I had the pleasure of interviewing John Leguizamo recently, and HOLY EFF he is the greatest, nicest, most fantastic person I have ever met. (For real, not even exaggerating here.) But let’s get into that further momentarily in the actual transcript of our conversation, yes? I will tell you that we had a nice little chit-chat about the creation of Ghetto Klown (and about Charlie Rose physically saying “Ghetto Klown”) which is set to premiere on HBO TONIGHT! It’s a fantastic one-man show (hello, it’s Leguizamo) that goes into detail about John’s own personal history (read: childhood, acting career, family relationships, friendships, etc.) and very carefully balances comedy with some darker themes. (I repeat, it’s pretty fantastic.) BUT ENOUGH ABOUT THE FUTURE, let’s just get right into our conversation, which includes bits about Jackson Heights, about John’s kids’ embarrassment levels (they ARE in their early teens, after all) and about pretty much everything else. HERE WE GO:
Okay, so first, I just have to say how much pleasure it gave me to see you being interviewed by Charlie Rose and having Charlie say “Ghetto Klown” out loud…
[Laughs] He’s always great, he’s the Michael Jordan of interviewers. Love when he tries to get urban.
Totally. Now, how long did it take you to write Ghetto Klown?
It took me a long time to break this career, this life of a man…I don’t know, people have tried it before, and it always comes out like a fluff piece, or it’s a laundry list of credits…it doesn’t come out right. So I had to try to figure out what was happening, and part of it is that you’ve really got to lay it out and tell the truth; the audience has an instinct about what’s being said. Luckily I did it for the masochistic reason, the higher purpose, which was to inspire people. It was to inspire a lot of other artists who may have wanted to quit or give up. Comedy’s always helped me get through life, you know?
Right, and I feel that I can relate to that. Everyone has shit going on in their lives, but for me it’s always been being able to laugh about it and write about it that’s helped me to get through it. But it’s also TERRIFYING to sort of open that up for people, you know? Have you had moments where you’ve opened up and it feels good at the TIME, but then the next day you sort of regret it? Or, not “regret it”, but you sort of feel like, “FUUUUUCK, that’s out there now.”
[Laughs] That was exactly my experience. It’s like, on paper you’re getting it out, you feel light and free and you’ve unburdened yourself, and then the first night of performing it you go, “Oh my fucking god, I’m going to tell all these people all of this stuff about me…how can I take it back.” But in my head I’m going for this thing where I create art and inspire people, and the self-sacrifice is worth it because it can inspire people, and it has! You know, Mike Tyson saw the show and made one just like it, which is great. And I know a lot of people are wanting to do a show about their lives now that they have the format. I’ve met a lot of people around the country who’ve said, you know, “I was going to quit writing, dancing, singing, but I saw your show and I thought, ‘Why should I give up?'” And that’s why I wrote it, especially for Latin kids, because I heard this horrible statistic when I was writing the show that 40% of Latin kids drop out of high school, and it shouldn’t be happening, but I know why. They just feel disconnected. You feel like you’re not part of the American quilt, that your patch is not there, and I wanted them to see me and know through the TV or through whatever that if I can make it they can make it.
No, I mean, that’s fantastic. And I mean, tell me a little bit about growing up in Jackson Heights! My grandparents actually grew up there right around St. Joan of Arc…
Did you go there?
No, I went to PS 89.
Okay, so they lived right near that church, though, and they met each other as five year olds. It was funny, though, because in the seventies, you know, that’s when things were sort of shifting, and while MOST of our family had moved, our great aunt was still there and they kind of had to move her away against her will…
Yeah, it was a neighborhood in transition to grow up in Jackson Heights; it was incredible for me as an artist and comedian, because I heard every accent possible, from little Irish ladies to the Germans to the Jamaicans…it was like a Tower of Babel for me, and I was always learning.
So do you go back there often?
I don’t go often, but I do go back.
I go for the food, basically, or I light a candle at church for my grandmother.
Yeah, there’s a lot of great Ecuadorian restaurants, Colombian restaurants, so I go back for that kind of food (because it was the best around), but then my mom started having people bring it from Queens and I stopped going back so much.
Well that’s good! Which is absurd for me to say, because it’s not like a HUGE trek, but it is off the beaten path to most of the rest of New York City.
Yeah, it’s not that far! Jackson Diner moved to me right downtown…you ever been to Jackson Diner?
It’s the best Indian food IN AMERICA! But it opened up right next to us, and it’s still incredible.
So where do you live in the city now?
Nice! And how old are your kids now?
Kids are thirteen and fourteen. Lord have mercy!
And how are they feeling about what you do? I mean, I always find this hilarious, because my parents…my dad is a horse dentist, and my mother is a counselor in a school, so to have a parent that’s an actor or someone who’s in the business…I mean, that just seems like it’d be the least embarrassing thing of all time!
