Published Jul 26, 2009For years, John Leguizamo has been flexing his versatility on the big screen by diving into roles for major and indie films, while holding his own alongside some of Hollywood's finest actors and directors. He first invaded North American living rooms with his unique brand of Latino-flavoured comedy when he created the Emmy Award-winning series House of Buggin'. His exploration of the Latino experience would continue with a series of one-man shows, where he would take on multiple roles to help tackle stereotypes, family drama and personal failures. Now, Leguizamo is at it again with his new stage show, Fugly, this time turning his comedic microscope on Hollywood's ego. On his recent trip to Toronto, Leguizamo talked to Exclaim! about Hollywood, AutoTune, and people wanting to punch him in the face.
You tend to be almost brutally honest in your one-man shows, and I know that your family hasn't been happy about all the stuff you talk about in your shows.
Well, I haven't talked to my father since Freaks - yeah, things weren't great before and they certainly didn't get better after, so that's done. My new one is about my career, but that's why I'm not doing it in New York or L.A.; I'm doing it everywhere else around the world.
So, are you worried about burning bridges with Hollywood too?
I've already heard from some people who saw, or heard. I've got some lawyers calling me and telling me to cease and desist, and some people want to punch me out or whatever, but you know, I think I need more time with the show before people see it. I need time to get real perspective on what I'm saying and why I'm saying it.
Who wants to punch you in the face man?
Some actors. I don't need to call attention to them saying that they're going to punch me out, because that just makes things worse.
You should put that in the press release, everyone is going to want to see the show now!
(Laughs) Yeah, especially the actors who want to punch me out. They might just buy tickets to come on stage and knock me out!
Well it's amazing how deep you go into your life and how much you reveal about yourself in your shows. Is it like therapy or something for you?
Yeah, it's like an emotional enema. I mean, I don't do it as a therapeutic thing, but it's a side benefit. I do it more because my heroes have been Eugene O'Neil, Richard Pryor, Spalding Gray, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg. They always said shit that's not easy, and is painful, and then they made it hilarious. I'm of that school of comedy.
It makes me think about Freak and how honest you get with how you were treated as a kid. There are bits where I'm laughing so hard but at the same time I can't help but think...
That's child abuse.
Yeah. So why am I laughing at this?
That's what I love to do, man, because I survived it. First of all, I'm here and it made me who I am today. I don't wish that on nobody; I don't wish that on my kids or nobody. Secondly, I forgive my parents for it. But we all experience some form of ...(Laughs) Life is not easy for nobody, man. It addresses a lot of feelings for a lot of people. I get letters from all over the world: Germany, Japan, Sweden. People relate. It makes people feel comfortable; it makes people feel like they can talk about it. My life wasn't SO severe - my life wasn't so debilitating.
It wasn't the Jacksons...
(Laughs) No, it wasn't like that. It was kinda like that, but without the talent and all the musical ability.
You're also known as Johnny Legs; rumour has it you used to break back in the day.
I used to break but I sucked. I wasn't like my friends. My friends invented hip-hop; my friends invented break dancing. Crazy Legs and them - they were great and I wasn't. They were phenomenal and I would just watch and try to rip it off, but I couldn't pull it off as well as they could.
How much did music inspire your creativity and your desire to perform?
Music was just a huge part of my family life, of my cultural life. Latinos have great music; how can you not move with this great music as part of your genetic DNA? And then hip-hop and clubbing, to me it was the end of disco and the beginning of hip-hop - so I love my disco as much as I love hip-hop.
So what are you listening to these days?
My tastes are eclectic and my tastes are kinda functional. Like, when I write I need to listen to classical music like Beethoven or Chopin, something that really disappears, but lets me continue to go deeper inside of myself and make me write. And when I'm done writing and I'm just relaxing from the writing it's all about jazz, which almost makes me think about being improvisational and being in that moment. But when I do my shows I have to listen to my hip-hop. Tony Touch made me a whole mess of breakbeats that I dance to before the show. James Brown always moves me, and Kanye West's new shit, I love the way he tries to communicate to people and not trying to be mass-produced and commercial.
What don't you like about music these days?
I'm done with auto-tune; do I have to start doing that to kill it? I'm going to start doing my plays like that.
I know you studied acting with some serious teachers, yet everyone thinks of you as more of a comedian. How did that happen?
I was funny in school, mad comedic. I used to get in trouble in school until this teacher, Mr. Zufa, pushed me towards comedy. But then I started to study acting with some of the top American acting teachers of all time before I started doing comedy. From the comedy I started doing the performance art clubs, and that's when I started doing my comedy stuff. So I was always following both at the same time. It was weird, because acting was my entry into comedy. Maybe that's why my comedy has so much drama in it.
And when you look at your entire filmography, you see a lot of variety to your work. How did you pick your roles?
I went where my heart told me. I tried not to let myself start feeling the pressures of being a product. I just tried to be a human being and just go where my passions were. It's harder for my career because it's much easier for corporate Hollywood if you're a product and you know what you are. If you're water, don't turn into soda, because I don't know how to market you. I don't have any regrets over my choices.
Was there a fear of being stereotyped?
People told me, "You don't want to be known as the Latino guy," but I said, "That's bullshit, man." I grew up with Latin people, there's no such thing as a Latin stereotype. We're everything; we're what you are. What you are, we are.
And now you're at this iconic Latino actor level where young Latino actors are looking at your work for inspiration, because you've always been the Latino willing to take the different roles.
And talking about being Latin, and talking about my family, and just creating my own shit about being Latino and "Latiness," and what that means and what it meant to me in all my difficulties. I think that's the difference; a lot of kids can relate to these stories and now they all want to be comedians. It would be amazing to have thousands of Latin kids competing in the future, cause it wasn't like that when I was coming up. I was the only Latin guy in my class a lot of times. Now it's not like that at all. There are tons of kids now that believe they can be and knowing they can be. I didn't know I could be, I just did it because I didn't really have a place to go. I just loved doing it and I didn't care if I was cast or not cast; I found venues to perform and that was good enough for me.
So how can Hollywood make it better for the next generation of Latino actors?
Do a lot of movies. How many white movies did it take to get Annie Hall? How many went down as crap before you got The Godfather. You just have to do a ton of it and you're going to get that great movie. But if you put all your eggs in one basket, it's tough. It's very unfair and it's ridiculous, and it's not the way it's going to work. Look at my one-man shows; they're very successful and people are paying $70 to come and see it. The market is there, the interest is there, just let us do it.
And now we've got a proposal for a wall to be built between Mexico and the U.S. As a Latino living in America, how does that make you feel?
That always happens during economic crisis. They find a scapegoat and that's what America is doing. It's an incredible time to be Latin and it's a tough time to be Latin. They killed that Ecuadorian kid and his brother in Brooklyn, they killed that Ecuadorian kid in Long Island and they killed that Mexican kid talking with his little friend in Pennsylvania. Mexicans are getting clubbed with baseball bats in trailer parks - all these vigilante groups at the border. It's unacceptable; it's like you're back to the time of lynching.
You did the voice of the rats in Dr. Doolittle and you're the voice of the sloth in Ice Age. What's up? Are you being type-casted as rodents in the animation world?
(Laughs) Naw man, naw. I just straight up love animation. Miyazaki is a god to me. Isn't Up a Miyazaki Castle in the Sky rip-off? It's a lil' rip-offish; where did you get that idea, Disney?