John Leguizamo Interview

The actor talks about reprising his role as Sid the sloth

John Leguizamo captivated audiences with his portrayal of Sid the sloth in Ice Age. Now he's back, voicing the character again in Ice Age: The Meltdown. This time, as the ice melts and the world comes alive with the colors of Spring, Sid finds that he has what it takes to be a real hero. He and his oddly matched family - Manny the mammoth, Diego the saber toothed tiger and newcomer to the group, Ellie - a mammoth who believes she is a possum - set off on a wondrous journey into the unknown of their changing world.

Leguizamo has appeared in more than 50 films. The actor and comedian's versatile career includes turns as a drag queen, a boxer a gangster and a zombie. Among his film credits are Summer of Sam, "Romero and Juliet", Moulin Rouge and "George Romero's Land of the Dead". He has also had a recurring role on the popular American medical drama series, ER as Dr. Victor Clemente.

Born in Colombia, he was raised in New York. In addition to his film roles, he has a devoted following for his stand-up-comedy and one-man shows. He is a passionate performer and in person, there is a sense of that enthusiasm, which comes across as he describes the way he inhabits his character, Sid in Ice Age: The Meltdown.

He is married and has two children.

The actor, 41, is wearing a gray suit and black and white striped shirt. Slender, wiry and youthful, he has an alert face. As he talks he is constantly moving, giving examples of his various dialects and voices. He is warm and amusing. The following interview was conducted in Los Angeles.

Can you remind us who Sid is, how did you personify him?

John Leguizamo: "Well Sid is a prehistoric sloth. Sloths move really slowly and they store food in the cheek pouches. That's where I got the voice that you hear. He had to sound as though he was storing food. I did 40 voices for Chris Wedge, the director of the first film, before coming up with the version we used. He was hard to please, I don't know why. I gave him really slow talking voices then I thought perhaps Sid could be an Indian sounding sloth. To find out more about my character, I watched footage of sloths. I discovered that the food they store in their pouches rots and ferments and half the time they're drunk. (laughs) So I walked around my apartment with food in my mouth asking myself 'how do I come up with this voice?' Then I found THE VOICE. I called the director and said on the phone ' guess who you are talking to Chris? Sid, that's right Sid!' And that's how I came up with the voice, that is a true story."

What kind of character is he?

John Leguizamo: He's impulsive, he's childlike, like the kid in all of us; he is optimistic, he always has ideas and he is also quite needy. And I like that about him, he is very honest with his emotions."

What is his journey in this film?

John Leguizamo: "It is all about respect; he's looking for respect from his buddies. In the last one he just wanted to hang out, to be part of the group, but this time he wants more from his friends. And without giving the story away, he finally gets something that he has been looking for when the mini sloths kidnap him and take him to their tribal area. He gets to be the Fire King and they worship him and there is an amazing scene with a 'call and response' sequence in the style of Cab Callow (the legendary American jazz singer and band leader) between him and his audience."

Can you say a bit more about that part, it is so entertaining, how much fun was that to voice?

John Leguizamo: "That was my favorite part of the movie, that call and response theme in which I make a sound and the crowd mimic me. It was the creation of John Powell the composer. Preparing for this, we went to his house in the Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles and he said 'just go nuts'. So I did. I did all kinds of voices for him and sound effects, I rapped, I did everything, I drummed, I sang "Wah, wah wah' and he took little pieces of all that, and created that whole amazing scene with the little mini sloths."

"Was it easy to slip back into this character?

J: "Yes and no; you know I had to get the voice back, the precise pitch of Sid's voice and I had forgotten that I had pitched him higher than my regular voice, so that was a little difficult to begin with. It was especially hard, because we started recording in the morning so I had to warm up a lot, and my usual voice is a little more gravelly."

Do voices come really easily to you now, having done comedy for so long, or is it just as much work as it ever was?

J: "They come to me but to maintain them is hard work. They go away just as easily, so I have to remember them and that takes work. With Sid, I needed to make sure you could understand what he is saying, his enunciation. Sometimes I couldn't even say my own name (his name) in his voice. It sounds like 'Shid', it sounds a bit like he has a lisp."

Do you think that voicing animation is a special skill?

John Leguizamo: "I do personally think that is. It used to be trained professionals doing animation and they were great. Now they have celebrities and famous actors doing the voices, but that does not always work. But I think this film turned out really well, partly because the three of us (me, Ray and Denis) are comedians who are used to doing solo acts and doing certain types of voices. The three of us are New York guys, we all came up the same way in the profession and we are all edgy and enjoy doing family movies. It was a good combination I think. But when you are doing an animated voice, it has to have more energy than usual or it falls flat and does not work. For myself, I found that I had to put myself in the same physical or emotional state as Sid, in order to make that voice sound alive and authentic. So if there was a scene in which he was running, I would be running beforehand to sound out of breath. That is important because the audience can tell intuitively if it does not sound real."

How fulfilling is it for you as performer doing a voice in a film like this?

John Leguizamo: "It is not quite the same as other kinds of performing, but I love animation. It is just a different kind of experience. The difference is that making a live action movie you are using your whole body"

What do you think it is that is so appealing about the Ice Age films - this one in particular?

