Thursday, February 6, 2014

In Character: Luis Guzmán

I don’t care what you’re name is or what you look like, if you’re a go-to actor for Brian De Palma, Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh, then you’re a powerhouse performer in my book. There isn’t a single fan of contemporary cinema that isn’t familiar with the skills of Luis Guzmán, including those three monumental filmmakers. Uniquely funny, suspiciously intimidating, and, well, to put it simply, one of the finest, most recognizable character actors we’ve ever had.

Five Essential Roles
Carlito’s Way (1993)
As a bodyguard hired to help reformed con Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) acclimate to the straight life, Pachanga quickly proves to be a loyal source of power. He’s Carlito’s right hand man – he looks out for his boss, so his boss can make him filthy rich. What makes this role essential are the little touches Guzmán gives Pachanga. His ridiculous facial hair, his penchant for referring to himself in the third person… it’s all Guzmán at his best.

Throughout the film, Guzmán does an excellent job of helping develop Pacino’s character for him. Guzmán knows he isn’t the star, and he handles it dutifully. It’s a great, consistently unflashy performance. That is, of course, until the film’s closing scenes, in which Pachanga asserts himself in the most memorable way possible. Et tu, Pachanga?

Boogie Nights (1997)
Maurice TT Rodriguez
People tend to forget that the masterful opening shot of Boogie Nights is anchored in Luis Guzmán’s performance. For much of that unbroken take, we follow Maurice around his bitchin’ nightclub as he greets guests, seats prominent VIPs and, most hilariously, walks around muttering, to no one specifically, “Okay, how’s it going here?” The man is just cool, ya dig?

Throughout Boogie Nights, director Paul Thomas Anderson makes perfect use of Guzmán’s unique charm. Like when he hopelessly begs Amber Waves for a part in a porn movie, so that Maurice can have something to “send home” to his brothers. It’s such a pathetic yet oddly heartfelt moment, one of many from the incomparable Maurice TT Rodriguez. (For a little extra fun, track down Guzmán’s deleted scene from this movie. I don’t want to spoil it here, but it is pure, self deprecating bliss.)

Oz (1998-2000)
Raoul ‘El Cid’ Hernandez
Luis Guzmán hasn’t had many opportunities to play a really, truly, fucking evil character, which is what makes his El Cid from HBO’s Oz so effective. After being sent to Oz on a second-degree murder charge, El Cid quickly takes over as the Latino gang leader. El Cid is the kind of guy who has spent more time in prison than out; a thug who loves to work the system and take whatever he wants, bystanders be damned.

Let me put it this way: Guzmán was initially hired for a four episode arc on the show, but he ended up sticking around for three seasons. El Cid was, quite literally, the man Oz couldn’t kill.

The Limey (1999)
Eduardo Roel
What I respect so much about Eduardo Roel is that he is completely different from every other character Luis Guzmán has played. A performance nearly absent of humor, instead Guzmán plays Eduardo as a somewhat scared, fully selfless guy trying to help an old man catch his daughter’s killer, simply because it’s the right thing to do.

The Limey is a damn serious, profoundly obscure film, and any levity (though sparse it may be) isn’t reserved for Guzmán. Normally, I would cite this as a fatal error, but director Steven Soderbergh knew what he was doing. He knew that the best way to tell his tall tale of revenge was to do it void of narrative structure, have Terence Stamp play it heavy, and Luis Guzmán play it straight. It probably shouldn’t work, but hell if it doesn’t.

How to Make It in America (2010-2011)
Rene Calderon
Rene Calderon is everyone’s favorite ex con-turned-energy drink entrepreneur. Most all of Guzmán’s time on the short lived HBO show was spent brooding his way around Manhattan, pushing a disgusting drink called Rasta-Monsta. When he wasn’t slinging his beverage, Rene was defending his elderly grandmother from stoop punks and collecting loans from his ambitious cousin, Cam.

But perhaps Guzmán’s greatest contribution to the show was this guerrilla marketing video that become a viral sensation. In an effort to promote How to Make It in America, Guzmán riffed on Duck Sauce’s song “Barbara Streisand” and cruised around the Lower East Side promoting, well… the fact that he is Luis Guzmán. With the help of some A-list cameos (including the show’s executive producer, Mark Wahlberg), the music video is almost as good as Guzmán’s whole turn as Rene. Almost.

The Best of the Best
Traffic (2000)
Ray Castro
From his very first scene in Traffic, Luis Guzmán completely owns his role as DEA agent Ray Castro. Working undercover with his partner, Montel (Don Cheadle), the two prepare to take down a huge drug dealer named Eduardo (Miguel Ferrer). But in the meantime, they wait. They stare each other down, size each other up, and wait. Now, pay particular attention to this scene. Listen. Listen to Eduardo ask Ray and Montel if, “You guys ever bought a quarter ton before?” Now listen to the way Ray responds (off screen, mind you): “I don’t think so, no.”

The carefree delivery of Guzmán’s line is a true testament to the brilliance of his understated comedy. He says the line with a passing indifference, as if he genuinely can’t remember ever buying a quarter ton of cocaine before. It’s Guzmán’s subtle ability to inject humor into his roles, and Ray in particular, that makes him such a fine actor.

