A talented actor and monologist, John Leguizamo has won critical acclaim for his one-man shows and diverse body of film work. A student at The Actors Studio, Leguizamo first received widespread attention for his one-man show Mambo Mouth, later filmed for television as Spic-O-Rama. He's since taken on a slew of prominent roles in films, including 1993's Carlito's Way, 1997's The Pest, 1999's Summer Of Sam, and this summer's Moulin Rouge, all of which showcase his manic energy and flair for improvisation. Leguizamo also created and starred in the short-lived Fox sketch-comedy series House Of Buggin', and wrote and starred in Freak, the Spike Lee-directed, Emmy-winning television adaptation of his 1998 one-man show. He's currently touring the country with his show Live. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Leguizamo about The Pest, typecasting, and the joys of improvisation.
The Onion: Tell me about your latest show.
John Leguizamo: It's my fourth and last show, and I'm doing a 26-city tour of America. I've never toured before, so I'm finding it very crazy and exciting. It's like a bunch of one-night stands. Lots of crazy sex and then move on, get the hell out of town before they wake up. This one's about relationships, dating, trying to get women to give it up, being in bad relationships, being the fuck-up in the relationship, marriage, divorce, moving on.
O: Is it more difficult to do a one-man show about personal things?
JL: Yeah, it's always crazy. You always run the danger of being sued and offending and alienating everyone you love. Starting with Freak, I had to deal with it constantly. You know, family dinners became a forum for people to lash out at me. They're all like, "How about if we wrote a show about you? You wouldn't like that, huh? About all your bad little habits?!"
O: Why is this your final show?
JL: It's just too damn hard. Having a family and everything, it's just too damn hard. I'll do other people's plays and everything, but as far as writing one-man shows, I think this one is going to be the last. They're hard, man. I've been writing this one for the last two years. And now I'll be performing it for about two months, which will take me all the way to September.
O: You've played a wide range of roles over the course of your career. How have you been able to avoid typecasting?
JL: By saying no. I've just tried not to do pictures that were offensive or retarded or stupid. I just wouldn't do it. I wouldn't do stuff like that, so I ended up writing a lot more than I acted.
O: When did you begin acting?
JL: In high school. I went to a really competitive type of class-clown school. And I'm not talking Barnum & Bailey's, either. But everyone was a clown, and I had to compete; I had to come up with material every day for school. Because we had a little roundtable, and these guys would sit around, and you'd have to be really sharp just to keep up. So I'd sit down and write a bunch of jokes the night before, just to keep up with them. I was in a lot of trouble in high school, and my math teacher suggested I should do stand-up or acting or something, so I did.
O: Starting out, what kind of roles were you offered?
JL: Well, a lot of them were gang members, and a lot were villainous roles and subservient roles. That's why I began writing my own stuff, because I found the roles that I was being offered really disheartening and insulting.
O: How do you think being a writer has affected your acting?
JL: Every movie I've ever done, I've improvised. I think it made my work a lot funnier and a lot better, because every movie I've done, I've had the courage to rewrite my lines.
O: Have you ever encountered a director who wasn't okay with that?
JL: No, they like it. In Moulin Rouge, my scene with Ewan McGregor, I wrote that. Toward the third act, I wrote that scene.
O: So it comes with the territory that when you hire John Leguizamo, he's going to improvise?
JL: Yeah. They should know that and be prepared. Actually, there was once another actor who didn't really like the fact that I was improvising a lot, so we had a fight. But in the final cut, all my ad-libs were in, so we know who won that battle.
O: Have you given any thought to directing?
JL: I'm definitely considering it, but I'm just looking for the right screenplay, because you generally only get one shot as a director. And then, if you don't do well, it's like, "See ya!" It's such a fucking cliché. Everybody wants to direct. My grandfather, as he was entering his grave, that was almost the last thing he said… [Adopts old-man voice.] "John, one last request: I just want to direct."
O: Looking at your filmography, you've only really carried one film, The Pest. How did that come about?
