showed up prepared, but always with the intention of, "What can I learn today?"
AVC: You've played many cops in your time. What did it take for you to gain credibility in that role?
LG: When I did Q&A;, I used to do ride-alongs, where you ride in the squad car and you actually go out for eight hours. You sit in the squad car and you hear everything that goes on in the squad car, what comes in over the talkie. You go into different situations, and you experience them. So this way when you show up to a movie set, you're not acting a cop, but you're living a cop, because you understand some of the psychology involved, the lingo, the attitude, the personality, how you deal with people, how people deal with you, how people react to you, how you react to people. For me, it was absolutely a learning experience, so I benefited from that, because when I show up on set, I know what my attitude is. It's not something I have to make up. I experienced it, I lived it.
Carlito's Way (1993) and Carlito's Way: Rise To Power (2005)—"Pachanga" and "Nacho Reyes"
AVC: You're one of only two actors to appear in both the original and the prequel.
LG: Well, I don't think you can really compare, because one, you're working with Sean Penn and Al Pacino, and it was a different kind of movie than the prequel—and mind you, I play two different characters. In Carlito's Way, I play Pachanga, which was Pacino's main sidekick. That for me was such a great movie, because it captured that quote-unquote "criminal element" of someone just trying to make it [who] gets sucked right back into it, and you can't trust nobody. Johnny Leguizamo was in there too, and it was a great story about a guy from the neighborhood who just couldn't get out of it. Then in the prequel, Jay Hernandez played the young Carlito, and I was this guy, Nacho Reyes, who was this Cuban guy who was into Santería and is an assassin and a cokehead, but it was a different movie. I don't think it was nowhere near the level that Carlito's Way was. But for me, anyway, it was just one of those roles where I saturated myself with it and just went for it. It's like jumping off a building without a parachute, but I'm having enough confidence that I'm going to land.
The Brave (1997)—Luis
LG: You know, that movie was never released. It was Johnny [Depp]'s first stab at directing. I play his main nemesis in that movie. I love Johnny. Johnny's a great guy. I had fun working side-by-side with him. It's a struggle, man. It's a struggle to be as young as he was and be directing a movie like that and just trying to make it all work. He was trying his own path to it. [It was] the first movie I had ever been in with Marlon Brando, except I never got to meet Marlon on the set. But just knowing I got to work on a movie with one of my idols was awesome. It was work, you know? I just put myself into that role, being the most badass motherfucker that I could be. That's how I approach it. The thing about some of these characters, it's like you've got to really fucking go for it. You have to strip yourself of everything and just go for it. Whether it's being a cop, whether it's being somebody's sidekick, there are certain elements to those characters that you've got to bring all this stuff to the table. It's something I'm really proud of. I don't think I've played the same role twice in a movie. When I show up it's, "Okay, it's a fresh slate." To my credit, I grew up on the Lower East Side. Where I grew up, it looked like a bomb hit that neighborhood. I grew up with every single element, good and bad—you want to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly, I got all of that, so my life was always my reference to different characters that I've played. So when I did that movie with Johnny, The Brave, it was a guy [who] just didn't give a fuck who he was. He just went for it, "I'm badder than you." I don't think about that, I just do it.
Boogie Nights (1997)—"Maurice TT Rodriguez"
LG: [Writer-director] Paul Thomas Anderson sent me that script. It sat in my office for six months. One day I walk in and I go, "I've got to clean this place up, what a mess." I had piles and piles of scripts and papers. I got to the bottom of the pile and I said, "Oh, wow, Boogie Nights. All right, let me check it out." Because I'm sorting and seeing what I'm throwing away and what's going into the fireplace. I sat down and I started to read the script. I kept reading it, and I read the whole thing in one reading. I was blown away at how well the story was written, how eloquent it was. It was an incredible story. I called him up, and I said, "Dude, I just read your script. Blew me away!" Because he captured that era so well, the characters were so amazingly well-written, the whole storyline and all that stuff. So I had this conversation with him, and I think I was in my mid-30s, so I ask him, "Dude, how old are you?" And he says [Makes mumbling noise.] and I go, "44? Oh, okay." And he says, "No, no, I'm 24." There was a silence on the phone, and he goes, "You there? You okay?" I go, "Dude, 24 years old, and you captured that era so well?" I said, "Oh my goodness." So I signed onto it.
