The Emmy Award-winning actor, who directed the drama, also shares his intention to spend more time behind the camera.

By Rosy Cordero
September 03, 2020 at 03:41 PM EDT

Veteran actor John Leguizamo stepped behind-the-camera to make his feature film directorial debut in the drama Critical Thinking and discovered he feels very much at home in that role.

For more than three decades, the Emmy Award-winning actor has brought to life many beloved characters thanks to his special blend of comedy and drama at the most unexpected times. But Leguizamo's priorities have shifted as of late, learning he could help affect more change in Hollywood by using his power and influence to showcase the talents of Black and brown actors in Hollywood with projects like Critical Thinking.

The Sept. 4 release tells the true story of a group of South Florida students from Miami Jackson High School who battle lack of financial and oftentimes parental/community support, temptation from the streets, and puberty to become a national championship-winning chess team in 1998.

Critical Thinking
Credit: Vertical Entertainment

"We wanted to show the Miami that nobody sees, the underbelly where many Latin and Black people live," Leguizamo tells EW about showing a side of Miami underrepresented in Hollywood films. "And it's a true story, so we went to the neighborhood where these five kids grew up which is the Overtown, Liberty City, and Allapattah area. While we were there shooting one night, there was a shooting. We were made to close down the set at gunpoint but we talked them down. There are some roughs sections, which proves that roughs sections don't exist by themselves they exist because there's inequality, and that's what we wanted to show. Within these communities, our communities, there are so many gems; ghetto intellectuals with incredible minds being squandered because public schools don't get enough funding."

Critical Thinking
Credit: Vertical Entertainment

In the film, Leguizamo plays Mario Martinez, a high school teacher who supports and nurtures his students who dream of becoming chess champions. Much like Edward James Olmos' Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver, Martinez believes that his students are worthy of investment and praise especially when those around them have failed them.

"These kids are what you could call nerds," he explains. "They weren't into football, they were bookworms who just needed someone to believe in them so they could thrive. They started from the bottom and won on the regional level, then state, going on to take home the national title. Marcel Martinez [Jeffry Batista] almost won the world international chess championship but was disqualified on a horrible naturalization technicality."

Critical Thinking
Credit: Vertical Entertainment

Playing the real-life chess champions on the big screen is Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Ito Paniagua, Angel Bismark Curiel as Rodelay Medina, Corwin Tuggles as Sedrick Roundtree, Will Hochman as Gil Luna, and Batista in the role of Martinez.

"I was so glad we had an ensemble cast, especially since I was directing and acting," he says. "We went through a really extensive casting process, there was so much Latinx and Black talent that tried out. It was really impossible to pick, but when I did, I went with the actors who represented the real-life guys the most who were also closest to their personalities and looks. I'm really proud of the cast that we assembled, they were incredible."

And the talent on screen stretches beyond the core five chess members. Boardwalk Empire and The Wire star Michael K. Wiliams will have viewers throwing their chess pieces at the TV for his portrayal of Sedrick's father. Vida star Ramses Jimenez is the film's antagonist, a neighborhood drug dealer hellbent on poaching Ito as one of his criminal minions.

"Ramses got injured during the fight scene really bad! He had to be rushed to the emergency room," Leguizamo states. "But he came back the next day and shot with stitches in like a total trooper."

Leguizamo's ultimate goal with this project is to entertain, but more importantly, to shed a light on students like the real chess masters who need just one person to believe in them.

"Mentors are everything, especially to kids from underserved and underprivileged communities. Their schools are defunded, especially by Betsy DeVos, who took over four years ago and defunded public schools. There's only one secret about how to fund schools in our neighborhoods, it's money. Give them more money so they can have more teachers, smaller classes, supplies, and clean schools.

"The real Mario Martinez was working in one of these communities and he loved these kids so much because he was one of them himself. He gave them what they needed: nurturing, attention, and someone who showed them how special they really are. The kids already had the talent and their gifts, what he wanted to give them was book knowledge they needed to become chess champions. They just needed someone to tell them that they're special and that they matter. When you're Latinx and you don't see yourself represented in textbooks or in literature, how do you see yourself as a success? How do you see yourself as a hero? And further, how do other people see you as a hero? This is why I wrote Latin History for Morons [currently streaming on Netflix], we do have heroes. One hundred and twenty thousand of us fought in WWI, 500,000 of us fought in WWII. Where's the movie on that? Where's the History or Discovery Channel special about that? It's not even in our textbooks. It does such a huge disservice to us and to this country by this psychosocial erasure."

And Leguizamo is doing his part so that these stories aren't left on the cutting room floor. He admits he enjoyed lensing Critical Thinking and hopes to find more stories like that to share.

"Oh yeah, big time," Leguizamo responds excitedly when asked about directing more stories for the big screen. "There's a lot of stories on my radar but I can't tell you about them yet so nobody else gets the jump on me. You know how that is! [Laughs] My comic book PhenomX features Latinos and Latinas as superheroes is being published by Image Comics in Oct. I'm really excited about that and I would love to turn that into a movie and direct it."

Watch an exclusive clip from Critical Thinking above.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Critical Thinking debuts in select theaters and on demand Sept. 4.

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