John Leguizamo At La Jolla Playhouse
Monday, February 22, 2010
Actor and comedian John Leguizamo is workshopping his latest solo show at the La Jolla Playhouse. "Diary of a Madman" follows Leguizamo's adolescence in Queens, New York, his early acting career, including the 80's avant-garde theater scene and anecdotes from Hollywood movie sets. Leguizamo joins us to talk about his new stage work.
John Leguizamo's "Diary of a Madman" will run from March 4-14 at the Mandell Weiss Theater at the La Jolla Playhouse.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. From Colombia to Queens to Hollywood to La Jolla, the life and career of actor/comedian John Leguizamo has enough contrasts and contradictions to keep audiences fascinated for years. While his TV and movie career continues to flourish, Leguizamo keeps returning to the stage in fierce stand-up performances like "Freak," "Sexaholix" and his original off-Broadway hit "Mambo Mouth." The shows blend comedy with the searing truth of his unique history and cultural identity. Now he's about to present a new show, called "Diary of a Madman," which is set for a 10-day run at the La Jolla Playhouse. It's part of the Playhouse's Page to Stage Program. It’s a pleasure to welcome John Leguizamo to These Days. John, good morning.
JOHN LEGUIZAMO (Actor) Thank you for having me. I’m very excited to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you. So the name of the show is “Diary of a Madman.” Do you consider yourself a madman?
LEGUIZAMO: When I’m on the set and I’m doing my work, yeah, I become a totally absolute lunatic.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, really?
LEGUIZAMO: It’s not – and it’s not, you know, diva kind of stuff. It’s not because I need, you know, an entourage and Cristal in my trailer, it’s just, you know, it’s – I want to do great work and I stop at nothing, you know. I’ll go on a jihad to do good work.
CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And does that – is that hard on the people around you?
LEGUIZAMO: Sometimes, yeah. Yeah, some people have – there’s been some roadkill. Some people have fallen by the wayside. Yeah, thinking that maybe they could topple me but I don’t topple easy.
CAVANAUGH: Now you talk a lot in basically all of your stage performances about growing up in Queens. So tell us a little bit…
LEGUIZAMO: You would, too, if you grew up in Queens. You’d be – it would be hard to outgrow that.
CAVANAUGH: I did grow up in Queens.
LEGUIZAMO: Oh, did you? Where? What part?
CAVANAUGH: Woodhaven. Yeah.
LEGUIZAMO: Woodhaven Boulevard.
LEGUIZAMO: That was pretty close to where I grew up. I grew up in East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, started to move…
CAVANAUGH: I had relatives there. Yeah.
LEGUIZAMO: I probably scared them away.
CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us the neighborhood. Describe us – for us the neighborhood you grew up in.
LEGUIZAMO: Well, it was in mad transition at the time when I got there. You know, it was like the beginning of white flight. You got all the Irish people that started to move out and, you know, hey, it was a lot of Italians in Corona, you know, hey, here come, you know, the Latinos. They didn’t call us Latinos. I’m being PC. But, you know, it was very transition but what was great, was the amount of different cultures that I encountered who all disliked me but I – but I got to know all of them so that was pretty great for my ear anyway.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, to pick up all those accents. To live in that melt – what we used to call a melting pot, right?
LEGUIZAMO: Right. Right, the big old term. I mean, Queens was one of the biggest melting pots in America, like the most diverse of any square inch in America.
CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly. Now, okay, so Jackson Heights, right? Queens?
LEGUIZAMO: Jackson Heights was my origin, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. To Hollywood and La Jolla.
LEGUIZAMO: Well, Hollywood just because of the movies but mostly Manhattan and now La Jolla.
CAVANAUGH: Does it catch you off guard maybe, the – you know, this wide scope of your life so far?
LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, I mean, that’s – that’s what I attempted to do in this show was – like my last show was “Sexaholix,” which was, you know, the study of my sexual failures. I’m the only, I’m sure, in the world that’s had sexual failures. And so I chronicled that, you know, and then “Freak” was sort of my teenage years up to – sort of a coming of age story. And this one is my career and what made me become an actor, and nurture is this nature kind of thing and why did I continue and what are my good choices? And try to understand all the good choices, bad choices and just what am I trying to say? What am I trying to do with my career? You know, that’s what this show started out as.
CAVANAUGH: So sometime even though you’re successful, you know, you’ve made the pictures, you’ve had the Broadway successes but you ask yourself why am I still doing this?
