How Luis Guzmán Went From Social Worker To In-Demand Actor

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Luis Guzmán stars with William H. Macy in Shameless this season. (Photo by Chuck Hodes/SHOWTIME)

“Leading men crash and burn. Character actors are around forever.”
—Luis Guzmán

So it goes for the New York City native, who is currently calling the Showtime series Shameless home. In the dark comedy he plays Mikey O’Shea, a homeless scam artist who becomes best buddies with William H. Macy’s Frank Gallagher after the duo compete in a promotional contest to find the most authentic bum as part of an ad campaign for a fictional energy drink called Hobo Loco. Having been an avid viewer of the show for the past three or four years, Guzmán jumped at the chance to join the cast when he was asked.

“I got a phone call last summer. I’m a fan of the show, but also I know Billy Macy. It presented itself as an incredible chance to work with one of my buddies on a really good show that’s well written and produced,” he said. “I’m always traveling for my career, so I don’t have the time to sit down and watch something in its entirety. But I watched a few episodes a few years back and thought it was crazy. But there was a realness to it and it was done really well. [Coming on board], I understood the character and the show and I just went with it. My favorite part of this character is how well he blends with Macy’s character. Also, he has some wits and street smarts about him. If you’re going to be one of those guys out on the street, you’ve got to have that to be able to survive day-in and day-out.”

Guzmán and Macy’s history dates back to when the twosome appeared together in the 1997 Paul Thomas Anderson drama Boogie Nights. As for the experience the former pours into his O’Shea character, credit not only goes to a long illustrious filmography that’s found the Puerto Rican native working with a storied array of directors including Anderson, Sidney Lumet and Stephen Soderbergh, but also growing up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the ’70s and ’80s. Talk with him long enough and he’ll regale you with tales of being around when the Nuyorican arts movement was blossoming in the shape of key cultural institutions like CHARAS/El Bohio and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe were founded and flourishing and larger-than-life figures like Carlos “Chino” Garcia, Armando Perez and the late Bimbo Rivas were providing hope and cultural opportunities looking for validation in the inner city. So it should come as no surprise that Guzmán originally started out as a social worker more interested in activism than acting.

“I got myself a social worker job at Henry Street Settlement. I did not have a master’s degree for that. But I came with a [ton] of street experience,” he explained. “I maneuvered my way into an interview by saying who I was and being honest by talking about helping people to help themselves and I got the job. It’s probably one of the best jobs I ever had.”

It wasn’t until he was in high school that a wise guy quip resulted in the acting bug first biting him.

“Seward Park High School is where I got my first stage experience. My gym teacher, Fred Egghouse, was directing the school play that year. I walked in when he was auditioning people and I said, ‘Man, you can’t even run a gym class. You’re trying to direct a play?’ So what he did was throw a script at me and wanted to see what I could do. He put the ball back in my court and I couldn’t back down. I wound up doing this musical called Bye Bye Birdie. I played the part of Mr. MacAfee, which was the role Paul Lynde originally played,” Guzmán explained. “That was my introduction and then I met two people who were really important to my life that maybe I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if it wasn’t for them. That was my buddies Eddy Perez and Diego Ortiz, who were in the play. We befriended each other and they took me down to Sixth Street, between A and B, to this little neighborhood theater group called Teatro Ambulante that was run by Bimbo Rivas. They were part of it and I got involved with that. That was my introduction to the ’hood from those guys.”

Those early years found Guzmán working with young people between the ages of 17 and 21, trying to find them job training that would ideally result in permanent positions. In-between, he was playing myriad roles in local productions as favors to friends who’d written them. He even wound up co-writing a play with friend Emily Rubin called, We Don’t Want Cheese, We Want Apartments Please, which was about residents trying to protect their apartment buildings from arsonists and bad landlords. It wasn’t until a chance encounter on the street with friend and famed playwright Miguel Piñero, who’d cast him in the 1977 film version of his play Short Eyes, that the latter gave him a tip for an audition of a show Piñero was writing for.

Luis Guzmán as Hobo Loco Contest participant Mikey O’Shea (Photo by Chuck Hodes/SHOWTIME)

“[Miguel] told me to take down this number and go audition. So I went to this office, not knowing what I was getting myself into. They gave me three lines to read to Bonnie Timmerman. I go into her office and she takes one look at me and says, ‘Kill me with your eyes.’ I look at the script and say I don’t see that it says that written here. So she said, ‘No, kill me with your eyes.’ I asked her if she meant that I should give her a mean look and she said yeah. So I gave her a mean look and walked out of there. I didn’t know what the hell just happened,” he said. “I got a phone call from the producers and directors of the show to go in and read with Miguel Piñero. The week after that, I got a call from some guy Richard who said he was my agent and he was representing me. And he told me I landed a costarring role in the season premiere of Miami Vice. I had no clue what Miami Vice was. All I wanted to get out of this was enough money to buy a used car so I could drive to Orchard Beach on the weekend and not have to take the bus and the train.”

From the ’80s into the mid-’90s, Guzmán was splitting time between Manhattan and Vermont, all the while appearing in projects ranging from Ridley Scott action thrillers (Black Rain) and Brian DePalma crime epics (Carlito’s Way) to TV procedurals (Law & Order, Homicide: Life on the Street, NYPD Blue) and television’s first Latino-themed sketch comedy show (House of Buggin’). The permanent move to Vermont was made once he and his wife adopted four children and had one of their own. It was part of a master plan they had of what they wanted to do for their kids.

“My vision is that I wanted my children to have some form of a childhood. I felt the environment in the city stole that from so many kids. Here you have five- and six-year-olds who act like they’re 15 or 16 already. I wanted my kids to know what it was like to go out, walk in the woods and figure things out. Learn how to swim, ski and get on a horse—have a childhood. And not have to worry about being in the crossfire of some other kids shooting at each other,” he explained. “It was the mid-’90s and New York was really bad. And when I moved to Vermont, my agent at that time said my career was done. Nobody was going to call me. We’re having a good conversation now, so that wasn’t true. I feel like it conserved me a bit. It was good to get off the beaten path.”

In the past quarter century, Guzmán’s work ethic hasn’t ebbed. Producers who’ve continued to cast him include the aforementioned Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia) and Soderbergh (Out of Sight, The Limey, Traffic) and he’s made his mark via a number of pay television series including Oz, Code Black, How To Make It in America, Narcos and two 2019 Epix shows, Godfather of Harlem and Perpetual Grace, LTD. Still a regular visitor to his Loisaida stomping grounds, where his mother still lives and one where of his sons lives in his old apartment, Guzmán remains an activist at heart. He was recently in Chicago visiting colleges and speaking with Dreamers and other students effected by DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and the current immigration situation. Next year will also see Guzmán looking to work on a passion project of his—an adaptation of the Ernesto Quiñones novel Bodega Dreams—into a film.

Bodega Dreams has been out about 18 years and gone through many hands. I’ve had it for the past three years and I think that I found a writer/director, who I can’t name,” he said. “It was written by Ernesto Quiñones and you can get it on Amazon. It’s an incredible book. I’m hoping to be shooting it next fall. I’m just trying to elevate the whole Latino universe in this entertainment world.”

Shameless airs on Showtime on Sundays. Check local listings for times.

Also check out Luis Guzmán’s favorite film roles.

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