Comedian-actor John Leguizamo

The Emmy-winning comedian-actor explains why he created the successful one-man show, Ghetto Klown, and discusses why, growing up, he didn’t feel like he was a part of the U.S.

John Leguizamo makes his living as both a comic performer and a serious dramatic actor and writes, produces and directs many of his projects. He began writing and testing his material in high school and was the only Latino in drama class at NYU. Although he was often told to change his name and lose the accent, Leguizamo instead used his troubled childhood and rough surroundings to his advantage. He has numerous film credits and an Emmy for his work on TV and is currently on tour with his solo show, Ghetto Klown, which recently wrapped its Broadway run.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome John Leguizamo back to this program. The Emmy-winning actor has once again found success on stage with his latest one-man production, “Ghetto Klown,” following a very successful run on Broadway. The show is now here in Los Angeles through October 16 at the Ricardo Montalban Theater. Here now a scene from “Ghetto Klown.”


Tavis: So you’re putting all your business in the street or on the stage?

John Leguizamo: Yeah, all the dirty laundry, all the linens, the underwear. It’s all there for everybody to see. But I have control over it, so I’m okay.

Tavis: We just hit on it, but tell me the construct of this particular one-man show.

Leguizamo: Well, this one is a sort of a portrait of a young man as an artist, like the James Joyce story, but portrait of a middle-aged artist. So it’s that whole journey of how I got started, why did I continue the failures, the successes, the problems, the people who blocked me, the people who boosted me. You know, I pay tribute or I get revenge [laugh]. However you played in that game, that’s how you’re gonna get played back.

Tavis: To your point of tribute or revenge, what’s the takeaway for the person sitting in the audience other than, of course, laughing with you? Because your stuff is always funny. But what’s the takeaway from this one-man show?

Leguizamo: Total inspiration. I mean, that’s why I did it. I did it ’cause, you know, I saw a tragic statistic that 45% of Latin kids drop out of school and I was like that’s a tragedy; how could that be. But then I understood, when I was growing up, I didn’t feel like I was really part of the United States or that the dream was – it was a discounted dream, you know?

So I was like I’m gonna show these kids that I came from the same thing that they came from and I made it. It wasn’t easy, it still isn’t easy, but it’s doable if you just can find a way to hook into a dream and believe, you know.

Tavis: You came to this country when you were just two, I think, two or three – as if you remember [laugh]. Your mom and dad told you that you came here when you were about two or three.

To your point, though, when you started to come into your own and you felt like the dream – I love that phrase, the dream. The American dream for you was a discounted dream. What was happening in New York City that was making you feel that way? Because so many people in New York came as immigrants.

Leguizamo: Right, right. The majority, yeah.

Tavis: Exactly. So what made you feel like the American dream was discounted for you or your kind?

Leguizamo: Well, you just didn’t feel like – you didn’t see yourself on television. You didn’t see yourself in movies and radio. You just didn’t see yourself where everybody else because movies and the media is kind of like it creates a dreamscape.

So if you’re not seeing yourself there, you don’t feel like it’s part of that dreamscape, you know, that that’s your future, that’s how people project themselves. If you don’t see yourself reflected back, you feel kind of invisible. You feel like you don’t exist.

Like all my friends, we didn’t feel like we were gonna make it or anything. I was just school class clown and that was it. Someday I’ll get a job as a cab driver or whatever. People have to intervene. You have to have mentors, so I have big ups for mentors ’cause you can’t make it without that.

You know, I had a math teacher, I had the Fresh Air Fund, I had the Youth Counseling League, I had all those programs that helped me. Then I had financial aid until Reagan took it away and, all of a sudden, everything started closing up for me.

Tavis: Yeah. It doesn’t sound like a tribute to Reagan in this one-man show.

Leguizamo: No, no, there isn’t. Too many things started disappearing that were helping everybody at that time. You know, “catsup is a vegetable” was one of the Reaganisms.

Tavis: I remember that, yeah.

Leguizamo: “Trees pollute” was another one. That was just a fascinating president.

Tavis: When did you figure out that comedy was your gift, that was your calling, and how did you make the turn? I mean, there are a whole bunch of folks who were class clowns. I mean, at one point, I was the class clown.

Leguizamo: Oh, yeah [laugh]?

Tavis: Oh, yeah. I know a lot of folk who were class clowns, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you discovered that comedy is your gift and the route you wanted…

Leguizamo: Or that I could make a living at it.

Tavis: That’s your calling. How did you figure that out?

