John Ortiz is an American actor and Artistic Director/Co-Founder of LAByrinth Theater Company. In 1993, John made his film debut as Al Pacino’s young cousin ‘Guajiro’ in Carlito’s Way. He went on to appear in over 30 films including Amistad (directed by Steven Spielberg), Miami Vice and Public Enemies (directed by Michael Mann), and American Gangster (directed by Ridley Scott).
John called from his car while being trapped in Los Angeles in mid-January 2011, and we chatted briefly about his career, Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and his latest film, Jack Goes Boating.
GS: Your first big screen role was in “Carlito’s Way” (1993)… I have to ask, what is it like to debut in a film with Pacino?
JO: Well, you know, it’s hard to top that. So you’re afraid it’s going to be downhill from there. Lucky for me, it hasn’t been. Once you get past that it’s Al Pacino, get past that you’re acting in front of the man himself, you just get down to why you were fortunate enough to be hired in the first place, which was acting well. He took care of me, he was really great. He was nominated for two Oscars during that time period, “Dick Tracy” and “Scent of a Woman”. It was a special time for him, and I was fortunate enough to be there.
GS: You appeared in a lesser-known known film called “The Opportunists” (2000). Did you get to spend much time with Christopher Walken?
JO: Yeah, I did. All my scenes were with him. They weren’t huge scenes, but whenever I went on the set, he was there as well. We didn’t actually get to know each other during filming. Oddly enough, I got to spend more time with him later after I did “Before Night Falls” with (director) Julian Schnabel. We had a great time at a party, actually. He told me all about his obsession with roller coasters. I thought it was the funniest thing in the world and I was laughing hysterically, because he was dead serious. Going from all the different types of roller coasters he had been out throughout the world, it was just… kind of bizarre, and that’s what made it funny. He was sharing his genuine love for roller coasters. It had me in stitches. He’s an amazing guy.
GS: You did “Public Enemies” (2009)… much of it was filmed in Wisconsin, which is where I live. Did you get to spend any time enjoying our beautiful state?
JO: You know, the first day I went to set, I was only there to meet with Michael to talk about the characters. So I just went in for a day, and it happened to be the day they were all the way up north. That was my first time in Wisconsin, period. I had no idea what was ahead of me in terms of the journey, but I had to take two planes and this really long van ride way up to the woods. I had felt like I traveled back in time. I got there in the middle of the night, but when I woke up in the morning I was just in awe of how cool it was. I really did feel like I was back in another country, with all the untouched nature and beautiful trees, lakes and all kinds of birds. And it was really quiet. I basically had the whole day to just hang out, so I walked around a lot in the woods, and I just had no idea that I was in the present time. It was kind of magical.
GS: Just avoid the winter. On to “Jack Goes Boating”… With Hoffman as both actor and director, switching roles… what was that like on set?
JO: I never felt like he was doing both at the same time. I think he had such a high level of focus and concentration on his work, that it is always excellent. He was being an actor when he was being an actor, and the transition was seamless. If you ask him, he will probably tell you differently, because it was the first time he had done that. But from my end, it was pretty remarkable in terms of him switching hats. It was a bit weird to have a guy on set yelling “action” and “cut”, you know. On the overall big scale of things, it was nothing out of the ordinary.
GS: Your character is both a good friend and teacher, but also a terrible husband. How are we supposed to feel about him?
JO: I don’t think he’s thinking that he’s a terrible husband, and that’s probably the key to it. They’re at this point in their marriage… marriage is a difficult thing and can be really challenging at times. The key for me was to tap into the reality of that and be honest with myself. Like when you play a villain, the villain doesn’t think he’s being evil, you’re just going after something. You just try to tap into that psyche, and what makes it heartbreaking, they think they’re doing something good in a way, they can’t see how it appears from the outside. For me it was really about trying to make it work, and that’s what makes it so horrible. It’s not until she says some really painful things to him that it hits him. So, that’s just kind of my take on that.
GS: What does your character see in Jack? Why are they friends?
JO: There is a contrast there, there’s a yin and a yang. I don’t think they are necessarily conscious of that, they have just built a bond over time, they make each other laugh and they like being with each other. I don’t think they have a lot of other friends, and they may not feel like they want to be around other people. There’s a comfort level that has built over years. Like with me and Phil, off camera, we’ve been friends for twenty years, and it has never come to a point in our friendship where we wondered why — we just like being around each other and life happens. And when life happens, the people around you either get closer or fall apart. In terms of Clyde and Jack, they have decided to stick together, and that’s what makes them such great friends.
GS: You were also in the stage version of “Jack Goes Boating” and do a considerable amount of stage work… I am assuming this means you consider acting a passion and not just a job.
JO: Without a doubt. When I was younger and first started out, I really thought long and hard about it. I was told early on, it’s really hard to be a professional actor and make a living at it, so if you can do something else, do it. You read all the facts about actors struggling, on unemployment or whatever, and I paid close attention to those things and I thought to myself, “I need to do it and as long as I can just pay my bills I’ll be just fine”. At the time, my bills weren’t much so I didn’t need to make much. And not making much, I better damn well be happy with what I was doing. So I didn’t take it too lightly. Acting did something to me that nothing else did at the time, and I was in awe of it, and I had this excitement about it, and I knew not too many things were going to come close to matching that thing. And I wanted to feel that way on a regular basis.
GS: You’ve worked with almost every big actor and director… who have you not worked with that would be your dream?
JO: Well, probably just because I recently saw something — there are so many — the two at the top of my list would be Jonathan Demme and Danny Boyle. They are both amazing artists.