Three Great Things: Luis Guzmán

The beloved character actor, who's currently starring in Story Ave, on cooking, dancing and helping other people.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the September 29 release in theaters of the new drama Story Ave, starring Asante Blackk and Luis Guzmán, the beloved character actor shared some of things he loves most in life. — N.D.

I just love cooking. I love being in the kitchen and creating with either my daughters, my son or my friends, and orchestrating everybody: “OK, you cut the onions, you do the garlic. … Who wants to skin the chicken? There you go. There you go. Do a good job!” It’s a beautiful thing and normally it turns out really well.

I could cook just about anything. The pressure for me is, some of my kids are now like chefs. Back in the day, I would cook something and they would say, “Pop, this is great.” But now they’ve overtaken me and have gotten really exotic about cooking. And so now when I cook for them, I think, “Oh my God, I hope they like it!” It’s a beautiful role reversal, though, because they’ve learned about all different kinds of cuisines and they experiment with their cooking. They experiment on me, for that matter! My son once made me this French toast that was amazing. I said, “Dude, nobody makes French Toast like this – who’s responsible for teaching you this?!” One time, my daughter made me salmon that tasted somewhere between poached salmon and sushi. It’s still the best salmon I’ve ever tasted in my life.

Cooking has always been a big part of my life. Being the oldest child, I was my mother’s helper, so I’d cook for my brothers and my sisters. When I was 16 or 17 years old, we lived in a commune and the only way we could stay there – because I was still in high school – was if I cooked several of the meals during the week. I also remember my first Thanksgiving in the army, when I cooked my first Thanksgiving turkey. I was shopping in the supermarket, looking for the ingredients when all of a sudden I saw a turkey you could cook in a bag. I baked it in the bag, and when we took the turkey out, it collapsed. To this day, it’s the best turkey I’ve ever made. It was moist. It was delicious. And people were eating seconds and thirds. I did that as a 17-year-old. Right then, I knew I had a future!

Oh man, I love to dance, especially salsa. That’s my shit right there. That’s my workout! I could be on the dance floor easily for an hour, non-stop. Building up a sweat. Multiple partners. Boom, boom. I’m on it. I have witnesses who can back me up. Easy! I used to go out with 10, 20, 30 of my friends. We would take over a whole block in a club, and we’d just dance and dance and dance.

There’s a video of my mother and me dancing that I put up on Instagram – now it has 1.5 million views! My mom taught me how to dance. She used to go clubbing when I was maybe two or three years old, and she would sneak me into the club with her girlfriends. They would put me underneath the table, give me a bottle and my little toys and take turns watching me. So dancing is not just in my blood, it’s even deeper – it’s in my DNA.

One day, my mom said, “Come on, I’m going to teach you how to dance.” And do you know what? I still dance the same way my mom taught me. I could teach anyone how to dance in a minute. I’d change their life. You don’t have to go to dance school, you just need to hang with me. Marc Anthony is a great friend of mine – he’s got the moves. And Tito Nieves, Ruben Blades. El Gran Combo – these are all my people! You have not lived life until you’ve gone salsa dancing with Luis Guzmán! I’ll dance at your prom. At your funeral. At your divorce party. I’ve got it going on, bro.

My mom, God bless her, is 83 years old and if you go to her house, there’s nothing but salsa music playing. Sometimes I’ll call her to see how she’s doing and I’ll say, “Yo, Ma, can you turn down the radio?” She’ll say, “I can hear you just fine. What do you want to say?” She won’t lower her music. I’ll literally have to bribe her. “I’ll give you $20. Can you just lower it just a little bit so we can talk?” She’ll say, “OK. What you got to say? Hurry up. … Oh my God, that’s my song!” Then she’ll turn the volume back up, and that’s it, I’m out 20 bucks.

Helping People
I really love helping people – donating my time, doing fundraisers, uplifting people, making people aware of good health tips and good philosophy, helping people be happy – because we live in a world that’s very dark at times and people need uplifting. I’ve been in dark places myself, so when I read something that makes me feel good, I share it. I love sharing knowledge, poetry, art, jokes, because I just feel that’s so important. I also like educating people on how to exercise, massage your own body and eat well. Like, please stop drinking soda, please look at labels, because anything that has high fructose corn syrup will end up giving you diabetes.

Whether it’s Make a Wish foundation, whether it’s for cancer or scholarships for kids in school, whether it’s helping flood victims or raising money for a food pantry, I love doing things to help others. It makes me feel good. I used to be a social worker back in the day; I helped people to help themselves. That’s really what I do. I appreciate putting a smile on people’s faces. I’m a good human being and I like to spread that to people.

I lost my first son, and that’s the hardest thing I ever faced in my life. I joined a bereavement group of other people who’d lost children and made friends there. They helped me and validated a lot of my feelings, but also let me know I wasn’t alone in what I was going through. We cried a lot together and that really helped me.

I also grew up during the AIDS epidemic and I lost so many people – family, friends, people from the neighborhood. But we got through that and we learned a lot, especially about love. We learned to not let people become stigmatized, because that was a really dark time. I lost one of my greatest friends ever to AIDS. One day, I went to visit him in the hospital, right before I was supposed to do a comedy show. I was going to buy him the football game so he could watch it on TV, but when I showed up at the hospital, where I’d been visiting him regularly, the nurse took me into a room and said, “Your friend passed away this morning.” It was January in New York City, so it was cold as fuck, and I remember walking from 11th Street and Seventh Avenue all the way to 42nd Street and 10th Avenue. I did the comedy show, and at the end, I went into my dressing room and finally let it out and broke down. But I did that show for my buddy Eddie, because I knew he would have wanted me to continue.

For me, life has been full of these kinds of incredible lessons. And I’m grateful to everyone I have come to know in my life. When I lost my first son, he planted a seed for me, which led to me adopting four children and having another one of my own after that. And so something beautiful came out of all that pain. I’m really proud of that. I got through those times, and I’m grateful I didn’t turn to alcohol and drugs to medicate myself from the pain. I learned to figure it out instead.

Luis Guzmán is currently starring opposite Asante Blackk in the new drama Story Ave, out now through Kino Lorber. An award-winning actor with over 150 feature film and television roles to his credit. He most recently reprised the role of Gomez Addams in Season 2 of Tim Burton’s Addams Family series Wednesday for Netflix. Guzmán won a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award as a member of the ensemble cast of Steven Soderbergh’s award-winning drama Traffic and received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Soderbergh’s The Limey. He also shared in two SAG Award cast nominations for his performances in Paul Thomas Anderson’s critically acclaimed films Magnolia and Boogie Nights and went on to work with Anderson again on Punch-Drunk Love. His multiple collaborations with other directors include Snake Eyes and Carlito’s Way for Brian De Palma, and Family Business, Q&A and Guilty as Sin for Sidney Lumet. Born in Puerto Rico, Guzmán grew up in Manhattan and graduated from City College. He worked as a youth counselor while performing in street theater and independent films and got his first break with a guest role on Miami Vice.