BY CHESLEY TURNER
John Leguizamo is a man of the people. The fiery, impassioned Latino took a moment to talk with Moves about stereotypes, presidency, and Ghetto Clown. And although his latest one-man-show has you laughing out loud at his brazen confidence, he hasn’t always been able to focus that disruptive energy into constructive output.
I mean, we were all teenagers once, right?
“I needed a lot of attention back then. I needed to have fun and…shake the establishment.” Leguizamo says he grew up in a strict, heavily-disciplined home, “sort of military…even though my dad wasn’t in the military.” His response? To bring the anarchy. “I was kind of funny in school and I was very disruptive. But you know, people would laugh, and teachers would laugh and then that was a mistake because you know if they laughed I knew I had them, and I would never relent. I’d always be chasing that smirk or that hidden laugh.”
But instead of just being the class clown, the disruption multiplied and his grades suffered. Then came the arrests and the threat of expulsion, at which point he knew he had a choice to make. Luckily, the intercession of a handful of interested adults helped him get back on track. “You can’t really do it yourself, when you come from where I come from. You can’t really fix yourself without other people. So I’ve always been cognizant of that.” He cites his math teacher, his stepmom, his parents, and a few other teachers as the adults that really took the time to reach him.
“’You know, you’ve got a lot of talent, and you’re really smart. You should do a lot more with your life,’” they told him. “And then, you know, it all made sense. One day when I was 17 and I was like, ‘You know what? I gotta change my life around.’”
That’s when he looked up “Acting School” in the Yellow Pages. And that’s when everything changed.
Now, years later, Leguizamo is raising his own children. Allegra and Lucas are challenging him to be the motivating adult that he so needed during his own youth. “It doesn’t matter where you start. I mean, you still gotta find yourself, you know? I mean, that’s the thing you gotta find. Your gift, or your lane in life, so to speak. You find that talent and life becomes a joy. It’s not about success and fame and all that. It’s about finding that thing that you love to do. That’s what I tell my kids.” Passion is what makes life worth living, and Leguizamo challenges his own children to find what they’re passionate about. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out. But chasing the passion takes you to so many places.”
Leguizamo’s passion? Storytelling, in whatever form it happens to take. Ghetto Clown, his one-man show, had a lot of bells and whistles. He used mixed media – screens, projections, sound effects, music, lighting – to enhance the performance. But now he’s trying to tap into a more purist form of entertainment. Back to basics.
“I want to go away from all that. I want to go…to what storytelling is supposed to be. Just storytelling, and the power of language and words and gestures and looking at the audience and being with them. So you know where it all came from.”
Leguizamo also has a passion for people; getting to know who they are and where they come from. Sometimes that means really trying to make a connection with his audience. Sometimes it means just asking questions of the normal people in his everyday life. “It keeps you grounded, you know what I mean? It keeps you grounded. Every person I meet, I try to have a real conversation with them and include them in my life. You know? ‘Let’s go have coffee together and we’ll talk about some shit.’ And you get to find out a lot about what’s going on.” He mentions his trip to South Africa. He took his driver out to have lunch and used the opportunity to hear the real issues and problems that regular people experience in South Africa. Leguizamo also visits prisons to get in touch and give back. “I do a lot of stuff with GOSO at Rikers Island. So I go there and talk to the kids. I did a workshop with them.”
Sometimes it takes a little digging to find the truth of life. As a young Latino growing up in Queens, Leguizamo mentions that the Latino contributions to history were not always mentioned in school. “I read this article that said that 45 percent of Latin kids drop out of school. And I was going, ‘No wonder.’” He wasn’t surprised, because the integral role of Latinos in our history and society isn’t often recognized in classrooms. “There’s nothing that talks about (Latino) contributions to this country, or what we’re worth, or anything. So how do you feel that anything you’re doing has any value or is part of the American contribution?” This realization spurred some ongoing research over the past decade to find out more bout what the history books leave out. “I found all these Revolutionary War heroes, generals… and 10,000 Latin people fought in the Civil War. It’s like, wait a minute, what? The War of 1812, we were there. World War I, World War II. 500,000 Latin people fought in World War II. You never see one move with a World War I or World War II with one Latin soldier or Latin hero. It’s unbelievable.”
These discoveries are part of what fueled Leguizamo’s creativity. The instigation to create and contribute to the ongoing social and cultural make-up of America. Much of his work is integrally part of his heritage. Although, even with that confidence, the artist’s hesitancy can creep in.
“When I had Spic-O-Rama, I had a lot of success with that show, and a lot of offers to take it further. But I was afraid of success a little bit, that it would ruin me. I was afraid that my drive would go away I was really creative at the time, you know. I was at the height of my creative powers. And you know, you go into this panic mode that you’re going to lose it.” Don’t get too happy, too complacent, too successful, he warns, because these comforts dilute the potency of your art.
But now, with the success of Ghetto Clown, his one-man-show that was on HBO and is soon to be a graphic novel, that love of storytelling scored him one of the highest honors in the nation: a chance to meet the President.
“Oh my god, I love Obama. He’s just so open.” JFK, FDR, and Lincoln were Leguizamo’s go-to favorite American Presidents once upon a time, but they’ve all been superseded by President Obama, a man whom Leguizamo believes does everything from the heart. “He tries to do that right thing. Not the thing that’s gonna make him be a legend. Not the thing that’s gonna make him popular. But the thing that’s the right thing. It’s incredible.” Obama, as it turns out, is a Leguizamo fan. “He talked about my comedy…you know it was a trip. And then he dapped me. He dapped me! I was like, No way. I just dapped the President. That is the coolest thing that has ever happened in my life!”
It’s no wonder, then, that Leguizamo is watching the upcoming Presidential race with some interest. Trump, unsurprisingly, does not impress him. His comments about building a wall on the Mexican border, “maybe actually galvanized the Latin community, and people who are pro-Latin. Maybe this is gonna wake us all up so we’re not caught with our pants down.” Leguizamo is particularly disturbed by the perpetuation of misinformation by Trump and the Republican party. “Hopefully all the real facts will come out. Mexico isn’t sending all these immigrants here, because the majority of them go back…. And the thing about criminals is that immigrants are the least criminals in the world. They’ve proven it. The studies that they’ve done [show that] regular civilians commit many more crimes [on] average than immigrants. And immigrants live off our taxes? No, they don’t, because they pay taxes on everything they buy.” That’s the biggest problem with everything Trump said, thinks Leguizamo. It’s just wrong. “It was gibberish.”
But Leguizamo won’t be running for President any time soon. “Trump can really say, ‘Well, he wasn’t born here.’ And I’ll go, ‘Ah! You’re right!’ And then you know he’ll say, ‘You’re not Christian.’ And I’ll go, ‘Yeah, you’re kinda right about that, too!’” Leguizamo laughs at his joke, but then interjects a quick political opinion. “I mean, it’d be great to have Hilary be president. That would be amazing, that my daughter would see a woman President while I’m still alive.”
Look for Ghetto Clown in graphic novel form, which illustrates Leguizamo’s story from his youth to mid-life. The book was adapted from his stage play and includes much of the content that was cut from the HBO show version. In March, Infiltrator comes out, with Bryan Cranston and Leguizamo playing two CIA operatives who execute the biggest bank bust in history. “It’s one of the most exciting film sets I’ve ever been on. I mean, Bryan Cranston is just so generous, so cool, so open, and so damn talented it’s ridiculous.”