Over more than six decades, Cheech Marin has mastered the art of improv, from his humble beginnings performing comedy in a Canadian strip club in the late '60s to now, starring in major Hollywood movies. Marin knows the secret to getting the biggest laugh isn't being the first to get off a quip or constantly one-upping your scene partners. "The essence of good improv is good listening," he shares with A.frame. "It's not talking all the time and don't stop talking. You're trying to listen all the time."
Marin was certainly all ears on the set of his newest movie, Shotgun Wedding, a high-concept action-comedy about a destination wedding hijacked by pirates in which he co-stars alongside Jennifer Lopez, Josh Duhamel, Jennifer Coolidge, and Lenny Kravitz. When the wedding party — including Marin as the father of the bride, Sônia Braga as his ex-wife, and D'Arcy Carden as his new wife — is taken hostage on their big day, Lopez and Duhamel must save their loved ones' lives before saying "I do."
"In my role for this movie, you just key off of what wife is mad at you at that time and then react to that. And I have vast experience in that," Marin jokes. "You learn to listen and then every time your ex-wife speaks it's like, 'Oh, this is the reason why she's an ex-wife!' But it's all listening. Good acting is good reacting."
For Marin, the film was a chance to act alongside not one but two Latina icons in Lopez and Braga, as well as fellow comedy legend Coolidge. "It was wonderful," he says. "Each actress is individual in their own individual ways, and it was really fun watching all those different people interact. The unique situation is we were in a swimming pool, fully clothed, and submerged for over 20 days. It wasn't like, 'Oh, we'll do one scene there...' Every day in the pool. And to be up close with Sônia Braga and Jennifer Coolidge and J.Lo in a pool fully clothed, it was an experience."
Forced into the resort pool by the band of pirates, the wedding guests do spend the bulk of the movie's 90-minute runtime submerged. Luckily, filming alongside such a funny cast, on location in the stunning Dominican Republic (standing in for the Philippines), things could have been worse. Still, Marin teases, "You'd get out of the pool and they'd call a lunch break. You'd trudge off to lunch, fully clothed, soaking wet, sit there and eat their lunch soaking wet, and then go back into the pool. And every day we did that." He laughs, "I kept thinking I should have read this script closer before I accepted this role."
Marin became a staple of the comedy scene in the late 1960s, when he first met his comedic other half, Tommy Chong. Off the success of their stand-up shows and comedy album, Cheech & Chong made their film debut in 1978's Up in Smoke. The movie was a certified cult classic, establishing the stoner comedy genre and cementing the duo's legacy in celluloid. Marin and Chong would star in six more films together before parting ways to pursue other projects. For the former, that included directing 1987's Born in East L.A., which he also wrote and starred in, about a U.S. citizen who is mistaken for an illegal immigrant and deported to Mexico. Marin's filmography boasts more than 150 credits, including classics like Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, and The Lion King.
His prolific career has allowed Marin to now pursue another of his passions: Collecting and celebrating Chicano art. Last year saw the opening of The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture, in Riverside, California. Affectionately nicknamed "The Cheech," the museum is the first of its kind and houses hundreds of pieces from Marin's personal collection. "I always like being the first in anything," Marin says. "Everybody always remembers that."
"The community was waiting for this for so long and it had been denied and it had been sidelined and put in a lesser category for so long," he adds of finally realizing the museum. "Now, we are the crown jewel of Southern California museums."
Marin's interest in art stemmed from his childhood in South Los Angeles, where he was born and raised in a working-class Mexican-American household. His eldest cousin assigned the younger "academically-interested" children various topics to study, and Marin was assigned art history. Which is how he found himself at the library each week reading about Picasso and Cézanne and Rembrandt. "At the end of it, I had a working knowledge of Western art." A lifelong collector, Marin soon forwent his baseball cards and buttons to begin his own collection of artwork from burgeoning Chicano artists. As his star rose, he was happy to shine a spotlight on marginalized creators from his community. "Now, instead of denying Chicano art, people were celebrating it," he beams. "People always had a mind vision in their mind of what they thought Chicano art would look like, but when they eventually got there, it was something totally different."
"My motto became, 'You can't love or hate Chicano art unless you see it,'" Marin says.
That pride, of course, extends back to the big screen through his celebration of Chicano cinema and his support of Chicano filmmakers, with whom he works whenever given the opportunity. He has high praise for the father of Chicano film, Luis Valdez, who directed Marin in 1994's The Cisco Kid. ("He was telling a particular Chicano story, so that was always good.") With renegade Mexican-American director Robert Rodriguez, Marin has made more than a handful of movies, including the Spy Kids series, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and Machete. "He's a genius filmmaker, and he grew up on Cheech & Chong," Marin says. "He works very much in the same way that we did, in the improvisational aspect of it."
And then there's Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro, who dreamed up the idea for and produced 2014's The Book of Life, with Marin lending his voice to one of the animated Mariachis. "I've known Guillermo since before anybody knew him," Marin exclaims. "I don't even think he made his first film. I was in with a group of Mexican filmmakers and cinematographers, and he was a young punk kid that hung around a lot. You could tell this guy was a genius. He was going to do something. And then when he finally did, it was like a torrent that has not stopped to this day."
Cheech Marin: My 5 Favorite Movies
Go Behind the Scenes on 'Shotgun Wedding': 'We Lost a Couple Shots to Jennifer Coolidge Making Jennifer Lopez Laugh' (Exclusive)