John Leguizamo is an institution in Hollywood. He has worked with almost everyone you’d dream to work with. He’s maintained a creative vision for himself that few artists are able to hold onto for as long as he has, and to this day he has been an outspoken and unique voice for millions of Americans who feel ill-represented by anyone else. Leguizamo’s one-man shows have been an incredible triumph in showing how you can craft your life and experience into an accessible, relatable piece of entertaining art. He returns to those shows tonight in the HBO special Ghetto Klown.
We caught up to John at SXSW. His new film Chef premiered the night before and is getting some very strong reactions from audiences and critics alike. The actor is working a lot lately; Michele spoke to him last year for his role in Kick-Ass 2 and he hasn’t slowed down since: “I give it everything I have. I give it 1000%. Especially Ghetto Klown now. The life and career paradigm, nobody was able to do it before successfully and it took me eight years to break it. It was hard, it almost broke me.”
That paradigm isn’t just in reference to his writing of Ghetto Klown. Leguizamo has a reputation for being pragmatic in his dealings with Hollywood. His direct nature and common sense have often been at odds with the normal flow of business in Tinseltown. His book Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life details some of the odd behavior that John doesn’t understand in a refreshing and hilarious way while also documenting his own successes and failures. As he continued to pursue a career he wanted in Hollywood, he soon became an actor on many people’s short lists, and his desire not to engage celebrity has allowed him to continue to operate as he sees fit: “I’ve always felt like it’s a love/hate thing with Hollywood, because it pays the bills. I love film and film is a business. I like it when it’s an art form better than when it’s a business. I tried to stay away from it and not let it suck me and ruin my vision. You know, get too comfortable and be too commercial. All these films that I love are all art films. I’ve never really been great in commercial films. I mean I do them, but because I don’t want to be the broke idiot either.”
He said a large part of what allows him to see the business so clearly is by closely observing the trials of the people he’s worked for: “Luckily, I’ve worked with people like Brian DePalma, Tony Scott, Baz Luhrmann, these guys are all incredibly artistic, all incredibly individual, and I see how everyone battles with success and the difficulty it is to say no and what you’re tempted by. The problem is when you go that success route, it’s really hard to get back to your voice. It’s happened to me before. You know, success and money and all that it becomes a full-time job. You gotta get back on track.”
The actor is the first to admit his tool for getting back on track creatively are his sharp-witted one-man shows. “Yeah, absolutely,” he agreed. “It’s been my medicine, my antidote to Hollywood, whenever I’ve been dissatisfied with life – and personal life. Going back to Freak, you know that’s when I wrote Freak. I was very dissatisfied with my career. I was trying to save my creative juices and it was tough. There’s a lot of personal and career disappointment that led to that. I hate to be vague. It’s in Ghetto Klown. I wanted that for a long time.”
The person John is trusting to bring that kind of personal, revealing performance to the stage and screen is director Fisher Stevens; The veteran performer was Leguizamo’s only choice. “I’m putting my life in someone hands for a lot of time,” Leguizamo said. “It was also a big commitment for Fisher, to have to give up four years of his life, because I’m a vortex. I’m relentless, I don’t stop. I picked him because I’ve known him all my life. I’ve known him since we did a Shakespeare play in the park. I was Puck. I was terrible. You’d think I’d be good.”
The connection the two men share allows for an intimacy in the performance: Fisher already knows so much about John, there was nothing to hide on stage. “Fisher, I knew him personally. He knows all the women I’ve dated, he knows my wife, he knows my kids, he knows my girlfriend. He knows all that. He knows me. We go to the same therapist. He was the person you talked to about how do you go deeper. I want to go really raw. I want to take the one man show away from this show business acting thing. I want to get away from the pure comedy of it. I want it to feel even more like a play, so we did longer scenes where I play all of the characters but it’s much longer pieces that kept going. Kept my concentration, kept my agility and I went to darker places. Things that I’m sure my wife is going to be very embarrassed about.”
Chef, Leguizamo was quick to point out, has a universal appeal that isn’t to be mistaken with something superficial. “This isn’t a commercial film,” he said. “It’s a satisfying film. Accessible, but I wouldn’t call it a commercial film.” Part of what makes the film so viable is the personal nature of the story Jon is telling. In Chef, Jon Favreau’s Chef Carl Casper is facing a creative crisis. He’s quite succesful doing what his restaurant’s owner thinks is expected of him, but his desire for a creative outlet pushes him into unexpected places. The film is transparently a personal story for Favreau.
This isn’t the first time a director has come to Leguizamo to play an integral part in what is essentially their life story as parable. John’s reaction to being invited into these roles was from an earnest state of humility: “It’s an incredible honor. If anything I walked away from my parents with was immigrant values of hard work and be honorable. Honor is a huge thing. Latin immigrants anyway, Latin families. Respect and honor are huge. They’re a huge part of our upbringing. I try to do that. To be in Jon’s movie… He is an artist. He had one of the biggest independent films ever and cemented an independent industry. Everybody wanted that, that lightning in a bottle. They wanted him to do it again. Kids wanted to make it studios wanted to buy it the audiences wanted to see more of that. He was a part of that and I think he went back to the well, which was, ‘let me tell something that was really personal.’ That’s the beauty of the paradigm of the story structure Jon decided to tell. He’s a brilliant guy. This is the journey of an artist. A man who gets success. He loses success and from the ashes you get a rebirth. We’ve all related to that story somehow.”
In the film, Leguizamo plays Favreau’s loyal line cook, who follows Casper to Miami to join him on his vision quest. In the role, Leguizamo shines by giving an earnest and relaxed performance showcasing the levity and loyalty needed to survive in a kitchen. The camaraderie between the two men sells the back half of the picture, and Leguizamo’s complimentary approach lets Favreau shine. “I’m a method guy. You gotta act like yourself and then you gotta do those things. Jon and I hung. He went to two months of restaurant training. I went to three weeks of restaurant training. In the restaurant’s I saw the incredible camaraderie and loyalty. The beautiful thing was, here’s these white guys in charge and they owe it all to their Latin crew. They would die for their crew. They would take a bullet for their crew and their crew for them. It’s incredible, it’s like a general. There’s real love and loyalty, and I wanted to pay tribute to that. Jon is an incredible leader and, like Baz Luhrmann, you want to give them everything. He’s a great director. A level five leader. He makes you so a part of it, like this whole thing depends on you. It’s great to feel that kind of trust and that collaborative feeling.”
The film’s infusion of Latin culture makes for a cross-cultural experience that hasn’t been seen on screen before. Attempts like Spanglish have failed to find an audience and feel more like white guilt than honest looks at the experiences of a multi-cultural society. In Chef, Favreau chose not to have subtitles for a film with a noticeable amount of Spanish dialogue; Leguizamo noted, “There is a lot of Latin influence in the movie, especially the great boogaloo tunes, salsa. And to not have to put subtitles anymore for the Spanish is cool. I know most people aren’t getting it, but a lot of people are. Look at Europe, they speak English, they speak French, they speak Italian. Latin America is all around America. People could be speaking at least that.”
John Leguizamo’s Ghetto Klown premieres tonight (Saturday, March 22nd) at 10e/p on HBO. Jon Favreau’s Chef is in theaters May 9th. Stay tuned to Nerdist.com for more on Chef and check out our initial thoughts from our SXSW wrap-up.