John Leguizamo plays Martin in writer/director Jon Favreau‘s new film “Chef.” The film tells the story of a chef who loses his restaurant job starts up a food truck in an effort to reclaim his creative promise, while piecing back together his estranged family.
Check out what Leguizamo had to say about his latest film.
Q: So the film really hit on sense-memory with food.
JL: Sense-memory. What’re you: a Lee Strasberg student? Stanislavsky?
Q: So what are some favorite foods of yours that tie to specific memories?
JL: Well, obviously Latin food has the most memories for me. You know, it was Chino Latino, which is a Cuban-Chinese food that we used to do every holiday, every birthday, we would go to this restaurant and order fried plantains and fried rice or black beans and sweet and sour shrimp. It’s the weirdest combo of food, but we loved that stuff. And of course, you know, pernil, which is the meat we’re using in the movie, which is a roast leg of pork for holidays.
Q: The movie was a lot of fun to watch. Was it as much fun as it looked? Did you guys improvise a lot? What was the spirit like?
JL: It was fun, man. I mean, first of all we’re eating all day long, and Jon and I are gaining weight for the movie (it was a risk we took), and so I gained twenty pounds. I don’t know how much he did; he was much more devoted than I was. And it was fun. We just had a blast. We improvised a ton. We had to learn how to cook these sandwiches and the beignets and fry all this stuff. And, you know, I went to the Lion restaurant for a month and trained there and tried not to hurt anybody, try not to burn or cut myself in the process, and then I trained again with Roy Choi, one of the great chefs — American chefs — and did that in L.A. for a little bit. He was our consultant.
Q: Was gaining weight a regimented process, or was that just a free-for-all that began like a month before the movie?
JL: It was Jon Favreau and his food-pushing. He was food-pushing all day. Plus we made that food for real. It was made for real — top of the line quality products. So you couldn’t help but want to eat all day long. And you know we weren’t throwing it away, either. We were giving it to the crew or the extras or anybody that passed by.
Q: Were you able to drop all the weight?
JL: Yeah. I dropped. I dropped the twenty-five pounds?
Q: Was that a lot of work?
JL: Yeah, it was! Been having to work my butt off, you know. I had to get, like, three trainers to help me lose that weight.
Q: Could you talk about the collaboration with Emjay?
JL: You know, Jon Favreau is a really smart director. He really knows what he’s doing. He’s an actor as well. We had a long preparation period. He trained for months and months to be a chef (I trained for a month ’cause I was only a sous-chef), and we did readings together, we rehearsed it, and then we spent a lot of time together to create that familiarity and that camaraderie. And that kid is just a natural, man. Emjay’s so much fun, you know. He’s always picking up the chicks. He’s only ten. […] He was always hitting on poor Sofia Vergara. She’s going, “But I’m your mother [in the film]! Stop trying to touch me!”
Q: How did the improvisation work in the film? Did it allow you guys to discover more elements of your characters that weren’t necessarily in the script?
JL: Absolutely. I mean, improv always does. Especially in a film. Film, you want it to be a raw experience. At least I do, anyway, as a viewer and as an audience and as an actor. And he did it. It allows you— as you’re improvising you’re saying things that reveal your character and further the plot, sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose.
Q: How was working with Dustin Hoffman?
JL: To me it was completing my trifecta, ’cause I’d worked with DeNiro, Pacino, and I was waiting to work with Dustin Hoffman, and I finally have. He’s also another big hero of mine. I mean, he’s a great, great actor, and his work was beautiful in the movie, man. It was so real and powerful. Just fantastic, man. It was so great to work with him. And it was fun. He’s telling jokes all the time, he’s a lively guy, he’s got great stories, he’s very generous. It was an incredible experience for me, working with him. It was an honor.
Q: Could you go into a little more detail about your training as a chef for the role?
JL: I trained at the Lion, the restaurant on 9th street, and they were gracious enough to open up their kitchen. I’d have to get there at eleven A.M., because they do the prep work from eleven A.M., and then they open up at five. So they were teaching me how to do chopping, brining. I was a line cook in the movie, and then I move up to sous-chef, so I did line cooking, with meat and all that stuff. It was just hard, man. It’s like, I could fake it, but I couldn’t do it for real. The speed and the demand and the accuracy of chopping, cooking, ingredients, fire, it just… It’s impossible, man. It takes years and years, and I think either you have it or you don’t in that kind of realm.
Q: So you don’t think there’s a future career as a restauranteur?
JL: God, I hope my acting works. I’m going to starve to death if I have to become a chef.
Q: Were you able to relate the creative process of cooking to your creative process of acting or writing?
JL: Well, the interesting thing is that Jon Favreau made the movie as an analogy to the film business. So I mean, that was clear in the flick: the criticism, the critics, the producers, the studio, Dustin Hoffman’s character. The art form is cooking, and, you know, and success. It’s a whole analogy about success in any field, you know? You get powerful and successful, you become a little narcissistic, a little self-involved if you fall into the trap, and how do you get back to the creative process instead of all the superficial distractions. And that’s what the whole movie is about. And cooking is like acting. You have to really pay attention, be in the moment. There’s a generosity that happens in cooking that’s natural, because you’re nurturing. So there’s a giving. And I think acting, when it has that generosity and, sort of, you’re giving instead of trying to take, I think it’s the best acting you’ll ever see. Those are the best actors, the ones that are really talented instead of the ones that just have celebrity and are insecure and obnoxious.
Q: How did you first get involved with this project?
JL: [Jon Favreau] just called me. He called me to go to lunch. I said, “Sure. What is it about?” And he said he’s got this movie he wrote. I go, “You’re kidding me.” And he goes, “Yeah. I want to go back to what I started doing. I want to go back to the independent film.” I go, “That’s my favorite genre, man. That’s the only thing I live for.” And he said we were going to improvise a lot. I was like, “Yeah! Careful what you wish for, ’cause you’re gonna have trouble shutting the dam!” It was a blast, man. I read the script. I loved it, loved the character, loved the message. I think the message is really beautiful. And you walk out of that movie not just with the food porn, you walk out starving, but you also feel like… like you felt something, you know. I think there was real honesty and emotional investment in the movie that you walk out feeling something, and you feel really good about life.