John Leguizamo Plays Professor In 'Latin History For Morons'

14 hours ago
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Actor and comedian John Leguizamo is a veteran of the one-man show. At 52 years old, he's now in the midst of his sixth solo production, and we caught up with him one afternoon heading into his pre-show ritual at the Public Theater in New York.

JOHN LEGUIZAMO: At 4 o'clock, I'm usually down in my dressing room just looking at new lines or what I'm trying to change or...

CORNISH: Compared to his early shows from the '90s, "Mambo Mouth" and "Freak," this one is rather plainly titled "Latin History For Morons."

(SOUNDBITE OF ONE-MAN SHOW, "LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS")

LEGUIZAMO: But what happened in the 3,000 years between our great indigenous civilizations and us, man? Did we just stop existing?

CORNISH: Imagine Leguizamo wearing tweed, issuing demerits, wielding chalk like a magic wand with the occasional samba break thrown in all to highlight lost moments in Latin American history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ONE-MAN SHOW, "LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS")

LEGUIZAMO: 'Cause as the great 20th century Spanish philosopher Santana once said...

(LAUGHTER)

LEGUIZAMO: ...No, not Carlos, Jorge - those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

CORNISH: John Leguizamo is best known for his 30-year movie career playing a range of roles from the killer Benny Blanco in "Carlito's Way" to the sidekick Sid in the animated movie "Ice Age." But theater is his first love, rivaled only by his children. The idea for "Latin History For Morons" grew out of a tough chapter for his family when his young son was being bullied in part because of his Latino heritage.

LEGUIZAMO: We were in a private school. It's a very expensive New York City private school in 2014, I think it was. And they're calling him a beaner, which is a slur to Mexicans. And you know, my son was very offended by it, and it triggered in him a lot of resentment. And then it became sort of cyber-bullying. Then it became violent, and then it became exclusionary. So he was excluded from parties, from events. People wouldn't talk to him.

CORNISH: It's always traumatic for a parent to experience that...

LEGUIZAMO: It's the worst.

CORNISH: ...Their child going through something difficult.

LEGUIZAMO: Yeah.

CORNISH: But I read at one point you talked about growing up and moving around a lot.

LEGUIZAMO: Yeah.

CORNISH: Your family's from Colombia.

LEGUIZAMO: Yeah.

CORNISH: And you said that you always felt like a foreigner in every neighborhood you were in. And after all these years of living in New York, what was that like for your own child to suddenly be, like, oddly treated as a foreigner in a way?

LEGUIZAMO: It's interesting. Sorry to jump around. We had all these high school students come in yesterday from Brooklyn and watch the show, and their first question was, were you bullied? And I said, yeah, I was obviously bullied. We were, like, the first Latin family in a lot of neighborhoods 'cause we moved every year. Or you beat them at a basketball game, and then all of a sudden, you're, you know - you're the spic. And you're like, wait a minute; I thought I was your friend. Now I'm a spic. How did that happen?

And you know - and then you start to feel other, you know? You're like, oh, wow, that's always in the back of their heads. I didn't realize that. And for it to happen to my son, you know, I was, like, beside myself, you know? And then I started to really study Latin history but American Latin history. I've always studied our empires to empower myself, you know, and to have an ammunition against anybody who could try to put me down.

CORNISH: So you see it as something - reaching for this history, it sounds like in part - you use the word ammunition. It's reaching for something to help - what? - bolster identity. Or why do you see it as important?

LEGUIZAMO: Because you know, even right now when I tweet something political, you get these people attacking you, going, go back to your country if you don't like it; get out of our country. I go, but I'm an American citizen; what are you talking about, you know? So you get those attacks constantly.

But I don't feel like they would attack me as much if in a textbook when they were growing up they read that 10,000 Latin people fought in the American Revolution and 20,000 fought in the civil war and we had officers and awarded people in each one of those wars. And I would definitely not feel that I would let them treat me that way, you know? I mean I was quite a lot when I was picked on as a kid because I didn't have anything to say back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ONE-MAN SHOW, "LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS")

LEGUIZAMO: Historic footnote, people - why is all our art called folk art and then all of European art is called fine art and then modern art is just our folk art gentrified? You, sir.