LEGUIZAMO: Absolutely. I mean, I don’t think it’s – I mean, people think success is some, I don’t know, some gift and it’s everything and it satisfies all your needs but it doesn’t. It’s not that. I mean, I’m after an artistic quest, you know, because that – I always saw myself as more of an artist so I’m not satisfied by, you know, fame or celeb or whatever that is, and money. It’s not enough for me. I mean, I’m after visions and try to create a masterpiece. You know, that’s what gives me the greatest joy of my life. I could be broke as long as I’m writing something great, I’m the happiest man on earth.
CAVANAUGH: And a lot of – most of the times when you are creating, you create out of the history of growing up and the people that you’ve known. Tell us about some of the characters in “Diary of a Madman.”
LEGUIZAMO: Well, in this one, because it’s my career so obviously I got my managers in it, you know, and a lot of actors that I worked with in the past, you know, I do – I’m trying to do impersonations, too. This is a whole new field for me, and I’m having fun doing that, you know. So, you know, I do – talk about “Carlito’s Way” and what happened between me and Pacino and how he taught me how to – how to do less, John, just do less, ya dumb f – we won’t go into it, you know. And working with DeNiro in “The Fan.” He’s qui – the loveliest dude but the quietest man I’ve ever hung out with in my life. I’ve never been with somebody at dinner and been so alone in my entire life. But I love him.
CAVANAUGH: Not a word?
LEGUIZAMO: Not a word. Does not – That’s how I wrote this show because I had so much to say for those two hours that I ended up with a show. But, yeah, but he’s a quiet dude but he’s the most generous dude on the planet. I mean, the most incredible, loyal person. So I talk about all this stuff that your publicist and your agent and everybody tells you not to talk about, that’s what I put in the show.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, you know, it sounds – just from hearing you talk about this, and I know you wrote an autobiographic – autobiography…
CAVANAUGH: …that you have this sort of like love/hate relationship with Hollywood. Is that fair to say?
LEGUIZAMO: Absolutely. Because Hollywood is – doesn’t want to make art, you know, they want to make money. And I want to make art, you know. I mean, that’s really what I want to do with my life. And so the two, you know, the battle is kind of a great battle sometimes, you know, sometimes you need to create some good stuff in that conversation between money and art and other times, no, it’s just they want you to sell out and just be, you know, serviceable and I don’t really want to do that, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Do the same thing over and over again. They want you to do the same thing over and over again.
LEGUIZAMO: Right, exactly, you know, just fit into our mold and do as you’re told and, you know, that’s – I’m not – I’m from New York, first of all, you know, and I’m from the school of hard knocks and so I’m not going to let anybody ever, you know, tell me what to do or boss me around. I mean, I’m not out there for myself, I’m out there because I want to create some truth and some reality. I mean, that’s what I’m after. I mean, I don’t always succeed.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with John Leguizamo and we’re talking about “Diary of a Madman,” which is a new performance piece that he is bringing to the La Jolla Playhouse. You know, you said that you’re trying out impersonations…
LEGUIZAMO: Impersonations, yeah, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: …but I read that you actually did some impersonations when you and your friends back in the neighborhood kind of took over…
CAVANAUGH: …a subway car?
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that.
LEGUIZAMO: Well, I was about 16 years old and me and my boy, it was summer, we had nothing to do, and he talked me into, you know, I – I thought I was funny, so he said, why don’t you grab the mike in the subway, the conductor’s mike.
LEGUIZAMO: And, you know, do your audition and whatnot. And so I grabbed the mike and I started, you know, but the impersonations I knew back at 16, you know, they’re not the cool ones. It was, you know, like – it was like, heavens to Murgatroyd even. You know, that kind of stuff. I say, I say, I say, I say, boy, you’re a chickenhawk, boy. You know, that kind of…
CAVANAUGH: Foghorn the Leghorn.
LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, yeah.
LEGUIZAMO: All that silly stuff, that’s what I – I certainly – hiya, Mo. So that’s what I did. And then I was arrested. It was my first bad review and…
CAVANAUGH: You got over it.
LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, well, it wasn’t even – My parents had to come and bail me out so that was, you know, I was handcuffed to the chair and all that.
CAVANAUGH: You talk a lot about your father in your performance pieces. Are we going to meet him again in “Diary of a Madman?”
LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, you know, in a smaller dose, only in the terms of how my father influenced my becoming an artist and becoming an actor, you know, that – that’ s how my father’s in this piece.
CAVANAUGH: What – How did your family react when you told them you were going to become an actor?
LEGUIZAMO: That’s also in the play.
LEGUIZAMO: You know, not well. Not – I mean, they were immigrants so they had that crazy super immigrant work ethic. You know, it was all about, you know, success and no shame and that kind of thing. And – and I was a Latin guy and in a country, you know, growing up in America at that time and there was just no Latin people on TV so they thought I was, you know – We didn’t come into this country for you to be worse than us. You know.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah. Yeah. Did they want you to fall – learn something to fall back on?
LEGUIZAMO: Oh, yeah. They wanted me to be anything – anything. Just pick anything, my father – Pick something, I don’t care what it is, just a career. Something, carpenter, lumberjack, I don’t care.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah? But – So it takes a lot to like overcome that because you’re not getting support at home. What do you think it is inside of you driving – that drove you to do this?
LEGUIZAMO: I think it was expression. I wanted to express myself. And a great desire to – to have a legacy and come from a legacy, you know, because I grew up in America and there was just not enough information about Latin people and what we’d done, what we’d contributed. It was kind of absent and there was – I always felt very, I don’t know, kind of like a spontaneous generation, and I was seeking some validity and some validation and I wanted to hear it in writing and I wanted to hear it in oral stories and history. And so that’s kind of what shows became, sort of like to mark that – to mark those moments and what happened and to make it all so concrete and legitimate.
CAVANAUGH: So you decide to go into show business when there aren’t many Latinos…
CAVANAUGH: …certainly not starring in anything.
CAVANAUGH: And so what was it like to break in?
LEGUIZAMO: Well, you know, at first, you know, we weren’t the flavor. But, you know, you see me and Benecio Del Toro, it was the same dudes in New York. Benecio, Luis Guzman, myself, Benjamin Bratt, you know, Esai Morales, and we’re all auditioning for, you know, “Equalizer.” And we’re all coming in, you know, to be the thug, the drug dealer, the rapist, whatever, the killer. And we’re all in bandanas and chains to be the gang member – you know, what’s up, what’s up, what’s up, dude? Trying to be as hard and ghetto as possible. And then we’d come in for, you know, some other show and we were like janitors or – how you doing? How you doing? Can’t complain. Can’t complain. Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: So you had this little world of…
CAVANAUGH: …Latino actors that are going and…
LEGUIZAMO: And some wannabes.
LEGUIZAMO: Some wannabe Latinos, you know. Some Italian dudes that were dark-skinned enough and they would try to pass. They wouldn’t talk that much. They would be real quiet because you know we’d find them out by their accent. Ayyy, I’m here to audition for the Latino part. How ya doin’, ayyy. You doing?
CAVANAUGH: Now, I’m wondering, so that was the acting side. How did you build up your comedy side?
LEGUIZAMO: Well, comedy side, I was doing a lot of the improv groups. That’s really where I started doing my comedy most. And it was where – It’s called First Amendment where Bruce Willis had quit and Robin Williams had stopped coming down and the play was on the way down. That’s when I got in. It was like early affirmative action. And I got into the spot and I started performing there and that’s when I started writing more than I ever had and – because I used to write a lot in high school. I used to – it was a very competitive school for class clowns. We had a lot. And we had a table that was like at the lunchroom where only the funniest dudes got to sit, you know, and you had to be cracking jokes. And, you know, when the day that I made it on that table was a huge date for me. And so I used to have to write a line of jokes at night. That’s what I used to write, was try to come up with one-liners and disses and all that and, you know…
CAVANAUGH: That’s great training.
LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, it was incredible training. It was like the Friar’s Club but ghetto style.
CAVANAUGH: Now I have to ask you about one thing that I found out that you did really, really early on in your career and that was being in Madonna’s “Borderline” video.
CAVANAUGH: What was that like? Now, I mean, that was her first big hit so she wasn’t the Madonna that we know.
CAVANAUGH: She was just starting out.
LEGUIZAMO: I mean, she was – she was super fine but I didn’t get any time because I was an extra. I’m subliminal and you have to really freeze frame it. And, you know, they gave you a sandwich and a pat on the back…
LEGUIZAMO: …and that was your payment.