JL: I really wanted to make a movie, so my best friend at the time, we wrote a treatment together, and I bet him $1,000 that he couldn't write the screenplay for it. Then he had it written in three days. Maybe that shows a little. And then I wrote a lot of the gags, the opening shower sequence, the tortures, a lot of stuff.
O: Were you anxious about carrying the entire film yourself?
JL: Yeah. I wasn't really prepared for the amount of responsibility it was going to take. I have a lot more respect for lead actors now that I've been in their shoes. I was like, "Wow." You really have to be on top of everything, and you can't slack on anything. It's not like they just ask you what you want, either. You have to fight for everything. When I'm doing my one-man shows, I just say what it is, and then it is, but in movies, they don't listen to you. They can't, because you're dealing with a corporation.
O: Can you see yourself starring in another Pest-type movie any time soon?
JL: Yeah. But I'd probably do things a little differently, like not having it be written in three days. You know, maybe it'd be more like a month. A month would be cool. I kinda fucked up.
O: Another project where you had a lot of creative control was the TV series House Of Buggin'. What led you to create the show?
JL: There were no Latin-themed shows on television, and I wanted to do a Latin show. Everybody wanted me to do a sitcom, but I was like, "Nah, I want to do something really dangerous, like a variety show." And so I got my wish. But sometimes you've got to be careful what you wish for. They put me on the air for two shows and I didn't have any more, so I had to go off the air so we could make two more. It's the toughest thing I've ever done.
O: Why name it House Of Buggin'?
JL: "Buggin'" was my favorite word growing up. You know, "You're bugging, you're bugging out." Everybody always said that to me. So that's what I named the show, House Of Buggin'.
O: Why do you think there are so few successful sketch-comedy shows?
JL: It's really tough. The thing is, Mad TV just took my whole crew and kicked me out, so you know… [Laughs.] Something was successful there. They kept the writers, some of the producers, some of the same actors, the same crew. I was like, "Oh, so I guess I'm just too difficult for you."
O: You mentioned that House Of Buggin' was one of the first television shows with a largely Latino cast. Do you feel like things have gotten better for Latinos in the entertainment industry since then?
JL: It's much, much better. It's not what it should be. In terms of the population, we're like 12 or 14 percent of the entire population, but we're only like 3 percent of the representation in the media. But the 3 percent that are out there are really kicking ass. You know, Jennifer Lopez, Benicio Del Toro, Benjamin Bratt, they're doing revolutionary work. We're all pioneers, breaking ground, changing people's minds about what the Latino image is. I know a lot of kids started acting because of Mambo Mouth, and they wanted to become comedians, or act because of that. So I'm like, "Hell, yeah, go for it. Go for yours."
O: One of your first big roles was in Super Mario Bros. Were you ever concerned that if the movie was a big hit, you'd forever be known as Luigi?
JL: Well, to a lot of 8-year-olds, I'm still just Luigi. Eight-year-olds run up to me and are like, "Luigi, Luigi Mario, it's Luigi!" And I'm like, "Okay, there's no accounting for kids' tastes."
O: What was the filming of Super Mario Bros. like?
JL: Horrible. It was a nightmare. We were filming in a cement factory that the EPA had closed, so we were all coming down with white lung and asthma and all kinds of other diseases. It was just not fun. It was a really painful set, and a really bad experience. But it was the most fun I had off-set. I was partying, drinking, and hanging out, enjoying my life.
O: Is it difficult to invest a lot of yourself and your personality into a film like that, where it's kind of a mega-production?
JL: Yeah, definitely. The thing was, the people who were doing the movie wouldn't allow us to bring our personalities to the film. That was really frustrating. Because we really wanted to be ourselves, and they fought that every step of the way. I just said, "I'm just going to try to enjoy myself in this town, and then leave."
O: What's the best and worst part of being a character actor?
JL: Well, I guess the best part is getting to be somebody else, and the worst part is that sometimes people don't recognize you, because you've immersed yourself so far into the character.
O: Do you consider yourself a Method actor?
