So here’s a cool story: this interview almost didn’t happen. For one reason or another, lines got crossed and the scheduled time slot was skipped. No big deal; minor mistakes occur all the time in this business and you move on. Yet just when this writer had given up hope of interviewing the great John Leguizamo, the phone rang a few hours later and a familiar voice was on the other end.
“Hey Jacob, you got a minute? It’s John. John Leguizamo.”
Needless to say, there was a mad scramble to turn on the recorder and get down to business, but what followed was a fun, casual conversation regarding Leguizamo’s latest, The Hollow Point (where he plays a ruthless cartel hitman on the trail of Patrick Wilson and Ian McShane’s small town law dogs), as well as fan favorite John Wick, and the beginnings of his screen career working with Brian De Palma.
Birth.Movies.Death: I actually got to watch the movie last night in-between flights home after seeing my family for the holidays…
John Leguizamo: Yeah? That must’ve been weird – all the violence in this film mixed between happy moments with your people…
BMD: It was kind of a shocker. I didn’t know a whole lot about The Hollow Point going in, but you, Patrick Wilson and Ian McShane are what sold me on it. You specifically though…you don’t say anything. The performance is almost entirely internalized. What attracted you to such a quiet, menacing role?
JL: I thought it was pretty incredible, man. They actually offered me the Jim Belushi role* first, but I really wanted to play Atticus. I loved all the internal life that the character had. Now that I’m older, I think I can appreciate that more and tap into it a little better than when I was younger. Because back then, I was all flash and brass.
BMD: We don’t get a whole lot filled in with Atticus in terms of background. Did y’all write a backstory that we don’t even see?
JL: Oh yeah. I did a lot of research – going to jails and talking to therapists about sociopaths. We based it on one specific sociopath that, well…you can’t like a sociopath, but you can certainly find them fascinating. Something like 10% of the population in jail is sociopathic, and then 1% in the general population of the world. They have no empathy, and usually become mercenaries or CEOs or dictators. That’s just the truth. You can’t teach them to have empathy. That part of their brain is just damaged.
BMD: It doesn’t even seem like you need to do a whole lot of research nowadays. You can just turn on the TV and witness a complete lacking of feeling for others.
JL: [laughs] That’s so true. Our respect and love for one another’s beliefs has kind of gone away. That’s always been one of the great contradictions about America: we’re supposed to be respectful of other people’s freedoms and the First Amendment and freedom of religion – all the freedoms this country guarantees, really. But that level of respect doesn’t seem like a value people even aspire to anymore.
BMD: I think The Hollow Point taps into that idea as well, because we watch Patrick Wilson’s lawman completely lose his moral code. It dies. Then you enter the movie like a horror villain; an indestructible force of pure death.
JL: That’s what I thought when I first read it. This is a horror Western with a bit of an implicit social message.
BMD: That’s what’s really cool about the film – it takes a bunch of these tones and elements and mashes them together while letting this great group of actors just tear into the scenery. It’s incredibly riveting at times.
JL: The character dynamics are incredible. I love [Patrick Wilson’s] sheriff, who really just can’t figure himself out and is kind of hated by people. He’s trying to do the right thing, but the “right thing” really isn’t defined at all.
BMD: Not to change gears too quickly, but I’m a massive fan of John Wick, and The Hollow Point feels similar in that it establishes its own universe rather quickly. What’s drawn you to these worlds of violence? Even [Netflix Original Series] Bloodline sees your character approaching a very dangerous familial unit.
JL: Bloodline is something else, man. It’s so incredibly well written. It’s a step above everything just by gathering that incredible group of actors. Plus, the morality of that work is so blurred. But that’s what real life is like. Is morality ever clear cut for us? Every character in that dysfunctional white family is so well defined and devious in their own way.
John Wick is the opposite. The good guys and the bad guys are clear, and the good guy has to do some evil in order to kill the bad guys. However, that’s a powerful force. He’s the protagonist and you just want to see him kill everything, even though that’s kinda wrong. It’s simple; almost like a video game. It’s OK to cross moral lines as long as you’re the hero.
In The Hollow Point it’s all topsy-turvy. You’re kind of with the lead, but you’re also not, because he’s a dick. And the bad guy, me, is an enigma because we don’t know anything about him. So do we imprint our own prejudices on him, as well as the myopic nature of our universe? It leaves a lot of room for you to integrate your own problems and agenda.
BMD: Your character, in certain ways, is very reminiscent of Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. You’re just this force of nature.
JL: The character had a lot more dialogue when we started out and we pared it all down.
JL: I explained a lot of where I came from and why I was doing what I was doing and it just didn’t work. It was better for him to be enigmatic and even mechanical at times. When we started to explain too much about him it lost the tension.
BMD: What’s up with the body art you sport in the movie? I was intrigued by the dead tree that seems to grow out of your spine and snake up your back.
JL: It’s so great that it just isn’t a standard prison tat, y’know? It almost looks like dead arteries and capillaries in a lung that represent these branches of life that may have already died off.
BMD: The Hollow Point is also a John Wick reunion of sorts with you and Ian McShane.
JL: We’re the only ones John didn’t shoot in the face!
BMD: Exactly. Were you guys excited to come back to the John Wick universe?
JL: Oh yeah. Keanu’s such a cool dude. He’s a hero, really. He’s so charitable and gives his time to all of these organizations. And this go round, I had just a little more time with him…
BMD: How much more of Aurelio do we get in Chapter 2?
JL: Twice as much as the first one. Exactly. And you still get all the Keanu, so it’s a solid deal.
BMD: Hopefully if that universe continues on, you get your own adventure.
JL: I don’t wanna give anything away, but if it’s a hit, there’s definitely room for a John Wick 3.
BMD: Before I let you go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about working with Brian De Palma. He’s my favorite filmmaker of all time and you were in one of his absolute masterpieces, Carlito’s Way.
JL: Aw man, I was supposed to be in Mission: Impossible, too, but had a Fox contract that they wouldn’t let me out of. I was so looking forward to being in that movie. It would’ve been the third time I got to do something with Brian. I was so devastated. I loved working with him. I owe my career to him. He creates this environment where anything is possible.
In Carlito’s Way, I found myself as an actor. With my entrance as Benny Blanco, he let me do between twenty and thirty takes. And we’re talking about doing this on film, not digital. This was the era when you usually got three takes and had to beg for more. Not with Brian. Brian would let you play, because he was digging what I was doing; all my flamboyance and improv.
BMD: Do you have any specific recollections about how he directed you on that set?
JL: He loves to tell one actor one thing and another actor another thing and then just watch them go at it. It’s all about conflict with Brian. He just wants to get everyone riled up. He gets off on tension and watching actors cross the line. I’m so glad you brought him up because he’s really one of the geniuses of our time.
BMD: Earlier this year, I got to watch Carlito’s Way on 35mm and took my girlfriend, who had never seen it, and she was completely blown away.
JL: I think it’s due to finally get recognized for what it is. I was so proud of my work in that.
BMD: As you should be. You got to play against peak Pacino and killed it.
*Belushi plays a crooked car dealer who gets caught up in illegal arms trafficking after experiencing some serious financial trouble.
The Hollow Point opens today in select theaters.