DESPITE cutting his teeth on racy, more unconventional fare, John Leguizamo wants to show the world that he can also be a regular guy. In fact, the 43-year-old actor says he was drawn to the part of Julian, his character in M. Night Shyamalan's thriller "The Happening," because he was so, well . . . normal.
"I liked that he was an average Joe Schmo," Leguizamo says. "I hadn't really played that too often -- pretty much it's edgier characters. So it was nice to tap into that sort of side of me that's kind of that averagearooney guy."
Leguizamo drew on a lot of his own experiences in order to play a Philadelphia high school math teacher who is father to a young daughter and protective best friend to fellow teacher Elliott (played by Mark Wahlberg). "Believe it or not, I tutored calculus in college," Leguizamo says. "I mean, all my students failed, and I transferred to another college -- no joke. But I found great comfort in math and calculus. It felt like things were finite and things had an answer. I think it's very interesting that Julian is comforted by numbers and tries to comfort people with numbers. I can relate to that."
Some "Happening" scenes were disturbing for Leguizamo, however. And not because the film dealt with the mass paranoia of a widespread terror -- that part actually turned out to be somewhat of a release for the New York-based actor. "Maybe it's just me, maybe it's a New York thing. I live in constant paranoia and fear," he says. "I thought I was the only one who was paranoid and constantly thinking these doomed thoughts . . . It was great that M. Night was thinking that too. It made me feel not so alone."
Actually, the actor's most wrenching moment was a pivotal scene involving Julian's 8-year-old daughter, Jess. Leguizamo, who has a daughter the same age as Jess, likened the decision to a " 'Sophie's Choice' type of thing. This movie was kind of harrowing to make. I loved the result, but you had to go to spaces in your mind or your heart that aren't too pleasant," he says. "I had to put myself in the situation for real in my head, and it was kind of uncomfortable and depressing."
His views on working with young costar Ashlyn Sanchez, who played Jess, are a bit lighter. "She's funny, because she has this photographic memory, so she knew my lines," Leguizamo says. "And when I took pauses, she would feed me my lines. I had to go, 'Ashlyn, I'm taking a pause on purpose.' "
Leguizamo spent a lot of time with Sanchez so their interaction appeared as genuine as possible. "You've got to make the kid feel comfortable so she's not repelled by me when I get close to her," he says. "With your own kids, there's no physical barriers, and it's very instinctual. And I wanted to make sure that that connected. Because that's something you can't write and you can't direct. It just has to be second nature."
The actor also wears his own spectacles in the movie. "It was my actual pair of glasses," he admits. "I wear them in real life and saw myself kind of playing it like that, and [Shyamalan] loved it."
But lest you think all of Leguizamo's edge has given way to Julian's more scholarly persona, he continues: "Now that I've seen the movie, I'm like, I need a new pair. They're not as attractive as I thought they were." The specs were fine for Julian, he says, but "for myself, I've gotta find something a little cooler."
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Where you've seen him
Colombian-born and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens, John Leguizamo has played a range of spirited, witty characters, including cocky Benny Blanco in "Carlito's Way" and drag queen Chi-Chi in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar." He's also the voice of Sid the sloth in the animated "Ice Age" films. Up next, Leguizamo, who won an Emmy for his one-man stand-up show "Freak," appears as an NYPD detective opposite Robert De Niro and "Carlito's" costar Al Pacino in this fall's "Righteous Kill."