John Leguizamo: "The message is one of the beautiful things about the film. And I think part of the appeal is simply that they are prehistoric creatures, they are no longer around and that makes them magical and makes us feel quite emotional, because we know that those creatures did not survive in the long run, so there is poignancy in their fight for survival. We see them as the Ice Age is ending and we know that actually in the long run, they're not going to make it. And there's something beautiful about that, beautifully sad. The way the characters are woven together in the film adds to the emotion because they need each other. The message is that it doesn't matter what species you are, you can still love each other and that is a fantastic message. Then you have the hilarity and the great production. These films are distinctive because they are not just topical, they tell good stories and they let scenes play out physically. Apart from the dialogue, the characters also have a non-verbal existence, for example with Scrat."

How enjoyable is it for you doing family films as a father yourself?

John Leguizamo: "Oh I love films like this, I love cartoons. So when they came to me to make Ice Age and this sequel, I was so happy."

How do you feel about your children becoming actors?

J: " I keep my kids out of the whole business entirely. Allegra and Lucas are five and six and I am not interested in them doing any acting at all. I don't want my kids in show business. I keep them as far away from my work as possible."

Why?

John Leguizamo: "Because I love them, that is a good reason. Some kids are fine, but often I don't like what I see in child actors. My kids are young and they are already showing an interest, so I have to try to discourage them, squash that in them. Sometimes they say "Oh Daddy I want to be in a movie' and I say, 'Ok, pal, come to work with me tomorrow.' I wake them up at 5 a.m., on a day when I have a very early call and I pull them out of bed. I say: 'Come on you've got to hurry up, quick we've got to get to work.' We get there and I pick a day when it's really boring and they have to sit around and be quiet a lot. They get the idea that it is not so glamorous."

If they want to follow in your footsteps when they grow up, will you encourage them?

John Leguizamo: "After they leave the house, they can decide to do whatever they want, but while they are under my roof, they're going to be lawyers or writers or something, something important, anything except actors"

But having said that, it's obviously a fulfilling, satisfying and fun job for you isn't it?

John Leguizamo: "it is for me because I needed to do this. I really think actors shouldn't act unless they really need it in their lives. I think it has to be something that is so much a part of your chemistry, such a passion, that you can't live without it. You should not do it just because you are seeking fame or want to get rich."

Q You have recently been filming ER, the popular TV show, what has that experience been like?

John Leguizamo: "It t has been great, I have to dig deep for really raw emotions and at the same time I have to use my intellect to say the ridiculous medical jargon while acting, and treating a patient and then I have to try to have a personality and emotions as well. So it is definitely hard work."

How challenging is that for you?

John Leguizamo: "Very, that show is crazy. It was like doing finals every week. It was interesting. I really learned a lot. The dialogue is so technical. I was so impressed watching the other actors and how they managed, so I studied them. And I was blown away thinking: "How do they do that? How do they put that extra spin on the complicated dialogue to make it interesting?"

What was your childhood like in New York? Were you destined for a life in show business?

John Leguizamo: "Well I was about to be expelled from school, I had been arrested and a teacher said, "Why don't you try acting, instead of distracting the class? Why don't you use your comic talent for something more productive?' My math teacher suggested I do comedy and I decided to have a go. I pursued it after that. I was about 17."

That must have completely changed your life?

John Leguizamo: "Yes it did really. It was very exciting to find that my energy could be directed into something more useful and positive. I was starting to get panicked. I was thinking 'what am I going to do with my life?' I wasn't sure what was going to happen. Then I became crazily obsessed with acting. I suddenly had a work ethic and then everything changed completely for the better because I knew what I wanted to do with my life."

Were your parents delighted?

John Leguizamo: "Not really. Because, you know, I was Latin and they could not see any future in me becoming an actor. They wanted me to clamp down and get a real job."

That sounds similar to the way you feel about your children?

John Leguizamo: "Yes it is exactly the same thing. History repeats itself unfortunately, or fortunately:

As a Latino actor, do you feel a responsibility to play more ethnic characters or produce Latino films?

John Leguizamo: "I don't think it's my responsibility, but I definitely try to create my own projects that are Latin based with a Latin crew and Latin cast. I try to give all my characters Latin names whenever I can and make sure that they are of Latin heritage. But that does not work with every project. In MOULIN ROUGE I could not change the name of Toulouse-Lautrec obviously to Toulouse-Lautrec- Martinez. But in "ER" I did that, my name is Dr. Victor Clemente, so sometimes it is possible."

Do you have anything new coming up in the pipeline?

John Leguizamo: " I am doing a film called "Babysitters". It's a crazy, crazy dark project that Ben Stiller passed on for obvious reasons. (laughs) But it is incredible. It is about a guy who is married and has two kids. He goes through a mid-life crisis and starts having an affair with the babysitter and his whole life starts spiraling downwards. And then his friends start having affairs with babysitters too and their lives start spiraling. Things fall apart for everyone and it is very dark. It is comedic in a bizarre kind of tragicomedy way. But it is a beautiful piece."

You mentioned your children, how do you balance fatherhood with your busy film career?

John Leguizamo: " My children do not suffer because I make time for my family. But a part of me suffers because I do not have time to hang out with my friends on the beach any more and I miss that. But I definitely spend a lot of time with my kids, we go biking on the beach and I am teaching them to play ball. I think that fatherhood is a beautiful responsibility. You just get to relive so much of your childhood through them and I love it, it is incredible."

Ice Age: The Meltdown is in theaters this Friday.