Between character parts in films like The Lincoln Lawyer and the upcoming Kick-Ass 2 and a regular gig voicing Sid the sloth in the Ice Age franchise, John Leguizamo has had a flush last few years. But for longtime admirers of his work, the more exciting news has been his return to the one-man stage shows that helped him break through in the early ’90s. When it debuted off-Broadway, Leguizamo’s Mambo Mouth was a revelation, a broadly funny, slyly incisive depiction of Latino characters drawn from the Queens neighborhoods of his youth. The show, which moved to Broadway and was filmed for HBO, made Leguizamo a star, and was followed by Spic-O-Rama, Freak, and Sexaholix: A Love Story—and then nothing. After years of writing and performing his own one-man shows, Leguizamo decided to call it quits. And so he did, until a series of college speaking gigs grew into Ghetto Klown, which charts Leguizamo’s evolution from mouthy kid to major talent, what he calls a Latino Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. The recently released documentary Tales From A Ghetto Klown chronicles the show’s making, its rocky reception on Broadway, and Leguizamo’s subsequent decision to take the show to his native Colombia, which required substantial instruction in the Spanish language. Leguizamo talked to The A.V. Club about coming back to the stage after a decade away, why he can’t make movies with Salma Hayek, and his problem with Steven Seagal.
The A.V. Club: You made a deliberate decision to stop doing one-man stage shows in 2001.
John Leguizamo: Yeah. It was going to be my last show. And it was practically my last show, because it was 10 years since I did anything live. But you know, I got over it. I have a performance-anxiety situation that happens to me, and I guess over the years, with the therapy—I keep lots of therapists in business in Manhattan—after all this cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy and Freudian therapy, I licked it and I was able to get back onstage. I started by just saying I was going to do college talks. I’d get really lubricated and I got the index cards of my résumé, and I’d just talk for like, two hours, and the kids loved it. And I’d get real cocky and I’d have to run home real fast to write down everything I’d said before I passed out. So that’s basically how I got back into it.
AVC: In cognitive therapy the focus is more on action than reflection. Does that dovetail with stage performance well?
JL: Yeah, I mean, I like to get psychological when I’m acting and writing. It just takes you to deeper places. But that’s not everything. Obviously it has to transfer into actions. It does have to be active. You can’t stay in your head.
AVC: You also had kids right around the time you stopped doing stage work, and you had very public disagreements with your family, especially your father, about the way you portrayed them onstage. Did that contribute to your wanting to take a break, even a permanent one?
JL: Of course it does. I’m not impervious to that. As tough a skin as you’ve got to have as an actor—like, pachyderm tough—it still gets to you. You can’t help but be influenced by them. Especially when you have kids, you don’t want all that negativity. You don’t want your holidays to be like August: Osage County, or Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? You just don’t want that at home. [Laughs.]
AVC: You mentioned that Ghetto Klown grew out of these college talks where you were essentially riffing on your career, and the documentary mentions an anecdote about Steven Seagal from the making of Executive Decision but never quite gives it to us. What’s the story?
JL: Well the response from Seagal’s publicist was that if he sees me on the red carpet, he’s going to knock me out. [Laughs.] That was his response. And my response was that I wasn’t afraid because I haven’t seen him in a movie in years—which would make him really want to knock me out. He can fight. That’s the only downside to my comment: He can actually knock me out. He runs like a girl, but he hits like a 6-foot-5 dude who has trained his whole life.
I was doing this thing called Executive Decision and I was supposed to play the sergeant to his captain. The first day of rehearsal, there was the director [Stuart Baird], Joe Morton, B.D. Wong, Oliver Platt—we’re all big actors, we’re all big boys, we’re all experienced. And we start rehearsing and he came in and was like, [low, breathy voice] “I’m in command. What I say is law.” So I started, like, [snorts]. I mean, who the fuck talks like that? Who comes into rehearsal and says that shit? So I started laughing and he slammed me with an aikido elbow against a brick wall and knocked all the air out of me. I dropped to the ground, and all I could say was, [gasping] “Why? Why?” I really wanted to say that he runs like a bitch and has no hair, but I was afraid. [Laughs.] So on the days when we shot the scene where he died, I showed up so early. I wanted to see him die. It was like a fantasy.
AVC: Sometimes it seems like certain actors just vanish, like they fell off a cliff, but more often than not when you look into it, it turns out that people just got sick of working with them.
JL: Yeah, they had some hand in it. Everyone used to say in the ’60s that karma decided stuff, and what goes around comes around and that kind of stuff, and it’s true.
AVC: Are there movies or experiences in the show that are enjoyable for you to talk about?
JL: Yeah there are a couple of them. Sean Penn slapping the hell out of me again and again and getting off on it [in Casualties Of War]. My face was swelling up and my talking was all messed up so you couldn’t understand me. He’s beating the shit out of me on camera and I was just like, “I can’t do this anymore. I’ll have to call my rep.” And then they cut the scene out of the movie and I was like, “Are you kidding me? You beat the shit out of me and then didn’t even use it?”
AVC: People have really stuck by Casualties Of War over the years.
JL: Yeah, it’s a better movie than you think. Brian De Palma is a genius. His ability to shoot and construct a scene, and his camera movements, he’s got that Hitchcock thing. He’s able to create tension like nobody’s business.
AVC: It was surprising to find that a lot of your shows have gone out of print: Mambo Mouth isn’t available at all, and Spic-O-Rama and Sexaholix: A Love Story are only available on-demand. But you did collect the scripts into a book a few years back, so you’ve had some contact with the material recently.
