The new biopic El Cantante tells the true story of pioneering Salsa singer Héctor Lavoe and his supercharged rollercoaster life as whiplash inducing as any rock and roller’s. Born and raised in Peurto Rico before launching his singing career in the US, Lavoe had a phenomenal career from the late sixties to the mid-80s before a series of personal tragedies and his diagnosis as HIV positive led to a suicide attempt, health problems, and ultimately his death in 1993 of AIDS. Yes, there’s enough boozing, drugging, and womanizing in this movie to make Jim Morrison’s corpse blush, but there’s also a genuine artist, portrayed with genuine artistry by singing sensation Marc Anthony, who’s turned in great supporting performances in such past films as Bringing Out the Dead and Man on Fire.
We got to chat with Marc Anthony in New York about his research for playing Lavoe, his personal connection to the music, and working alongside his real-life wife, Jennifer Lopez, who plays Lavoe’s wife Puchi in the film.
ComingSoon.net: What aspects of Héctor did you focus on to make him come alive for you?
Marc Anthony: The human aspect. I knew what he meant musically, culturally, but I was sort of tired of him being nutshelled. You mention Héctor Lavoe when you travel and they’re like “oh, is that the guy who jumped?” No, it’s not just the guy who jumped and had issues. His life was so well documented, it would be like an “E! True Hollywood Story” if we just re-enacted everything that happened to him. I wanted to concentrate on what his struggles were on a daily basis. How did he get himself into those positions? What was he struggling with? I understood the fame part of it, I understood the headline part of it, the pressures. I understood what it’s like to live your life on a WORLD scale, touring 300 days out of the year. I know the headlines versus the truth. I was raised with the headlines, I just wanted to find the truth.
CS: How much do you subscribe to the idea of the tortured artist, that you have to be at the bottom of the bottom to create?
Anthony: I think it’s bullsh*t. For me, that’s an excuse. Do people draw from pain? Do people understand pain? There are people who are totally happy in their life but understand other people’s pain and want to tell a story because of it. It’s not a prerequisite to being an influential artist, an important artist, an artist with a point of view.
CS: Héctor on and off the stage seems like two different people. One’s very in control, one’s very out of control, almost like Jekyll and Hyde. What do you think is the biggest difference between the two personas?
Anthony: I think Héctor felt the most comfortable when he was singing. Felt uncomfortable when he was off-stage. He had to deal with a lot of issues, he had to deal with his wife, he had to deal with his addiction when he wasn’t on-stage. He was being adored on-stage, it’s an easy, comfortable place to be for him, which is why he chose that as a platform on many occasions. Me personally, I went to Audrey Beach to see him one time, and if you want to talk about him using the stage as a platform, he comes out with a cast because his house just burned down, lost everything, had to jump out the second story window, broke his legs, had a show there’s a lot of stuff we couldn’t put in the movie comes on stage, and I’m there. I had to be 17 or 18, we had the same representation, so my manager put me right in the front. He comes on, he was so huge to me. In the middle of the song he stops, stops the band, he wants to talk. Twenty-thousand people waiting for him, and he says “Man, I’m having a bad day. I just lost my boy.” It was awkward, it was my first time, but that was when he chose to be vocal about what he was feeling, and not only did he do it in his improvisation, but I truly believe that’s where he felt the most comfortable.
CS: What did you do to have to prepare to sound like Héctor, since your voices are not exactly alike?
Anthony: That was actually the most daunting part of it. I thought it was going to be the easiest. I thought “I’m a singer, I group up singing these songs, they’re standards,” but I realized about five-minutes in to recording the first track that I was in for a long night. I couldn’t get my head around his phrasing, and that’s when I realized his sheer genius. I challenge anybody to go in and dissect his style, his phrasing which was so unique to him. Right then and there I realized why they call him the singer’s singer. There’s a lot more going on. But once I got it and analyzed his tendencies, it became easier.
CS: What was the first time you connected to Salsa music in a really personal, profound way?
Anthony: To be honest, when I grew up that was my parent’s music. I was into Motown, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations that was my thing growing up in the ’70s. My older brothers were into that scene. I remember them running home, it was like a Harry Potter book or something, just “I got it, I got it! I got the new Héctor Lavoe/ Willie Colone album, man!” He’d run into his room and I’d hear it blaring. But I think the first time would be “El Dia De Mi Suerte,” which is a song I perform when it’s raining right before he jumps. That song always hit me because all he keeps saying is “Man, I keep hearing that my luck’s gonna change, maybe it’s true, can somebody tell me when?” He goes into how when he was five he lost his mom but his dad was like “Don’t worry, your luck is going to change,” and then his dad dies, in the song. It was so jovial. If you didn’t understand what he was saying it was like “oh my God, you can dance and party to this,” it’s like “Do you realize what he’s saying?” And I remember that hitting me. I got my brother to buy me the 45 and I sat there. I wasn’t well versed in Spanish, English being my first language, but I wrote every word as best I could. Writing the lyrics down and getting it for the first time.
CS: What kind of research did you do to prepare for the drug scenes?
Anthony: You just have to be really tired. Really! Try taking a nap and have them wake you up on the “Action!” part. It’s like “What?” You know what I mean? I didn’t follow any junkies around, any heroin addicts, anything like that. That’s what worked for me.
CS: What about snorting that stuff?
Anthony: Oh that’s nasty.
CS: Was it milk powder?
Anthony: Yeah, like milk powder and sugar or something, it’s just nasty. That’s when the acting came in. If anything it’s like pepper. Your natural reaction is to just expel it and to act like that’s not what’s going on in your face, just like “Yeah, I’m enjoying this.” It was one of the hardest things to do.
CS: Add water and you would have exploded, right?
Anthony: Yeah! (laughs) I would have been a science experiment, I’d still be bubbling.
CS: Can you tell us what advice you’ve given Jennifer for her upcoming tour?
Anthony: You know, Jennifer has helped me through this whole process as well. Her insight. You really feel the pressure when you’re the lead in the movie. The schedule is absolutely bonkers. I’m not used to this, carrying the movie, it’s huge, it’s called “El Cantante” for a reason. She’d played Selena, who was a friend of mine. I asked her about it. “You played someone that’s so fresh in people’s minds, how’d you do that?” She gave me amazing advice on how to process that responsibility.
CS: Do you remember what she said?
Anthony: I remember her telling me “Listen, when I did ‘Selena’ I learned absolutely everything, I totally engrossed myself for about two months, and then I forgot about it. Just literally started the film and then little things seep through your behavior. Make it yours, but be conscious of their tendencies.” That helped me tremendously. As far as the tour’s concerned, she’s witnessed three with me, she’s usually on the sidelines, now it’s my turn to be on the sidelines. She’s such a natural performer, she truly truly is. She’s been in the business as many years as I. When you get excited about something at this stage in the game, that’s priceless. I think it’s going to be nothing short of amazing, ’cause I know how she dedicates herself.
El Cantante opens in theaters this Friday.