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John Leguizamo refuses to be a 'goofy' villain in 'Violent Night' and exposes Hollywood's unspoken 'Latin quota'

Insider
Insider
 2022-12-01

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John Leguizamo in "Violent Night."
  • John Leguizamo spoke to Insider about playing the villain in "Violent Night."
  • He also said it was "odd" starring opposite Al Pacino playing a Puerto Rican in "Carlito's Way."
  • "Violent Night" opens in theaters on Friday.

For close to four decades, John Leguizamo has been a fixture on the stage and screen with his ability to play convincing roles in comedies or dramas.

It's led to memorable characters in wide-ranging titles over the years like "Carlito's Way," "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar," Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge!," Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam," and most recently, playing Bruno in the Disney hit "Encanto." He also won an Emmy in 1999 for his one-man Broadway show "Freak."

In his latest movie "Violent Night," Leguizamo uses those talents to perfection as he plays the movie's ruthless villain who goes up against David Harbour as a Santa Clause (with a specific set of skills) in this wildly entertaining ultra-bloody Christmas movie that's one part "Home Alone" and one part "Die Hard."

But despite all of Leguizamo's successes, he's been frustrated for years not to see more people who look like him in Hollywood. The Colombia-born actor wrote an open letter in the Los Angeles Times in November in which he lambasted the industry for its lack of Latin voices.

"The Latino population is larger than the white population in California, and yet we are not represented accordingly. That is cultural apartheid," Leguizamo wrote. "In New York, the Latino population is equal to the white population, but you would never know it if you watched local TV or read our newspapers and magazines. The metrics are on our side, but the system is not."

Insider chatted with Leguizamo over Zoom about channeling Alan Rickman's legendary "Die Hard" villain in his "Violent Night" role, the bizarre experience working across from Al Pacino as he played a Puerto Rican gangster in "Carlito's Way," and the time he says he lost a role because of Hollywood's "Latin quota."

Leguizamo said his inspiration in 'Violent Night' was Alan Rickman's iconic 'Die Hard' villain

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David Harbour and John Leguizamo in "Violent Night."

I saw "Violent Night" at New York Comic Con and I'm happy I went through all that madness to see it.

There were 4,000 people at that screening.

It was packed. After you, David, and director Tommy Wirkola intro'd it, did you stay around for a second to see the reaction?

A second? I stayed for the whole thing! And I couldn't believe how they were cheering for David and not me. That bummed me out a little bit. C'mon guys! [ Laughs .]

I mean, to be fair, you are the bad guy in the movie. And you are a perfect villain. For your character, did you go to Tommy with ideas or is a lot of what we see from the script?

I got to say a lot of it was on the page. But Tommy and I did have some talks. I definitely said I wanted this villain to be as smart as possible. I want to be funny but not in a goofy way. And they were all on board. And I asked for a little backstory. I didn't want to be liked, I'm not that kind of a corny actor. But I wanted to be understood.

If I may be so bold, your character is very much a nod to Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber character in "Die Hard."

Alan Rickman is one of my idols. A brilliant actor. Listen, I wanted to be the Latin Alan Rickman. [ Laughs .]

He says there's a lack of Latin stories in Hollywood because the heads of studios 'don't look like us'

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Maribel and Bruno (voiced by John Leguizamo) in "Encanto."

I would think for you right now it must be a good moment in your career. You had "Encanto," now this, and you starred in "The Menu," which opened recently and is getting a good reaction. Things must be fun right now.

Definitely. I feel great about the place I've gotten to in my career and the opportunity. Especially the opportunities I've created for myself because I'm self-generating. I'm in a Renaissance in my career in terms of my writing, creating, activism, and moving Latin thought to higher levels. And advocating for inclusivity. I think the metrics are on our side: "Encanto" being No. 1, Bad Bunny being No. 1 in the world. And election-wise, we have won so many seats as Latin people. If you get the middle man out of the way we win all the time, but when we have to rely on a studio head's opinion or taste it's when we lose because they don't look like us, they don't get our story, and they won't put us on. I don't understand that.

I read your open letter you wrote in the Los Angeles Times, what has been the reaction you have received from the industry since that has come out?

