'The Boy Next Door': Ryan Guzman on J.Lo, 'Jem' and Hanging Up His Dancing Shoes

John Shearer/Invision/AP
Ryan Guzman and Jennifer Lopez

The 'Step Up' alum recently wrapped Richard Linklater's next film, 'That’s What I'm Talking About.'

In The Boy Next Door, which opens today, Ryan Guzman plays Jennifer Lopez’s biggest mistake — a mysterious and troubled young man whose one night stand with Lopez’s character, a high school teacher, turns into a dangerous obsession. In real life, Guzman is a mixed martial arts enthusiast-turned-dancer (for the third and fourth installments of the Step Up franchise) who is now branching out with a trio of very different projects – the aforementioned J.Lo thriller, the much-anticipated Jem and the Holograms movie (in which he plays Rio, the male lead caught between the rocker and her civilian alter ego), and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood follow-up, That’s What I’m Talking About.

Shortly after stepping off the plane from That’s What I’m Talking About’s Texas shoot, Guzman spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his burgeoning diverse resume and his hopes of following in original Step Up breakout Channing Tatum’s footsteps: “He’s been able to carry his career along the path that he wants. I hope to take that route.”

What was it like meeting J.Lo for the first time?

I met her in a table read for the film. It wasn’t actually casting, but after doing the table read, I told my agents and managers that I wanted that role. Jennifer was really cool. From day one, she was down to earth and not a diva.

What was it like to play a villain?

It was awesome. I didn’t want to be the cookie-cutter good guy anymore. I wanted to do something a little dangerous and show versatility. It was extremely fun, even though there were psychotic moments [for my character] where I had to step back and go, Wow, I can’t believe I just did that.

Your character is kind of funny and charming, at least at first. He seems to enjoy seeing her squirm.

It’s like toying with a cat, and that’s what I loved about the character. He was maniacal and methodical as well. A couple lines were ad libs to get under Jennifer’s character’s skin. The humor brings a little more intensity to who Noah Sandborn, my character, is. No one wants to see a psychopath have levity, so the craziness is: How do you balance this charming man, and then this complete psychopath?

You have a line in the trailer where you say to J. Lo’s character’s son, “I love your mother’s cookies.” Was that ad libbed?

Ian Nelson, who plays her son, was saying, “Do you want some cookies?” and I decided to ad lib and say, “Oh yeah, I love your mother’s cookies,” trying to get a rise out of Jennifer. And Rob Cohen, the director, said, “What’d you just say?” I thought he was angry at me, but he goes, “No no no, say that again, I love that!”

What was harder: seducing J.Lo or menacing her?

Both offered their own problems. Seducing Jennifer’s character, I had to do it through a 19-year-old’s eyes. There’s so much you think you know at that age. You think you’re this Casanova, but there’s also a vulnerability because you haven’t had that life experience.

The menacing part, there were times where I kind of got lost in this character. You get in this mindset of being maniacal and finding the quick little ways of getting under someone’s skin and playing mind games. A couple times we’d wrap that day, and I’d have a breathing period back in my house: Noah’s gone, Ryan has to come back, because I can’t be evil anymore.

So your character is 19? Is he a student at that high school?

A couple of blogs are like, “Oh my god, a 27-year-old acting as a 16-year-old?” To make it a little more realistic, we changed the character’s age from to 19. He’s been held back a couple years due to certain things that happened in his life, which I can’t tell or I’ll give away the script.

What was it like to film a sex scene with J.Lo? Did you have a crush on her when you were growing up?

I used a little bit of my own experiences as well as my friends’ experiences. She’s probably gonna hate me for saying this, but I wasn’t the lust-filled boy after Jennifer, but I know quite a few friends that were. When I booked the role, my close friends back home and their wives or fiancées went crazy.

How do you feel about this movie being fronted by two Latin actors?

It’s one of the biggest honors for me. When you look at this movie, you’re not thinking, Okay, there’s a Puerto Rican woman and a Mexican American man. We’re just seeing the character as it should be, as well as making headway for Latino actors that think they have to be the character actor or the sidekick. We’re trying to break down the boundaries and say, “No, you can be the lead.” We’ve got Gina Rodriguez having her own show. I’m so proud to be Latino and represent that. I wear that badge of honor every single day.

What can you tell us about the plot of or your character in That’s What I’m Talking About?

I have to be really careful. Richard Linklater doesn’t like to give out too much. The movie is based on a 1980s baseball college team. It’s definitely a comedy, and my character’s a partier. He’s an upperclassman. We’re wearing the short shorts, the crazy stuff they used to wear in the 1980s.

What was it like to work with Richard Linklater?

