Just Try to Shut Him Up
In his solo show “Freak,” John Leguizamo, 33, mines the adolescent traumas of feeling like “an alien outsider.” An immigrant from Colombia, the actor tells stories of being a fish out of water in this autobiographical play--which opened last February on Broadway and became an instant success. It has, perhaps ironically given the subject, brought Leguizamo his greatest acceptance yet, including two Tony nominations, one as co-author (with David Bar Katz) and one as the show’s star.
Stirring up a rock ‘n’ roll energy at the Cort Theatre, Leguizamo conjures more than 35 characters drawn from the ‘hood--Italian toughs, Irish lassies, Jewish princesses--and his own dysfunctional family, including Granny as a foul-mouthed, boozy exorcist, Mom as a neglectful disco queen, Dad as a physically abusive raging alcoholic waiter and Uncle as a gay, deaf theater junkie. No one is spared the performer’s sharp tongue, least of all himself.
Playing to a large Broadway house, however, has left Leguizamo a virtual mute offstage. Forced by his doctors to remain on strict vocal rest offstage since previews began, he speaks only in performance. For a recent interview at his house on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he took a reporter through a living room dominated by a large graffiti painting, past hallways decorated with posters of films he’s appeared in, including “Spawn,” “Carlito’s Way,” “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,” “The Fan,” “The Pest,” to a study crammed with fan mail and the workings of his Lower East Side Films production company. He sat down at a computer, responding to questions by rapidly typing his answers, which appeared on screen--and are reproduced here. He said his no-talking rule makes him feel like “Stephen Hawking without the genius.” But he proceeds with his characteristic blunt humor.
Question: How does playing Broadway compare to your previous experiences off-Broadway with your one-man shows, “Mambo Mouth” and “Spic-O-Rama”? Your audiences get pretty raucous these days, I hear.
Answer: There are much larger groups of Latin people coming, and then your suburban, run-of-the-mill white folk, and I feel that white people look around a lot ‘cause they’re not used to people responding and just carrying on at a theater. The audience gets carried away sometimes. We’ve had fights in the balcony. Sometimes I’ve had to stop totally. I say to the audience: “Don’t you just like theater? So much [expletive] goes on not just onstage but in the balconies. Now shut up ‘cause this isn’t audience participation and I got a play to finish.”
Q: You’ve also just been nominated for two Tonys. Were you surprised by that level of acceptance from the Broadway community for a show that gets pretty raw at times?
A: It’s great because theater is really important to me. That’s what I used to learn about life and to educate myself. I would read every play, and I learned about women from “Virginia Woolf,” learned about family from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and learned the word “mendacity” from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” I would use those big words against my father. He would get mad at me for something and I would say, “I smell the stink of mendacity in the house.” He’d say, “Shut up and go to your room till you can speak like normal people.”
Q: You’ve mentioned that you loathe exposing yourself and your family on stage in “Freak.” Why do it?
A: ‘Cause it’s too late to pull back. Developing this show was a speeding train, and I couldn’t find the brake. It was fun at first till I got reactions from my family; then I realized, oops. Then after doing it and doing it, I would look out into the audience and see these impassive faces now and then, or faces just laughing at me and at my family and it was a little weird. ‘Cause I couldn’t tell if they were laughing with me or at me. It felt like some kind of fun-house mirror of my life and I didn’t like it. Then other times I’m fine. See, theater is great and scary that way.
Q: Steve Martin once said that he was stunned at how audiences can just take in stride what seemed to him to be the most self-damning and revealing material he’d put into his plays. Not only take in stride but also apply it to their own lives. Does this mitigate your fear of exposing yourself?
A: You find that out after the fact, but not while you’re doing it. I feel very vulnerable, and judged and all kinds of negative things ‘cause it’s stuff that’s in my head but it feeds the show. It’s like this emotion monster that feeds on anything negative or positive, it doesn’t matter.
Q: It sounds like the audience is both friend and enemy to you.
A: I hate them sometimes--not individually--no, yes, I do hate them individually sometimes. When I get all ego, and I feel I just did something so funny, the funniest thing ever, why aren’t they laughing? And I’ll think, “Go ahead, John, flip them the bird.” But I’ll just put the anger in the line and then a couple of scenes later they’ll laugh where I never got a laugh before, and I’ll love each and every one of them.
Q: You’ve just described your relationship with your family, the way you’d defuse your parents’ anger at you by making them laugh.
A: Well, all my criteria for experiencing the world is just the things I learned from my family, and I’ve annexed a few other emotional vocabulary, but it’s still the same dynamics. So then definitely the audience becomes my family. Sometimes I hate them, like when parents try to control you by demeaning your power and other times they are unconditionally loving. Theater is good therapy. That’s what America needs--more theater, less Jerry Springer.
Q: You’re pretty rough on your family in “Freak,” especially your parents. I know that your mom cried for weeks after seeing the show because you aired so much dirty laundry. How did you celebrate Mother’s Day with her?
A: Well, the play and not talking at all have opened up new synapses in my brain. ‘Cause I have to listen a lot and answer in my head. So my mom just talks and talks and tells me everything she feels and thinks, and I can’t really respond so she’s just a little Chatty Cathy and it brings us closer, ‘cause I used to just kind of ignore her. For Mother’s Day we went to the Haute Cuisine of Latin people, Patria, and just ate and feasted like some Hapsburgs (i.e. Rulers of Spain).
