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The Boston Globe

Who Is That Guy?

Luis Guzman Breaks Stereotypical Molds And More


January 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Boston Globe. All rights reserved. 

CABOT, Vt. - He looks vaguely familiar: the curly black hair and intense, coffee-colored eyes. A lush mustache and beard give him the look of a wolfman.

Could it be an old high school friend? A distant relative? A former co-worker?

No. No. And no.

"Hey, aren't you that actor?" a visiting workman blurts out when he sees Luis Guzman at his home.

"That's the comment," says Guzman's wife of 17 years, Angelita. "Sometimes Luis likes to mess with their heads and say something like 'no.' They're boggled, because a face like that is not one you forget."

Lately, movie fans have been seeing that face everywhere. The stocky Puerto Rican character actor with the Santa Claus belly jerked laughs out of audiences with a mere shift of his facial features in "Punch-Drunk Love." He showed unexpected tenderness as the title character's faithful servant in "The Count of Monte Cristo."

He was the Good Samaritan smuggler in Eddie Murphy's sci-fi comedy "The Adventures of Pluto Nash," the violent lover in Val Kilmer's drug drama "The Salton Sea," the con man who sets the story in motion in the indie heist comedy "Welcome to Collinwood."

And those are just the films he's appeared in this year.

The utility player

Since his professional debut in 1985 as a thug on the television series "Miami Vice," Guzman has had roles in almost 50 films. He steeps his characters in the life lessons he learned growing up on the tough streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side.

His rich gallery of performances, liberally flavored with dashes of humor, has helped him move beyond the Latino actors' ghetto of stereotypical roles: cops, thugs and gangsters. Instead, he's a favorite of hip auteur directors Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh. He's become the kind of actor who has directors calling him with job offers.

"I'm like a utility player, you know," says Guzman, 46. "You put me on your team, and I'll play second base, I'll play center field, I'll catch, I'll pitch - whatever."

Yet Guzman has managed to achieve all of the above far from the Hollywood scene. His home in Vermont - his "little paradise," as he calls it - is a three-story house on 128 acres that he shares with his wife and five children: 11-year-old Cemi, 8-year-old Yemaya, and a trio of 7-year-olds: Luna and twins Yoruba and Margarita. During the four months a year when Guzman's not stuck on a movie set, he's a gentleman farmer, feeding hay to his horses, buying freshly laid eggs from a local farmer, waking up at 6 a.m. to make waffles for his kids.

Talk to Guzman about living in New England and all verbal roads lead to his children. They're one reason he decided to move to southern Vermont eight years ago. The family settled in the Northeast Kingdom in 1998, lured by Cabot's strong school system.

"What are you doing?" his agent and friends asked when he announced his plans to relocate from Manhattan. They thought he'd move himself right out the professional loop. Guzman just wanted a life.

"In New York, man, I don't think I would have made it, as far as being able to focus on my family," he says. "Because once people know who you are and what you do, people are just on top of you. And don't get me wrong, I appreciate it. That comes with the territory, that comes with the business, that comes with the popularity. But I just enjoy being another face in the crowd."

Anyway, these days it doesn't really matter.

"Luis could move to Alaska, and people wouldn't forget that mug," Anderson writes in a well-edited e-mail sent via his publicist. "Good actors can live anywhere they choose."

Into the woods

To get to the Guzman lair, you must drive down a twisting, turning, snow-covered driveway that leads from the main road to the house. Past the barn. Past the four horses. Past the black pit bull darting between the wheels of a visitor's car. Finally, there's Guzman standing in the driveway, a gurgling brook to his right and towering sugarbush trees to his left, wearing a fleece pullover and jeans.

He's warm, funny and laid back, speaking with the kind of Nuyorican accent in which the word "trooper" sounds like "troopah." Every sentence out of his mouth seems to end with a rhetorical "you know?"

Making maple syrup and mowing grass with his tractor - it's not the life Guzman envisioned for himself growing up in Chelsea, Greenwich Village, and the Lower East Side. Outside the door of his working-class home was a hardscrabble world of heroin and coke addicts, street gangs and community activists.

Guzman almost succumbed to the dark side. In the sixth grade, he was expelled from school for two weeks after getting into a brutal fight. His parents gave him the silent treatment as punishment, and when Guzman returned to class, he crowed about their apparent leniency. The school dean pulled the 9-year-old aside and told him, "Maybe the message is you can either do the right thing or keep getting whipped by your father at home."

"And man," Guzman says, "when he told me that, that whole cockiness, that whole tough attitude thing - it just left me."

It soon became all about serving "his people," he says: the multicultural hodgepodge of blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos and Poles who lived in his neighborhood. He tended community gardens and rebuilt abandoned buildings. After graduating from high school, he found a job as a youth counselor at the Henry Street Settlement, a social/cultural center on the Lower East Side.