CAVANAUGH: That was it. Were you in any other videos? Was that it?
LEGUIZAMO: That was – that was the end of my video career. That sealed it for me. I was like, you know, this is not really for me.
CAVANAUGH: You know, one other thing that you’re going to do in your show, “Diary of a Madman,” is talk about the sort of avant garde, the theatre scene in the eighties.
LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about that.
LEGUIZAMO: That was – I was really fortunate, I gotta say. That when I was coming up, it was – The performance art scene in New York was alive and vibrant. And it was different just than the comedy scene because that was also booming at the same time. But I was more of a storyteller and I liked to do characters and my thing was not set up joke, set up joke. I didn’t really do well in the comedy clubs. Plus, that’s not what I wanted to do. And here I was. There was Eric Bogosian was out there, and Lily Tomlin and Spalding Gray and Whoopi Goldberg, and they influenced me. I mean, their influence on me is so huge. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. And I took everything that I learned from them and every – all the groundbreaking that they did and created my own thing which became this sort of hybrid, autobiographical, you know, performance art, stand-up comedy, one man show play thing, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Right, because what they did and what you do is combine, you know, really hysterical comedy with really hard stuff.
LEGUIZAMO: Exactly. I mean, that’s what happened. I mean, you had Eric Bogosian, who brought the sex, rock ‘n roll, edge and anger to the one-man show. And then you had Whoopi Goldberg who brought the poetry and the difficulty of – the real pain of urban – being a urban child. And you had Lily Tomlin, who made it a play, you know, she made a play, these beautiful, witty pieces. And so mine became the autobiographical, witty, urban child, angry, rock ‘n roll, well, hip-hop, you know, that was my thing. So, you know…
CAVANAUGH: I’m interested. When you first saw these people on stage, did you say, that’s it, that’s what I want…
LEGUIZAMO: Oh, my God, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: …to do.
LEGUIZAMO: Yeah. Well, I don’t know if I said that’s what I want to do. I said, oh, my God, this is religion. This is – this is the most beautiful thing to aspire to. I don’t know if I can ever do that. I would love to – But it wasn’t like that’s what I’m going to do. It’s more like, I wonder if I could ever do that? And so that became sort of my quest, testing out small, you know, little characters here and there in all the art – performance art spaces. And eventually, I had all these 12 characters and eventually became “Mambo Mouth,” the…
LEGUIZAMO: …the reduction to seven.
CAVANAUGH: Did you have any formal training at all?
LEGUIZAMO: Oh, tons, tons.
LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, I studied with Lee Strasberg for a day.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, there you go.
LEGUIZAMO: And he passed away that night.
LEGUIZAMO: Probably because of my acting.
CAVANAUGH: Are you kidding me?
LEGUIZAMO: No, no. For real. I was in his class one day. And he said, come on, come on, come on, try harder. Come on, come on, you, you, you schmuck, come here. And, you know, I was doing some sense memory thing, and he passed away that night. For real, no joke. I’m not making it up. I know it sounds – I know your mouth is agape.
CAVANAUGH: Did you go back to the Actor’s Studio?
LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, I continued. I continued, staying with other…
LEGUIZAMO: …teachers. And I studied…
LEGUIZAMO: …method. I studied with Herbert Berghof at HB Studios, and Ken Eulo and, oh, my God, my favorite, Wynn Handman. I studied a lot because I really loved acting. I mean, I just wanted to be able to do it and to do it as well as I could.
CAVANAUGH: Now I know that after your last stage run, you said you were kind of done with the stage for a while…
CAVANAUGH: …because it was so physical.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering what it’s like getting back into it. Is it…
LEGUIZAMO: Ohh… It’s, you know, it’s a tough – it’s a tough thing. I mean, I have to start running a lot. I’m boxing a lot. I’m just trying to get my body, you know, to be as supple as I can to be able to throw myself around.
CAVANAUGH: Because I want to tell everyone, you know, if you want to see a sneak preview of John Leguizamo’s “Diary of a Madman,” you can go to the La Jolla Playhouse website and there’s a video of you…
LEGUIZAMO: Little clips, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, and you are – I mean, workin’ it. I mean…
LEGUIZAMO: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I broke, you know, some bones in my foot the first month that I was doing it. I mean, yeah, it’s very physical. And I like to keep it physical. You know, I’m from the Jackie Chan school of do-it-yourself and throw yourself, you know, on the ground and into everything.