I got a lot of allies. People hit me up: directors, writers, white, Latin, Black, and Asian. They were all proud of me for speaking up, I'm getting a lot of love and respect for it. And I put a lot of thought into this letter because I don't want any more excuses. I'm done with excuses. We're the largest and oldest ethnic group in America. We're 30% of the US box office but I think three years ago we were less than 2% of the roles on camera, maybe it's 5% now but it's still pathetic.

He called it an 'odd experience' acting across Al Pacino playing a Puerto Rican in 'Carlito's Way'

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(L-R) Al Pacino and John Leguizamo in "Carlito's Way."

Now it got me thinking, and you tell me if this is progress: One of your most well-known movies, "Carlito's Way," if Brian De Palma tried to make that now it wouldn't be Al Pacino in that role it would be someone Latin. Probably you.

But are they even making the movie? That's the thing. They might not make the movie because you have an all-Latin cast. That's the problem. That's why "Encanto" is crazy because it was the number one movie in the world, what more proof do you need? I'm not seeing the greenlights of those projects. Greenlight the goddamn things.

But I have to know, and I'm not trying to pick on Pacino here because Viggo Mortensen was also in "Carlito's Way" trying to be a Puerto Rican, but working across from Al in that movie, was it strange?

[ Laughs .] You know, it was a thing of the times. Before then he played a Cuban —

Tony Montana in "Scarface."

Yeah, in that he's kind of doing like a Cuban/Mexican accent. I know he's trying and he's a great actor, so brilliant, he was my hero. But it was odd, man. It's an odd experience to be a Latin man in a Latin story written by a Latin man and the lead guy's a white guy pretending to be Puerto Rican. I'm not going to lie, it's surreal. It was surreal. I turned the part down a few times and then eventually I decided to do it.

That's interesting because that's the role that put you up a notch in Hollywood.

Yeah, I guess so. I definitely knew I could act. [ Laughs .] It wasn't like I couldn't act, I knew I could do it. I trained hard. It's just Hollywood was weird and it's always been weird. It has always been "Holly-wouldn't." And I knew this going in. When I went to college and alongside some great actors the white guys would get five auditions a day and I would have one every five months. The cast breakdown was Jim Crow. White actor, white actor, and then every five months, Latin actor to be a murderer. Those were my opportunities.

Leguizamo said he once lost a role to a white actor because the director told him he 'can't have two Latin people in the movie'

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John Leguizamo.

Now you said in your letter you have been pitching characters for 40 years over your career. Was there an instance where you were convinced you had a role, everyone thought you had the role, but it ended up going to a white actor?

No, because they wouldn't even see you. I would ask my agent, "Can you send me up for this role? I know they aren't looking for a Latin guy but would they see me?" And they wouldn't see you, no matter who they were. They wanted a white actor and that's it.

But, well, OK, there was one time. [ Laughs .] This one director wanted me to be in his movie, I'm not going to say the movie, but he wanted me. He said, "I love your work, I want you in the movie." And then I hear back from him, he calls me up and he says, "Oh, sorry man, you can't be in my movie because I already have a Latin actress and I can't have two Latin people in the movie." There was this unspoken "Latin quota," if you had too many Latin people in your movie that was a bad thing. And the thing is the guy, the real guy that the character I was to play was based on, was really Latin.

And there were other instances where I would get the role and originally the story had a lot more Latin people in it and then they put white guys in and I'm the only Latin guy representing. So there's a lot of whitewashing of history and it doesn't represent the reality that we see.

The biggest point in your letter, I felt, was you addressing that the decision-makers at the studio level are prominently white. In your eyes do you need to do something more — go out and try to be the SAG president, be a kingmaker and use your influence to get Latinos in those executive roles? Do you see that at all as a future chapter in your career?

I'm a creative so I don't think that's where I want to put all my energy. I definitely will put energy to making sure that we have equality and justice in Hollywood, and actually not just Hollywood but all over. I mean, Broadway, Latins are equal to whites in population in New York City and on Broadway, there's not one play that's Latin right now. Not one. How is that possible? Are me and Lin-Manuel Miranda the only Latin playwrights in America? Bring up the next guy and lady. It's maddening to me.

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Comments / 27

Ryan ?
12-02

Isn't Wednesday played by a Mexican girl? I think she got the part because she's a good actor. All this guy does is cry

Reply
5
Geoff
12-02

didn't he play an Italian? so he's ok with him playing roles that are not his culture, but others can't... Humm got it .

Reply
4

Comments / 0