(LAUGHTER)

LEGUIZAMO: You knew I was going to give you a second chance. I guess we're not getting a second chance. We're just getting a second demerit. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: You know, you've been in so many movies, dozens and dozens of movies. This is, like, your sixth solo show.

LEGUIZAMO: Yeah.

CORNISH: And this show is trying to find, like, a Latin American hero.

LEGUIZAMO: Yes.

CORNISH: And then at the same time, out there in the world recently, you know, we were reading Lin-Manuel Miranda of "Hamilton" writing about you...

LEGUIZAMO: Oh, (unintelligible).

CORNISH: ...As someone who he looked up to and that he had never really seen anything like that in that theater. Do you feel that yourself? Do you feel like, oh, I'm on the other side of this now? Like, people are...

LEGUIZAMO: Absolutely. I mean you get to 50, which is a half a century, and you can start - you start to look back 'cause now it's all downhill.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

LEGUIZAMO: You know, the uphill battle was before. And it makes me so happy, man, that I was able to pass that baton on, you know, that I was able to be the kind of artist that other artists were for me. Richard Pryor was that for me - Lily Tomlin, Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian. And I felt like whether they knew it or not, they were giving me the baton. And I was hoping to do that for Latin artists, man.

I was growing up and maturing at a time where we were invisible, man. We were nowhere except negative. Any time you saw a Latin person in Hollywood or on TV, they were some sort of negative character. If everyone in your class has heroes and they can relate to them in textbooks and literature and then you don't see any of your heritage there, you feel less than. And I always wanted to be able to make Latin kids like myself feel more than. And that was my whole purpose of "Mambo Mouth," "Spic-O-Rama," "Freak," "Sexaholix," "Ghetto Clown." It's always been to make those Latin people like myself feel more than.

CORNISH: Before I let you go, your solo shows often take characters from your own life. This one very much is centered around your life and...

LEGUIZAMO: My immediate family, yeah.

CORNISH: ...As a father. And I know in the past that that hasn't always been easy. Has your son seen the play, read the play? What was his reaction?

LEGUIZAMO: You know, I kept it from them as long as I could till it was in the perfect shape. So he came finely last week with my daughter for the first time. And they saw it, and they loved it. And so I was like, oh, my God, I can't believe they were able to be mature enough to understand the meta of the whole situation of somebody taking their persona, characterizing it because that's what happens in a one-man show. Things get...

CORNISH: Could you see them?

LEGUIZAMO: No, no. I'm glad I couldn't.

CORNISH: Oh, I was about to say, that must have been weird (laughter).

LEGUIZAMO: I was very nervous that night. I'm not going to lie. I tripped on things that I've never tripped on before. No, it was a tough night for me, you know? I was very worried about damaging them in some way. So when they came out of it going, you know, it was fun, Dad; it was a lot of fun - they laughed a lot. They had some notes for me. They had some jokes for me. It was great.

CORNISH: Notes...

LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CORNISH: That's great.

LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, that definitely - Leguizamo trait.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

LEGUIZAMO: My mom was always complimentsult (ph) to me. The first day she comes to see, she go, I love it; it is a masterpiece - too long. You need to cut at least 15 minutes. I couldn't sit there. I started to fall asleep. I'm like, oh, great, thank you, Mom.

CORNISH: (Laughter)

LEGUIZAMO: Complimentsulter queen.

CORNISH: Yes, that was a new term for me. And you know, I recognized it.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Well, I want to let you get back to your pre-show preparations.

LEGUIZAMO: Yes, I got to go.

CORNISH: Thank you so much, John Leguizamo. This was amazing. Thank you for speaking with us.

LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, me too - love talking to you.

CORNISH: Actor and comedian John Leguizamo - his new one-man show is called "Latin History For Morons."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIME LA VERDAD")

CORTIJO Y SU COMBO: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.