John Leguizamo: I Would Give Up Acting to Run for Office in Texas
In an exclusive interview with Tim Teeman, actor John Leguizamo talks about standing for office, Hollywood’s Latino-focused failures, and being sexually harassed as a minor.
John Leguizamo emerged from the stage door of Broadway’s Studio 54 theater after a recent evening performance of Latin History for Morons, the one-man play he has written and performs, to be greeted by a clutch of overjoyed fans. They were proffering marker pens, wanting both programs and shirts signed.
“Thank you,” said one elated young woman. “That was amazing. I learned so much.”
Leguizamo, dressed all in black with a baseball cap—divested of his stage costume of teacherly shirt and tie and hair glazed with chalk dust—signed, chatted, and thanked them for their praise.
He posed for selfies, and then minutes later—autographs and posing over— was sitting in a nearby Italian restaurant, tucking into a plate of sublime spaghetti bolognese, with a dish of broccoli rabe and glass of white wine to the side.
“People feel incredibly empowered by this piece,” he said of Latin History. “They appear at the stage door crying and wanting to hug me. They feel it viscerally. They’re so depressed by it, but at the same time so uplifted. A Puerto Rican woman said to me: ‘I felt like a second-class citizen till tonight.’”
If Texas Democrats want a movie star candidate, Leguizamo is offering his services. The actor and vocal anti-Trump activist is so angry at the racism he sees as leveled at Latinos and African Americans in the state, he revealed to The Daily Beast that he would gladly stand for office even if it meant giving up acting.
“You know, I love what I do. I would hate to give it up,” Leguizamo says, mid-mouthfuls of bolognese. “But if I could I would run for office in Texas. I would run someplace heinous to make a difference. Yes, I would run if my celebrity could get me elected, to get rid of gerrymandering and to allow people to teach Latino history in Texas which is 39 percent Latino and around 12 percent black, so we people of color are the majority. Why are we so beaten down there?”
“Mexican-American Studies,” as it is known, is not banned in Texas’ public schools, but in November, as HuffPost reported, the State Board of Education voted not to adopt a textbook covering Mexican-American studies leading to criticism of how Texas taught Mexican-American Studies to students. In December, a judge in Arizona declared a ban on teaching Mexican-American Studies was unconstitutional.
Leguizamo is shocked there is still such ignorance, as “the second-oldest ethnic group in America after Native Americans, and we are the most decorated minority. How is that not in all the textbooks? How America not learns this makes us so vulnerable to comments and policies from this president, Jeff Sessions, and Greg Abbott.” (Abbott, the governor of Texas, signed Senate Bill 4, an anti-sanctuary bill into law last May.)
Leguizamo’s possible career change is no small thing if, like the handsome 53-year-old actor, screenwriter, playwright, and producer, you are more familiar with entertaining and enlightening a Broadway audience every night with a show that tells the largely unknown, bloody, tragic, and heroic history of Latinos in this country, alongside a more personal story of bullying endured by his then-15-year-old son Lucas at school.
The emotional one hour and 35 minute “lesson” is funny and sad, with Leguizamo gesticulating, lecturing, hectoring, dancing, and scrawling on a blackboard, furiously relaying a history that shouldn’t be so unknown to those watching it. Our ignorance, and the invisibility in history lessons at school, was Leguizamo’s fused catalyst for writing it. The lack of Latino history meant at school that Leguizamo had felt invisible, “like I didn’t exist or control anything.”
Banning or not teaching Latino history, said Leguizamo, “makes Latino people, and experience, invisible, meaning white people don’t have to respect them, and instead can abuse and more easily disenfranchise them.”
The moving plaudits come every night at the stage door. Leguizamo recalled the white Texans who told him “they knew they had to help make things better”; those couples in mixed marriages grateful to hear their experiences approximated on stage; the shock of teachers and students that this history isn’t in their textbooks; and the Latino teen who couldn’t believe how many white people were in the theater listening to Leguizamo tell Latin history.
“That’s the messaging that happens when Hollywood doesn’t include Latin people,” said Leguizamo. “We are the least represented minority in film. TV is changing things. America Ferrera is the lead in Superstore, Jennifer Lopez leads Shades of Blue, Gina Rodriguez (who spoke powerfully about Latin representation, and under-representation, on film at Sunday night’s SAG awards) leads Jane the Virgin. Why can’t we be on camera? Why is the world that I see around me mixed, and why is the world I see in movies filled with all white people? Why does it have to be like that?
