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John Leguizamo savors his meaty role in the award-winning movie 'Chef'

Jon Favreau and John Leguizamo
Jon Favreau and John Leguizamo
Open Road Films

In the dramedy film “Chef” (written, directed and produced by Jon Favreau), Favreau stars as Los Angeles chef Carl Casper, who loses his job at a restaurant after clashing with his boss Riva (played by Dustin Hoffman) and having a meltdown over getting a negative review from influential food critic Ramsey Michel (played by Oliver Platt). Faced with an uncertain future, Carl decides to start his own food truck business, at the suggestion of his ex-wife Inez (played by Sofia Vergara). To launch the business, Carl goes on a cross-country road trip in the food truck, with the help of his best friend/sous chef Martin (played by John Leguizamo) and Carl’s young son Percy (played by Emjay Anthony), who forms a closer bond with Carl as a result of the trip.

John Leguizamo at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival premiere of "Chef" in New York City
Getty Images

The cast members of “Chef” also include Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, who both worked with Favreau on “Iron Man 2.” “Chef” had its New York City premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Heineken Audience Award for Best Feature Film. According to the Tribeca Film Festival, Favreau donated the $25,000 prize to City Harvest, a New York-based food charity. Here is what Leguizamo said in a roundtable interview with journalists during the Tribeca Film Festival press junket for “Chef.”

What are some of your favorite foods that bring back great memories?

Obviously, Latin food has the most memories for me. It was Chino Latino, which is Cuban Chinese food. We used to do it every holiday, every birthday, we’d used to go this restaurant and order fried plantain or fried rice or black beans or sweet and sour shrimp. It’s the weirdest combo of food, but we love that stuff. What other great things? Of course, pernil, which is the meat we’re using in the movie, which is roast leg of pork for the holidays.

Did you have as much fun making “Chef” as it looked on screen? Did you get to improvise a lot?

It was fun! First of all, we’re eating all day long. Jon and I were gaining weight for the movie. It was a risk we took. I gained 20 pounds. I don’t know how much he [gained]. He was much more devoted than I was. It was fun. We had a blast.

We improvised a ton. We had to learn to cook these sandwiches, the beignets and fry all this stuff. I went to The Lion restaurant for a month and trained there and tried not to hurt anybody or burn or cut myself in the process. And then, I trained again with Roy Choi, one of the great American chefs, and did that for a little bit. He was our consultant.

Was gaining weight a regimented process or was a free for all that happened while you were filming “Chef”?

It was Jon Favreau and his food pushing. Plus, we made that food for real. It was top-of-the line, quality products, so you couldn’t help but eat all day long. We weren’t throwing it away either. We were giving it to the crew or the extras or anybody who passed by.

Were you able to lose the weight? You don’t look like you gained weight.

Oh, yeah. I dropped 25 pounds. I had to work my butt off. I had to get three trainers to help me lose that weight.

Can you talk about working with Jon Favreau?

Jon Favreau is a really smart director. He knows what he’s doing. He’s an actor as well. We had a long preparation period. He trained for months and months to be a chef.

I trained for a month because I was only a sous chef. We did readings together, we rehearsed it, and we spent a lot of time together to create that familiarity together and that camaraderie.

And how was it working with Emjay Anthony?

That kid is such a natural. Emjay is so much fun. He’s always picking up the chicks. He’s only 10. He was always hitting on poor Sofia Vergara. She was like, “But I’m your mother! Stop trying to touch me!”

What was your favorite city that you visited on your “Chef” road trip?

The best city in the world has got to be NOLA [New Orleans, LA]. That was incredible. The food was unbelievable, the jazz, the blues. We just had a great time. And I remember Emeril [Lagasse] opened up his kitchen to us and fed us like we were maharajis.

Did you go out when you weren’t filming?

Yeah, we did. We went to a lot of blues clubs, jazz clubs, as a group — without Emjay.

Were the crowds insane?

It was fun. New Orleans is just a blast. We were there at a tough time. We were in a food truck, cooking in August, in Miami, Austin and New Orleans — the hottest time and with movie lights! It was unbelievably hot. It was like being in hell.

Were most of the people lined up for the truck hired extras or were they real people who happened to be passing by while you were filming?

Most were extras, but now and then, you’d get people with the cash. I wanted to take it, but Jon wouldn’t let me.

How did improvisation work for you in “Chef”? Did it allow you to discover more elements of your characters that weren’t necessarily in the script?

