As Winona Ryder's verdict taught us, "I was doing film research" is a poor defense for actors who get caught breaking the law. This didn't stop John Leguizamo from risking his neck for his role as a South Bronx drug dealer in Empire (opening Dec. 6). To get a feel for the world of dope dealing, he shadowed real-life pushers all over New York.

"I wasn't as afraid of being arrested as I was of being shot at," Leguizamo admits. "I hung out and did a couple [drug] runs with some guys and a married couple. I went to suppliers in Queens, did runs in Alphabet City and [saw] the homes where people stashed it.

"It's bizarre," he adds. "It's like living like an animal — always living in fear, always suspect. I wouldn't have been so afraid, except they were looking over their shoulders all the time and telling me, 'Keep moving. We can't stand anywhere. We gotta keep going.'

"I was a little scared of [getting caught], too," he points out, "but I wasn't carrying and I wasn't using. And they knew the cops better than the cops knew who they were."

Why would a successful entertainer like Leguizamo endanger himself just for a little indie flick? Especially one helmed by first-time writer-director Franc. Reyes — who's actually a choreographer-songwriter by trade?! "I've been wanting to do a gangster film since Carlito's Way," he explains. "When you're growing up in these neighborhoods, these guys are charming. They are personable, and they take care of the people who are their own. I was protected by a couple [of them]; they protected me from other gangs, from getting beat up.

"This is the first time I've ever read a screenplay about a gangster that was really from the inside," he says. "It doesn't glorify them, but it's still not an after-school special."