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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

June 16, 2005

Largely credited as the filmmaker who defined horror's subgenre of zombie flicks with his classic trilogy of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, writer/director George A. Romero returns to the trenches of undead cinema after a lengthy hiatus with Land of the Dead. In this chapter of his ongoing signature series, the world has been overrun with legions of the walking dead. Only pockets of humanity still exist, holed up in walled cities and scavenging for resources. But even in this apocalyptic, alternate reality, money talks, and huge economic disparities separate the haves from the have-nots.

The opportunistic Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) oversees Fiddler's Green, a secluded community where society's elite live in obscene luxury high above the less fortunate, who wallow in poverty and hopelessness. When Kaufman backstabs the equally opportunistic Cholo (John Leguizamo), his artificial paradise is threatened, and he must resort to enlisting the help of Cholo's former colleague, Riley (Simon Baker).

In this interview, actor John Leguizamo talks about his experience with the film.

The Interview

MEDIA: Did you improvise much of your dialogue?

JOHN: Yeah, there was a lot of ad-lib. I didn't know what to expect working with George. I admired him, of course. Night of the Living Dead is one of the great movies of all time. Aside that it's a horror movie and started the whole zombie genre, it's still a great movie. And I didn't know how he was going to be with real actors, you know what I mean? I know he's got the horror thing down and he's got certain rules he has to have. The zombies gotta move slow 'cause they got rigor mortis. He doesn't tell them how to move 'cause he doesn't want them all to look like CGI armies. So he lets everybody find their inner zombie, which is pretty cool. And he was great with the acting. He really let us loose, but he would also reign us in. He was really watching the acting. I was really impressed with that. So I was making up sh*t all over the place. Some of it stuck, some of it will be on the DVD. It'll go somewhere. It's never wasted.

Working with George, did you feel you had a lot of freedom to do improvisation?

I always improvise, you know. That's my thing. Luckily, I'm a writer, so I always try...If there's great writing, improvising just adds a little bit more to it. Just takes it to another level. 'Cause an actor, believe it or not, really knows his character more than anybody else, even more than the original writer. Even more than the director. At some point, we know that character better than anybody else. Especially if you connect with it, and it's infinite possibilities that can come out of you. And I think the better directors know that they have final cut, and the more they let you go, the more choices they're gonna have in the editing room to create a performance or to change things. I mean, you just give them crazy choices and they can do whatever. A smart director, the more confident ones who have experience, know that in the editing room, it's all theirs. It's not a problem. It's the newer cats who haven't had experience who are sometimes a little too precious about their own words. But I really enjoyed being a part of this film. And I don't know, maybe some action flicks will come my way out of this. I'll be the zombie killer. It'll be a spin-off.

So with all of your ad-libbing, did the script have much of an impact on your role?

I've worked with great directors, and I've worked with a lot of newbies--a lot of new cats. And Baz Luhrmann, Spike Lee, Tony Scott, De Palma...they're confident that the script is a blueprint--a jumping off point. And then you let your cast act 'cause you gotta trust them to let them do what they want to do. Pacino and I improvised in Carlito's Way. Me and Wesley improvised a lot in To Wong Foo. And you just let people do their thing, and they're gonna take you to a whole other level. I think that's a problem sometimes. Writer/directors sometimes fall in love with their dialogue too much, and they want you to say it grammatically perfect. And you don't get the best performances out of people. It's better to have actors be in the moment. And I think some directors are afraid of rehearsing, too. I think rehearsing is a great time to find out the mistakes in your script. The weaknesses in the writing.

How was it working on an "old school" type of horror movie that harkens back to George's original zombie flicks?

Well, I've never done a horror movie before in my life. This was the first. And it's hard. It's just as hard as doing a comedy. It's a lot of work to make things real and natural, you know what I mean? That's what's tricky. To make it all very believable, you have to work extra hard. And I think the difference between this movie and all the other horror movies is, first of all, he's always got a sense of humor about it. I really responded to the script. I thought the characters were really well defined. I've never seen them that well defined in a horror movie before. I mean, my character had a whole character arc, I had ulterior motives. That really appealed to me. Political commentary, social commentary...and I thought it was pretty deep. Kind of operatic in a way.

What was the political climate on set, what with this film being shot during the 2004 US presidential election, and you and co-star Dennis Hopper having opposing party affiliations?

[laughs] I learned that he was Republican on Super Mario Bros., so I learned never to bring politics up, 'cause I really dig the guy, you know. [Dennis Hopper voice] "Dennis Hopper's so cool, man." He'll always be sort of like that hippie cat, even at his age. And we did Super Mario Bros. together, and we did this. This was much more exciting for both of us 'cause the way he was playing the villain was so much more realistic, and the scenes between us...even though we were in this heightened reality, this heightened world, we still were playing everything for real and for keeps. You know, I was in Canada, and Canadians have their own point of view of America. They were really rooting for Kerry. They were really disappointed in Americans, and, you know, so was I. But there's always the next election. So it was really fun doing the movie at the time, 'cause Dennis Hopper's character in that world represented a certain aspect of "haves and have-mores."

Were there any particular jokes played on set to keep things light?

After they went through a lot of zombie bodies, they'd have them outside the trailer. It looked like a mass burial ground of zombies. And, I guess to keep themselves in good humor, they made them all anatomically endowed. So they were all naked, and they put pubic hair in all the right places. It was very disheartening when you saw that stuff. [laughs]

Some portions of the movie were cut for the theatrical release...

Yeah, the movie's cut tight. I mean, it's an hour twenty-eight. That's brutal.

Are there any specific scenes that you liked that didn't make the theatrical cut, but which might resurface on DVD?

Yeah, there was a lot of stuff. I always think my ad-libs are great, but I guess you'll be the judge of that on the DVD. I mean, there was a scene on the motorcycle where I was...The kid that gets killed on my motorcycle, I was saying to him a lot of stuff like, "You little virgin...I'm gonna make sure you get laid." Stuff like that. But much better said. Funnier.

Having done comedy, drama, and now horror, which genre do you enjoy the most?

I like the drama the best. That's my favorite. I think I can flow the best in a drama. Comedies are tough 'cause that requires a lot of work. I'm kind of lazy. So definitely drama appeals to me the most.

Related Material

Interview with director George A. Romero
Interview with Simon Baker
Interview with producers Peter Grunwald and Bernie Goldmann
Movie Coverage: Land of the Dead


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