Exclusive: John Leguizamo Says "Nobody Celebrates Like Latin People"

We're dying to talk to John Leguizamo about his new movie, Nothing Like The Holidays (opening today). But first, the Rican-Colombian actor has to get one thing off his chest: how psyched he is that Rosie Perez just earned an Independent Spirit nomination for The Take, a gritty drama they shot together in Boyle Heights. "I'm so proud of my Rosie. I've never seen an actress give all of herself like she did. There was a day she had to do her own hair after there was a shootout on our set--and she did it. You don't know any other actress who would do that on such short notice!"

Pretty soon, though, we steer John back to talking about his role as Mauricio, the straightlaced lawyer who's visiting his family for the holidays and bringing his gringa wife along for the ride. The star had plenty to say about his own holiday parties--which include plenty of good food and old-school dancing--and why a Latin Christmas movie is long overdue.

How did you end up in the cast of Nothing Like The Holidays?

I got a call from Freddy Rodriguez [the movie's star and Executive Producer]. I've known him for a long time because I used to go to a lot of high schools and talk to kids, and Freddy was in one of the schools in Chicago that I went to. He said to me, "I wanna be where you're at." And here we are, doing a movie together. There's always a white Christmas movie, sometimes a black Christmas movie, but never a Latin one. I felt like it was really important for people to see our traditions and how we celebrate.

Holiday movies can be a little silly, though...as a cast, how tough was it for you to avoid clichés?

Yeah, they can be retarded. We worked really hard to keep it real. We had two weeks of rehearsal, and we had a great director, Alfred DeVilla, who really understood the tone of a dramedy, which is so hard to do.

Was it strange to have Elizabeth Peña playing your mother when you're both practically the same age?

Well, they put that glue wrinkle
stuff around her eyes and greys in her hair, and they took the greys out of
my hair. But Elizabeth is like the Latin Meryl
Streep--she can do anything. She played my love interest in a movie
three years ago. I loved it. I said, 'You’re playing a cougar to me!' [laughs]. Now she's playing my mother, which is
kind of Oedipal and strange.

What was it like working with Debra Messing, who plays your wife in the film?

Debra was the bomb, man. Her comic timing is ridiculous…and the great thing was that she brought a little drama to
this role. That was her challenge, and she did it beautifully. I thought we
elevated the marriage to something better than what was in the original script.

Do you think the movie is an accurate portrayal of the way Latino families celebrate Christmas?

Definitely. Nobody knows how to celebrate like Latin people. We could teach the world a thing or two. It's always a big dinner and you invite cousins, and their cousin’s cousin…whoever wants to pop in, it’s always good. Latinos--Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican, Cuban, Colombian--what we all have in common is how family is the #1 thing above self. That's very different from an American family. Americans are very independent…we’re not as independent. Which is kind of cool.

What is the Leguizamo family like on the holidays?

We’re much more dysfunctional. And I’m not religious, but I do love my Christmases. We have like 30 people over but I always make it potluck, so everybody’s gotta bring something...and then we do a grab bag. We’re recession proof, my Christmas. Then right after dinner, we move the coffee table, roll up the carpet and do a Soul Train line, which is a necessity. My son does a centipede like nobody’s business. All the kids in his school are like, 'How does he do that?' He gets it from me.

What's your favorite holiday dish?

I do an amazing leg of lamb. That’s my specialty. I stab it and then I stick the garlic in there, and a lot of rosemary and thyme
and pepper and salt. Make it crisp on the outside, moist on the inside. And
then my mom makes an amazing arroz con pollo. My wife makes incredible green

Do you have any other movies coming up?

I actually have another movie coming out this week that I really love, called Where God Left His Shoes. I play a dad who loses his job before Christmas, and I try to get a job as a superintendent, a painter...it's a tough little movie. And I also have Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs coming out in July.

Have your kids seen the Ice Age movies?

Of course! They're actually in this one. They have a couple of lines, and they're so proud of it. They got SAG cards, so now I gotta pay all these dues and fees. I couldn't believe it, like, 'They made how much, and I gotta pay what?!"

What excites you most about this new crop of Latino actors, like Freddy, Melonie, Jay...

America Ferrera...yeah, I mean it's such a different world. It's incredible that it's so open for them. When we were coming up, it was really tough. The roles weren't that exciting, and a lot of them were really demeaning. So that's why I started writing my own stuff. Because I felt like, I'd rather just create my own thing than play these roles I find kind of despicable. But now, it's great that these guys have a chance to be whatever they want to be. It's a lucky generation. And I'm glad, becuase it should have been like that anyway.