Food can be both irresistible and satisfying. The new horror-comedy “The Menu,” uses that allure to trap privileged diners at a high-end banquet, the actor John Leguizamo said in an interview with NBC News.
“I loved the clever writing, the beautiful poetry about food, and then obviously the beautiful execution of the food,” he said. “But that’s just a bait and a lure to sucker the audience in. And then it becomes this terrifying horror thriller about who’s going to perish and who’s not going to perish.”
Leguizamo plays an actor who has fallen out of the spotlight. And together with 10 other guests, he will put his palate, and ultimately his life, in the hands of world-class chef Julian Slowik, played by Ralph Fiennes.
These guests are invited to an exclusive destination restaurant on a remote island. But their high-dining experience will come at a deadly price. And as the film raises the stakes for these fine diners, viewers may be prompted to ask: How much are you willing to pay for a good meal?
While “The Menu” stresses how food can connect and disconnect people, Leguizamo says it also mocks class tensions between the haves (the guests) and the have-nots (the restaurant staff), pitting them against each other in a dining room.
“The movie is satirizing what’s going on in the world and in America right now,” Leguizamo said, “where the rich, the billionaires, corporations are ruling and taking over our politics, our social media, controlling everything, and we have to fight against it. We have to come out as truth to power.”
In the movie, the guests were handpicked by Slowik and are parodies of a ruling class: three tech bros, an out-of-touch wealthy couple, an elitist food critic and her editor, a self-centered food aficionado and his last-minute date, and a fading actor (Leguizamo) with his assistant.
Beyond these ruling class stereotypes, however, Leguizamo said he’s proud that “The Menu” puts the spotlight on Latino actors in a different way.
“What I liked about the film is that the Latin people weren’t in the kitchen as per usual. We were being served,” he said.
“The Menu” features four actors with connections to Hispanic culture and heritage in starring roles that are outside of the kitchen.
Leguizamo was born in Colombia and raised in Jackson Heights, New York. Aimee Carrero, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Miami, plays his assistant. Arturo Castro, who was born in Guatemala and later moved to New York, plays one of the tech bros. And Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays the last-minute date for the food aficionado (played by Nicholas Hoult), is the daughter of an Argentine of English and Scottish descent, and her maternal grandmother is from Barcelona.
When asked about horror movies, Leguizamo said that the genre can open doors to tell powerful stories about Latino identity. He pointed out that one of the master filmmakers in the genre was Cuban — George Romero made the 1968 black-and-white zombie classic, “Night of the Living Dead.”
Leguizamo also compared “The Menu” with “The Exterminating Angel,” a 1962 Mexican surrealist film directed by award-winning Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, in which a group of affluent guests are unable to leave an extravagant dinner party.
Outside of the film, food is nurturing and empowering, Leguizamo said.
“Food is everything in a Latin family. And the more people, the better the food tastes,” he said. “My mom’s always over-serving and then she has the homemade Latin Tupperware, which is just whatever plastic receptacle your food came in. She’s always sending people with bags full of extra food.”
Over the last four decades, Leguizamo remembers family Christmas menus packed with Latino flavor: arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon beans); pernil (slow-cooked roast pork); pollo al horno (baked chicken); plátanos maduros (ripe plantains); ensalada de aguacate (avocado salad); habichuelas (beans); and tostones (green plantains).
Lately Leguizamo has been busy traveling across the country and doing a deep dive into the culture — including the iconic foods and restaurants — of several U.S. cities as part of his upcoming documentary series, "Leguizamo Does America." The series takes viewers on a tour of the places and people that make several American cities — like Miami, Chicago and L.A. — distinctly Latino.
The six-part series, produced by NBC News studios, is scheduled for April 2023 on MSNBC. (NBC News Studios and MSNBC along with NBCNews.com are part of Comcast's NBCUniversal.)