New York-based actor John Leguizamo is known to most for his film and TV appearances, which began in the TV show Miami Vice, and has included films such as William Shakespeare's Romeo+Juliet, Die Hard 2, Moulin Rouge, Ice Age and To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.
Theater people love him for his solo shows. He began honing that craft in the '80s in downtown New York, and then to off-Broadway with the award-wining shows Mambo Mouth and Spic-O-Rama. In 1998, he made his Broadway debut with Freak, and followed that up in 2001 with Sexaholix…A Love Story, which he toured around the country, including a stop in Dallas. Ghetto Klown played Broadway in 2010, and his stop here (Feb. 16-18 at the Majestic Theatre) marks his first performance in Dallas since Sexaholix.
Never one to shy away from putting his life out there as art, he wrote his autobiography Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends in 2006, and has gone on the record talking about some of those Hollywood types, some of which is not flattering. That's what he does in Ghetto Klown, which is making the Texas rounds this month.
TheaterJones chatted with him over the phone last week. Oh, and there's a ticket giveaway at the bottom of the Q&A.
TheaterJones: All of your shows are autobiographical. How is Ghetto Klown different from Freak and Sexaholix?
John Leguizamo: I do a quick recap, and I go on from where I left off in the other shows. After Sexaholix, I had a bit of stage fright, and then I stopped performing for this time. So I would do these college talks, and get to know college kids. They were loving it, we'd kick back. Then all these memories came back and I thought, "Damn, John, we got a show boy."
How did you decide which stories from your life to include?
I pick the stories that I feel were really important in my development. I talk about being on Miami Vice. I talk about Casualities of War and my run-in with Sean Penn and method acting. My first acting teacher who tried to get rid of my ghetto sound and clean me up and keep-it-to-the-tongue acting excerises. About working with Steven Seagal in Executive Decision and what a clown he is. Pacino teaching me how to be myself, and to do a little less. Working with [Patrick] Swayze [in Too Wong Foo…], [Brian] De Palma, how I got the audition for Romeo+Juliet, one of my better movies.
It's stories that people don't usually want everyone else to hear. My heroes are Richard Pryor, Spalding Gray and Bill Hicks. They always called it like it was and I have huge respect for them…all the blemishes, the warts. I wanted to live up that. That's why I talk about all this personal stuff that some others might want to, you know, "Photoshop."
Did you learn from those heroes about how to develop a solo show or comedy routine?
Not really. I do this hybrid of play, stand-up and exposé on myself. It's my own process. I workshop it to death in these small venues in New York, and then I take it across the country and do Q&As, which I love. I like audience interaction. It takes me a long time to develop it, it's not easy. It's very linear, it's a play. The process is brutal and long. That's why this one, which I think is my magnum opus, I've been working on it for eight years. I got out of movies for a while to do this.
You started out in TV and film as a young man, how did that develop into theater and one-man shows?
Being a Latin man was kind of tough. The roles were really stupid and degrading, and I thought "That's not me. I'm an artist and I have things to say." And that's what made me want to write my own material. I did the comedy clubs but it wasn't for me. Luckily for me in the '80s, there was a lot of performance art downtown, and New York was huge with all these places like P.S. 122, The Kitchen, Dixon Place. It was for people who didn't want mainstream stuff, they wanted something alternative. I would do my shows there and I would kill. I found myself, and I found my public and I found my voice.
Were you doing impressions of other people as a kid?
I grew up in the biggest melting pot in the world, Jackson Heights, Queens. Everybody was from somewhere else: Jewish, French, Italian, Irish; every Latin country, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Colombians, Chileans; Asians from everywhere, India. I picked up so many voices and sounds and so many dialects. It was part of my thing, you know, we'd make fun of each other and have a blast. It brought us closer together, and sometimes there was fighting.
You were in the short-lived revival of David Mamet's American Buffalo on Broadway in 2008. Is acting on stage, aside from your own shows, something you like and want to do?
I studied with the greatest acting teachers in the world, Lee Strasberg, Herbert Berghof, Wynn Handman. I love acting. That's why my stand-up is more acting. The Mamet thing was interesting, because I was born to play Teach. I learned the same thing I learned with my one-man shows, that you have to have enough time to prepare for it. We only had 10 days of previews and three weeks of rehearsals, it just wasn't enough time for Mamet. In the original contract they were supposed to do a show outside of New York and test it out, but they talked me out of it. They'd say "You're too good, John, you don't need that stuff" and I was like "really?" But I believed them like an idiot. But yeah, I'll do it again.
Do audiences around the country react differently to your solo work?
Americans react pretty similar. I thought New York audiences would be the rowdiest, but they're not. My audiences in Texas are pretty rowdy. In England and Canada, that was different. They're very polite and don't laugh as much. They like it in the second act, when things start to tie up.
Do your kids get to see your shows?
No. Everything I tell them is a lie. If they saw the shows it would ruin everything.
Would you ever direct your own show?
No. I need an objective eye. With something like this I really need someone to help me sort it out, I need an objective point of view.
Are you already thinking about your next one?
Something about family, much smaller. Imagination, crazy, stream-of-conscious, political, social, silly, sci-fi, a lot of sound effects. Totally different.