Film

Interview: John Leguizamo on Working with Spike Lee, Thinking a Few Moves Ahead, and Filming Chess Like a Boxing Match

I’ve been lucky enough, since the early 1990s, to have seen every one of John Leguizamo’s one-man shows either in New York or in Chicago (where he often previews his productions before taking them to Broadway or Off-Broadway). And although I’d seen him in films like Casualties of War and Die Hard 2 prior to his first one-man show, Mambo Mouth, it was through these performances over the years that I became impressed with him as an actor. His most recent, Latin History for Morons, I actually saw on Broadway a couple years back, and then again last fall in Chicago when he toured the production.

Critical Thinking

Image courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

By every definition of the expression, Leguizamo is an example of a working actor, capable of doing pretty much anything from comedy to drama, supporting roles and the occasional lead. He’s worked with so many great directors and certainly done his share of forgettable films as well—forgettable, in large part, because the filmmaker didn’t make good use of Leguizamo’s skills as an actor (for example, Ride Along was a big hit, but Leguizamo barely got to speak, which is a cardinal sin in my book).

Look at his film credits to see the range of his abilities: Super Mario Brothers, Spawn, Carlito’s Way, Summer of Sam, Executive Decision, The Fan, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, the voice of Sid in the Ice Age films, Assault on Precinct 13, The Lincoln Lawyer, Kick-Ass 2, Chef, John Wick 1 & 2, and the list literally goes on and on.

His latest starring role is as teacher Mario Martinez in Critical Thinking, based on the story of the 1998 Miami Jackson Senior High School chess team that overcame incredible adversity to become the first urban high school to win the U.S. Chess National Championship. Martinez was the chess club’s coach, whose unwavering belief in his students set in motion the team’s rise. Perhaps most importantly, the film marks Leguizamo’s theatrical feature film directing debut (he also helmed the 2003 boxing movie Undefeated for HBO).

In a strange coincidence, both Latin History and Critical Thinking see Leguizamo playing the role of teacher—in the stage show, he becomes an educator for his own children (and the audience) on the subject of true Latinx history around the world. Critical Thinking was meant to make its debut at the SXSW Film Festival in March, but life (and a pandemic) got in the way. I spoke to Leguizamo on March 18, just as things were beginning to shut down en masse, and the movie’s future release plans were up in the air. Now, Critical Thinking is available on VOD, and it’s a terrific, inspirational watch featuring some great performances by the young actors playing the students as well as supporting parts from the likes of Michael Kenneth Williams (currently killing it on “Lovecraft Country”).

With that, please enjoy my talk with John Leguizamo…

Hi, John. How are you holding up?

Pretty good. We just drove in, we picked up my daughter from Chicago, from Northwestern, and now we’re at the beach, stocking up supplies, trying to use less toilet paper each time, because apparently everybody thinks that the Coronavirus is going to make them shit their brain out.

I was fortunate enough to see your latest one-man show on Broadway, as well as in Chicago when you were here a few months ago.

How cool. Thank you for supporting.

I never miss your live shows; they’re too good and so funny. But in that show, you cast yourself as a teacher, and I’m watching this movie, and you have some of the same lessons as you did in the show, about not allowing your history to be erased, how to dig up true facts about one’s history that normally don’t make it into the text books. Do you see that connection between the two roles?

It was an amazing coincidence that I was doing my show—I was just being me in Latin History, but I was being very professorial. But I’m thinking, “Oh my god, this is my rehearsal for the movie.” It prepared me to some degree. One deals with our contribution to American history and the wars and fighting for freedom in America, but the chess movie is about chess history. But yes, there is an incredible overlap, and it prepared me to be this gargantuan man who loves kids and loves to nurture and wants to save every child in the world.

It would have played like gangbusters at SXSW.

I know. I wanted there to be buzz and lines outside, people pushing each other to get in like it was Black Friday [laughs].

Let’s back things up a bit. How did you first hear about this chess team?

Carla Berkowitz, who’s a producer, has had the story for 20 years, nurturing it. She made an offer for me to star in it. But I really fell in love with the script [by Dito Montiel] and knew I wanted to direct, and I knew I could do it, I felt it, I grew up like this—underprivileged, in the ghetto, being talented and having no place to exhibit your talent or have somebody to say “You’ve got worth.” I knew what it was like, and it was mentors who saved me—my math teacher, the school forced me to go to a therapist, lots of people who saved me. I wanted to celebrate that. When people go to these neighborhoods and take care of these kids, they’re all gems.

It’s been more than 15 years since you directed your first film. Why did this one want to make you want to jump back into directing specifically?

I didn’t have such a great experience on Undefeated; it was really difficult. And I was very disappointed with the result, so I was disenchanted with the whole directing thing. So it took me 10 years to build my confidence up, and I fell in love with this story. I felt I could do this. I’ve worked with all of the greatest directors—Brian DePalma, Spike Lee, Tony Scott, Barry Levinson—and I knew I had this Rolodex of things to do. And it was really difficult to get this amount of pages done per day, dealing with extras and shooting in a high school—it was really difficult to make my day every day, but I was able to do it. I had this skill set that I picked up from all of these directors.

Were any of those directors particular touchstones for you while making this film?

That would definitely be Spike Lee, because when we did Summer of Sam, it was so electric; it was the favorite work experience of my career. He just nurtured us and made us rehearse, made us hang out with each other, and I did all of those things with these kids. I told them, “If you want to be in this movie, you have to come to Miami and rehearse for two weeks before we shoot. You have to be off book by the first day of rehearsal, and you have to memorize all the games. You can’t show up to my set without memorizing every move, because I don’t have time to teach you moves on set and make you look like a professional. You have to come in looking like a professional chess player.”