“The best writing is on TV now. Movies, like old-school TV, are cheesy, corny. Movies are not exciting any more. They're not cutting edge. People just need to see 'rides,' not character-driven pieces revealing the human condition like they used to do. Film is moving less quickly than TV, which is moving much more rapidly to amend the situation. TV is successfully ridding us of 'Oscars So White' and 'Hollywood So White.'"
Hollywood's problem, Leguizamo told The Daily Beast, is "not making an effort. I mean, I have seen crazy shit. It happens that they'll take story that had real Latino people in it and take them out and put white people in those roles, like they did in Argo (in which Ben Affleck played Mexican-American hero Antonio "Tony" Mendez).
"No, don't do that, give us our stories," said Leguizamo.
Leguizamo would love to play heroes of his like Julián Castro, the former Mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama; or historical figures he mentions in his show, like Marcelino Serna, who won the Purple Heart in WWI for saving his battalion.
“How about a Latin superhero?” he said. “We’re fucking playing basketball, football, baseball, we’re athletes—all ingredients for a Latin superhero. Put one on fucking camera, man, Marvel or goddamn D.C. Comics.”
Leguizamo recalled Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson once puncturing "what is classified as Hollywood wisdom" that girls can't be the lead of an action film (as Jennifer Lawrence was) because boys don't relate to them.
"Like she said, it's bullshit," said Leguizamo. "The same 'Hollywood wisdom' has it that you can't have a black character because 'you can't sell the film overseas. It's a fake Hollywood wisdom, it just allows racism to incur into their agenda, the same that informs not having a Latin lead because the film can't be sold to another set of people.
"Imagine if Lin-Manuel Miranda had tried to do Hamilton first in Hollywood. They would have told him, 'The forefathers weren't Latino or black, they didn't speak in Hip hop.' That would never had gotten going in Hollywood ever. But theater let Lin-Manuel him do it, and he created an incredible masterpiece."
The school project of Lucas' that Leguizamo uses in the play as a vehicle to educate us really existed, Leguizamo cramming himself with dates, names, and tribes to help his son (as key texts, he particularly recommends Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America and Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created).
This is Leguizamo’s sixth autobiographically-inspired stage show. The cycle began with the multi-award-winning and nominated Mambo Mouth in 1991. Spic-O-Rama, Freak, for which he won a Emmy Award for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Music Program, Sexaholix...A Love Story, and Ghetto Klown followed.
His stage career—he will host this year’s Obie Awards in May—is more garlanded than his still-impressive movie career, which has famously included Super Mario Bros, Carlito’s Way, and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (for which he won a Golden Globe supporting actor nomination).
Leguizamo prefers the stage to screen, unless it’s for movies “where I am given the chance to be all I can be,” as he felt when he made To Wong Foo, Summer of Sam, and The Infiltrator. He is especially proud of the positive LGBT influence of To Wong Foo, and how his character, Chi-Chi Rodriguez, became “a trans teen icon of the 1990s.” If there is a musical version on Broadway, as is rumored, he would not return, he said laughing. “They need somebody younger who can sing.”
Leguizamo said he was inspired to start writing and performing his autobiographical plays because of the paucity of roles for Latino actors that rarely extended beyond drug dealers and thieves.
He wrote his first show after watching fellow acting NYU acting students “get five auditions a week, whereas I would get one a month, to play a thief, drug dealer, or gardener. It didn’t seem fair. I was not going to see my life wasted away like that, so I wrote my own stuff.”
Racism was never overtly expressed to Leguizamo by directors and casting agents. He was simply never called in and rarely cast. “There was a weird duality. Living inside myself I was idealistic and determined to change things, and another part of me was pessimistic, that this was a fact of life I would have to accept.” He stayed determined, and more confidence came with crafting his own plays.
Leguizamo recalled that he performed his first stage show “in a theater of 70 fold-up seats.” Frank Rich reviewed the show positively, he recalled; Raúl Juliá, John F. Kennedy Jr., Sam Shepard, Al Pacino, Arthur Miller, and Olympia Dukakis came to see the show.
“I pioneered this kind of theater,” he said. “Before this there were biographical plays about historical figures like Mark Twain and Lincoln. Nobody talked about their personal lives. After me came Billy Crystal, and then others.”
