BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Actor-comedian-writer John Leguizamo just wrapped a short stint in South Florida, where he screened his new HBO special, Ghetto Klown at the Colony Theatre and presented a Spanish filmmaker at the Miami International Film Festival.
“I’m probably going to Travoltify the guy’s name: Nacho Vigalondo,” Leguizamo giggles before the film festival gig, referring to John Travolta’s recent Academy Awards blunder introducing Broadway star Idina Menzel as Adele Dazeem. “It was embarrassing. It was so bizarre. And so Travolta, it was great.”
Ghetto Klown, Leguizamo’s third autobiographical one-man show after Mambo Mouth and Spic-O-Rama, debuts 10 p.m. Saturday on HBO.
“In Ghetto Klown, I get extremely personal,” says Leguizamo, 49, who plays himself and, among others, his mother, father and wife Justine Maurer.
“She’s not happy about a lot of things there, but my wife, she’s a very beautiful woman. She’s a very brave woman and she’s willing to let me be me,” Leguizamo says. “It’s incredible. That’s why we’ve been together forever. She is for me and I am for her.”
Maurer didn’t know 10 years ago when they got married that “she would end up being in the shows,” he says. “Our vows weren’t, ‘Do you take this man for better, for worse or if he puts you and skewers you in his shows.’”
Leguizamo says “I tell my stories because I always felt so invisible.”
“When I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of Latin people in the media, in the sports. I only saw it from the news, which is not where I wanted to see it. I felt kind of like we didn’t exist in a way,” he says. “I always had this great desire to craft a story to show our point of view — and my own point of view because I traveled every year of my life until I was about 15. I was always the new kid in every neighborhood, every new school. Everybody always had a shared story and I didn’t. From those two things came my great desire to craft these stories.”
Leguizamo, who was born in Bogotá and moved to the United States at age 4, says Hispanic Americans are better off than when he began performing in the early 1980s.
“Things have changed a lot. We’re in politics, we’re in sports, we’re in the news, but telling the news, not just the subject of the news,” he says. “But we’re still not where we should be. We’re 20 percent of the population and we’re 3.8 percent in the media. And half of that is not as positive as it should be. We’ve got over a trillion dollars of buying power. Things aren’t fair yet and we should be a lot further and have a lot more.”
One of Leguizamo’s first TV parts came in a 1984 episode of Miami Vice. Soon he was co-starring with Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989). Four years later, De Palma cast him opposite Al Pacino and Penn in Carlito’s Way.
Leguizamo got a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor in the 1995 cult film, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. He, Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes played drag queens on a road trip from New York to Hollywood.
Playing “Chi-Chi” wasn’t the first time Leguizamo performed in drag.
“In 1990 with Mambo Mouth, I started doing that dressing-up-like-a-chick kind of thing, then Jamie Foxx followed and Martin Lawrence followed,” Leguizamo says. “I live in New York, man. In New York, you saw everything. That’s the beauty of being a New Yorker. You see everything up close and you have to bump up against your prejudices all day long, you know. When we did To Wong Foo, there were concerns how people were going to relate to this? Is America going to be turned off? [Writer] Douglas Carter Beane was a very brave man and he wanted to tell this story and he loved this culture of drag queens. You know it’s crazy, because Chi-Chi has become an LGBT icon.”
Leguizamo describes playing Chi-Chi as “incredible.”
“I love it,” he says. “I went to a GLAAD awards and it was great to be there. My character Chi-Chi helped a lot of teenagers feel OK about themselves and comfortable with themselves. That makes me feel so proud.”
Leguizamo understands that a straight man playing a gay drag queen runs the risk of offending practically everyone.
“Anything worthwhile is going to run that risk. Anything of import. Anything of value is going to run that risk. You can’t please everybody unless you have some commercial pulp that’s valueless and empty and shallow,” he says. “When I do my one-man show, there’s always backlash. Mambo Mouth, people said I was perpetrating some horrible things toward Latin people. There’s always been criticism, always been backlash. Some of it possibly has justification, some of it’s just totally absurd. I definitely want to have a conversation. I want to debate. I want to rile people up.”