That opening scene is just one example, because Traffic is full of them. From flubbing a bet with Don Cheadle, to questioning a glass of lemonade, to gushing about his dreams of busting corrupt white people, most everything Guzmán does in Traffic is done to give an added layer of comedic depth to his character. Traffic is far from a Ha-Ha funny film, but there’s a lightness Guzmán brings to it that I greatly appreciate. However, it should be noted that Guzmán knows exactly when to play Ray down. He knows when to be cool, when to he afraid, when to be a hardass, and, yes, certainly, when to be the funniest guy in the room.

Other Notable Roles
In Steven Soderberghs Out of Sight
Q&A (1990)
Homicide: Life on the Street (1993)
NYPD Blue (1993)
Substitute (1996)
Out of Sight (1998)
Snake Eyes (1998)
Magnolia (1999)
The Bone Collector (1999) 
The Salton Sea (2002)
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Runaway Jury (2003)
Confidence (2003)
Anger Management (2003)
Waiting... (2005)
Fast Food Nation (2006)
John from Cincinnati (2007)
The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)
Community (2011)
The Last Stand (2013)


  1. Ah good one sir! I love Guzman, guy is impossible to hate. I really need to check out some of his more serious roles because the majority of what I've seen him in (if not everything I've seen him in) has been a more comedic role, or performance from him. Dude, manages to get a laugh even in lackluster films - and damn if he isn't a highlight in one of my fav. films Punch-Drunk Love ("Hey Barry, where you goin'?"). Someone needs to make a film with this guy as a lead, or at the very least more of a leading role!

    1. Thanks man! I really wanted to include his work in P-DL because it is so priceless. I love how his character is so eager to please and so humorously inquisitive. Hilarious.

      For some of his dramatic work, check out The Limey and Oz, if you're up for a new show. So good in both!

    2. Thank you, I will have to look into those. Also I know how hard it could be to go through Guzman's work and pick out only a few great performances when he is so consistently good in more or less everything.

    3. Yeah man it was tough. That's probably the hardest part about this column... narrowing down all of the roles. There are just so many!

  2. Luis Guzman should have been Tony Mendez in Argo

    1. Holy shit, that's actually a great call. Seriously... that works.

    2. I would've fucking paid top money to see that!

  3. Luis Guzman is one of those actors I just love to watch. He's one of those guys that can't suck. I think The Limey is his best performance just for the fact that he's the straight man and can do drama.

    I also loved that story he told at Dinner for Five about doing Carlito's Way where he talked about how tense things were in the production and de Palma was trying to direct a scene and talked to Guzman where Guzman replied "Brian, I don't act... I just do it". de Palma pauses and then says, "OK, everybody in place. Luis is going to do it". It made de Palma laughed and made the production easier to go through.

    I grew up watching the guy in not just films but also TV. The one TV show I loved to watch that didn't stay very long was John Leguizamo's House of Buggin' where Guzman was one of the lead players. I'm just going to show you this clip of how funny he is:

    1. I was this close to choosing The Limey as his best work. Tough call. Either way, he's delivered such solid performances for Soderbergh.

      You know, it was actually that episode of Dinner for Five that reminded me to cover him for this column. Watched that episode last week... love that damn show.

      Ha, that clip was hilarious. I've never even heard of that show!

    2. It only lasted one season. It didn't get good ratings but for me as a Hispanic and a fan of John Leguizamo. I had to see it. It's so fucking hilarious. I hope Leguizamo gets the rights to the show and put it out on Blu-Ray w/ his other comedy specials. There's some other performances of Guzman that I enjoy in films that weren't so great but he was good in them. The Cowboy Way, Innocent Blood, and that movie he did w/ the Rock. Him and the Rock had great chemistry together. If the movie was about those 2 and Michael Caine. You would've had something watchable.

    3. Yeah he really is great in everything, even more that aren't so great. The Rock, Guzman, and Caine... I'd definitely see that.

  4. Pretty sure Punch-Drunk Love is the only movie where he doesn't have facial hair.

    1. Ha. Well, he was doing something right, because he rocks in that movie.

  5. Love Guzman! For me, Carlito's Way is his best. It's been a while since I've watched Traffic, though. I still need to see The Limey. He was also great, if underused, doing voice work in Turbo last year.

    1. I didn't see Turbo, but I love that the man gets solid voice acting work too.

      I LOVE the his contribution at the end of Carlito's Way. What a bastard.

  6. Guzman has taken on so many roles, it's hard to keep track! He's been so great in them all. His part in Confidence sticks out to me the most - I was once upon a time obsessed with that movie.

    1. Katy, you don't understand... I love Confidence. My friend and I used to watch it on repeat. It made me fall in love HARD with con movies and forever adore the talents of Edward Burns. Really, I dig the hell out of that flick!

  7. It's funny that you're spotlighting Luis Guzman. My wife is a big Community fan, and a repeat with him as the school's most famous alumni was on the other day. The performances that stand out to me are Punch-Drunk Love and The Limey. It's been a long time since I've seen Traffic, unfortunately. He brings a lot to even the smallest part; Out of Sight is a great example.

    1. I've actually never seen that Community, but I'll have to check it out! I love him in P-DL and The Limey, and you're so right: he brings so much even if the part is small.

  8. Nice! I'd probably go with The Limey as his best performance, but it's been a while since I've seen Traffic.

    1. I was really up in the air about choosing which one was his best. Definitely between those two.

  9. Such a funny guy.... He's a gem that's overlooked. Last thing I saw him in was We're The Millers, which is great..

    1. I love him in We're the Millers. But I pretty much love him in everything. He can make any movie/TV show better. Definitely an overlooked gem.