Luis Guzman doesn’t mind being referred to as a “character actor” but prefers the term “working actor”. “(I’m) a guy that’s gonna show up and do his thing and compliment everything that’s going on,” he says.
And compliment he does. His work has grown from being a stock ethnic tough guy or stock ethnic cop into many roles that have allowed Guzman to imbue nuances and “colors” into them that were not necessarily on the page. Guzman is a favorite of acclaimed directors Paul Thomas Anderson (appearing in his films Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love) and Steven Soderbergh (appearing in his films The Limey, Out of Sight and Traffic – his performance in that film is among his very best) and has worked with other acclaimed directors such as Brian DePalma (Carlito’s Way, Snake Eyes), Sidney Lumet (Q&A, Family Business, Guilty As Sin) and brothers Ridley Scott (Black Rain) and Tony Scott (The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3).
Guzman currently resides in Vermont with his wife and four adopted children. “I blend in with the trees,” he jokingly says. He enjoys going back to his New York City and his old neighborhood, but enjoys the quiet life he leads in his adopted home state. He takes pleasure in cooking, taking his kids to basketball practice and loves being a dad.
For the past seven weeks you may have seen Guzman on HBO’s How To Make It In America. As Rene Calderon, Guzman plays a recently paroled hustler looking to go legit by becoming a distributor of “Rasta Monsta”, a Caribbean energy drink. Rene has his feet on both the right and wrong side of the law to come up with the cash necessary to get the business off the ground, encountering pitfalls such as a missing bag of $100, 000, a nosy parole officer and subordinates incapable of getting things done right. Guzman’s take on Rene gives the character nuance and a certain sadness as you realize that his years in prison have stolen a lot of his thunder. That’s not to say you can cross him, however.
How To Make It In America’s season finale airs Sunday, April 04th on HBO at 10 PM ET / 9 PM CT with reruns shown throughout the week.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: How did you find the experience working on How To Make It In America?
Luis Guzman: Oh bro, it was great. To be able to shoot in New York City, your hometown…more so being able to shoot in my old neighborhood where I pretty much grew up. Just working with great material, great actors, great crew. You couldn’t ask for anything better.
How did you come about getting the role and what about the character intrigued you?
LG: I got a call from Victor Rasuk who plays Cam, my little cousin on the show. When we first shot the pilot I only had two scenes but it’s like, you take two scenes and you draw it out, so to speak. Once the show got picked up and we shot the other seven episodes I just saw how all the characters were developing and the story lines. It was a pretty fresh show. It was pretty cool. It was something you hadn’t seen before.
As far as my character goes, I grew up with guys like that. So that made it easy for me to embrace.
When you were younger you were a social worker – and when you began as an actor you got approached on the street to act, correct?
LG: Yeah, a buddy of mine who was writing for a TV show, Miami Vice, back in the day. I ran across Miguel Pinero. I hadn’t seen Mikey in a few years and he said they’re coming to New York to shoot the show, why don’t you see if you can get a part. I went in and three weeks later I got a part. And to be honest with you all I wanted to get out of it was enough money to buy a used car. It just snowballed and I’ve made a career out of it.
Do you consider yourself a character actor?
LG: I consider myself a guy who shows up and does his thing. Character actor? You know that’s been pretty much what I’ve been labeled as. I’m cool with that. I also like to be known as a working actor. A guy that’s gonna show up and do his thing and compliment everything that’s going on.
LG: I think from the get go Ian (show creator Edelman) understood me. I understood Rene. And we had a good circle of thoughts flowing down as far as Rene went. Pretty much I was left on my own. It’s a tribute to how I grew up and where I grew up and some of the guys I grew up with. It’s so easy for me to see myself as this guy Rene because I’ve been with guys back in the day that were always trying to find a way to make it, trying to work the hustle and trying to succeed and how to overcome the obstacles. Rene wants to succeed, he’s got all these obstacles going, he has something that he can push, he’s just trying to figure it all out.
The character is kind of a tough guy, but in the second episode you see him having a good conversation with his priest and he takes care of his family. Did you try to instill in him less of a standard thug caricature and more of a fully realized character?
LG: I think he definitely has some of his old school values that gets him through. And I also think that he has a certain level of humanity to him. He’s also the kind of guy who, don’t lie to him, don’t ever cross him, because you don’t want to see that side of that kind of person.
But he does have values, he does have humanity and he knows how to distinguish those things. He’s a hustler, but at the same time he also wants to do right. He’s done enough wrong and doesn’t want to live that life – it’s the thing where you try to get away from it but it keeps pulling you back.
Some people can be a hard ass, but on the flip side they do have a certain sense of values. He looks out for his grandmother. On the episode when the kids are smoking weed in front of his grandmother’s building, he’s like, ‘Hey guys, do that somewhere else.’ At the same time when he wants to run his business, he wants to feel he has that kind of power over people.
I wanted this guy to be as real of a guy as possible. So that when people looked at him that they saw, not just one color, but a multi-layered person.
You said that Victor initially called you about the role – how do you know one another?
LG: This is the first time we worked together, but I saw Victor when he did his first movie, a wonderful movie called Raising Victor Vargas. The minute I saw this movie I called up my people and said that you gotta get me in touch with this kid. I gotta give him his props. That’s how Victor and I met, through a phone conversation. We’ve always said that we would love to work on something together and this wonderful show came about. Not only are we working together, we’re cousins on the show. I love his energy on the show, he and Bryan Greenberg. I just love his rawness, his innocence of it all. It’s not like something that’s already thought out. It’s playing loose. For me it’s pretty realistic.
How was the decision to go into acting viewed from where you came from?
LG: I kind of got burned out being a social worker. I guess things became too bureaucratic after awhile. I saw an opportunity. I went with it. I didn’t know where it was going to lead me. I made the best of it. I’ve got nothing but support. I got a lot of love from family, from people in the neighborhood that I grew up with. I’m a role model. I’m an example of somebody coming from the neighborhood and being able to make it.