[Laughs] You know, they’re very proud of me, but I still embarrass them because I’m too actor-y; you know, I’m too LOUD, I do too many voices, I’m too silly, too goofy…it’s like, “Stop acting out, dad!” I’m the annoying dad! They want to tone me down, mute me, have a remote control, but they can’t, because I won’t shut up.
Good for you! And how did having kids change your writing and/or creative process, as opposed to before, where you might have had more time to yourself?
Well, things definitely changed…I think having the kids made me more focused; it makes you use your time a little bit better, and I don’t have the freedom to do as many crazy projects as I used to. You know, that’s time that I’m not going to give up. But also, the material changes a little bit; kids bring you a maturer perspective of the world, and you want to make the world a better place for them. I have to be careful, because I know they’ll see it. And that changed a lot of things, too; they’re never gonna see my one-man shows, at least until they go to college. [Laughs]
Well, so for Ghetto Klown, what was your sort of state of mind during the writing process?
Well, I didn’t want to do one-man shows anymore and had a break from it (or, breakdown is more like it), and I just wanted to walk away from all that. But then I got hired to do a college talk to inspire some kids, and I just drank a ton, lubricated my mind and made a sort of resume for myself, started telling them stories about each piece, and the kids were loving it! I started writing it down, and I felt more comfortable, felt like, “Wow, maybe I can go back to stage!” And these talks made me feel more confident.
And have you sort of gotten over the stage fright? I don’t feel like anyone ever COMPLETELY gets over that, but…
Yeah, you never completely get over that…
Well yeah, especially when you open yourself up so much; I mean, you’re playing different characters at times during this show, but not ALL the time.
Right. And that took me years to develop that comfort zone and to be able to be myself on stage, because I always had a lot of pressure in my head. I always wanted to be perfect, wanted to be great. So I think I put excessive pressure on myself, and I think that sort of detonated and combusted inside. And those demands on yourself don’t go away, you know? But I was able to get comfortable with the show, and of course what you say in the show will always haunt you, but I think I’ve helped bring in a whole genre of depression comedy, so I helped pioneer that. [Laughs]
Totally. Now, it also seems like SUCH a physical show where you’re running around and dancing…I mean, do you have to prepare for that? Are you up at SoulCycle five days a week? [Laughs]
I don’t go to SoulCycle, but I have to train HARD, man…I notice that when I don’t do that, I don’t have the stamina to last through the whole show.
I mean, I wouldn’t have the stamina, either…
Yeah, I had to start running, boxing, I was doing tennis, running on the treadmill at least two to three miles a day…but Ghetto Klown wrecked my knees, man. I don’t know what happened.
I mean, you’re climbing, running, dancing…
Yeah, breakdancing…breakdancing is for a young man, not for somebody of my age.
It seems like a sport for toddlers, whose bones are still basically jello. But there’s also a lot of special effects happening in the show…
Well, I’ve always done mixed media, and this time I wanted my show to feel like a documentary on stage. I wanted to be the Ken Burns of my life, so I filmed all the documents, all the lawsuits…I wanted everything to be a part of the show so you could be there with me.
So what’s been the most positive thing apart from people seeing it and getting inspired? I mean, I’m sure that’s a main highlight, but what else?
Well, I did scenes that were a lot longer than usual for me, so that was a big thing. And I did more characters than I’ve ever done at one time, so it tests people’s concentration; they’re seeing longer scenes, and honestly, people have to do a lot of work in watching it, they have to stay with me. So that was a new threshold that we crossed together, which was amazing. But also the way they’re inspired, they jump to their feet at the end…they went on this journey with me, this sort of rebirth. We can do this thing together. Life is hard as hell, but it’s fun, so you’ve got to pull up your bootstraps and get going again, you know?
Absolutely. Well, and a lot of what you said in Ghetto Klown implies that your writing typically comes from a very dark place. Is that always the case?
Well, I will write something super funny or happy, but the dark shit just stays with me, maybe because I hold onto it or whatever. I mean, my next show is not personal, but it’s definitely going to be about the dark shit that happened in Latin history. That’s going to be my 12 Years A Slave, my next show. [Laughs]
So is it hard for you to transition, then? Because obviously during the show we go from some very lighthearted and funny moments to some really dark, depressing places.
Yeah, that takes a long time to do the right formula, the right recipe, because the show IS a funny show, I just smuggle in the dark side and the dark messages. They can’t be obvious, they have to sneak up on you. I love sucker-punching people with emotion and then shaking them again with a joke. It takes a long time to get that balance.
Totally. Now, we are at the mark for this interview, but before I go, do you have any #HASHTAGSOFWISDOM?
I mean, #GoForYours is always good, or #10000HoursAtAnythingAndYou’llBeAMaster is also good.