JL: Luckily for me, people study that material in schools and it’s on the syllabus in some schools, and people do the monologues and stuff. I get constant fan mail saying, “How should I do this scene or that scene?” I look at that stuff and say, “You can change it however you want, it’s not the Bible.” There was a lot of stuff that was really edgy and, if I do say so, intellectual. Nobody was doing bios on themselves. The only person that came close was Spalding Gray, but it wasn’t a play about himself. I created the personal bio on Broadway.
AVC: You were playing characters, even types, at first, but there’s a real progression over the course of the first three shows. Sexaholix is more like confessional stand-up.
JL: Yeah, and that’s definitely me toying with stand-up. Freak was definitely me from birth to losing my virginity, which was around 15 or 16-ish. The shows were all an evolution of finding myself. Ghetto Klown is the most “me” of all the shows. It’s the freest I’ve ever been onstage. It’s kind of like I can do in movies. Onstage I can be myself, but I can also be funny and hilarious and self-deprecating.
AVC: Did that happen organically? Did you start off wanting to talk about yourself, but think, “Maybe I should put in some characters people recognize”?
JL: You mean how did the evolution go? I didn’t start out thinking, “Well, damn, I’m the most fascinating thing.” I was fascinated by other people. So I started out with Mambo Mouth. That’s about all the people in my neighborhood who I found so different and so fascinating. It was like watching National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. But by Freak, there were just all these issues in my life that I wanted to expose and un-demonize. So that’s how the birth of that started happening. I’d written all these scenes to help myself work through them. It was weird. I wrote the dialogue, and I saw all these things in my journal and I put them all together and they became that show. By the time I got to Ghetto Klown, I really wanted to inspire people. That was my goal with that show: I wanted to inspire people and give back. I read that 50 percent of black young men and 45 percent of Latin young men in America drop out of high school, and that was just a tragedy to me. The amount of black people who are incarcerated, it’s just brutal. So I just thought that if I could travel around the country and do this show and show those kids that I came from the same place—and I’m not saying that hard work is enough to get you out of there, because it’s not. You need mentors. I’m paying tribute to those people who stepped in and told me that I could do it, because I didn’t think I could do it.
AVC: There’s a new documentary about Venus and Serena Williams in which Chris Rock says that being black is like being born with weights around your ankles. You have to try harder, but it forces you to be in better shape.
JL: Yeah, I mean, look at me, being Latin. J-Lo has to sell colognes, perfumes, dresses, and clothes. Jennifer Aniston doesn’t have to do all that shit to get a part.
AVC: Of course, that only works if you get the weights off at some point. Otherwise, you’re just dragging them around.
JL: Yeah, you better have some powerful-ass calf muscles and quads. And that’s just what happens. You learn that you have to do three times the hustle and make sure you’re three times better to get the jobs. I mean, it’s a new America, but it’s not. I still deal with all kinds of weird shit. And I talk to my friends and collect stories. I was up for this big movie with John Travolta, and then before shooting started, I get this call from the director saying, “John, I just can’t have you in this movie. I already have Salma Hayek, and I can’t have two Latin people in the movie.” [Laughs.] And I go, “Why?” And he goes, “Well, then everyone would think it was a Latin movie.” And I was like, “What’s wrong with that?” You still can’t convince me why that’s wrong. That’s only a minutia of what I have to deal with in this business. It’s all about the dream in this country.
AVC: Were you aware of that from the beginning? Certainly when Mambo Mouth came out, a lot of people took that as a validation, seeing characters they’d never seen onstage or, when it was filmed, on TV before.
JL: Oh yeah. I’ve had all kinds of people tell me that they’re inspired. Kristoffer Diaz, who won an award for being the best up-and-coming playwright in New York, said that he wanted to write like me. I was like, “Wow.” All I ever wanted to do was pass that baton just like it had been passed to me, by people like Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg. I saw that it was all possible.
AVC: Were there Latin role models for you growing up?
JL: Yeah there were. There was [Nuyorican Poets Café co-founder Miguel] Piñero, obviously. He was kind of like the birth of rap. He took street slang and made poetry with it. He wrote the first really edgy street piece to go on Broadway, Short Eyes. People had never seen shit that raw. He brought the rawness to words and slang and things that people weren’t seeing in commercial work.
AVC: Then, as now, there was a perception that Latin audiences don’t go to see theater.
JL: Yeah, because they don’t see themselves reflected. Why would you want to spend money on something from which you’re excluded? I don’t know how people can not see that. I travel around the country and Latin people—and other people too—cough up big dollars to see the shows, because they’re hungry and there’s just nothing out there for them.
AVC: Where are you taking Ghetto Klown next?
JL: I did Florida in March. Tampa, Orlando, Miami. And I did Texas, all of Texas. Now my tour goes to San Francisco, Vegas, Arizona, and New Mexico.
AVC: Is part of the reason you’re picking those areas that there are substantial Latin populations?
JL: Oh yeah. I like having my people in the house. I did a show in London and there were like, five Latin people. [Laughs.] There were a lot of Jamaicans and Indians, though.
AVC: You talk in Tales From A Ghetto Klown about how the audience for your shows changed over the course of a few weeks, just from people going to the show and spreading the word and having that change the tone of the audience.
JL: Oh yeah. Mambo Mouth, that started out as mainly people who regularly went to the theater. And then when it went on HBO, my audience totally changed. Fifty to 60 percent of my audience was Latin. And a lot of black people came, too.
AVC: Did the change in audience change the way you performed?
JL: It definitely gives you confidence and gives you steam. I like having everybody in the house. It’s a much more beautiful experience: When everyone laughs together, it feels like healing, and like we’re getting at some sort of understanding. It’s a beautiful religious experience. It was amazing to feel like you can talk to all these people and see that they really get what you’re feeling. I could feel that what I was saying was hitting some people so hard, mostly the Latin people. They were always very vocal. [Laughs.] But you get that sense and that became part of my show too, watching the Latin people watching themselves. I’m here to inspire.