Leguizamo: Well, it was interesting. You know, my math teacher, Mr. Steve Sufa [sp], well, he used to call me Squizamo. “If they can take moldy bread and turn it into penicillin, we can make something of you. You have an ability. Stop annoying me in the class and become a comedian or an actor.” So he pushed me and I went to the yellow pages back then and I found this acting teacher, Sylvia Lee, and I went to study with her.

I started studying, man, and I found myself there. I felt like this is me. This is the thing that I can do. This is my gift and I went for it. I studied with Lee Strasburg, Herbert Berghof. I found the greatest teachers and I was always the only Latin kid in the class and they took me under their wing and boosted me.

Tavis: You raised the issue now a couple of times and obviously fans of yours know that you’re Latin. But how has the American dream specifically you think changed, enhanced, been diminished, challenged? You tell me. What’s the American dream, you think, for Latin Americans now versus when you were coming up?

Leguizamo: Well, you know, it’s interesting ’cause we’re in an interesting time. We’re in a recession and the recession creates scapegoats. You know, things had improved. They were really improving for Latin people. We had Jimmy Smits on “NYPD Blue,” we signed Morales afterwards. We even had a Latin guy in space. We had Eddie Olmos. Then you feel like you lived.

When I was little, I used to watch “Star Trek.” There were no Latin people. I thought we weren’t gonna be in the future. I thought our lives were gonna be over. Now we’ve got Latin directors, producers and all of a sudden you got people wanting to check for IDs in Arizona and creating immigrants as a scapegoat. So it’s kind of weird thing like a schizophrenic situation going on.

Tavis: Do you think, on balance, we’re making progress or are we falling back since there’s a weird balance, to use your phrase?

Leguizamo: I think we are making progress in a lot of ways. I mean, if you’re here and you’re in the right programs and you’re an athlete. Definitely if you’re an athlete, you know, you’re gonna be having all the baseball fame you can have, you know. That’s the great thing about baseball and sports. You can measure ability, you know.

You got a stat; you can’t deny that person regardless of color, accent or whatever. Everything else is a little tougher to judge somebody’s quality, you know, and sometimes it’s not about ability. It’s about, you know, I’m just more comfortable with people who are like me than the people who are not.

Tavis: I’m just curious. When you’ve lived the kind of rich and full life that you’ve lived, how do you go about…

Leguizamo: And it will continue. It’s not over yet [laugh]. I got plenty more to go.

Tavis: Knock on wood, yeah.

Leguizamo: That ain’t wood, that’s plastic, okay. I know you mean well [laugh].

Tavis: How do you go about constructing a one-man show? I mean, how do you figure out what pieces and what parts of your life fit into this 90-minute narrative?

Leguizamo: Well, it’s crazy. You know, I had stopped performing “Sexoholix.”

Tavis: It’s like ten years, yeah.

Leguizamo: You know, I’m a perfectionist and sometimes that kind of works against you and I got shut down. I got stuck doing one of the shows that I didn’t want to perform anymore.

Then I got asked to do “College Talk,” so I started doing that, but I was mad, nervous, I would drink a little, and I took my resume and put it in these cars and I would talk and the kids started laughing and I’d recall certain events of my career. Then I would run home quickly and type it down before I passed out and that became the show.

My career was the center for the show like talking about, you know, like working with Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal, Sean Penn, Baz Luhrmann, Brian De Palma. Then it became sort of what does it take to be an artist and how do you continue with all the ups and downs and what’s the point of it all really? Is it success? Is it fame? Is it finding your own path, your own voice?

Tavis: To your point now, what is the point of it all for you?

Leguizamo: The point, I went back to what it was at the beginning, self-expression. That’s all I was in the game for. I wasn’t in it for money; I wasn’t in it for fame or recognition. I was in it for self-expression.

Then after a while, you know, you get perverted by the fame and the niceties and, you know, the swag and all that. You want it all and then this show got me back to that. I wanted to enjoy the process, man. I wanted to enjoy just being on stage and giving back and the feedback, and that’s why this show got to be as raw and as rich as it could be.

Tavis: I was in a conversation with some friends about this the other day, about this notion, John, of self-expression. I’m all for self-expression and yet I wonder whether or not we’re living at a time in a world where people have gotten caught up with self-expression, where everybody thinks that they have to express everything they think, everything they do, everything they feel and the evidence of it, Exhibit A, is social networking or social media, rather, social media.