CAVANAUGH: Jackie Chan school of performance art.
LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Now I’m wondering, when you – with this acting training that you got, are you still – would you still say you’re sort of like a method actor? Or…?
LEGUIZAMO: Yeah. The method – To me, the method was – I mean, I took a lot from Uta Hagen, too, I gotta say, respect for acting. I mean, there was a lot of techniques that I – I think you make your own thing. I think all actors end up creating their own system that works for them. But I think it’s always part method for me. I mean, I definitely love to do the research and hang out with the people who I think are like the character I’m doing and spend time with them and study them and try to get into their shoes. And then try to relive the experience myself before – and I think that’s the only way you can do something that’s really authentic and really – I feel like it needs to come from inside. I mean, I can tell the difference from actors who are performing and those who are actually experiencing something, you know.
CAVANAUGH: Right. And the actors you’ve worked with, have you learned from them?
LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, you learn different things. I mean, Kevin Costner, you know, when I did “Revenge,” you know, I had a ridiculous part. I didn’t even speak English in that movie. Whadda mean mano no chingale tu, you know, I just improvised some Mexican slang. And he was like, you know, I want to teach you about lighting, John. Get the hell out of my light. And I was like, for real? I was like, whoa. Oh, yeah, you’re right, man. I was afraid of casting his shadow then but… But I didn’t know about lighting and he taught me, you know, not to stand in another actor’s light or have another actor stand in your light.
CAVANAUGH: That’s funny.
CAVANAUGH: You know, you are, in your book and I would imagine in “Diary of a Madman,” you are really quite frank in talking about…
LEGUIZAMO: Too frank.
CAVANAUGH: …the people…
LEGUIZAMO: Stupidly frank, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: …about the people that you’ve worked with, the people that – your managers, the other actors and stuff. I’m wondering, do you – are you concerned at all that this is going to impact, you know, your future?
LEGUIZAMO: I’m sure it’s already impacted my present day life and my future. Yeah, you know, I was more concerned before. Now I’m too deep into it and it’s too late to turn back now, and I’m not going to turn back. I mean, I heard that Steven Seagal wants to punch me out and now that he’s a cop. Now I’ll have more fear of it. And, you know, I said some things about Patrick Swayze and he’s practically – was brilliant and he put in his autobiography and answered the same moment that I was talking about when we had this little altercation, me and him, on the set. And he put it in such beautiful terms that I started to borrow stuff from the details that he remembered.
LEGUIZAMO: So I put both our reminiscence of the same moment together.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think that, you know, really, since everything is so public, you know, acting is so public, movies are so public, and people are really too reticent to just be frank about what goes on in the way actors deal with each other and the way the business is?
LEGUIZAMO: No, the – you know, you never really say what goes on. I mean, when people go on junkets, you know, they put on their best face. It’s like they got their Sunday school face on. You know, I mean, it’s – you’re trying to sell a movie. They’re not going to tell you all the problems, all the fighting and all the…
LEGUIZAMO: …all the bickering, who liked who, who dissed, who did you hate the most. And they don’t tell you about that, all the set romances. They keep that all to themselves.
CAVANAUGH: Now I’m wondering, you know, a lot of plays that have premiered at part of the Playhouse’s Page to Stage have gone on to Broadway. Are you – that – Is that the aim for “Diary of a Madman?”
LEGUIZAMO: I – I sure hope so. I mean, that – that would be incredible. I mean, I want this to be my masterpiece but if I can, you know, I’d like it to be like some – a really significant one-man show. So, hopefully, it has that kind of life.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today. Our time’s gone.
LEGUIZAMO: That was quick.
CAVANAUGH: It was.
LEGUIZAMO: I thought it was going to be a little longer. How long did we talk for?
CAVANAUGH: About a half an hour.
LEGUIZAMO: Oh, my gosh. I had no clue. I thought it was fifteen minutes. You could tell it’s NPR because look at all the dictionaries and encyclopedias you have over there.
LEGUIZAMO: Is that for you?
CAVANAUGH: Just in case.
LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, just in case somebody throws out a word.
CAVANAUGH: Thanks so much. I’ve been speaking with John Leguizamo. His Diary of a Manman – Madman, “Diary of a Madman” will run from March 4th through the 14th at the Mandell Weiss Theatre at the La Jolla Playhouse. If you would like to comment on this or anything you hear on These Days, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.