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‘Critical Thinking’ star stays one move ahead

John Leguizamo is on fire.

“Excuse me,” the actor declares a few seconds into a phone interview. “I have to put you on hold. Something is burning. I might need to call the fire department.”

The actor, screenwriter and now director returns with even worse news that it’s a five-alarm blaze.

“I’ve been told to tell the reporter, you, that it was my wife’s cooking,” he explains. “That I was not making a commentary. That she is a good cook — and that was the natural smell of lunch.

“I’m in big trouble!” Leguizamo laughs.

As his defense, the 56-year-old could claim he’s overworked.

Leguizamo stars in and directed the new, critically acclaimed film “Critical Thinking,” on video on demand and garnering awards-season buzz.

It’s the true story of the Miami Jackson High School chess team, made up of Latino and Black teens from a tough, underserved neighborhood in Miami who overcome tall odds to reach the U.S. National Chess Championship.

Leguizamo plays an unconventional and inspirational teacher named Mario Martinez, an educator who equates chess with life. “You plan your moves,” he promises, “and you can succeed.”

Review-Journal: How is life during the pandemic? What is your average Sunday like now?

John Leguizamo: It has been a lot of time with my grown kids, which is a lot of fun for me, but not the kids. The truth is I hate the pandemic, but I love having the kids around. I’m also getting a chance to do all my passion writing projects. There are no more excuses. I’m home. If I want to write it, I better start writing it.

How tough was it to get a green light for a movie about Black and Latino kids who play chess?

The producers and I have spent about 20 years trying to get this movie done. Hollywood just doesn’t tell our stories. If you’re Black or Latin, they just don’t see us. For a minute, I thought, “Maybe it’s just me.” The truth is Lin-Manuel (Miranda) probably couldn’t get “Hamilton” done right now as a movie if it hadn’t been a hit Broadway play first.

Really?

He would have heard, “Excuse me, Hamilton is going to be played by a Puerto Rican? No thanks.” It would never get made because of the gatekeepers, and there are tons of them in Hollywood. Hispanics contribute over $1 trillion to the economy and we are less than 2 percent of the faces in front of or behind the camera. We just don’t have executives who look like us and get us.

What can be done?

The film and TV community must decide that it’s not right and things need to improve. I think that the Black Lives Matter movement is a moment of reckoning in America. I feel studios and publishers can no longer find Black and Latin people invisible. How does a child or teen find their self-worth if it is never reflected back? It’s one thing for parents to tell them that they are worthy, which is crucial. Also crucial is giving them heroes who look like them on TV and in movies.

The teacher you play in the film is based on a real person, but did you also draw upon teachers from your past who made an impact? And what kind of kid were you?

Some of what my teachers taught me over the years did seep in. The best teachers of mine proved that learning doesn’t have to be dry. Good teachers are tough but fun. Believe me, I wasn’t easy. When I became rowdy, I was the problem child in that classroom. Mostly I wasn’t a tough guy in school; I was the nerd outsider kid.

You’ve worked with so many great directors, including Spike Lee (“Miracle at St. Anna”), Mike Newell (“Love in the Time of Cholera”), Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!”) and Brian De Palma (“Carlito’s Way”). Did this inform your directing style?

I have been fortunate to work with so many greats. Once I got to this set, any nerves were replaced with the thought “You have an incredible catalog of problem-solving techniques in your brain from people like Brian De Palma or Tony Scott or Spike.” The list goes on and on.

What’s it like to direct yourself in intense scenes?

Not easy. I had to tip my hat to Woody (Allen) and Clint (Eastwood). It’s tough to keep changing hats between acting and directing. You have to literally pull yourself out of your character in order to direct. The key was I cast really well. I knew the actors playing the students could handle it, and the kids blew me away every single time.

You filmed in the toughest parts of Miami. Any incidents while shooting?

It was terrifying the night we were escorted out of a certain neighborhood at gunpoint. We had filmed there all day long and overstayed our welcome. Some local gangsters came down at night and said, “You’re done.” Earlier in the day, they saw us filming and they were impressed. But I guess they needed us gone when the sun went down. I said, “No problem. OK. We’re leaving.”

Do you play chess?

I play a bit, but I’m mostly an amateur. I play my son and I play little kids. And sometimes I even win!

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