The day I booked the role, I called my mom and dad screaming at the top of my lungs, like a little kid: “Oh my God, I made it!” He’s a master of his craft. Even before we went out there, he sent everybody in the cast an email telling us that he picked us for a reason, so we’ve got all the talent and skill we need. It put us at ease.

We had an ensemble cast of 12 guys, and not one disagreed with another. Everyone got along for three months straight. We stayed at Richard’s place a couple weeks and bonded. Richard gave us an avenue to give him input on who we wanted our characters to be, and what kind of natural humor we could bring to our characters. Not everybody was an improv actor, but we all pushed each other to become what we needed to be for the film. Rick always told us that if we stuck to the script he originally wrote, it was only gonna be a semi-average movie.

You were a baby as Jem and the Holograms was finishing its run. Had you heard of it?

I knew nothing about Jem. Jon Chu, a friend of mine [and executive producer of Guzman’s two Step Up movies], was directing the movie, and he reached out. I found out you have to sing in it and was like, “Whoa, guy, I’m not a singer.” But then I talked to my girlfriend. She convinced me.

Did you watch any of the original cartoon?

Oh, yeah. I had to watch Rio and his purple hair on YouTube. I don’t know how many times I heard “Truly Outrageous,” but it was a lot.

So you sing in the movie? Do you dance as well?

I don’t do any dancing in this film. Everybody has seen me dance. At first we had somebody else singing for me. But I always want to test the boundaries, so I asked Jon. He gave me a 15-minute lesson with a vocal coach, and after that I went into a sound booth, laid down some vocals, and the next thing you know, that’s my voice on the track.

What can you tell us about what the live-action movie is like?

It’s an updated version of the ‘80s cartoon, set in modern day. We’re trying to get the newer audience interested in it. There are a lot of things in the film that are technologically savvy. We have a crazier storyline than the original Jem, which is a girl coming out of nowhere and becoming a superstar. But there are still a lot of vibrant colors. The fashion’s still really inspired by the ‘80s.

Does the movie cover songs from the cartoon, or are there originals?

There are a lot of original pieces, like the one I’m singing on. I didn’t hear all the music in the film because I didn’t work every day like the girls did, but I want to say they do have quite a few songs from the cartoon as well.

Who wrote the original music?

I can only tell you that Scooter Braun is attached on the film [as a producer], and he’s got many connections in high places.

In the cartoon, Rio dates both Jem and Jerrica, but he has no idea they are the same person. What’s your take?

Rio’s a playa! That was the thing when I first saw the cartoon. But the way we played it out in the film is a little different. There’s still a lot of controversy and figuring out who Jem and Jerrica are, but it’s more about Rio helping Jerrica find who she is.

Are the Holograms’ archrivals The Misfits in the movie?

Ooh. I can’t tell you that.

Well, do you have purple hair in the movie?

I don’t have purple hair. This is pre-Jem becoming Jem. It’s the makings of, so maybe if they do a sequel and bring me back, you’ll be seeing that purple mullet. Can’t wait for that.

Looks like you’re really branching out beyond the dance genre. How did that process of shaping your career come about?

I’ve always been very cautious about my next role. I only learned to dance through doing Step Up, so it was crazy being known as the dancer guy. I wanted to show that I was more. I wanted to go straight to action, because I used to be an MMA fighter. But there’s an arc you have to take, so there was a lot of talking with my manager, Tim Taylor from Luber Roklin, figuring out our next role. It happened to be Boy Next Door, and I was like, I want the audience to hate me after the movie is done. That way, for Jem and the Holograms, I want the audience to fall back in love with Rio, and see that I can still be loving and kind and gentle. And the Richard Linklater movie was obvious. He’s an amazing director, and it was a no-brainer.

As far as the future now, it’s all about picking my roles very, very wisely. I’m not going to be doing any more dancing for quite a while. I’m not going to be doing certain roles that market me as the lovey-dovey guy. I’m going to be trying to get more gritty, trying to get more dramas. I’m trying to get more action.

Channing Tatum got his big break from the Step Up franchise, and look at where he is now. Have you ever met him? In which ways would you like to emulate his career?

When I did Step Up 5, he came out and saw one of our rehearsals. We had a nice little conversation. He’s a great guy from the little time we spent together — one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.

As far as learning from his career, I respect the longevity. He’s been able to carry his career in the path that he wants, and that’s admirable. That’s what every actor wants. I would love to be able to do films like Foxcatcher. He’s been doing his thing since day one, since he didA Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. There’s so much raw talent in that first film of his, and you can see why he’s made it to where he is now. I hope I have that talent that keeps on building, and I keep on growing.