Planet Hollywood Online
31 May 2001
PLANET Q&A: The Artist Known as John Leguizamo
Interview by Prairie Miller
John Leguizamo is a star, but he doesn't mind being a fan once in a while too. Which is exactly how he felt about famed French artist Toulouse Lautrec, when John got to play him in Moulin Rouge. The very funny movie, theater and TV actor was so enthused about the role, that he didn't mind having to do it on his knees, at least for, well, short periods. Leguizamo gave PlanetHollywood.com a peep into that whole French can-can world he got to inhabit with one of the most beautiful women in the world, Nicole Kidman, and the life of a tortured artist in more ways that one, when you've got to drop to your knees to play him. The happy workaholic also talked about the other movie he's coming out in the same day, Martin Lawrence's What's the Worst that Can Happen?...
PLANET HOLLYWOOD: What was the first thought that crossed your mind, when you saw the script for Moulin Rouge?
JOHN LEGUIZAMO: That it was... long! And it seemed like a really wild story, but I believed in Baz. He did Romeo + Juliet, and that was phenomenal. One of the first things he did was take stock footage of old silent can-can movies about the Moulin Rouge, and he set it to Run DMC. He said, 'This is what I'm creating.'
So Baz got you into that mindset, and I went, 'Wow, this is going to be something wild -- if it works!' He did say, 'This might not work, because musicals haven't worked since Grease, but we'll see what happens.' Like let's be brave, let's go with all our might, and... cojones! And we did.
PH: So you were willing to put so much time and effort into something that might not work?
JL: It depends who's at the helm of it. If it's Baz at the helm, I really believe in him. And, you know, all the other talent behind it, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor -- it was a worthy gamble.
PH: What's it like starring with Nicole in a movie?
JL: She's really warm, vivacious and funny, man. I didn't know that about her, what a great sense of humor she has. She's really generous. Like Friday nights when we were working overtime, she would have food brought in for the cast, even caviar -- we went overtime many times. When she had parties at her house, we were all invited. She would open her yacht to us, and screen movies that hadn't even come out yet, that she gets to see before anyone else does. She was just incredibly generous.
And I've learned a lot from her, like the way she was dealing with personal questions at Cannes. I mean, she doesn't get angry. I get angry and stuff like that, but she doesn't. Nicole deals with it in such a classy way, like she brushes it off if she doesn't want to deal with it. She's just so professional about the whole thing. She's incredible that way, you know, a really seasoned star.
PH: What gets you mad about dealing with the public?
JL: Well, it gets hard to be creative when you lose your privacy. You can't really observe people anymore. Most of the time fans can be nice, but a lot of times they feel like they own you. You know, they feel like you belong to them, or that they've given you the chance to be who you are.
A lot of times if I'm somewhere having a private moment with my girlfriend, fans want an autograph, or to take a picture, and they don't care. Sometimes they'll get mad and yell at you... and that gets tough.
PH: What was the worst part about playing Toulouse Lautrec?
JL: It was both physical and mental. It hurt the ego, more than anything else. You know, a little man's complex, and that Napoleonic thing going on.
I had to be on my knees. They added this little amputee prosthesis to my ankle and knee. I had to learn how to balance on that. What they did, is they had a stunt man learn how to balance on it first. Then he taught me how to do that. You had to learn how to balance while you were kicking your weight forward, and then make the little knee leg pop out, to look like an actual person was walking. It was like a beautiful work of puppetry and special effects, and what they would do is erase digitally the back of my leg that stuck out.
PH: Ouch! How did that leave you feeling?
JL: It gave me a pain, in the small of my back and I couldn't do it longer than forty-five minutes at a time. My legs would just start feeling like pins and needles, so I would have to say, 'Cut! Sorry, I gotta go walk, do something else.'
My lower back got really compressed, so I had to have a physical therapist. There was only one scene where I had to dance, but I couldn't do it. I mean, they tried. They built this little cart that I had to peddle, but I kept knocking Nicole down, and crashing into everybody else!
Then they put a harness around me, with like a pulley. They would try to jump me around, but I was always off beat. So I just did one scene where I looked at my legs a few times, and then... see ya John!
PH: Wasn't it scary when you had to go down the steps?
JL: Oh for that, they took the prosthetics off. I couldn't go down the stairs, so I just did it crouching down. Nicole took forever to walk. She was so freakin' slow, and I'm going, 'Nicole, Hurry!' My legs were shaking and quivering. It felt like forever, man. And now I feel like I have the strongest buttock muscles around!
PH: What kind of research can you do to become Toulouse Lautrec?