Everybody now feels that they’re entitled to self-expression. There are no limits, there are no lines. People just put everything out there. Have we taken self-expression too far?

Leguizamo: No, because that’s not true self-expression. I mean, there’s a lot of anonymity going on. People can be anonymous when they go on blogs and say crazy things that they would never have the courage to say to your face.

It’s a strange expression. You know, sometimes it’s just a dark side of people that they wouldn’t have the courage to say. Self-expression, to me, is something that you worked on, that you have mastered a skill to say something in the most artful way that you can. It’s not just blurting stuff out and having verbal diarrhea.

That’s not self-expression. That’s just saying whatever comes off the top of your head. Self-expression is something that you’ve crafted, man, something that you’ve found. You’ve practiced on that piano for hours, you didn’t hang out with your buddies, you didn’t go after the girls, you stayed in your own little geeky room or you wrote for hours.

You know, that’s self-expression. It takes time to understand yourself, to go inside yourself and to question yourself and really take yourself to task. That’s self-expression. The rest is just, you know, the same B.S. that we had back in the day. What was the books that you would pass around and go, “I like Yvette over there in C-3” and they passed the book around. You know, that’s just…

Tavis: I like that phrase, “verbal diarrhea.”

Leguizamo: A lot of teachers used to say it to me, so that’s where I got it [laugh].

Tavis: That’s where you learned it.

Leguizamo: That’s where that tag came from, yeah.

Tavis: I want to close on that note. I was just about to ask you a question about that and here you set me up again. So by my account, given your last reference, four times in this conversation, you referenced teachers.

I want to close by asking a question about that. We just premiered here on PBS a few weeks ago a prime time special called “Too Important to Fail.” The banks were too big to fail. These young folk today are too important to fail.

So a prime time special aired here a few weeks ago on PBS, still airing on stations across the country, about the crisis in education, specifically as it rates to young, Black boys. We’re doing a number of these specials, but the first one was about Black boys. And the same stats about Black boys are true, as you mentioned, about Hispanic boys.

Leguizamo: Is it the same 45%?

Tavis: For Black boys, 50%. Only 50% finish high school.

Leguizamo: It’s harsh, tragic.

Tavis: It’s harsh, exactly. So not that far apart. The question is, tell me more about the important role that teachers play in the lives of young people.

I ask that because every one of these boys almost to a person, you know, talked about the folk in their lives who did care, the folk who didn’t care, and one of the things that came out of that is the important role that teachers really do play, whether they know it or not, in shaping the lives.

Every teacher is remembered, either remembered or you’re forgotten. And if you’re remembered, you’re remembered for something good or something tragic. But teachers play such an important role. Tell me more about these teachers that you keep referencing.

Leguizamo: Well, teachers are everything, man. I mean, you’re a poor kid from the ghetto, your parents are busy working 24/7, working like a Mexican, you know.

My mom was a secretary by day, Avon lady by weekend, sweat shop factory. My father was a taxi, doorman, just working. They can’t be there because they’re trying to make ends meet. Who’s taking care of the kids? The teachers. And if those teachers can just inspire or really reach a kid and tell them that they’re special and find out what they’re special at.

You know, in private school, my kids are getting that all day long, but in the poor neighborhoods, it’s a little harder. When you have 65 or 45 kids, whatever the number is, it’s hard. But you can have those inspiring teachers who can reach out to the whole class and motivate it.

I had those teachers. I had a few of those. You need all of them, but you need a few to touch you and make you feel like you’re worth something and help you a little bit to figure out what your path is because you also got to figure out how to steer these kids into something that’s their ability, their specialty.

Tavis: My time is up. I’ve got to run in 30 seconds. Since you mentioned your kids, are you at all concerned, given where you started and what you have been blessed to have, that these kids that you are now raising in private school are gonna end up jumping off the track because they’re being given access and exposure to some…

Leguizamo: No, I create adversity at home [laugh]. I create plenty of adversity at home because I know it’s important and it made me, so their life is not as easy as it looks on the outside.

Tavis: I got it. His name is John Leguizamo, as if you didn’t know. His new show is called “Ghetto Klown.” If you are in the Los Angeles area between now and October 16, you can check him out the Ricardo Montalban Theater. I love saying that name, Ricardo Montalban.

Leguizamo: I know, Ricardo Montalban, nice Corinthian leather seats we have here.

Tavis: I love that commercial. I remember that. Good to see you, John.

Leguizamo: A pleasure.

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Last modified: October 17, 2011 at 2:32 pm