John Leguizamo on his life, career, being a theater nerd, and the coming power of Latinos


“We’re the kind of people that Trump wants to keep out of the U.S.,” John Leguizamo says in the video below, about his family, who immigrated to New York from Colombia (“the country, not the university”) when he was three years old.   The actor, writer, producer and Tweeter extraordinaire (as he was introduced) gave the keynote speech at the Immigration Arts Summit, held at the Museum for Jewish Heritage on Monday.

Leguizamo at podiumLeguizamo recounts his childhood in the multicultural Jackson Heights, Queens, and how he became interested in making a life in the arts, which his family didn’t support.

“When I told my father I wanted to be an actor, he said ‘why can’t you be a garbage man or a substitute teacher, something with dignity. If you’re in a union, you can’t be fired.’”

He first began performing at PS 122, the performance art space – “you knew it was performance art, because the cast outnumbered the audience.”

“In the late 70s, we weren’t trying to ‘build a brand’ or get Instagram followers. We were trying to get art (and get laid) — but mostly make art (and get laid.)”

Pacino and LeguizamoWhen he started getting movie roles, “I thought they were beneath me…My problem was I was a theater actor, and theater actors think they’re morally superior to movie actors. For theater nerds like me, it’s about being raw and truthful, not good-looking or charming, or a celebrity.”

He quoted Tennessee Williams: “The theatre is an art form. Remember that. It is a vast undertaking, much bigger than all of us who work in it. Of course we are going to fail–we are taking on a huge task, an almost impossible one.”

Although he’s appeared in some 100 movies, Leguizamo said his career is an example of what not to do – he turned down the Oscar-winning movie “Philadelphia,” for example, to play Luigi in Super Mario Bros.”


Leguizamo has performed six one-man shows on stage, three of them on Broadway. (Read my reviews of Ghetto Klown — in which I also talk about the 1990 “Mambo Mouth,” his first — and Latin History for Morons, his latest, earlier this year.) He began doing them, he says, so that he wouldn’t have to compromise his art, he could improvise all he wanted (something Al Pacino stopped him from trying to do in “Carlito’s Way”), and so he wouldn’t have to just play hoodlums.

“One out of every six Americans is Latin, why aren’t we represented on TV accordingly? Why does Hollywood ignore us? … The Latinos I grew up with are funny, complicated, intellectual. I never see Hispanic characters portrayed that way.

“Of the almost 70 million Hispanics in the United States, almost 10 million are immigrants, and that my friend is the reason why Republicans want to keep us out of the country, because Hispanics overwhelmingly vote Democratic.”

Later, in a question and answer period, he was asked whether he has considered running for office. “I’ve thought about it.”

Watch his full 20-minute speech in the video below, including brief impersonations of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and (sort of) Tennesee Williams.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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