Traditionally, Latinos don’t get the juicy roles. Zorro’s always an Anglo under the mask, much like Charlie Chan or Miss Saigon. Richard Kiley got Quixote, Marlon Brando played Emiliano Zapata. Wasn’t Charlton Heston El Cid, and which oddball cast Rita Moreno in West Side Story with all those white folks? The real exception: the Cisco Kid, played by Duncan Reynaldo, but O. Henry wrote the story, so go figure.
Our Cinderella story reads like this: Audaciously versatile Hispanic actor seizes Manhattan by the throat and throttles it as his career reaches rocket velocity. John Leguizamo’s one-man review, Mambo Mouth, continues to wow them at the American Place Theatre, while his images address us daily from all manner of media. Fast doings for a Colombian-born homeboy raised in Brooklyn, who almost fell onto the wrong side of the tracks. At 26-years-old, John already has an idea of what fame means. I began our conversation at El Teddy’s by asking him about the parts he’s played in the past three years.
John Leguizamo Since ‘87, let’s see, I did two plays at the Public. Bing bing. Then I did Revenge and three episodes of Miami Vice, a film with Harrison Ford which isn’t out yet, Regarding Henry. In it, I have a small but crucial part. I shoot him, run over his body and leave.
Stanley Moss That’s not the part you’re going to be getting in the future.
JL Things are changing, and I think Hispanic people are making it change, and I’m going to do my best to make it change, you know? Not just sit back and wait for things to happen, ‘cause they’re not going to happen by themselves. It’s all business, I don’t even think it’s prejudice or racism. People don’t think a Hispanic can carry a movie and make their money back.
SM There are a few exceptions though, Eddie Olmos.
JL I don’t see the studios banking a big role for him as a lead in something. Stand and Deliver was ultra-low budget, done with American Playhouse. We’re at an independent film level. That’s the only way we’re going to make our changes. Hollywood does not think that Hispanic people are of interest to a larger market. We have to prove it ourselves. And if they make money and succeed, people are going to start hearing our voices and that way, we’ll eventually take our place where we belong.
SM Is there a message that you’re always trying to put forward in your work?
JL I think the most important message that’s come through is the fact that I’m doing what I’m doing. When I did a performance for an alternative high school, the kids wrote me letters and said it’s so good to see a Hispanic person up on stage like that. And some other kid wrote, “Americans aren’t the only ones that can act, Latin people can act, too.” They felt validated. They feel because I’m doing it, they can do it.
SM So you think that the aspect of being a role model is…
JL I hate the word “role model,” ’cause I always see role models as this saintly, martyred kind of thing.
JL I feel more like a frontiersman, let’s put it that way. A pioneer getting up there and making the waves for other people to come in afterwards, that’s all.
SM I see the major aspect of your work as the heroic quality all your characters possess.
JL They’re marginal characters but they have a strong sense of survival. They had so many obstacles but nothing was going to stop them. They were always going to continue to do what they wanted to do. Like my aunt, who still wants to open up a little restaurant. You meet people in the street, like the transvestites. I went down and talked to them. They were so much more fascinating and full of life. They had so much grace and chutzpah. But you know their lives are different than ours. Just that they projected a sense of humor was really amazing. Self-empowerment, that’s the most important thing and to create our own venues. For PBS, I’m trying to find the reason why, being the numbers that we are, how come we’re not represented equally? I feel the pie is this much, we should get that much of the pie. It seems like I’m gonna get to the place that I want to get to. I mean I just did my first half-hour comedy special for Ha. I always want to portray Hispanic people as witty as possible. And comedy has a lot to do with intelligence.
SM Most people can’t write for themselves, though. They can only portray what’s written for them. You are interested in both performing and writing for yourself, a greater challenge.
JL That’s not as daunting as it seems, I think it’s modern necessity. The other day my mom was saying, “John, the reason that you wrote the plays was because the roles you were offered were so stupid, and so one-dimensional, so ridiculous.” If I had gotten good roles that were juicy and meaty, I don’t think I would have ever set out to write as much as I do. When I go to movies or I watch TV I feel left out. I know my people are funny.
SM What’d PBS ask for?
JL 20-minute piece, whole bunch of sketches. I came up with these bios of my home life, my mom, my aunt and my home boys and home girls hangin’ out together and we’re goofin’. I played Donny Legs, this obnoxious, Hispanic Bugs Bunny type, and then I had all the other people peripheral to the character working with me on location. That’s the thing I’m hopefully doing for HBO, write a couple of specials and make them with all Hispanic casts about Hispanic themes. Pioneering on HBO. Tomorrow I have a meeting with Norman Lear. He wants to develop a TV show, and I have some ideas.
SM Is there some ideological breakthrough that has to be made by the community?
JL Yeah, we have to organize. We have to have a sense of organization and unification.
SM Are you afraid of assimilation?
