Leguizamo's Bilingual Turn in 'Cronicas' Michele Norris talks with actor John Leguizamo, who stars in Cronicas. Leguizamo plays a Miami-based journalist working in rural Ecuador. Although the film is in Spanish, he switches throughout the film between English and Spanish.
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Leguizamo's Bilingual Turn in 'Cronicas'

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Leguizamo's Bilingual Turn in 'Cronicas'

Leguizamo's Bilingual Turn in 'Cronicas'

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(Soundbite of "Cronicas")

Mr. JOHN LEGUIZAMO: (Spanish spoken) police record, who is his friends, his family, enemies, whatever you can get on him, all right?

It was, like, a Ricky Ricardo thing in reverse. Remember, when he got emotional, he spoke Spanish. (As Ricky Ricardo) Lucy (Spanish spoken). Lucy!


John Leguizamo has played many American Latinos before, but "Cronicas" is his first Spanish-language film. And we were curious about the moments when he slips from Spanish to English. He says the film was uniquely challenging. He had to change his language, and that changed his identity, too.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Before, I've done a lot of cursing and said a lot of bad words in Spanish, but this is the first time that I'm actually speaking, like, you know, intellectual phrases. And, you know, I was born in Colombia, and I came here when I was three years old, and my parents always spoke to me in Spanish, but I answered them in English. So my Spanish wasn't as fluent as I would like it to be, and the director wasn't sure that I could pull the movie off, so he flew to New York to have a conversation with me. But that week, I watched a lot of Univision and Telemundo, and I was ready for it, and I tricked him. But by the time I got to Ecuador, I was over my head in the Spanish.

NORRIS: So what did you do?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: They got me a tutor, a coach. Every time I improvised, he'd yell `Cut,' and he'd, like, pull me to the side. He goes, `No, you have to say it like this and like (makes whispering noises). Action!' And I'd do it again, you know. It took a lot of takes, everything, to get it all so you would believe me, so I didn't sound, you know, (Spanish spoken).

NORRIS: Well, you know, I noticed that your physical presence was very different in this film. You were much more controlled, and you acted--you seemed to move less with your body. And I know you're known as someone who often leaves the script. You do a lot of ad-libbing.


NORRIS: Did you have the confidence to do that in this case, or did you have to sort of stick to the words on the page?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: You know, I still improvised a little bit, but it had to be very measured and careful because of the grammatical mistakes that I would make, you know. So, yeah, it definitely made me much more, you know, minimalistic in my movements and in my words.

NORRIS: John, were you looking for a Spanish-language project, or did this just happen to land at your doorstep?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I was looking for one. You know, I feel--this is interesting. This is my theory, if you don't mind if I theorize here.

NORRIS: Oh, please.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: But I feel like--it seems like there's these movie eras, and they're all in 10-year increments. And it was the '50s was the Italian neorealism, and the '60s was the French New Wave, '70s was that auteurs of America, the writer-directors, and then the '90s was independent film. And now I feel like this 21st century that it feels like it's a new wave of Latin cinema that's really invigorating Hollywood and world cinema with "Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "City of God," "Maria Full of Grace," "Holy Girl" and "Motorcycle Diaries" and a whole bunch--hopefully "Cronicas," too. It's sort of a dirty realism, really passionate. Without, you know, having the money to make these big epics, I mean, they have to be very concise and economical. But there's such great storytelling that I really wanted to be a part of that movement, and I just thought this was it.

NORRIS: Do you find yourself doing that in your own life now, sort of moving back and forth between the languages and also between the cultures now? Are you sort of in a different place as an actor and as a man?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: It's true. I mean, I definitely am flowing more towards regaining my culture in a way, you know, because, you know, you grow up in the States, and my parents spoke Spanish, you know. But at the same time, you're getting mixed messages wherever else you go that, you know, you better learn English, and English is the only thing that really matters, so you kind of--you know, I let my Spanish sort of atrophy. But now that I'm older and, you know, I've got kids, I definitely am trying to regain it and work those muscles. You know, I'm reading in Spanish. I tried to read "A Hundred Years in Solitude," although it almost gave me an aneurysm. And I'm just trying to read a lot more and talk a lot more and just get that muscle back.

NORRIS: Gabriel Garcia Marquez is challenging in English.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Forget about it in Spanish. I'll have to take another 10 years, wait another decade.

NORRIS: John, you've talked a lot about the sort of explosion of Latin American cinema, but do you see a time when this might become an American phenomenon, that there aren't sort of two forms of cinema moving on two parallel tracks?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Well, the reason that Latin cinema and Latin America is flourishing is because of the populations in America. Latin cinema from Latin America is getting a voice here because Hollywood is trying to find the audience here and what speaks to Latin people in this country. And Hollywood is finding Latin actors and directors and producers, but it's not finding that Latin story that speaks to Latin people in the States. And they want to see our stories, but they have to have that sense of integrity, and they have to feel genuine and authentic. And that's--Hollywood hasn't been able to do that.

NORRIS: You know, many of the films you're talking about are independent productions that are produced with shoestring budgets.


NORRIS: And Hollywood's interest in finding this market is largely economic, and I'm wondering if you're worried that that might corrupt this in some way.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I mean, it does. I mean, Hollywood always corrupts any story. It always becomes a lot more sort of formulaic. I mean, that's the beauty of independent film. Independent film is an intact sort of the artistic vision of the director-writer. It's so much more intact than it is in the Hollywood. I mean, that's why a lot of directors shy away from Hollywood or try to do one for them and one for me, you know what I mean? That's the mentality I have. I always try to do, like, a Hollywood picture for them, you know, to keep your career at a certain level, and then I do my independent films, 'cause they give me artistic fulfillment.

NORRIS: John Leguizamo, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: My pleasure. Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: John Leguizamo's latest film is called "Cronicas."

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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