The audience at Latin History the night we met had been quiet, he said, sometimes it is rowdier—and he modulates his performance according to who is watching. He wishes people weren't allowed drinks in their seats. “I have no idea how they do serious plays with it. In a quiet moment, a cup rolls down and makes an incredible amount of noise. People get incredibly liquored up and go to the bathroom. People throw up.”
Some audience members shout out at Leguizamo: one man had to be ejected recently, and a group of President Trump supporters sparked into life at one performance, “right at the end, they were so cheap—they wanted to get their money's worth,” he said, laughing. “They call us snowflakes, but they’re so fucking snowflake.”
On President Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Leguizamo said: “First of all it was so late, then he demeans them by saying they all want to be helped out. These people were just ravaged by a massive hurricane, then he threw paper towels at them like animals. It was horrible, so disrespectful. I think he’s not fit to be president. I don’t think he’s a fit man. I don’t think he’s sane enough to be president. He tries to separate and divide, and a lot of the time I feel he’s doing [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s bidding.”
Trump's "both sides" comment after the violent unrest in Charlottesville last summer was “the first clue” to Leguizamo that the president was "super-racist," added to his "super-racist" cabal of advisors, past and remaining, including Sebastian Gorka, Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller, and Stephen Bannon.
Leguizamo said he first became political after Al Gore lost the 2000 election of "hanging chads" against George W. Bush. He also thought the Republican demonization of John Kerry, "a real Vietnam hero," was “a terrible, unfair character assassination.”
From that point, he said, he wanted to go from being an entertainer, "a blank canvas, which people project on to," to an artist, "who wants their canvas to be full of everything that's going on." Leguizamo laughed. "I want my shit to be like a Basquiat."
Growing up in Jackson Heights, Leguizamo wanted to be a veterinarian or a marine. The only Latin people he saw acting were Ricky Ricardo and Cesar Romero, the Joker in Batman. "I didn't dare dream I could be an actor.” His math teacher told him he should be a comedian, his stepmom was supportive too. He thought, "Maybe it is a possibility. It's a long shot, but maybe I can. I wasn't looking for fame and success, it was more, 'Would they even cast me?'"
Of his acting peers, Leguizamo was inspired (in the 1980s) by Pacino in American Buffalo, John Malkovich in True West, Lily Tomlin in The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in The Universe, and Whoopi Goldberg in her self-named one-woman show; later personal standouts include Philip Seymour Hoffman in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2003) and Mark Rylance in Richard III (2013).
The plays Leguizamo has written and performed can be exposing, but that's the way "it comes out" of him, he said. He doesn't speak to his father and brother. His father asked how he could make him look so bad in Freak, and Leguizamo told him he'd made him "look a lot nice than you are. You should be thanking me.” He would like to have a relationship with his brother. “That's the one that hurts the most. I really miss him."
In Freak, Leguizamo called his sibling 'Fat Boy Called Bitch,' and he says he treated his brother in ways that his brother doesn't find funny, "he just finds it kind of abusive."
His father and him have "always been on the outs. I was never meant to have a close relationship with him. He gave me a lot of great things, like an immigrant desire to be the best. He was definitely a strong provider, at least for the first 13 years of our lives and then not so much after that. He did a lot of dastardly things.
"I have to forgive him to be a better parent to my own kids. I do understand. He came from a really difficult childhood and background. I understand he had to evolve and break the cycle, but I was able to so thought, 'Why can't you?'"
The bullying of Lucas, as sketched out in Latin History, may have been more aggressive than Leguizamo was letting on, he told me. It went on for two years. Lucas’ parents didn't know initially: Leguizamo and his wife Justine wondered why Lucas wasn't getting invited to friends' birthdays, or why friends weren't coming over to the house.
The bully was "an alpha guy," who wasn't as intelligent, athletic and good-looking as Lucas, "with a famous dad," Leguizamo says, and so began the campaign of harassment, turning Lucas' classmates against him. If he scored at basketball, they would sit on their hands.
"Lucas was my hero," says Leguizamo. "He was so brave through the whole thing. He just dealt with it, and said, 'I'm going to get good grades and get out of this school.'"
