In his one-man Broadway show Latin History for Morons, John Leguizamo stands in front of a chalk board talking about indigenous civilizations, gentrification and immigration. In his upcoming film Critical Thinking, the chalkboard is still present, but this time Leguizamo is teaching teenagers about chess strategy. “Latin History for Morons was my rehearsal for this film,” Leguizamo tells Remezcla over the phone. “It was incredible because I’ve been teaching for the last five years on stage, so I thought, ‘Let me bring it to the chess board.’”

In the true-life drama Critical Thinking, Leguizamo plays Mario Martinez, a chess coach at Miami Jackson Senior High, who led a team of inner-city students to become national chess tournament champions in 1998. After 35 years in the industry as an actor, writer and producer, Critical Thinking is the first film Leguizamo has directed that will get a theatrical release. (In 2003, he directed the boxing drama Undefeated for HBO).

“I got the script about three and a half years ago and I fell in love with the story and the positivity,” he says. “I was offered the lead role, but I thought, ‘You know, I think I can direct this. I really believe I can do it.’” Leguizamo’s love for the story was reinforced when he traveled to Florida to meet with Martinez and the five former Miami Jackson chess players who would be portrayed in Critical Thinking. “I was fascinated by them,” he says. And by Mario, “who stopped at nothing to impart this wisdom on these guys, is someone I would aspire to be.”

Like other underdog, Latino-inspired films that have come before (see Stand and Deliver, Spare Parts and McFarland, USA) Leguizamo hopes viewers realize that there are a lot of gifted individuals that come from the kind of low-income communities that are always overlooked and underserved. Unlike those films, however, he also wanted Critical Thinking to be honest when presenting the hardships these characters are facing — much of it violent.

john leguizamo

Courtesy of SXSW.

“I think the film really shows the horrors, neglect, abandonment and wasted talent you find in these places,” he says. “I wanted it to be real. I didn’t want it to represent Disney. I wanted to show the obstacles these kids are running away from. They’re not just ‘underprivileged.’ It’s a really difficult life.”

This being Leguizamo’s first theatrical film as a director, he remembered the iconic filmmakers he’s worked beside in the past. The wealth of knowledge he unknowingly collected over the years hit him as soon as he got onto the set. This included from directors like Tony Scott (The Fan), Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet), Spike Lee (Summer of Sam), Brian De Palma (Carlito’s Way) and Barry Levinson (the upcoming Harry Haft).

“I didn’t realize I carried all this information from all these great directors,” he says. “I had all this wisdom from them. I mean, Baz, Spike and Brian made us rehearse weeks before we shot, and I did the same thing. Spike made us hang out [as a cast]. I made [the Critical Thinking cast] hang out with me, too. I learned a lot from all these directors, who were really prepared. I learned how to create a film set of inclusion and collaboration.”

Along with some of the directorial principles he picked up from his experience, Leguizamo says he also learned that he could really draw a good performance from actors. It wasn’t something he was anticipating figuring out so early on. “I knew I could act, but I wasn’t sure I could get that from other actors, but now I’m really confident,” he adds. “I really know how to guide them to do their best. I also learned that I have some slick camera moves that I didn’t know I had.”

One thing Leguizamo didn’t pick up, unfortunately, is how to really play chess — at least to the level of Martinez and his students. While his character sounds like an expert when teaching the rules of the game, he jokes that even with all the chess club meetings he attended and tutorials he took, his skills on the chess board are still lacking.

“I was able to understand the game enough to make it look exciting on film,” he says. “I had consultants and demanded them to be with me 24/7. I didn’t want to be left alone with chess.”

Maybe checkers is just more his speed.

“That’s not a compliment,” Leguizamo says laughing.

Critical Thinking was to have its premiere at the cancelled SXSW film festival.