A three-time Emmy nominee recognized this year for the first time in almost 20 years, Waco’s John Leguizamo dove head first into Paramount Network’s limited series, investigating the psychology of David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, and those who fell under their spell.
With this true-crime series from John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle—based on two first-hand accounts of 1993’s 51-day standoff between the ATF, the FBI and Koresh’s compound-dwelling religious faction—the celebrated actor was tasked with portraying Jacob Vazquez, a fictionalized version of the undercover ATF agent sent in to infiltrate Koresh’s Waco, Texas organization.
Making a strong impression with Emmy voters over the course of three of the series’ six episodes, Leguizamo’s challenge was to believably portray Vazquez’ arc, from a skeptic and direct antagonist to the Branch Davidians to someone who, to some degree, believed. “It’s my whole transformation of going in there thinking it’s a cult, they’re in the wrong, they’re dangerous, and then seeing, Wow, there’s a lot of beauty in what Koresh was preaching,” the actor explains. “There’s a lot of innocent, gentle people here naively believing him, and it’s not their fault.”
How did Waco come to you? What was it about this series that drew you in
One of the writers of the piece, Sal Stabile, called me up and told me about the Waco show and how incredible it was. Sal and I started doing research on it, looking at docs, and they offered me this incredible part. When I finally read the series, I was first of all amazed with the attention to detail, and then with this amazing character—this ordinary guy who was kind of a hero.
I have huge respect for whistle-blowers, people who stand up against their bosses and losing their careers, just for truth and justice. So I loved this guy, and I also loved that he was the POV of the audience in a way. Because he goes in there with preconceived ideas and then his heart kind of melts a little bit. He kind of starts to see the good side of the cult; I guess there is a good side to everything as there is a bad side to most things.
How much did you know about the Waco standoff prior to taking on the project?
I knew what I knew about it from when I was young and it was on the news, but I didn’t realize the extent of the cult. I mean, I saw it as a cult. I didn’t really see it as anything else except in sort of negative terms.
What was discussed in early conversations with the creators of Waco?
We all were on the same page about doing research. I asked to talk to the real guy [former ATF agent Robert Rodriguez], but I wasn’t allowed to because eventually, he sued the FBI and won. He got some money so he’s not allowed to talk to the press or anybody about what happened. I really wanted to meet him because it’s pretty incredible to see that all of the ATF was Latin, running things. I was really impressed by that, being a Latin man and all that. But then all I could do was talk to other ATF guys—not the ones that were on the case, just ATF guys. I talked to FBI guys, and I looked up all the footage I could find on the real guy.
You mentioned looking to documentaries as part of your research. Were there any that were particularly helpful?
I can’t remember the names right now but it was obviously a lot of interviews on my character. They’re still on YouTube, so I found him and the way he talked and the way he was—and then obviously the big doc that was made about the whole Davidian Branch and David Koresh. He was so charismatic. That’s what surprised me about him—that he was so charismatic, and the principles of the Davidians seemed kind of doable and reasonable. [laughs] Until it started getting all perverted.
As you set out to portray Jacob Vazquez, what was your major focus, in terms of characterization?
I did give it a lot of thought, as to how to portray this ATF/FBI guy, and why they selected him to be the guy to go in to infiltrate. What qualities about him did they think would [allow him] to blend in? Obviously the original Davidians were very diverse; they were multiethnic. So I guess that’s part of the reason it was easier for me to infiltrate. I assume that Jacob must have been a really friendly, outgoing kind of guy; they don’t usually pick the introverted guy to go infiltrate a crowd like that. Then, there’s a flip—what happened in his mind, where he saw them [as] so much more docile and benevolent? Because obviously, he must have seen something.
Could you describe your experience amongst the series’ stellar ensemble, led by Taylor Kitsch?
Working with Michael Shannon and Taylor Kitsch was incredible. He was so authentic I didn’t even know it wasn’t the real guy. I obviously had much more time with Taylor and Paul Sparks and Andrea Riseborough because I had more scenes with them. We got to spend a lot of the rehearsal process and meals together, and time together, and it was a real good crew of people. And everyone was in character—that was the beautiful thing. We were all in character all the time.
At this point, you’ve shared a lot of screen time with Riseborough. Outside of Waco, you also worked with the actress this year on Christina Choe’s dark indie thriller Nancy.
Yeah, and we did Bloodline together, which was a blast. What a dedicated, incredible actress who can transform into so many different characters so brilliantly. It’s just a joy to work with her, because she just acted the truth and I love that.
What was it like experiencing the show’s recreation of the Branch Davidian compound, and the beginning of the 51-day showdown between the religious faction and government agencies?
Creepy, man. It was so creepy because they did the whole compound to specifications. When you look at the doc and then you look at the set, you’re like, “What?” It’s bizarre, man—and then you know where it’s going. You fall in love with the characters and then you know it’s going to end badly. So [the series] always had this cloud hanging over because you knew how many people’s lives were going to get lost, how many children and young women were going to perish in the fire.
What was your takeaway from working on Waco?
We all think in such black and white terms—I’m talking morally, not racially—and it’s never like that. That’s what I walked away with. The ATF are supposed to be the good guys, but they make mistakes; they’re trying to do the right thing but they end up kind of doing the wrong thing. And the Davidians are supposed to be bad, but there was a lot of good going on—even though there was a lot of bad going on, don’t get me wrong. I mean, selling arms is not cool, and the pedophilic system of what was going on there, that Koresh was able to have sex with young women and everybody’s wives and they weren’t allowed to. It was all very corrupt and perverted in a lot of ways and yet at the same time, the disciples were actually doing good in some ways.
Is it this exploration of the moral gray area that defines your interest in crime series like Waco and Bloodline?
To capture all of the information that none of us knew, that wasn’t in the news, and to get behind the scenes, that’s what I love. When you get behind the scenes of what was really going on in the ATF and FBI’s head and what was going on behind the scenes with the Davidians—when you really understand the workings and the psychology—that’s what’s fascinating to me. What led all these people to this traumatic moment? What were the steps that led to this? I love that.
Apart from playing Vazquez’s ambivalence toward the end of his experience with the Branch Davidians, what aspects of the part were the most challenging?
The difficult part was, how do I portray this character who’s an ATF officer trying to pass as a regular civilian, and would be able to infiltrate? In my mind, how do I convince the Davidians that I’m just a regular guy and still be safe, and still portray to the audience that I thought that I was in danger all the time? That I really thought they were going to kill me and find me out?
At this point in your career, what are you hoping to do as you move forward?
You know, you think you’ve done it all and then you realize, No, there’s so much more to do. I’d love to do some period pieces and some historic work; I just feel like no one’s tapped into Latin history and Latin contributions to the making of America, and we’ve been there over 500 years. So we’re the second oldest ethnic group in America and yet none of our stories are tapped. There’s so many great stories in the 1800s—Cuban women who sold all their belongings in the American Revolutionary War. There’s so much history that we contributed to making in this country, and I’d love to be a part of [reflecting] that somehow.
Is there any specific role you’d love to play?
Well, General Bernardo de Gálvez, who gave $30,000 worth of weapons to George Washington, had an army of 3,000 Native Americans, freed slaves, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans in his band that fought against the British in the South. He’s a fascinating individual.
Oh my God. Working with her is incredible, man. She’s an actor’s director—multicam, moving the camera around, letting us improvise, letting us just be. It’s incredible, but at the same time painstaking because it’s based on real events. There’s a small margin for error because you want it to be as authentic as possible; you don’t want to fudge any facts. So it’s very challenging and demanding, but that makes it even more fun.