Some performers burst onto the scene. Others, like John Leguizamo, hone their craft over a number of years in a wide variety of projects, until audiences one day awaken to their vitality and full range of talent. While the New York-bred actor’s early filmography isn’t without some starring roles (the infamous Super Mario Bros., for one), Leguizamo largely made a name for himself brick by brick, through co-starring performances for high-profile directors like Brian De Palma, Baz Luhrmann, Spike Lee, and Tony Scott. In 1995, he created and starred in the short-lived but memorable sketch comedy show House Of Buggin’, and picked up a Golden Globe nomination for his work in To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar.
Fresh off another high-profile film, The Menu, Leguizamo now stars in director Tommy Wirkola’s Violent Night as Jimmy Martinez, a.k.a. “Scrooge,” the leader of a group of mercenaries whose Christmas Eve home heist of a very rich and dysfunctional family hits an unusual snag. The problem: Santa Claus (David Harbour), depressed but possessing a very special set of skills, taps into his Viking warrior past to thwart Jimmy and his crew.
The A.V. Club spoke with Leguizamo about everything from his work on the film (“shooting at 35 degrees below zero”!) and his own family Christmas traditions to, yes, the idea of Die Hard as a Christmas movie.
The A.V. Club: Tommy Wirkola has two feet firmly planted in the world of gory action-comedy. Had you seen his Dead Snow films before jumping into Violent Night?
John Leguizamo: Yeah, I saw the last one that he did, and it was incredible, man. It was so violent and kind of like old-school neorealism, you know? I mean, Italian or foreign comedies that blend a little more violence than we do.
AVC: There are some imaginative and gory kills in this film. After so many years in the business, do you go to set to see how they’re doing those or do you sort of prefer the excitement of just waiting to see the finished product?
JL: Oh, no, I love the mechanics of it. I love watching it. I love the way it’s prepared, the way that they strategize. They do it a lot on video, you know? They show you a video where they act it out first in a rehearsal space. They’ll film it and cut it with just the stunt doubles before they even put us in. And so you get an idea where it’s going, and then you actually do it and you’re giving it your all. And then you see the final product with the blood, and the fire—it’s incredible. I love the whole process. I’m still a kid when it comes to the action sequences.
AVC: There’s a fight sequence with an ice pick and a sledgehammer that takes place on ice. Was that the most challenging or most fun part of the production for you?
JL: Yeah, that was rough. I mean, it was incredibly challenging for me physically and memory-wise too, because it’s about 50 moves, so it was hard to keep it in your mind when you’re shooting at 35 degrees below zero, which is inhuman, and at my age and at 3 a.m. in the morning every night. It was rough, but it was also fun in the rehearsals. Because I did rehearse a lot to make it look real. I wanted it to be believable that I could really kick David Harbour’s ass. And David Harbour obviously looks like he can kick my ass because he’s 6-5, and he gained weight for Santa. He’s a method actor, so he gained like 300 pounds or something. So, you know, when I had to push him, it was not easy. I was struggling.
AVC: Your character has a pretty dark relationship with Christmas. What were the big Christmas traditions when you were a kid growing up?
JL: As far as traditions, when I was growing up, we’re Latin, so we celebrate Christmas Eve at midnight. That’s when you’re supposed to get the gifts. But, you know, most of us were so little that we didn’t make it to midnight. We take a big nap and then they wake us up when baby Jesus is born, you know? And that’s when the gifts are given. So that was a big deal. And then we’d always have Caribbean Latin food. And I have a big family, so we get together and I love that.
AVC: What type of traditions did you seek to either change or carry over when your own kids were younger?
JL: So, I wanted to keep the food tradition of it, and the getting together tradition. And dance—we always dance, but at Thanksgiving. We love to dance, it’s part of our culture. So my kids always danced, and I made them. The thing that didn’t carry over was, like, my parents would always make me earn my Christmas present. They felt it was indulgent to give a child a gift that he didn’t earn. So I had to read the encyclopedia or read a whole classic novel in Spanish or something, otherwise I wouldn’t get a gift! But I didn’t want to carry that over. I felt like kids can get unconditional gifts.
AVC: Wait, did they give you this task beforehand? Or did they tell you on Christmas Eve, “This is your task?”
JL: [Laughs] That would be really cruel. Oh, that’d be really fucked up. No, no, they gave me months. They’d say, “To get this bicycle for Christmas, you have to read the encyclopedia from A to B.” There was a whole checklist. Immigrant parents, they make you earn everything.
AVC: In Violent Night, Jimmy’s crew uses Christmas-themed nicknames, and your character’s is Scrooge. Among your own family, though, what do you think would be the nickname they would assign you for the holidays?
JL: Pain in the ass? Yeah, I think actually that is my nickname. My mother’s always going, “Oh, you’re such a pain in the ass.” I’m always ribbing her.
AVC: Violent Night seems destined to enter the canon of alternative Christmas movies, particularly with genre fans. Every year there are hilarious arguments online about what qualifies as a Christmas movie—
JL: Are there? I wasn’t aware.
AVC: Oh, yeah. A lot of people seem to rediscover and aggressively litigate the argument about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie.
JL: I mean, that’s kind of weird. I love the movie. It’s one of the great action films that we should all be borrowing from and copying. But a Christmas movie? Okay, sure. Why not? You know, I watched Deer Hunter once with my kids for Christmas. Maybe that’s the new Christmas movie!
AVC: Really? Deer Hunter with the kids?
JL: [Laughs] Yes, I did. I’m a cinephile. So, you know, I wanted my kids to be cinephiles as well. A little more elevated, perhaps.
AVC: Lastly, are there any particular holiday movies that you return to and revisit with your family, or is it more of a rotation?