A Day Out in the Boxing Gym With John Leguizamo


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At the Church Street gym, John Leguizamo talked about acting and sparring.

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Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

Accidents happen. Few people know better than John Leguizamo, who was sparring the other day at the Church Street Boxing Gym in Lower Manhattan with his longtime trainer, Jenaro Diaz.

“Stay loose, keep that shoulder back,” Mr. Diaz urged him, with Mr. Leguizamo making sure all the while to keep his gloves up, shielding what is arguably an actor’s prize asset, his face.

“He wouldn’t hit me there,” said Mr. Leguizamo, 51, as he hopped down from the ring to settle on a cast-iron stair. “But this sport can be as dangerous as you want to go.”

Mr. Leguizamo has courted peril throughout his career. Once while filming, he said, raising his palm to his temple, “I was hit so hard that my head pounded for a week.”

He talked about Adrien Brody, who starred opposite him in the 1999 movie “Summer of Sam.” Mr. Brody had insisted on performing his own stunts, Mr. Leguizamo recalled, and for his trouble got a clout in the face that literally and permanently put his nose out of joint.

Mr. Leguizamo, compact, agile and a little tightly wound, also did his own stunts until recently. He remembered a film project years ago: “I was on a railroad track with the train coming on at a safe distance behind me. But at some point I looked back and saw the train was gaining on me. I panicked, slipped on a rail and at the last minute rolled off the tracks.”

Whew.

His current role, as the improbably named Rose, friend and drug dealer to the stoner hero played by Jesse Eisenberg in the action comedy “American Ultra,” tapped a similarly kinetic energy.

Playing an engaging, fever-brained thug required Mr. Leguizamo to alternate a heedless quasi-comic bravado with dark bug-eyed terror. The director, Nima Nourizadeh, “challenged me to go totally nuts,” he said, “and I told him, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do.’ I wanted to do something nobody had ever seen me do.”

His character, liberally tattooed and as jumpy as a feral cat, was modeled loosely on a high school classmate, he said, “a kid who was kind of outrageous and out of control. I added my own kink with the paranoia.”

Mr. Leguizamo, who has turned his gritty adolescence into a professional calling card, encountered plenty of loose cannons in the day. Growing up in the sociocultural melting pot of Jackson Heights, Queens, he was quick to put up his dukes, even at the risk of turning himself into the neighborhood punching bag.

Yet at the gym, its floors scuffed with age, its walls plastered with pinups and portraits of champions, he seemed entirely in his element. “Boxing is this most basic primal thing,” he said. “This notion that you have got to defend yourself.”

For Mr. Leguizamo, that notion has long been a leitmotif. “As a kid, people would pick on me,” he said. “Italians, Latinos, black kids: They were trying to shame you, to make you punk out. But I wouldn’t back down. I wouldn’t take it.”

“I’d say, ‘Let’s fight,’ and then I would get beat up. I was shaking through the whole thing, but I knew only one way out.”

Not incidentally, in the 2003 HBO movie “Undefeated,” which he directed, Mr. Leguizamo plays a boxer slugging his way out of Queens.

The sweaty air at Church Street seemed to draw out the street tough in him. The actor sprawled loose-limbed on the stairs and from time to time called encouragement to a young boxer in the ring.

Yet Mr. Leguizamo, who made his name in the late 1980s and ’90s by embracing and simultaneously sending up his Latino heritage, confided that he once dreamed of genteel assimilation. “I went to college. I tried to get rid of my accent, my streetness,” he said. “But they won’t let you do that.”

In Hollywood there were casting hurdles. “I had a lot of people telling me, ‘Stay out of the sun,’ ” he said. “ ‘Say that you’re Italian.’ There was a lot of shame.”

He’s not looking back, though. He loves making films, especially indies, he said, but relishes still more “the infinite possibilities of the stage.”

“If on any given night you’re hungry, you’re sick or you’re heartbroken,” he said. “Whatever you do comes out different.”

No matter, he said, “You’ve got to commit.”



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