John Leguizamo’s Journey to ‘Bloodline,’ His Favorite Show About ‘Crazy White People’
With a juicy role on Bloodline and a new one-man show, Latin History for Morons, the self-described ‘Ghetto Klown’ riffs on art, family, and speaking for the Latin people.
“I love crazy white people,” John Leguizamo says, his five o’clock shadow creeping into a sunny smile, cracking himself up.
The actor-writer-activist and master of the one-man show is talking about Netflix’s Bloodline, the slow-burn thriller about Florida’s most dysfunctional family that launches season two Friday with Leguizamo in a new, pivotal role.
“That’s what the show should really be called,” he says, still laughing. “Crazy White People.”
It’s the kind of candor—good-natured ribbing rooted in a brutal truth about our culture and society—you expect from Leguizamo.
In person, especially after the three cups of coffee he consumed, he’s much like the “John Leguizamo” you see in the largely autobiographical one-man shows (Mambo Mouth, Freak, Ghetto Klown) that launched his status from one of Hollywood’s most gifted and chameleonic character actors to one of the industry’s most crucial and insightful social commentators.
He’s got the boundless energy of a kindergartener on a sugar high, the intuitiveness of a sociological scholar, and the wily deviousness of a self-effacing, self-described narcissist tempered with the warmth and bleeding heart of a devoted family man. And at 51, he hasn’t lost a lick of the unkempt sex appeal that first caught audiences’ attention in films like Carlito’s Way, Romeo + Juliet, and cult favorites like Super Mario Bros. and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
All shades of Leguizamo are on display in this typically busy summer for the Latin Energizer Bunny.
The action thriller The Infiltrator, opposite Bryan Cranston, hits theaters in July. His latest one-man show, Latin History for Morons, will premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in July before transferring off-Broadway to the Public Theater (where Hamilton was originally produced) in the spring.
And his fifth go-round voicing Sid the Sloth in the hit Ice Age franchise comes out on July 22, which happens to be his birthday. “I’m getting a big check for my birthday this year,” Leguizamo laughs.
Before all of that, though, is Bloodline, the Emmy-nominated drama series that features Leguizamo in a key role as Ozzy, a mysterious man who arrives in the Florida Keys to further entangle the Rayburn family’s web of troubles.
For someone who works as often as Leguizamo does—with over 130 IMDB acting entries, he jokes he’s trying to be “the youngest person with the most credits”—it’s a rare turn to television, at least in a regular or recurring role.
“I had PTSD from doing TV,” Leguizamo says.
Some of that stems back to the trying experience he had creating and starring the 1995 sketch show House of Buggin’, which he pushed to have on air because of the dearth of Latin-themed TV shows on networks, but was quickly canceled and saw much of its creative team and crew shuffled over to the more traditional (whiter) Mad TV. When he worked on ER, he said it gave him depression—he gained weight, binged on fast food, and started smoking.
And some of that PTSD stems from the way he works. He groans as he mimics the up-the-chain conversations that happen in the world of TV anytime an actor—he—wants to change something as simple as a “the” to an “a” in a line, concluding: “TV, I was little afraid to do again.”
“I don’t believe anything anybody says in Hollywood,” Leguizamo replies when I ask what talked him out of his PTSD to co-star in Bloodline. “I have to see it.”
And what he saw was an offer that was hard to refuse.
“You chase great writing and wherever that is, you gotta go,” he says. “Like a migrant farmer. Wherever the ripe fruit are that’s where I want to go picking. Cable and streaming is the place to chase the great writing right now.”
When we last saw the Rayburns in season one of Bloodline, the siblings were sweating more than usual. There’s a family murder to cover up, and the siblings are pooling resources to hide the body and the evidence—as well as their connections to all of Danny’s indiscretions before he was killed.
They’re attempting to restore the Rayburns to their privileged status as the Keys’ First Family. Ozzy arrives to make sure they don’t.
