John Leguizamo is on a roll, and it's only 7:45 a.m. He's in a good mood, which might be attributed to the financial and critical success of his new one-man play, Ghetto Klown, which starts its three-day Dallas run at the Majestic Theatre on February 16. But I think it's more than that.
The Bogota-born actor just got back from a Colombian tour where he performed his new work in Spanish. The homecoming led him to introductions with politicians, sold-out performances and being treated "like the Beatles." But that isn't what really sparked up Leguizamo: He's most excited when he mentions the mainstream detours, like that he took Ghetto Klown directly into Colombia's true ghettos and performed it for free. If it's possible to hear a man smile, then that's the audible shift when Leguizamo breezes through the memory. That's kind of John's thing: He inspires. And he does so in the most effective method possible, with humor.
Also, he gets into a lot of fights. Jackson Heights, represent.
Here's a rundown of our morning coffee chat with John.
So you moved to the United States when you were ... Three. Straight into Queens! I know! Jackson Heights region. It was like that bar scene from Star Wars; everyone was from a different country. It's a total melting pot. I got picked on a lot, and I got jumped a lot and I realized that if I was funny that if I could distract them for a few moments and throw them off, then I could run away.
How did your family take it when you said you wanted to go into stand-up comedy? To them, was it like telling your parents you've decided to go to clown college? Well, I'd like to say that it wasn't clown college.
No, you actually went to NYU. But for a family that immigrated here to then find out that their son wants to pursue a career in stand-up comedy, well it must be a tough discovery. Oh yeah, they said: "We didn't come to this country for you to be worse than us, we want better for you." I understand now, but I didn't then. We finally decided that if I went to college then I could go into acting. So I did. Then I dropped out. Well, let's make sure I say this right: I had a career first, and then I dropped out.
If you were to describe your new one man show, Ghetto Klown and how it differs from your other work how would you sum it up? It's a crazy ruckus ride into my career. I talk about my smackdown from Sean Penn in Casualties of War, the fight I had while filming Romeo and Juliet and then having to act with a loose tooth, everything. In the play, I use music -- hip-hop, breakdance, soul, salsa and reggaeton to tell the story of my life; the music builds a timeline. And I try to explain all of my mistakes so that the kids out there won't do them, too. I want it to inspire people to work hard and go after what they want. I think that if you take 10,000 hours and dedicate them to anything, you'll make it.
Could you tell me a little more about the mistakes, specifically? There were many many mistakes, like I didn't know how to compromise. I can now. But I didn't then. And I learned a lot as I met people: Pacino taught me how to do less. He said "Do less, John, do less." I was like "I can't do any less. If I do less I'm not even acting!" And he said: "Who-a!"
Swayze and I got so into our characters in To Wong Fu, that we were PMSing at the same time and we started duking it out -- he's in hot pants I'm in a dress and we're just punching each other. Then we were friends again.
While you're hilarious and have a great deal of ease on stage, what really draws me into your performance is your character development. I was watching that scene from Spic-o-rama the other day where you're the mother drinking the Diet Coke. How do you carve out a character like that so thoroughly? That character was hilarious; I won the Guild Hull-Warriner Award for that play. I studied acting with the best teachers in the world: I was after knowledge, man, so I went to all of these people and they really taught me the craft. I don't even wear costumes when I'm on stage anymore; I just am those people. That's the thing about my show that I think is special, people come up to me and say that they don't see me anymore during the show, they say I disappear. It's the power of imagination and suggestion, if you control those then you can transport people.
How many kids do you have now? And do they watch your movies like To Wong Fu? Just two, and yeah, they watch all of them and love 'em but they can't watch the more adult stuff. When Ghetto Klown opened I told my daughter that she could watch until the first curse word, so like three minutes in they had to leave the theater.
Have you spent much time in Dallas? I did Sexaholics there for a while, my family's coming out to Dallas so were doing some fun stuff. We'll be in Texas for a whole month. February. Black history month. In Texas. You know, at least black people get a month -- I mean, sure it's the shortest month, but Latinos don't get that. We get a time zone. A time zone between September and October. It's like a Latin history moment.
Catch John Leguizamo in his one-man manic stage romp, Ghetto Klown from February 16 to the 18th at the Majestic Theatre. Get your tickets here.