Absolutely. Improv always does, especially in film. In film, you want it to be a raw experience — at least I do, anyway, as a viewer and as an actor. As you’re improvising, you’re saying things that reveal your character and further the plot — sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose.

Twitter and other social media are major parts of the storyline in “Chef.” What do you think about Twitter and other social media?

Tweeting is the only thing I do. I do a little bit of Facebook. I’ve done a little bit of Instagram and Vine. Jon was trying to be a Vine-ing fool on the movie. He was Vine-ing everything. We were all Vine-ing. It was the hot new thing.

Twitter is the most intellectual out of all the social media. You can do a lot of political stuff. Like when I do a lot of political stuff, I get a lot of love and hate instantly. If you want to feel something, tweet something political. You’ll see how they respond to you.

Have you ever been reprimanded by a manager or publicist for something you tweeted?

Not by a manager but myself. My rule is that I sleep on it a day until you’re cool-hearted and see if you still want to send that out, because it’s out there forever. You feel the repercussions of saying anything mean-spirited.

Taking a political stand, you have to be really sure that’s what you want to stand for because they’ll find you on Twitter. I get a lot of hate tweets every time I put something against guns or pro-choice. The Supreme Court upheld the affirmative action ban. I tweeted about that and boom! Instant love and hate! It’s great in some ways.

In some ways it’s rough too. You’ve got to watch out for what you say. Most entertainers and actors aren’t really trained journalists, so sometimes you’re putting things out there to people who normally wouldn’t have access to you that quickly.

Did you give any acting advice to Emjay Anthony?

The kid’s fine. He’s a little brat. My son was on the set, so they would hang out a lot. My son would go, “Daddy, he’s got incredible social skills.” My son is 13. They got incredibly. My son is more of a regular kid.

Emjay is like a grown man, talking about chicks: “Let’s pick up some chicks. What are your lines. Help me get her.” I’m like, “Dude, you’re 10! Stop it! You don’t even have hormones yet. What are you doing? You’re running on empty!”

Does your son normally visit you on your film sets, or was “Chef” special because it was filmed during the summer?

Exactly. I wish my family could [be there on all my movie sets]. My wife used to go with me on all my trips, but then you’ve got kids, and you’ve got to be responsible. It just coincided with summer, and my son was free, so we spent the whole summer together. My wife and my daughter joined us in NOLA for a little bit — and that was great times.

What was it like working with Dustin Hoffman?

For me, it was like completing my trifecta, because I worked with [Robert] De Niro, [Al] Pacino, and I was waiting to work with Dustin Hoffman. And I finally have! He’s also another hero of mine. He’s a great, great actor. His work was beautiful in the movie.

It was so real and powerful and so fantastic. It was so great to work with him. He was funny. He was telling jokes all the time. He’s a lively guy. He’s got great stories. He’s very generous. It was an incredible experience for me, working with him. It was an honor.

Did you get star-struck?

Yeah. With guys like him and De Niro and Pacino or great directors, you can’t help it. Michael Haneke, years ago when he did “White Ribbon,” I spoke to him in French, and he answered me. “Oh, je t’aime beaucoup.” [English translation: “I love you a lot.”] I said I loved him too much, but I said it all wrong. I didn’t care.

Can you talk a little bit more about preparing for your role in “Chef”?

I trained at The Lion, the restaurant on Ninth Street [in New York City]. They were gracious enough to open up their kitchen. I had to get there at 11 a.m., when they do the prep work, and they open up at 5 [p.m.]. They were teaching me how to do chopping, brining.

I was a line cook in the movie, and then I moved up to sous chef with meat and all that stuff. It was hard. I could fake it, but I couldn’t do it for real, because the speed and the demand and the accuracy of chopping, cooking, ingredients, fire — it’s impossible. It takes years and years. Either you have it or you don’t in that realm. I hope my acting works because I’m going to stave to death if I had to become a chef!

What’s the best thing that you make as a cook?

I make really good coffee.

Have you ever thought of owning a restaurant?

That is the biggest mistake. Athletes and actors and people who make a lot of money really fast, the first thing they do is start a restaurant or a club or a bar. And what do they do? They end up losing all their money.

I’ll do investing, but not in restaurants or bars. That’s the first thing they think, “Oh, we’re going to hang out, party, all the females.” And then all of a sudden, loss of money. They’re in the red.

How did your son feel about you doing all that cooking?

