If you want to stay warm during Chicago’s chilly winter months, snuggle up with a bunch of Latinos. At least that’s sort of what actor John Leguizamo did in his new movie “Nothing Like the Holidays.” In the film Leguizamo, 44, plays Mauricio Rodriguez, one of the members of a Puerto Rican family from the Humboldt Park area, who returns home for a lively Christmas reunion. The film also stars Freddy Rodriguez, Elizabeth Peña, Jay Hernandez, Debra Messing and Alfredo Molina.
During an interview with me, Leguizamo, who was born in Bogotá, Colombia, talked about what it was like to make his first film in Chicago, his own family’s Christmas traditions, and how the cozy cast of “Nothing Like the Holidays” spent their time when the workday was complete.
“Nothing Like the Holidays” is the first film you’ve ever made in Chicago. What was the experience like shooting in the Windy City?
It was great. Chicago is my second favorite city in America only after New York. It was a lot of fun to be there with the cast. I’ve known the cast my whole life. Chicago is always one of the first places where I would go to try out all my new [stand-up] shows because the crowds are amazing. I did the shows “Freak” and “Sexaholics” there. It’s such a great theater town. There’s a great mix of Latino people. There’s lots of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians.
Since Freddy [Rodriguez] is from Chicago I’m sure he showed you around the city, right?
Well, the whole cast is like family. We spent almost every hour together. We never went back to our trailers. In a lot of movies, you just go back to your trailer when you’re done. But we went to lunch together, to dinner. (Laughs).
Is that how it usually is when you shoot a film where the majority of the cast is Latino? Was it the same when you shot “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “Paraiso Travel?”
You know, Latin people are much cozier. We like to hang out. We like to talk. We like life. “Love in the Time of Cholera” with Benjamin Bratt and Catalina [Sandino Moreno] was the same thing. We would work out together. We would go to breakfast together. (Laughs).
So, on the set of “Holidays,” there was always someone to cuddle up with in the 25 below zero degree weather?
Yeah, there was always someone to go get a coquito (eggnog-like alcoholic beverage traditionally served in Puerto Rico) with and someone to go get White Castle burgers with at 3 a.m. (Laughs).
In “Holidays,” Humboldt Park is such an important part of this Puerto Rican family’s story. As an actor, does it feel more genuine for you when you actually shoot on location and not at some Hollywood studio?
Yes, because it forms the movie completely. You get to talk to so many people that are actually like the characters in your movie. You get the flavor and the life. It might be more comfortable to shoot on a set, but it’s not conducive to naturalistic work.
We learn a lot about Puerto Rican Christmas traditions in the film like the paranda (a 3-day house-to-house celebration filled with music, dancing and food). Are there any Colombian holiday traditions you’ve kept over the years?
My mom makes her famous arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) like nobody else’s business. My aunt makes arroz con gandules. (rice with pigeon peas). When we’re done eating, we’ll roll up the carpet and have our own “Soul Train” line.
Speaking of food, I saw Debra Messing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” talking about how everyone gained weight because of all the Puerto Rican food you all had to eat during production.
Especially Jay Hernandez. (Laughs). He gained a ton of weight, man. We went to [the Borinquen Restaurant] that makes the jibarito sandwich, which was invented in Chicago. It’s a sandwich made with plantains instead of bread. It was amazing!
Did you have to loosen up a few notches on your belt, too?
I was eating like a pig, but I was also working out so I didn’t gain weight. (Laughs).
I read the scene where the entire family is eating dinner took 18 hours to film. How do you keep the same energy from the first hour to the last?
It was a tough shoot. Luckily, I do a lot of theater so I knowhow to motivate myself. You have to be caffeinated. You have to jump around every now and then. I did some push-ups to wake up my body again because it’s grueling. In filmmaking you have to [shoot scenes] over and over again until they’re perfect. It’s the most incredible medium for someone who has OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).
Are there any Christmas classics you like watching as the holiday season rolls around?
I love that “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” claymation. That’s always a classic. I liked Burl Ives as Frosty the Snowman. I like [“How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”] with Boris Karloff. I can sit with my kids and watch those over and over again.
How has Christmas changed for you over the years – from when you were a kid to having children of your own?
Christmas used to be much more materialistic for me. When you have kids, it’s all about creating an event with a sense of family. It’s about uniting your family to the world. It’s more about spirituality than anything else. I try to reintroduce myself to my Indian ancestry. I try to give my kids a little bit of all the things that have been whitewashed over the centuries.
What’s the best gift you got when you were a kid?
It was this bike that I wanted when I was seven, but my parents made me read all these books in Spanish to get it. My parents would always get me books when I was a kid, they never gave me toys. So, this bike meant everything to me.