JL: Definitely. I studied at Lee Strasberg's school [The Actors Studio]. He died the day after I arrived, but I stayed on for two more years.
O: So, when you were playing Luigi, how did you prepare for the role?
JL: Well, with Luigi, I played a lot of video games, a lot of the Super Mario games. I tried to become the master at all of those. I hung out with some Italian people, because the characters were supposed to be Italian.
O: Did you do any plumbing?
JL: I did do some plumbing. They taught me how to work the wrench, the monkey wrench, so I kind of had to do a bit of training, to be honest with you.
O: The film version of Spawn also involved a lot of special effects and computer animation. Were you more comfortable making that film?
JL: Super Mario Bros. was the first time I had to deal with a lot of blue-screen, but by the time I did Spawn I was comfortable with it. It's weird, though. You're talking to imaginary tape marks where the actors are supposed to be. The actors are never there, so that was really creepy, and I hated it. By the time I got to Spawn, I was like, "Okay, I can handle this. I might even be able to do cool stuff with this."
O: In Carlito's Way, you make a striking impression even though you're only in a few scenes. When you first read the script for the film, did you have any conception that it would go on to become such a memorable character?
JL: No. I turned it down, like, four times. I just felt that it wasn't enough of a part. Luckily, [Brian] De Palma and I had worked together on Casualties Of War, so he let me improvise my ass off. I totally went off. I created this character, you know, all the bizarre back story, that he's a go-getter who can't wait to meet Pacino. I think that was the first time I really felt like I had found myself in movies. That was a great time.
O: You've worked with De Palma, Spike Lee, Baz Luhrmann. Who's been your favorite director to work with?
JL: Each one brings something different to the table. I'll always love De Palma, because Carlito's Way was where I found myself in film. And then, with Summer Of Sam and Spike, it was my best acting work to date. Each one has different fond memories for me. When acting in movies is good, it's really, really great, but when it's bad, it can really, really suck.
O: Why do you think Summer Of Sam didn't receive a better reception?
JL: Could it be because it was Disney? Because of the subject matter, that it's a serial-killer movie from Disney? At least the dog talked.
O: As a celebrity, why do you think the culture is so obsessed with celebrities?
JL: I think it's because films and television are such a huge part of our culture. Kids become fixated at such an early age, it becomes a big part of your dream landscape. It's sort of unhealthy. I guess celebrities are kind of our royalty, even though we aren't supposed to have royalty.
O: How has having children affected your work?
JL: I think it's affected it for the better. I'm not going to take anything from now on unless it's a genius part. I'm not going to take roles thinking that I can fix them, because you really can't. I'm not going to be Mr. Fix-It anymore.
O: As somebody who has done a lot of theater, is it frustrating to have to wait around so much when you're working on movies?
JL: It is. But after a while, you realize that it's a great time to do stuff. You have time to call people, you can catch up on your sleep. I do a lot of my writing then, because it's a great time to work.
O: How did you end up on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
JL: I guess they were doing Celebrity Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, so they called up and asked me if I'd do it. So it was me, Ben Stiller, Chevy Chase, and Jason Alexander, and I guess I just had the fastest finger. It was great. I got up to $125,000, and I had the right answer. The question was, "Who was America's first poet laureate," and I said "Robert Penn Warren," but then my charity behind me was like, "Please, John, no!" So I polled the audience, and they all picked Robert Frost. And I'm going, "No, it's Robert Penn Warren," and they're going, "Please, John, no, it's for the kids!" So I'm like, "All right." So I phoned a friend, and he didn't know, so I said, "Robert Penn Warren." And they're like, "No, no, Robert Frost!" So I said, "Robert Frost," and they're like, "No, thanks for playing!" And I'm like, "No, no!" So they're like, "But, as a consolation prize, we give $36,000 to your charity!" And I'm like, "But I had the right answer!"
O: What was your charity?
JL: The East Harlem Tutorial. They have a brownstone in Spanish Harlem, and they have tons of computers.
O: Were they disappointed?
JL: I made them feel bad. I said, "You could have had $125,000. Do you know how many mouse pads that is?"