By Dale Reynolds
No matter where you came from things are possible….”
The Columbian-born, New York City-raised, actor and comic, John Leguizamo, 48, has been blessed with much in his life: talent, intelligence, looks, a skewed look at humanity as well as his own life, and now subject of a valuable PBS documentary on his latest show, Tales From a Ghetto Klown.
Broadcast last July and now out on DVD, director Ben De Jesus and co-producer Fisher Stevens, a bright and insightful stage director and gifted comic himself, workshopped Leguizamo’s latest stage show, with tantalizing parts of it shown in the bonus section of the hour-long documentary.
The film follows the comic/actor through the often-tortuous process of writing, acting it out, evaluating and showing us a close-to-finished product. But Leguizamo is insistent that the completed show, which played on Broadway last year, will never be fully documented on film. “Once it’s on the screen, it no longer belongs to me,” he states. “Folk can watch it over and over, so I think if it’s not available to the public, I get to keep a mystery about myself.”
The stand-up show has performed in London, Miami, Texas, and, for the first time ever for this slim and energetic man, in Spanish in his native Bogotá, Columbia. “It was a lot of work to translate, and then memorize a show that had always been performed in English.”
For a gifted performer who is willing to expose himself both physically (in 2002’s Spun) and emotionally (all his one-man shows), has allowed him instant recognition and, as he laments, “People think they know everything about me, which is strange.” In addition, the family situations he portrays in his personalized shows means that family members don’t always like the way they are portrayed. “[Some of them] don’t like my version, which has caused domestic problems: some of them get angry and hostile, and have threatened to sue.” Which, apparently, no one has yet done.
Leguizamo’s Ghetto Klown came about as this father of two wanted to inspire kids and adults that, “no matter where you came from things are possible and you can achieve anything you want; to get somewhere.” He has also seen upfront how valuable older mentors can be to a struggling youth: “You cannot do it alone – we need others to tell us our worth.” For the comic, it was a math teacher in middle school who helped him find his own worth. A mentor, now in his 70s, with whom he stays in touch.
The actor is very well-known to the general public, but especially to Latino-Americans who may not always appreciate his edgy and sometimes brutal examination of what it means to grow up “different” in America. However, his one-man shows, Mambo Mouth (1991), Spic-O-Rama (1993), Freak (1998) and now Ghetto Klown have won awards for him, and his amusing voice-overs in the Ice Age franchise (as Sid) have entertained millions of viewers. He has also impressed with more serious film work, comedic and dramatic, such as Collateral Damage (2002), the Baz Luhrmann oddity, Romeo + Juliet (1996), in which he made the pivotal character of the doomed Tybalt brilliantly alive, as well as such goofy fare as Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), Super Mario Bros (1993) and Spawn (1997).
But the basis for his fame lies in his ability to tell truths – not always the easiest thing to do in life, let alone in art, because of consequences: “repercussions such a pissing off some Italian groups by calling myself Latin; some church groups who have accused me of being anti-Jesus; and actors such as Steven Segal and Patrick Swayze.” It would appear that since such anger goes with the terrain, it is something that he doesn’t seem to let him sweat.
As a Latino hero, to be compared with the cultural breakthroughs that the black actor Sidney Poitier achieved two generations ago for his race, Leguizamo has two new films out next year, Kick Ass 2 and The Counselor, very different genres of film. And he enters a new phase of his career by beginning classical theatre studying with renowned acting-teacher/coach, Terry Schreiber, later this year, undoubtedly opening up a whole new aspect to his eclectic and, frankly, exhilarating career.
“I’m always motivated to challenge myself artistically and tackling classical theatre is exciting to me.”