John Leguizamo: 'Freak,' and proud of it
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- John Leguizamo's career began when he hijacked the conductor's P.A. system on a New York City subway train and gave passengers a taste of his improv standup.
The police apparently didn't think it was all that funny. But since then, Leguizamo has been on a roll. His most recent one-man show, "Freak," was a big hit on Broadway, garnering five Tony nominations and box-office sellouts. Like all of his performances, it was pure Leguizamo, nothing between him and the audience but the riotous cast of characters he draws from his imagination and his real life.
In 1991, Leguizamo burst upon New York's downtown theater scene with the first of his wickedly funny one man shows, "Mambo Man."
His next show, "Spic-O-Rama," opened in 1993, and featured more hyperkinetic character sketches. This time, some of them were loosely based on his family, which hit a bit closer to home.
"I mean it was my family but it wasn't," Leguizamo says. "I wasn't saying this is my life. I was saying this is a fictitious dysfunctional Latin family, you know, so (family members) wouldn't get wind of it. But they caught on. They knew it was them in disguise."
Both plays, later filmed for HBO specials, earned him a reputation as an off-Broadway sensation, a writer and performer with electric energy, biting wit and a gift for explosive physical comedy.
He took on every racial and ethnic stereotype. Leguizamo is not afraid to admit he is offensive.
"I offend my family, myself, Irish people," he says. "Italian folk, Jewish folk, black folk, everybody. I mean political correctness is just such a hypocritical thing anyway. I love the ideal about it, but it's just people politely behaving one way in front of you and then saying other things behind your back."
Leguizamo's family immigrated to New York from Bogota, Colombia, when he was four. His parents settled in a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood in Queens.
"You grow up Latin in this country and you're a third class citizen from the word go, and so you have to deal with everything around you from that point of view and trying to feel entitled," Leguizamo says. "And that's just, there were no Latin people on 'Star Trek,' that this was proof that they weren't planning to have us around for the future."
When "Mambo Mouth" and "Spic-O-Rama" became critical and commercial hits, Leguizamo became a hot commodity in Hollywood, appearing in films like "Carlito's Way" and "Regarding Henry."
"And I was doing all these pictures and I didn't feel like I was saying anything that was really important or vital or that I was an artist and I missed that," he says.
Eager to push himself creatively and personally, Leguizamo returned to the stage to develop another one-man show.
Why the title, "Freak?"
"Well, look at me for crying out loud," Leguizamo says. "You know what my father calls me? He calls me the little abortion that got away. That's the way I always felt growing up, like a freak, like I didn't fit in, misfit, funny-looking, goofy.
"I still don't fit in. But I like it now," he says.
After a sold-out run in a small, downtown New York theater, "Freak" moved to Broadway.
"It was great," he recalls. "First of all it was the youngest audience on Broadway, because everybody was under 30. Everybody's usually like what, over 50? But it was mostly Latin kids coming with their dates, coming to see a show, wanted to be made to laugh and all of a sudden I was forcing them to go to other places. But they went with me, you know, which was beautiful."
More than a comic visit to the old neighborhood, "Freak" was a purposeful and painful visit to the old memories of his childhood. Leguizamo, for the first time, discovered that performing made him feel oddly scrutinized and exposed.
"I couldn't deal," Leguizamo says. "It was hard. It still was hard even when the show was on and it was Tony-nominated. I felt very violated for some weird reason. I don't know. Am I making any sense? I'm not making sense, but this is how I felt.
"I felt like I wanted to do this great work, that I was working really hard and it was really painful, and I enjoyed the audience, but at the same time, when it was my personal life and I felt kind of like I didn't want it to be like the 'Jerry Springer Show' and they were like watching these weirdos who happened to be my family.
"There were moments when I went into really painful things and I was experiencing stuff on the stage," he says.
In one particular moment in "Freak," Leguizamo recalls how his father used to beat his mother.
"My mother came in early in the process," Leguizamo says of "Freak." "She was devastated. She wouldn't come out of the house for like three whole weekends. She was crying and calling me and telling me to stop and I told her I wasn't going to 'cause I had to, I felt I needed to do this. But now she's totally, she's OK."
Confronting his father
What about his dad? Leguizamo and his father hadn't spoken in years. Then one day after a performance, his father appeared backstage.
"He was like twitching and frothing and it was my father," Leguizamo says. "I went like all pale. I felt all the blood leave my body. And then my father was like, 'How dare you?' And he stormed out of the theater and I followed him and we fought and argued and hugged and he cried and we made up."
Will Leguizamo confront these demons again?
"No. Never again will I ever do anything like that," he says. "I promised my family I would never do anything. I'm just going to play. I'm just going to go as far away and as light and fluffy and commercially away from my life as possible. My father said, 'Write about other things like other writers. Be creative. Don't you have any imagination?' And he's right. If I'm creative, come up with something else. And I will."
"Freak" was filmed as an HBO special, directed by Spike Lee. It aired Sunday night. Leguizamo is working with Spike Lee again on his new project, "Summer of Sam," a film about the notorious Son of Sam murders that terrorized New York City in the late '70s. The film is due in theaters some time next year.
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