Interview – John Leguizamo on the excitement of playing the villain in Christmas action-comedy ‘Violent Night’

When a team of mercenaries breaks into a wealthy family compound on Christmas Eve, taking everyone inside hostage, the team isn’t prepared for a surprise combatant: Santa Claus (David Harbour, Black Widow, Stranger Things series) is on the grounds, and he’s about to show why this Nick is no saint.

The film also stars Emmy winner and comedian John Leguizamo (John Wick) as the leader of the mercenaries, and the ‘Scrooge’ in this Christmas story! Thanks to Universal Pictures, I was lucky enough to chat with the brilliant actor about nailing the tough action choreography and relishing in playing the bad guy!

(from left) David Harbour and John Leguizamo on the set of Violent Night.

Nick: Mr. Leguizamo, it’s an absolutely pleasure to talk to you today! How are you?

John Leguizamo: I am great! I’m here in New York City, talking to you in Australia! It’s good to see you!

Nick: That’s the beauty of Zoom junkets! It gives opportunities to guys like me to talk to amazing actors like you! And I wanted to let you know – you are an actor who was on my ‘interview bucket list’. I’m a huge fan of your work, I think you’re a brilliant performer and great person. So, it’s an honour to be talking to you today!

John Leguizamo: Ah, hey man, thank you so much for that!

Nick: Let’s jump into Violent Night – your character, Ben, is a hell of a villain! He gets some fantastic moments and one-liners in this film that really give him that classic 80s villain vibe. How much fun is it as an actor to lose yourself in a role like this?

John Leguizamo: You know, villain roles are the most coveted roles by actors, because you get a chance to really use your whole arsenal of your talent. You can rage, you can rant and you could really chew up the scenery and get paid for it! What better place to get rid of all your pet peeves and things you’re mad about. It’s such a great way to vent in a civilised way!

I love this role because he’s such an interesting character. I mean, he hates Christmas and he wants to kill Santa. But, he feels justified in his rage. He had a terrible childhood, he killed someone by accident and went to jail because of it. Then he fixes up his life, goes to work for these crazy rich people who are horrible, and now he’s going to do a home invasion to punish them. He’s going to steal their money that they give to corrupt governments and destroy other countries. He’s like a toxic Robin Hood!

Nick: And obviously with what you’re describing, this is an action film. You’ve worked with the team at 87North before on films like John Wick, and from your point of view as an actor in these films, how have you seen the action movie evolve over the last 15 years and what’s it like being on set now with the way these really visceral action scenes are created?

John Leguizamo: David Leitch is a pioneer in these kinds of films. Like you said, he made John Wick, he was the stunt coordinator on The Matrix which was groundbreaking for the stunts performed in that movie. But, for this one, he really wanted to take it to the next level. Adding all the Christmas elements made it really inventive, not just guns and punches.

Fighting was kind of primitive back in the day. You could see when punches were fake, or the way scenes were cut, you could tell it wasn’t the real lead actor. You could tell it was a stuntman. Now, you can’t allow that. Everything has to be more realistic. We demand more… I demand more! So, it’s a little more gruelling to spend a lot more time on the stunts. I spent a month preparing for the last sequence, for five or six hours a day. But, it pays off!

Nick: I think it’s safe to also assume that due to your comedic talents, that you got to improvise a bit in this film. I’d love to know what is more of an exciting challenge and better feeling for you – coming up with a killer, impromptu joke, or, nailing the choreography of a crazy action scene?

John Leguizamo: I feel like they both have different joys. When I nail an adlib and the crew and cast are laughing, or repeating the jokes at lunch, that’s amazing, man. But, also killing the action sequences… it’s hard work! I’m fighting David Harbour! He’s 6-foot-4, he gained 30 pounds for this movie! He’s not easy to move, he’s not going to feel my punches! So I had to be really prepared because I didn’t want to get knocked out by him.

Nick: Looking back at some of your stage work or stand up, I’m intrigued to know if your approach is any different to preparing for a character like Ben who has been written by someone else, as opposed to a character you’ve created and moulded yourself?

John Leguizamo: I mean, it’s the same method except that when I created the character, I know the genesis of who I’m creating. I always have somebody in mind, like a family member or friend and I know who they are.

When it’s somebody else writing it, I have to understand where they’re coming from, and then I do a backstory. Then I find somebody in my mind that reminds me of those characters, or I have to find my way there in some way. It’s two different, but similar, approaches.

And I love the stage! The stage is the Olympics of acting! There’s no cutting or editing. Nobody can craft or shape your performance, you’ve got to control the performance. You have to have the instruments to move 2000 people. It’s a beautiful communication. I feel like with my one man shows, I’ve been able to really change the format and take it to a whole new level by bringing the autobiography and format to a new height in America.

Nick: In preparing for our chat today, I watched a few pieces about your work ethic – which I admire greatly and found incredibly inspiring – but I also watched you talk candidly about bringing more Latin centric stories to the stage and screen. What is a piece of advice you would give an upcoming Latin artist, or any artist, that was a piece of advice you wish you had when you first started out?

John Leguizamo: Well, what worked for me, because of the exclusion in Hollywood and Broadway, was to find any place I could perform. Whether it was at home for my friends or family, or in small art spaces downton for 15 or 20 people, I did it to discover myself and my storytelling abilities. Find those venues and say ‘yes’ to everything. I’ve said ‘yes’ to a lot of things and I learnt so much, which is important when you’re starting out as a young artist. And when there are no opportunities, you have to be clever and find your own opportunities.

Hopefully, things will become more inclusive in Holly going forward. Since the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, it really made us look at ourselves. It made us take a hard look at America and the systemic racism that exists in Hollywood. I see a lot of studios trying to make a difference. I haven’t seen the green lights yet, but I’ve seen the effort.

But effort isn’t enough for me. I need to see the action. There’s a lot of beautiful talk, and that’s great. There’s hiring of Latin executives. But, I also see their hands are tied together and they’re not always being allowed to greenlight projects. So, that’s a failure to me.I just feel like sometimes streamers and studios are doing things for optics, which is not enough for me.

Nick: And these things don’t happen unless people talk about them.

John Leguizamo: Right! And what I am happy about is that when we made Latin History For Morons, it woke up a lot of Latin people who are now like soldiers for me. They are amplifying my statements and doing their own research, using those stats against studios and calling out their lack of inclusivity.

There’s this billionaire who created a stats checking corporation that Hollywood uses, and we call them out constantly because we see that nothing has changed since last year. We’re 20% of the population, where are the 20% of our stories? We contribute $2.8 trillion to the U.S. economy on a yearly basis, what are you giving back to us? It’s not 20% of the box office, or 20% of the streamers. There’s 80 million Latin people living in the U.S. and the share is not okay.

Nick: I appreciate you sharing that answer with me, Mr. Leguizamo. Thank you for being candid, and it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you today! Congratulations on the film, I’m really batting for it to do well!

John Leguizamo: Thank you, Nick. Appreciate the chat, thank you.

A massive thank you to John Leguizamo for his answers and time, and thank you to Universal Pictures for setting up our chat! Violent Night is in cinemas December 1.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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