Leguizamo said he felt hopeless. "You're only as happy as your saddest child. We were mortified, destroyed. You want to go nuts. You want to go berserk. My first instinct growing up was if you beat the shit out of the bully, the bully backs off. I was bullied a lot too, and then became the bully. As an adult you think, ‘Haven't we evolved from this tribal bullshit?’"
Lucas grew up very differently to his dad, "without so much aggression and violence everywhere, and that leaves its mark." Lucas, by contrast, is sensitive and peaceful. Leguizamo has become "a more rational and evolved adult," but didn't resolve anything when he came face to face with his son's bully's father.
"Bullying happens a lot," he added quietly. "My cousin was bullied and he ended his life. He was 21. He got beat up so bad when he was 19. They stomped on his head, they hit his head with a bat. He wasn't the same kid after that."
Justine was not happy with her husband writing about Lucas’ bullying so candidly, he says. “She wasn’t sure I had the right to write about his experiences. When she saw the play (before it came to New York, at La Jolla), she was shocked at how deep I had gone. I told her he was the hero of the piece, and the piece was important for other bigger reasons.”
Justine wanted to take out the part where Leguizamo talks about Lucas masturbating, and he did, but only in the performance she attended.
Lucas saw Latin History when it opened at New York's Public Theater, and two times since. Leguizamo hadn’t told him what he had written about in detail, apart to tell him he was his hero. “He loved it, he thought it was so funny,” said Leguizamo. “He gave me some additions and changes. I don’t want him to think I am exploiting him, because I wouldn't.”
He absolutely understands his wife’s misgivings. “She’s very protective, a lioness protecting her cubs, and I love and respect that about her.” She has now seen the play five times. A friend of hers told him she thought it was beautiful and powerful. The friend recalled the bullying happening, and how the play helped her deal with the memory of it.
“I said yes, that's what art is. Art is taking your trauma, and you get to play God with it. I can control the outcome and suddenly it does not traumatize me.”
The lack of Latino history in schools, and the emotional effect on audiences proved his point, he felt. He would like to turn the play into a coffee-table, picture-led book himself. Discussions are planned with publishers.
Leguizamo thinks the #MeToo and TimesUp movements are "amazing, it's great to do away with all these unspoken rules that let those dudes have all that power. People should show respect to people all the time. It's about power. Fuck you, clean your shit up."
As a younger actor, observing others' behavior, he aspired to be the respectful actor, rather than the sexually aggressive one towards women. His own behavior towards women, he said, was "always consensual."
Had he been a victim of sexual abuse or harassment himself, I asked.
He laughed. "No. Maybe I was not good looking enough. I shot with Bruce Weber (the subject of recent allegations in The New York Times). He didn't molest me. Was I not good-looking or cute enough for him? He never asked me to disrobe."
Unconnected to show business, as a child Leguizamo received "flirtatious" comments from older women and men, he told me. "It was very awkward and I found a way to run, like, 'OK, excuse me, I gotta go.' They weren’t grabbing me, they were just being very aggressively flirtatious. Random people. It freaked me out at the time, but nothing happened. If something happened it would have been confusing, there might have been self-hate, but I didn't have that."
In one of his stage shows, he talked about losing his virginity to a large woman, having paid her for sex. He talks about sex quite a bit on stage, I said.
"I'm pretty free sexually, pretty comfortable with it, I guess I have always been a sexual person," he said. "Latin people are very free sexually. I'm not saying promiscuous, just expressive, sensual. I never felt sexually repressed or anything like that."
The first love of his life was a fellow pupil at school called Diane. "She was so beautiful to me. She had an incredible body. She was my height. It was very sweet and cool, and we spent a lot of time necking. Back then, you could neck for hours and it was enough man. My friends had hickeys and you'd do fake ones on yourself if you didn't have them."
"I love being in love," said Leguizamo. He married his first wife, Yelba Osorio, in 1994. They divorced two years later. "I was too young," he said. "You make lot of mistakes. I was a different man by the time I met my second wife. I was much more mature. It felt like I had sowed my oats. I think guys like to have sowed their oats, so they can control themselves.”
It would have been “a disaster” if he’d had kids in his first marriage. “I wasn’t ready, she wasn’t ready. The whole thing fell apart pretty fast.”
With Justine (whom he married in 2003), Leguizamo found “a whole new level of love. I was instantly attracted to her. She was so beautiful, so sexy, so present and free.” They started dating, the relationship progressed quickly, he said, “all of a sudden” being married and having children, “and now it’s 20 years later.” They live in a town-house in Greenwich Village.