JL People used to tell me, “John, change your name, you could pass for other things.” And now some other people are saying, “You’re not going to limit yourself to playing Hispanics, are you?” And the word limit, why, you think Hispanic’s a handicap? I see it as a rich mind that I’m going to tap to death. I think we’ve gotten to a point where being Hispanic and Latin and having your inner-urban, inner-city behavior is okay and cool, and accepted.
SM How do you develop a character?
JL I can’t work with tape recorders. I haven’t learned the method. What I do is jot down tons of stuff in longhand. I carry these little pads, and I write lines and lines. Later I go through all of them and put it in my computer. I do a little free association, and I keep writing things that come to my head whatever blah blah blah. Later on I’ll look at it, add to it. Then I stand up and perform it, and when I start reading, that’s when it starts to change. I sort it out intellectually and visually.
SM Do you watch yourself on video? Do you use photography?
JL No, it’s my ear and what I feel.
SM In the movie, Hangin’ With the Homeboys…
JL When’d you see it, Stanley?
SM I saw it the night that the director got busted.
JL (laughter) Oh, that night!
SM I loved the moment where you did that swaggering walk…
JL Oh, that little bop?
SM Yeah, I’ve seen so many people do that walk.
JL Put down that bop, they do that bop.
SM It was so familiar, so right on the money. You said it was a tough role for you to do.
JL Every time I have a role I always relate to it somehow. But I have attributes that this character did not have, so it made me uncomfortable giving up a lot of my own personality.
SM He was very mild, humble…
JL That was difficult for me because that’s not the way I see myself. I had to block a lot and be this simple character who’s moralistic and it was depressing. During the movie I had to try to get through it, I will get through this, I will make the best I can.
SM And yet, it’s such a successful performance. In your Broadway show, Mambo Mouth, you moved from a very small theater that had 80 seats, to a larger theater and a larger stage. What’s the difference?
JL Big, big difference. First of all voice, man. I have to project everything so much louder and that changed my performances. The response of the laughter, if it starts here, it sometimes builds and picks up waves so I have to wait longer to speak. It changes the rhythm. The way I used to do things in that little space, I could get away with more profile, more talking this way. Now everything has to be larger and more facing this way.
SM You perform in several different media.
JL Yeah, totally different. TV, film, and theater. With theater you have to try and make it fresh each night which is easier because you had a whole day to forget. And film you’re doing it right then and there, over and over. You can allow smaller feelings and the camera will pick it up. On stage, things that I do that are great, some people don’t see. Theater is an actor’s medium, film is a director’s medium.
SM And TV?
JL TV is a producer’s medium. It’s all about “quick, quick, fast, fast, O.K. that’s not enough time to rehearse, just get this quick…” Your personality has to cover all the inadequacies. The lack of rehearsals, the sloppiness of the material.
SM Do you foresee staying mostly in the performance arena?
JL When I’m 35, I want to be a director. I don’t want to be an actor after 35.
SM Do you see any hazards on the horizon? Like are they going to try to make you a sex symbol?
JL I’m scared in a lot of ways. I want to have the control over what I do but how do you have the wisdom if you haven’t been through it? I don’t want to be manufactured or shaped into something. But now things have gotten bigger so other people are helping me make my choices. It’s turning over my power because it’s too much for me, I can’t read every script that comes my way because I don’t have the time. So I allow somebody else to say, “This is what you should do.”
SM Are you more stressed now?
JL Oh, absolutely. During the Ha special, I almost lost my voice because I was over-rehearsing. I was tired and beat-up looking. But it was a thrill. I did three new characters, Mambo Mouth, Futuristic, but TV… let’s not say it’s a sequel because it’s more TV. I tried to put depth, but TV doesn’t want too much depth, depth annoys it. TV is this monster that wants to please everyone. And once you want to please everyone…
SM Cuisinart culture, you just put it in and flip the switch and mrrrrrr.
JL It’s disgusting, but I overcame it. The challenge was so fantastic, and it was hysterical. I was amazed with the characters that I created and how funny and how sick they were. You always have that question, can I top myself?
SM On a higher, philosophical plane, have you achieved any kind of equanimity?
JL Some things have improved in my life, and some things haven’t. But I am a lot more peaceful with who John Leguizamo is. I am more able to be alone.
SM Was that a problem before?
JL I always felt that I was missing out on something or that I should be out socializing. Now I realize that my time is valuable.
SM Is there anything more that you want to add?
JL Well does BOMB have any Hispanic readers? (laughter)
SM Yes, hell yes.
JL I would say, it’s about support. We have to lean on each other and support each other because that’s the way to make a world where race, color, nationality, language doesn’t matter. I don’t want to put myself in a ghetto with all Hispanic people. I love my people and I want to do something for them but I don’t want to deprive myself of all the other wonderful people out there either. It’s necessary for my people to support each other. I try to go to Spanish restaurants more than other restaurants, to put the money back into the community. Instead of running out to all the other places, just for now, while we’re a little weak. And when you’re stronger, then you can always be generous.
—Legend has it that artist Stanley Moss grew up in the barrio neighborhoods of East Los Angeles.