Three Great Things: John Leguizamo

The legendary actor, who's currently starring in the prison drama Dark Blood, on his love of playwriting, beats and dancing.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the current release of Dark Blood, the gritty prison drama starring John Leguizamo, the legendary actor and writer opened up about some of the things that anchor him to the rhythms of life. — N.D.

Writing Plays
I love writing plays. It’s so exciting, so freeing; I feel liberated, validated. Writing a play is such a powerful tool to me because I don’t have to raise a lot of money for it, it doesn’t have to pass through the gatekeepers – it may not even ever be performed! I can just write it to satisfy myself, as an artist. It’s an antidote to all those movie projects where I have to go to numerous meetings and people tell me what would make my movie better, and even though I disagree, I have to listen to them because I want to get it made.

I wrote my first play, Mambo Mouth, back in early ’90s, but I was already writing in high school. My school had class clowns galore and it was very comedically competitive, so I started writing my jokes the day before so I could stay on top. I used to have files with jokes about shoes, jokes about hair, jokes about everything, because I wanted to be the top class clown.

I’ve been fortunate that most directors I’ve worked for have seen me also being a writer as a boon and not a problem, so I’ve luckily haven’t had to suppress that part of me. When I did the movie Chef, my character had no lines, but Jon Favreau said, “I’m trusting that you will improvise throughout the movie,” so I did that. On the movie I’m doing now, The Menu, Mark Mylod – the director of Succession, who’s a genius – allows me to improv and rewrite as we go along. I live for that.

When I’m writing the play, it’s purely meditative and healing because I’m in a beta stage. When I’m on set and improvising, though, I’m wired and stressed out of my mind because I want the lines to work. And sometimes they don’t, so I’m waiting for the director to come back and go, “Yeah, we like that,” or “Try something different. The writers came up with this new line …”

When I’m writing plays, I have a structure in my head and I wait till it’s solidified in my mind. After that, it just flows out of me. I just write and write. Once I jump on, I can’t stop, because if I stop, then I forget where I was, I forget what the impulse was. When I’m writing on set, I run to the trailer and type like a maniac. I get up extra early, at 5 a.m. so I can have an hour to write before I go to set. When I realized I could write on set, I started printing out what I’m working on and sitting quietly with my pen. And while I’m waiting for the camera to come to me, I’m just writing.

I just love a beat, especially a complicated beat. My whole life, I’ve been trying to make beats, and I still can’t do it, but I love listening to them. It taps into a part of my mind that’s fun and funky.

When I was growing up, kids were always doing beats on their desks and I always wanted to imitate them or come up with my own. When hip hop came out, those beats were so hot, I wanted to hear them all day. It just felt so good! I’ll do a little beat-boxing when I’m driving, or I’m in my trailer, or I have a little moment to myself, or I’m jogging and I have enough breath for it! It hits a pleasure center in my brain, maybe because it’s tapping back into my teenage years.

I was around for the birth of hip hop in the mid ’70s, but before that was uprock, the big dance craze in the early ’70s which was the precursor to breakdancing and hip hop. People were taking breakbeats, the part of the song that made you jump out of your seat to dance, and stringing them together. That’s what we would dance to in the after-school centers and at house parties, so I was hearing those beats all the time. I was hearing them in my head and wanted to take them with me. I think beats have definitely affected my speech, my acting, and maybe my writing, too. There’s rhythmic patterns to speech and especially dialogue.

All the things I’m choosing today are related to rhythm. If I can dance in my room or my trailer for a little bit, all of a sudden I feel like I’m in a happier, better place. I love dancing to all kinds of music. I’ll put on a salsa piece or an old-school hip-hop track or an old funk song – whatever is turning me on at the time – and then my body just starts to dance. Not everything turns me on the same way every time, but I’ll just keep going through songs until I find one that makes me get up out of my seat and dance and jump around the room or even jump on the bed! I tend to dance when I’m alone and I can feel free – even in my car! I love to “car dance,” just sit in my car and bust a move till the light turns green. Music just makes me do things!

Dance is such a huge part of Latin culture and was definitely part of my urban upbringing. At home, it was Latin music; my mom would teach us how to salsa, merengue and cumbia. And then when I’d go to house parties, it was more hip hop, funk and disco and I’d practice with my girlfriend. When I was doing the hustle, I would have a blast practicing for hours and then go to a club and show off my moves. There would always be the most beautiful dancers there and I’d think, “Their dancing is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. How come these people aren’t world famous? How come they’re not all over the television?” I’d try to jump in, but my dancing was not as tight, so they’d just spin me out or they leave me behind, and then somebody else would come in and I’d be like, “Fuck, no! Now they know I’m not so good, they’ll never let me jump in again …” The girls would pretend that they didn’t see me and I couldn’t cut in. The girls that I ended up dancing with were at the same level as me; I couldn’t date above my dancing technique, because those girls were like, “Eh, not with you …”

There’s so many new dance styles that come up. When litefeet came out, that shit really got me. I was playing it all day long, trying to do the moves, and then realized, “Oh my God, I can’t do those moves anymore …” It’s definitely a young man’s game, but I’m trying to keep up. Dancing just turns me on – it’s riveting to me. It’s so exciting and pumps me up. Sometimes I’ll see kids dancing and wish those moves had been around when I was a kid, so I could have done them too.

John Leguizamo is a Colombian-born American actor, stand-up comedian, producer, playwright and screenwriter. He is currently starring in the prison drama Dark Blood. He rose to fame with a costarring role in Super Mario Bros as Luigi and a supporting role in the crime drama Carlito’s Way. He later notably appeared in the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, for which he was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor. He has also appeared in Spawn, Moulin Rouge, Land Of The Dead, Summer Of Sam, Chef, John Wick, John Wick: Chapter 2, The Happening and Romeo + Juliet. He had a recurring role on ER and was a series regular on The Kill Point. He is also known for his role as Ozzy Delvecchio on Bloodline. He has appeared in more than 100 films, produced over 20 films, starred on Broadway in several productions (winning several awards, including a Special Tony Award), and made his feature directorial debut in 2020 with the real-life chess drama Critical Thinking. He has been nominated for four Primetime Emmy Awards, winning one in 1999 for his performance in Freak.