Justine is white and Jewish. Their mixed marriage “was never an issue. I like being with somebody who is not like me,” said Leguizamo. “I like explaining myself and my culture to someone else. I like her explaining her culture to me. Opposites attract. Our differences are sexy to me and I think—I can’t speak for her… but I assume and hope it’s sexy for her too.”
Justine went to private school, he went to public; she is measured, he is voluble. Early on, he recalled laughing, she would ask why he was so loud, why he wouldn’t dress up. And since then? “I think I have become quieter and she’s become louder,” he said, with another laugh.
On stage, we are seeing the real Leguizamo, he said, the parent who is a little too much involved in his children’s business, he admitted with a gentle smile. He would read to them three times a day when they were young, doing different voices even as they begged him just to read as himself.
He seems the sweetly over-eager, super-protective dad, and they are typical, ‘oh Dad,’ eye-rolling, cool teenagers. Allegra, his 18-year-old daughter, is particularly “emotionally and socially intelligent.”
When I said she had to get her sterling quality from somewhere (i.e. maybe him), Leguizamo said his parents would say something similar and try to take credit for Leguizamo’s success. He isn’t sure parents can take the credit for some things. He made his success, not his parents, he said.
Lucas, now 17, wants to be a banker. Allegra wants to be an actress (which makes Leguizamo extremely proud), and has just been accepted by Northwestern.
What about his son’s very un-artistic career choice? “Dude, I couldn't be happier, it’s something solid. Acting is a hard-ass career. Six percent of actors work. I loved it. I couldn’t care if I was going to be broke all my life. I was living under poverty for many years.” He did children’s theater, performed at comedy clubs, attended improv classes, tended bar. “I was so skinny though,” he said. “If you look at me in Miami Vice, I’m so manorexic.”
Leguizamo is in great shape today, which he puts down to working out and the sadistic-sounding treatments of a physical therapist, who stretches and pummels him three times a week, so he can throw himself around the stage. The grey hair we see on stage is just chalk-dust: under the baseball cap is a handsomely unruly mass of dark hair.
We spoke before the government shutdown had occurred, the fate of 'Dreamers' at its heart. "Immigration is down, statistically, anyway," Leguizamo said, "but Trump made his promise about building a wall and so instead of helping those people who face violence and starvation, the people who America should be helping are instead wrongly demonized as criminals and terrorists."
Leguizamo is not disheartened. He has never felt so politicized, he said; he has donated money to every special election in the last year. “We black and Latin people live with oppression every day. It’s part of our lives. What’s beautiful is that now white people are woke. We need them to be. There are so many great Latin politicians: Nydia Velázquez, Maritza Davila, Tony Cárdenas, and Carmen Yulín Cruz.” He also admires journalists, and politicians including Adam Schiff, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Dick Durbin.
Next, Leguizamo plays an FBI officer in the limited series Waco, starring Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh, timed for the 25th anniversary of that notorious siege. He also plays the duped partner of Andrea Riseborough as the sociopathic title character in the movie Nancy. Latin History will become a TV special, Leguizamo revealed. He is presently in the second round of negotiations with a network he declines to name (it isn't HBO, which produced Ghetto Klown).
Before the mid-term elections, Leguizamo would like to take Latin History on the road to politically targeted locales like Texas, Chicago, Arizona, Denver, Florida, Washington D.C., Miami, Tampa, and maybe Orlando. As well as inspiring and activating white liberals, Latino people, said Leguizamo, “need to be motivated to remotivated, and maybe even inspired for the first time to understand how much right they have to speak out and stand up for themselves."
“American democracy has never been tested in the way Trump is testing it: criminality, cronyism, enriching himself, attacking the press, questioning the validity of facts,” Leguizamo said. “We’re being saved in states like California, who are protecting sanctuary cities against assaults by the White House on what we respect, value, and hold decent.”
As a waiter cleared our plates, Leguizamo paused, then smiled brightly. "Remember when Bush seemed the most horrible human being? Well, he gave us Obama. If we survive Trump he could give us someone amazing.”
And long before that, Trump could also give us John Leguizamo, politician and public official.
Latin History for Morons is at Studio 54, 254 West 54th St., NYC, until Feb. 25. Book tickets here.