It was probably one of the most amazing experiences, shooting that movie, especially that whole opening sequence. It's just one long camera take. Just seeing Paul's passion for it and everything, and all the cats who were involved in it. Of course, I didn't know who half of the people were that I was working with, I might have seen this guy or this girl, but for the most part, I was just blended into this awesome group of people. It was an amazing experience, he shot it so well. We became so tight on that movie. He showed me a rough cut of that movie. I'm walking out, and he goes, "What do you think?" I go, "Oh, I don't know, man, I don't know, I've got to think about it." Because when I first saw it, it was shocking. It blew me away. It messed up my senses. After a couple of days, I said, "Bro, you got an amazing movie here." That's a tribute to Paul, because when you see a movie like that, it takes a while to sink in. You've really got to process it. You know you just saw something special. Sometimes you see a movie and you say, "It's great." But this movie had so many different avenues going on, and so many different storylines and things just weaving out of each other. And my question to Paul was, "Are they gonna let you release this movie, bro?" Because it was shocking. But it was shocking because there was so much truthfulness. This is the industry. But it wasn't a movie about pornography. It was a movie about the people that make those movies, and their story, and the stuff that they go through. I was so proud of him, of the cast of that movie and of how well that movie turned out. I thought that movie should have gotten an Academy Award nomination, because it was one of the best movies to have come around of that genre, maybe the only one of its kind.
The Limey (1999)—"Eduardo Roel"
LG: I had just gotten home from vacation, and there was a package on my doorstep. I saw that it was from Steve [Soderbergh], and I had just done Out Of Sight with him. So I sat down and I read it that night. I said, "Wow, this is an unbelievable story." I dug the character, and he mentioned some of the people who were gonna be in it, and I was like the young Turk on that movie, and I was working with all these veterans and stuff. It was a great experience for me. Working with Steve and the crew and working with Terence [Stamp], and with Peter Fonda, and a couple scenes with Lesley Ann Warren. I was like the kid in the candy store, working with these great actors, people that have this history, and shooting this movie with Steve. I saw a rough cut of that, and I didn't get it. I went to see it on opening night, I was shooting a movie in New York and I had a late call that night. So I said, "Let me go see it," not knowing what to expect. From the rough cut to what I saw in the theater were two completely different movies. What blew me away about the whole thing was the editing of it, and how he put that thing together. I was absolutely blown away by it. The editing that he did was genius. I would never have expected it. He tweaked it and he tweaked it and he tweaked it.
AVC: So it was nothing like the rough cut?
LG: No, not even close. I was really fortunate, because on the one hand, I'm working with Paul Thomas Anderson, on the other hand, I'm working with Steve. I said, "Man, I'm in the graces of two phenomenal filmmakers." So I've been fortunate, I've had a really fortunate career, and it has found me really incredible material, and I've been really blessed that way.
Oz (1998-2000)—"Raoul 'El Cid' Hernandez"
LG: It's funny, because the first year Oz came on the air, so many of my friends were telling me about it, "You've gotta watch this show, you've gotta watch this show." So one of my friends sent me three episodes of it, and I watched it. I called my agent and I said, "Bro, you've got to get me on this show." My agent tells me, "Nobody's getting paid to do this show." I said, "I don't care that nobody's getting paid, it's a great show, man." I called Tom Fontana and I said, "Tom, please, put me on the show, [give me] anything." I did three years of it, and it was a great experience. We had the best cast in the world. Everybody was really working together. The storylines that were coming out were mind-boggling. It was like a quilt: You got the white supremacist, the Muslim, the Latinos, the Italians, the gays, you got this, you got that, you got the prison guards. It made for such great storytelling. It was like a prison soap opera that was so well-conceived and put together. And again it was one of those things that I was fortunate to have found.