My son can cook! He bakes. He makes tres leches cake from scratch. He’ll make chocolate chip cookies — anything made of sugar that he can make for himself, and then he can eat the whole thing. And then we all have to watch out because then we’ll have to lose the weight.

Can you talk a little bit more about working with trainers to lose weight?

They were these amazing guys: Jim Jones and Aaron Wilson. Jim Jones trained Superman [Henry Cavill] and all the “300” people. The goal is to do 400 push-ups and 400 pull-ups a day and run an hour. I’m not there yet. I’m at 100 push-ups and pull-ups a day. I’m trying to get up to an hour of working out.

I love the Jim Jones training. I think it’s pretty incredible. It’s a whole new system of less weight. You don’t try to press a lot of heavy weight. You try to do repetition: Every hour you do five of whatever, and you keep doing it until the end of the day. By the end of the day, you’ve done 50 to 60 push-ups, pull-ups, dips. And it’s effortless.

I’ve got my shirt of in two movies, so that’s why I’ve got to get in shape. When you take off your shirt, you feel a lot of pressure! It’s going to be everywhere. People are going to put red arrows on your love handles.

Did you learning anything new about acting from making “Chef”?

The improvisation, I always love. And the fact that we’re doing something real. It was such a great, freeing thing for all of us. And it made us a team. We all had a part of the construction of the assembly line of creating this Cuban sandwich. I had a certain job, and I passed it to Jon Favreau, and Favreau would put it all together.

So we had this whole system. You had to be real. Everything was real fire, real food. Everything could burn. You could burn! We had a lot of accidents. All of us chopped ourselves off a little bit and burned.

We dropped the plancha on all the extras by accident. Emjay accidentally let go of the whole thing, and it flew. People were screaming. Cooking is not safe. It’s a dangerous thing.

You’ve done work in theater. Do you plan to do more theater productions or do you plan to stay focused in film and TV?

I always love theater, and I loved my one-man show [“Ghetto Klown”]. I’ll continue doing them. They’re going to be different. I mean, I never do the same thing twice. The next one’s going to be sort of a history of Latin people for people who have ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder].

Were you able to find any similarities to the process of cooking to the process of acting and writing?

The interesting thing is that Jon Favreau made the movie as analogy to the film business. That was clear in the flick: the critics, the producers, the studio [as embodied by] Dustin Hoffman’s character. The art for is cooking.

It’s an analogy about success in any field. You get powerful and successful, and you become a little narcissistic, a little self-involved, if you fall into the trap. How do you get back into the creative process instead of all the superficial distractions? And that’s what the whole movie is about.

Cooking is like acting. You have to really pay attention, be in the moment. There’s a generosity that happens that’s a natural; there’s a nurturing. So there’s giving.

Acting, when it has that generosity, when you’re giving instead of trying to take, it’s the best acting you’ll ever see. Those are the best actors. Those are the ones who are really talented, instead of the ones who just have celebrity and are insecure and obnoxious.

You didn’t have any scenes with Robert Downey Jr. in “Chef,” but did you see him on the set?

No, but it was my favorite scene in the whole movie. How does that little f*cker come in for one minute and steal the whole movie? He stole the movie! It was incredible. That scene had me rolling. And Jon Favreau walking in and sliding, it was great!

How did you get cast in “Chef”?

Jon just called me. He called me and said, “Let’s go to lunch.” I said, “Sure. What is it about?” And he said he’s got this movie he wrote. He said, “Yeah, I want to go back to what I started doing. I want to go back to independent film.”

I was like, “That’s my favorite genre, man. That’s the only thing I live for.” He said, “We’re going to improvise a lot.” I said, “Yeah! Careful what you wish for, because you’ll have trouble shutting the dam once it starts going.”

It was a blast. I read the script. I loved it. I loved the character. I loved the message. I think the message is really beautiful. You walk out of the movie, not just with food porn and you walk out starving, but you also walk out with like you felt something. I think there was real honesty and investment in the movie that you walk out feeling really good about life. He’s a master storyteller.

What was your favorite thing to eat on the “Chef” set?

I loved the Cuban sandwiches, but when we were in New Orleans, the pralines killed me! There were goddamn homemade pralines everywhere! Oh my god, they killed me!

I was getting bags. I was having assistants getting me pralines. I know other actors ask for drugs, but I just wanted pralines. [He says jokingly] I gained 30 pounds, so maybe I should’ve done the drugs.

For more info: "Chef" website