So by the time you start filming, they’re already a team.

Yes. We’re rehearsing every day, 12 hours a day, and kudos to them for making the sacrifice, but they know it showed on film.

The lingo alone would not roll off my tongue as naturally as it does these kids.

[laughs] It wasn’t natural at first, trust me. None of it was, not the moves or anything. But we rehearsed and rehearsed; I had the real players and the teacher on the set doing rehearsals every day, and they kept us honest.

I wouldn’t assume that chess is the most cinematic thing to shoot, but you do treat it like a traditional sports movie—there’s tension and thrills. How did you approach shooting the matches?

That was tricky, man. Even though I love chess, it’s not the most exciting thing to watch. I watched a ton of games on YouTube, and I was like “Wow, how do I not make a movie that has people running out of the theater screaming how bored they were?” So I wanted to make it like a sports movie, like a boxing movie. I approached it that way, with championships, different fights, the two opponents, and they duke it out. With my great director of photography, Zach Zamboni, we planned how we were going to do it, how we were going to make it exciting, how we were going to make those chess pieces bigger than life, how do you make the moves like a punch or a flurry of punches, and we picked up those rhythms from boxing.

Speaking of Zach, he’s a guy who comes out of documentaries, working with Anthony Bourdain; were you attempting to capture a documentary feel in some way?

Yeah, that’s exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want it to feel like a film film; I wanted it to feel like a doc. Zach had been working with Bourdain, and he had to kind of do both. They had to capture things as they happened, but they still get a lot of beauty shots. Zach was a master of beauty shots, and I loved that combination, so I wanted to make these schools and chess beautiful as he was capturing the magic that was happening when these kids got revved up, while it was happening.

The other interesting thing that you have to do is emphasize the more intellectual side of the game, again not particularly cinematic—it’s what’s going on in people’s heads. How did you go about tackling and prioritizing that?

I didn’t want to skimp or cheat the intellectual capacity that these kids had or this teacher had. I didn’t want to gloss over that and make it easy for the audience to see the highlights. I wanted them to struggle as these kids struggle with the intellectual part of chess and having to learn the moves and the lingo, and I wanted the audience to be a little tortured by it as well. Hopefully by the end, they understand chess, and maybe by the last game, they feel as knowledgeable as the kids themselves.

And a lot of credit for that goes to your screenwriter, Dito Montiel—I’m always excited when he directs or writes a movie.

I agree.

He has a real flare for capturing the real beauty and possibility of a setting that isn’t associated with such quality in film. What do you remember reacting to specifically about his screenplay?

I felt like the relationships and these kids, what was coming out of their mouths, was so authentic and real and exciting. How does he capture that voice? How does he channel that? And that’s what made me fall in love with the screenplay, his incredible ability to make scenes about normal life seem so exciting, so riveting. It just crackles with electricity.

It’s almost become a cliché at this point, but I’ve often heard that chess teaches people a great deal about how to live life, with that idea of looking ahead a few moves, looking at the consequences. Did you find that to be true when working on this? Do you see those parallels?

I’ve always heard that about chess, and I’m not a good enough chess player to be able to tell you that, because I can’t think that far ahead in my moves [laughs]. I’m more of a spontaneous reactor. But I did feel like the movie, the way we shot it, planned it, structured it, was like chess. We had to think five or ten moves ahead all the time, and if something was presented that was unusual, we looked at all the possible variables and made our choices. Somehow, chess really affected how I directed and the way the movie was produced.

The film is set in 1998, and I’ve heard that any time you make a period film, even if it’s a recent period, it doubles or triples the headaches. Was that true?

It does increase your budget. Of course, because now you’ve got to find costumes of that era and get rid of all extras that don’t have period clothing, cars, you have to close down streets and bring in the right cars. Our $3.5 million budget, I believed we could do it. I really felt that we could because I’ve been in enough films to know that anything is possible if you really figure it out. And when you watch low-budget, guerrilla-style filmmakers, you know that everything is possible.

Energy is so important to your live shows, and there’s always movement and music. With this film, it just moves; it never lets up. Did the shoot feel that energetic while shooting? Did you make a point to keep the energy up?

Oh yeah. I wanted everybody to be as spontaneous and in the moment as possible. I wanted to do as many takes as I could as well, because that’s when I come to life in movies, on the seventh or tenth take, and I know sometimes people don’t have the patience for that, so I wanted to make sure I gave my actors enough time to warm up and shed their habits. So I came in wanting to rehearse and shoot a lot. I’m not afraid to do a lot of takes because I love them; that’s the beauty of shooting digital. When we used to shoot on film, I used to beg “Please, I got one more shot,” and it the pressure was on to be really good and to prove it, and sometimes you did have magic and sometimes you didn’t.

In both films you directed, you also put yourself in the leading role. Did you ever consider giving yourself a break and just direct something?

Actually yeah, that’s what I want to do next. I want to shoot something good that I’m not in, unless something comes up that’s too good not to be in [laughs]. But now I feel like I’m ready to do something I’m not in.

Are you ready to do it soon, or do we have to wait another 15 years?

No no, I have a lot of projects that I’m trying to get off the ground, some that I’m in and some that I’m not in, both directing and writing.

John, best of luck with this.

Thanks. I’m back to work, baby. Stay safe.

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