“I don’t want to pigeonhole him as a criminal,” Leguizamo says, describing Ozzy. “But a lot of people who go on the wrong side of the law are super intelligent but don’t have the moral backbone. They can’t survive watching other people get things they felt like they deserved. They want the American dream. They want it just like those people over there, but society said you can’t have it because you were born over here.”
There was another aspect of Bloodline that fascinated Leguizamo: a subplot involving the trafficking of immigrants to South Florida that gives the harrowing crisis a gripping human face.
“I was very fascinated that there’s a social stance,” he says. “With so much hate and so much xenophobia coming from our political candidates, it makes the country act in weird ways. When Trump said a lot of that stuff about Latin people it gives others an excuse to act out. So I think it’s important to comment and show the plight and show what the people are really like, which is not the damaging picture that he presented.”
Showing what the people—the Latin community—are really like has been a tenet of Leguizamo’s entire career.
When he left the acting program at NYU, after studying with some of the greatest acting teachers in the country, he was frustrated. The opportunities he was being offered were limited. He got fed up.
“I thought wait a minute, why am I only being cast as a murderer or a killer?” he says. “Why am I not being offered the romantic lead of the average guy? Or the nice person on the right side of the law. It’s all so profiling.” The solution: “I started writing.”
Leguizamo wrote Mambo Mouth, his first one-man show. It played in a 70-seat theater. Fold-up seats, too. “They were so convinced it wouldn’t work they didn’t even have the chairs nailed to the ground,” he says. It did work. Soon, the likes of Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Al Pacino, and JFK Jr. were squirming in those folding chairs. He won an Obie and an Outer Critics Circle Award.
Latin History for Morons will mark his sixth one-man show. “It was easier when I was young because I was angry,” he says about decades of pulling from his life for his art. “Angry at my family, angry at society. I didn’t care. I took no prisoners.”
Now, however, he does care. And he’s not angry anymore. “I mean I’m dissatisfied, but I’m not as angry as I used to be. So it’s much harder. And I don’t write these autobiographical pieces willingly. Against my will, it just happens.”
Take his smash hit Ghetto Klown, for example, which was turned into an HBO special. Its most poignant parts involve his fractured relationship with his father, who at one point threatened to sue Leguizamo because of the way he was portrayed in his Emmy-winning one-man production, Freak.
It’s only after his father suffers a stroke that the two reconnect, an encounter played so poignantly in Ghetto Klown that you could hear a pin drop amidst the riveted audience. But Leguizamo’s father is hardly the only family member to take umbrage with how they come off in the actor’s theatrical confessionals. It makes for a complicated tension: the personal stories that resonate most with the audiences are the one that make Leguizamo’s own relationships toxic.
“When I was young and an artist, the only thing I cared about was my art,” Leguizamo says. I was selfish and narcissistic. I didn’t think about the consequences. The weight of it started to hit me after the fact.”
During workshops for Latin History for Morons, Leguizamo tried to keep personal stories out of the production. But post-show Q&As found audiences begging for them. He started to add personal anecdotes to complement the vignettes chronicling the historic moments he’s talking about. He began getting standing ovations.
“Sometimes as an artist you have to make certain personal sacrifices in order to enlighten,” he says.
Still, he’s excited that Latin History for Morons is premiering at an exciting time for his community. He’s moved by the conversation that the #OscarsSoWhite movement started, and the way it exposed what he called a “diseased” studio system when it comes to diversity. A musical starring a black Alexander Hamilton and a Latin Aaron Burr is making history, and Lin-Manuel Miranda is being labeled—quite literally—a genius.
“We’re making huge inroads,” he says. “But we’re taking them. They’re not being given to us. To get them, you have to fight for everything you get.”
And therein lies the mission of Latin History for Morons. The mission of Leguizamo’s entire career, really.
“I grew up feeling like a second class citizen when I shouldn’t have,” he says. “I shouldn’t have felt that way. I should’ve felt like, ‘Oh look. My people have contributed big time all through history.’ I want that to change. That’d be powerful, you know?”