At the same time, he says, shaking his head, "I was always a ham. I was always a jokester. I was always performing. I was always acting out."

From counseling to cameras

His inner ham found a place to shine at the seminal poetry venue the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where he met the late Cuban poet Miguel Pinero. Guzman performed street theater and appeared in the independent Pinero film "Short Eyes" in 1977.

These multifaceted experiences produced a complex and unique actor. "I've taken acting classes with other people, and they try to use their internal self as a reference as opposed to internalizing their life outside," he says. "I'm a different kind of animal."

Guzman finds his emotional motivation recalling the years spent waiting in night court for friends to be released or visiting emergency rooms to comfort a teen-age counseling client who'd attempted suicide.

Michael Bregman, Guzman's manager of 10 years and the producer of an early Guzman film, the 1993 Brian De Palma drama "Carlito's Way," thinks the actor's strength is his ability to be "completely natural and believable and extraordinarily unique. He just delivers a line, creates a character, like no one else would."

Anderson says he continues tapping Guzman for projects because of a "lack of any serious challengers that look and talk like that. There's really no one in the world like Luis Guzman."

Acting's siren call reached Guzman's ears in 1985, when he ran into Pinero on the street. The poet passed Guzman a telephone number. Maybe, he suggested, Guzman could get a job on this project Pinero was writing scripts for. When Guzman met with the casting director, she had a simple request: "Kill me with your eyes." The fierce look he gave her garnered him four weeks of work on the set of "Miami Vice."

For the next seven years, acting was just a hobby for Guzman. He was a bad guy in "Crocodile Dundee II," a convict in "True Believer," and a cop in "Black Rain" and "Q&A." He had no intention of abandoning the safety of the 9-to-5 counseling job that he adored.

"It wasn't like I was going to wake up tomorrow to see what was the next film I was doing," says Guzman. "It was to make some bucks. If someone offered you back then $100 for a day's work, you said, 'Damn, that's good.' "

The good times ended in 1991, when tragedy reshaped his personal and professional life.

His and his wife's first son suffocated during childbirth. An emotionally shattered Guzman took two months off from work. The day he returned to the office, he saw a young girl, munching a Twinkie and slurping a Coke, with a newborn baby. It was a devastating reminder of life's cruelties.

"My wife did such a wonderful job taking care of herself [during her pregnancy], and we lost our son," he said. "I knew that I [had] to walk away" from work.

The couple slowly regrouped, adopting their first baby, Cemi, by the end of that year. Then they continued adopting, first Yemaya and later her half-siblings, Yoruba and Margarita. Angelita gave birth to Luna. As the family grew, so did the number of directors clamoring for Guzman's services and the body of cinematic evidence demonstrating his talent.

"Four years ago, it wasn't like that," says Bregman. Things started to change after the actor showed a range of skills as a father in the 1990 Sydney Lumet cop drama "Q&A."

Guzman proudly calls the part his breakout role, and Anderson agrees: "I saw 'Q&A' and fell in love."

Seven years later, Anderson cast Guzman in his sophomore film, "Boogie Nights," and Guzman has been part of Anderson's regular acting crew ever since. Soon, Soderbergh came calling with parts in "Out of Sight" (1998), "The Limey" (1999) and "Traffic" (2000).

"He's a charmer and a hustler and everyone loves him," writes Anderson. "He's a real workman. He does like his perks... .I think he's second to J.Lo in perks."

Guzman has a rich soup of projects opening next year, including the Jack Nicholson/Adam Sandler comedy drama "Anger Management" and "Confidence," with Andy Garcia and Dustin Hoffman. He just returned from the New Orleans set of "Runaway Jury," a movie based on a John Grisham novel, in which he traded lines with Hoffman and Gene Hackman.

Next up? He heads to Atlanta to shoot the prequel to the Jim Carrey comedy "Dumb and Dumber." The PG role is for his children, who are too young to watch "Traffic" but happily squealed "Papi!" when they saw him in "The Count of Monte Cristo."

The comedic turn will also show his range to those who still say, "You're always the bad guy, right?" or "Wow, I never thought you could do a role like that."

Expectations will be confounded further next year when he shoots a sitcom pilot that could transform him from Luis Guzman, vaguely recognized actor, to Luis Guzman, star.

The idea grew out of Guzman's frustration with being bombarded by stereotypical sitcoms. So he concocted the role of a doughnut shop owner in Spanish Harlem, and - true to his activist roots - he hopes to sprinkle a few social issues on top.

"As a Latin actor, I get to break the mold, so to speak," he says. "Because I know I've done it with film. I have my niche, you know. Now let me see if I can do that on TV."

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