JL: It was hard because he's dead. I looked at his paintings, but I couldn't get anything out of that. So I looked at a lot of photographs. I read three biographies about him, and I got a lot off that.
I found out that his parents were first cousins, and when Toulouse was born with all these impediments, they stopped having kids. You know, he was born with dwarfism and his shins were really thin. They just snapped when he was climbing down the stairs at fourteen, and the other time when he was climbing up on a horse. So that's why he had to use a cane, and his legs always hurt him.
Then he was born with really thick lips, with cartilage in them. And his tongue too, so he had a bad lisp, and a really high-pitched voice. He drooled a lot, because he couldn't control it.
Toulouse had all these things, and yet he was this really funny, flamboyant man who loved to be the center of attention. And he always dressed colorfully. You know, if somebody picked him up as a joke, he would whip them with his cane. He always had to have the last word. I tried to incorporate some of that into the character, his flamboyance. He was a real nurturer, too.
I put in some of the stuff I had read about him, and things he actually said. Like when he says that he's not just a court jester, but that he too knows art and love with every fiber of his body. He helped Van Gogh and Gauguin, and he put a lot of shows together. He was a really warm character.
And from the photos I saw, he loved to dress up in costumes -- and he loved to just drop his pants. I mean, he was wild. God punished him with a lot of impediments, but He made him... well-endowed! So God was sort of merciful in that way.
PH: What about the strange relationship with prostitutes?
JL: Yeah, he frequented them a lot. They used to call him the Tripod! That was his nickname, but he never had real love.
And that was his only thing, he died really young. He drank himself to death with absinthe. When you see pictures of him at thirty-six, he looks like he's fifty, all aged and beaten up. His parents shunned him, because they were aristocrats and because he painted for a living and never did any other kind of work, they disinherited him.
PH: What's the big difference between doing a movie and a stage show like Freak?
JL: Doing a movie is so much easier. You don't have any responsibility, in a way. You just take care, and you have fun. There's a beauty to that, I love that too.
With my one-man show, I have to really dig inside, and be observant about my life. You know, I have to be self-aware, and do a lot of analysis. But in that, there's a huge reward. I mean, my one-man shows, I've always been in love with them because it's a conversation between the audience and the performer. It's the most intimate performance there is because you're sharing your life, your thoughts, who you really are. And watching Whoopi Goldberg and Eric Bogosian doing it, that's the most beautiful thing I've ever experienced, and it's the high I'm always pursuing.
My shows always speak of my experiences in America, so there's a huge Latin component. I'm an American, but I'm a Latin American. And English is like my stepmother tongue. You know, I wasn't born here, so my whole experience is colored by being Latin in this country and what that means.
PH: What was it like being the only American in Moulin Rouge?
JL: Well, I'm the only American, but I'm also the only Latin American in the flick! And that was scary at first because everybody was English, and I was the only American doing an English accent. You know, with all these impediments, so that was a little daunting. There were times I was afraid that I was going to fail.
And it's interesting that John Huston's Toulouse Lautrec was also played by a Latin American, Jose Ferrer. So I guess it's becoming a tradition for us Latin guys to play him. My children will probably be playing him!
PH: What's next?
JL: I did this movie Zigzag, with Wesley Snipes and Oliver Platt. I play this social worker who helps out a kid who is autistic. And then I'm in Empire, with Isabella Rosellini, Sonia Braga, Peter Sarsgaard and Denise Richards. I play a New York underworld drug dealer who tries to get out of the business. I'm also writing my own screenplay, its a movie about boxing.
PH: Busy man! And aren't you coming out in two movies this week, Moulin Rouge and What's the Worst that Could Happen?
JL: Yeah, I know. The same day, man, it's crazy. Who knew? That's with Martin Lawrence and Danny De Vito, and it's a whole different type of movie. That one is, you know, entertainment, man. It's just big laughs, but it's pretty intelligent. It's the most intelligent movie that Martin Lawrence has done. Ana Gasteyer from Saturday Night Live plays my wife, and Nora Dunn is in it, too. And there's Glenne Headly, Larry Miller and Bill Fichtner. Bernie Mac, too. It's a great cast.
I'm also touring across America with a show, to twenty cities. The show is about relationships, you know, dating and sex. And not getting sex. And relationships and breaking up, and breakup sex. Angry sex. It's a kind of therapy for me. And I don't have to wear a cast!
PH: I hear you. How do you handle switching between an art movie like Moulin Rouge to a gritty comedy like What's the Worst that Could Happen?
JL: Hey, you can go for fancy French food that's a little rich sometimes, and then you've got McDonald's. I sneak in something supersized every chance I get. It's different flavors. And I love both of 'em!