John Leguizamo Talks Gangster Flicks and Black-Brown Unity

At 51-years-old, John Leguizamo’s been around for a minute. Starting with his breakout role in 1985’s Mixed Blood, the Bogotá-born funnyman has been bringing mainstream US audiences his unique brand of motormouthed New York latinidad for decades without letting up. Just last year, Johnny Legs clocked in a whopping five film credits acting alongside pop culture powerhouses like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Winona Ryder, Luke Wilson, and Jesse Eisenberg. Now he’s following up on his unexpectedly dope supporting turn in season 2 of Netflix’s Bloodline with yet another Hollywood spectacle packed to the brim with big-name actors.

Directed by Brad Furman, The Infiltrator stars Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, Benjamin Bratt, and Leguizamo in the true story of a US Customs special agent who brought down both the Medellín Cartel and a big chunk of the global banking industry with an elaborate undercover operation back in the 1980s. Conveniently piggybacking on Hollywood’s Escobar fever, The Infiltrator prefers to keep its focus on the law enforcement side of the equation while implicating the kings of international finance in the dirty business of drug trafficking.

In the end, it’s a tried-and-true crime formula that brings us all the familiar Latino archetypes, but Furman at least makes an effort to portray his drug traffickers and erratic cops with a certain degree of sympathy and cultural specificity. For his part, Leguizamo plays Emir Abreu, the real-life partner to Cranston’s Robert Mazur, whom he imbues with the wild-eyed aspect of an adrenaline junkie. With little room to move within the film’s strict genre formula, Leguizamo nevertheless leaves it all on the screen and seems to have a lot of fun along the way.

On the eve of The Infiltrator’s premiere, we took the chance to chat with Leguizamo about gangster flicks, Hollywood’s copycat game, and black and brown unity during tough times. Here are some highlights.

On Loving Gangster Films

I do love a gangster flick, don’t get me wrong. The whole world loves a gangster flick. Americans, men, Latin people — we love a gangster flick. Look at the success of the Escobar story in the Colombian telenovela. They’re doing El Chapo. So we love our gangster films, but that’s not the only story we want to tell. We want to tell a lot of other stories too, and that’s what makes things fair and equal.

On Hollywood’s Copycat Game

“It’s the way Hollywood works. It’s a copycat industry.”

The reason for the Pablo Escobar resurgence is because of the Colombian version, [Escobar, El patrón del mal]. Everybody saw the Colombian version and everybody fell in love with it, and everybody wanted to do it in their language, in their medium, and that’s what happened. How it always happens: you see one great film and all of a sudden you have a million comic books. You see one film about somebody being kidnapped like Taken, and then a thousand Death Wish vigilante films, it’s the way Hollywood works. It’s a copycat industry. Before Narcos, before the Colombian telenovela there were four or five Escobar movies that kept getting greenlit, kept getting dropped, kept getting greenlit. Five of them. I read all of them and they couldn’t get made. And Javier Bardem was attached to one, I was attached to one, Keanu Reeves was attached to one, and then they all fell apart. And then [El patrón del mal] came out and boom, that’s what everyone wanted to do.

On the #OscarsSoWhite Fallout

I think Hollywood, being a liberal bastion, felt the slight of #OscarsSoWhite. And they knew that #OscarsSoWhite is just a symptom of the disease, and the disease is the studios. The studios are not greenlighting enough minority projects, they’re not making sure that the casts are diverse enough. It’s their job and it’s their fault that they’re not being open-minded enough. It’s their fault and they know it. And they’re making huge inroads to make sure that doesn’t keep happening, because it shouldn’t happen. It’s almost 50% of the population that you’re negating. And it’s purposeful, because they’re making choices. It’s not because we don’t have the talent. We have the talent more than ever. It’s about the choices.

On Being a Latinx Actor in 2016

“We’ve gotta do everything to help our black brothers and sisters, and also speak up for ourselves.”

It’s the best time to be a Latin actor. Now there’s huge opportunities in television: content is king, it’s the golden age of cable TV. There are new platforms developing every week and technology is much cheaper. Look at a move like Tangerine. It’s shot on an iPhone 5s and the lead is a Latin [transgender woman], and she’s brilliant. And there’s no stopping you. You just got to get it done and at all costs – by any means necessary, as Spike Lee said.

On Black and Brown Unity

We’re not strangers to Black Lives Matter. How many people are being abused by border patrol? How much horrible abuse is not being filmed because people don’t have access to iPhones? There’s a lot of abuse going on and brown lives matter, too. And we’ve gotta do our part. We’ve gotta do our social media part, people need to protest, you need to call government officials, write letters. We’ve gotta do everything to help our black brothers and sisters, and also speak up for ourselves. Latin people are the most bullied people in this country right now. It’s the minority that’s the most bullied in schools, and there’s a huge amount of violence being perpetrated on our kids. And it’s a tragedy and it shouldn’t be happening, and it really hurts me as an American.