Q: You and your dad were bitterly estranged for two years. He’s even called the press to complain about you and the show and deny that he was alcoholic or that he physically abused you, your mother and brother. I understand that he came to see “Freak” recently. How did that go?
A: I was over with the show. Standing ovation. I come downstairs to greet my adoring public in the back room and I’m smiling and I look over and I see this shadow, and then I see this scowl, and it’s my father. I turned white and he’s beet red and he’s foaming at the mouth and he waits till everybody leaves and he says, “How dare you! Is this what you think of me!” He says it twice ‘cause he’s dramatic. And then runs out of the theater and I chase him and he runs into his Lexus, mother of pearl (scary I know), and we drive around and I yell at him and curse him and tell him all the things I never said to him, and then he cries and we hug and I feel amazing, like the world knows everything and sets you up like its puppet and pulls your strings ‘cause everything is kind of for a reason. Now we talk, well, I fax him, ‘cause I can’t talk as you know.
Q: What is it that you said to him in the car?
A: I think I said very similar things to what I said in the play, not funny though. But he denied everything in the play so I just gave him the details of each experience and that was my emotional enema. And Dad is coming to the Tonys, so that’s the first thing he’s ever attended with me in my life so it’s pretty emotional. So the Tony voters better make me win ‘cause it’s that damn important.
Q: When you were putting together the show, was there any area that you decided not to venture into because it was just too personal?
A: The only thing that was cut out was my divorce [from actress Yelba Osorio] ‘cause I was bitter, and people said I was misogynist so I didn’t have the distance.
Q: You’ve described the ambition of your parents, who came from Colombia when you were 4, as “immigrant drive on crack.” They worked 50 hours a week, seven days a week. How do you describe your own ambition?
A: My drive is like a starving man in Ecuador. It’s not just about power. But I wanna do things that are my innermost dreams, and I want to see them actualized, and I don’t want anything to get in the way. No obstacle, no barriers, no limits are going to keep me from making those things a reality, ‘cause I feel they are everything I’ve been building toward my whole 33 years of my skinny Latin life.
Q: How do you fault your parents if they were just trying to reach a point where you could have the luxury of pursuing that?
A: Because their lives were so devoid of a quality that was the enjoyment of life. Their lives were about providing and nothing else. Money mattered so much. But I swore my life was only going to be about meaning when I was very young. I didn’t want to be anything like my parents, so hardened and embittered and angry at things when it was all material. I used to hate to own anything. Obviously I’ve gotten over that fact, as you can see now I’m gadget crazy.
Q: Isn’t it ironic, then, that you’re making bags of money? You must be pulling in $50,000 per week on “Freak.”
A: I made $2 million on “Spawn” and got a production company. Theater is not as generous. But I’m gonna renegotiate ‘cause we recouped about a month ago, two months ahead of schedule.
Q: How are you handling having all this moolah?
A: Not well. At first I wouldn’t spend it at all ‘cause I was afraid of it. Then I got divorced and lost a lot of it. Well 50%. Then I went crazy the opposite way. Now I’m just starting to become a smart businessman. I used to hate money. Now I like it, and I hate that ‘cause I do believe you lose something in the value of life when there is a price tag on things. I don’t know how to get back to my old self.
Q: You’ve said that you’ve toned down the real experiences of your life in some places and exaggerated them in others, so that it would be funnier rather than morbid and pathetic. You’ve also said that you’ve made a career out of your willingness to be humiliated. Does that come from being a Latino immigrant, what you have described as being “a confused mongrel, desperately needing to belong”?
[After a long pause]
A: I know I had approval problems when I was growing up. I was desperate for acceptance, but at the same time I was angry as I was making people laugh. My humor in high school was very hostile. I know I wanted lots of approval and attention, a hungry kid, so I work real hard not caring what anybody thinks. So it’s my life’s work never to care an ounce for anything anybody says except what I feel inside.
This is very personal [stuff] I’m giving you. Don’t look at me. I feel naked. Keep your eyes on the screen. Very weird to say such deep [expletive] about myself. I don’t even know why I’m telling you this. I guess ‘cause I’m writing it in the computer, my brain thinks I’m writing it in my journal. Surprise.
Q: How successful are you at not caring about others’ opinions of your work. Do you read reviews?
A: I did read every single one looking for maybe an answer to fix the show and only two or three reviews had anything I could use. But it’s not about the awards or the reviews or the audience liking me. It’s about creating what I need to say and get it done. When I stray from that my work sucks and my life sucks and . . . (for me to know for you not).
Q: You’re pretty unrelenting in your mockery of almost every ethnic stereotype, including, of course, your own. Have you gotten any negative feedback from this? And were you at all uncomfortable in making these very un-P.C. observations?
A: Less negative feedback. Once, I thought when this Italian guy got up that he was going to punch the [expletive] out of me. Wrong. He went to the bathroom and when he came back, he just sat down and laughed. So I was still ready to fight or run and still am. But they seem to laugh and like the spoof. I guess ‘cause everybody gets their shot, so no group feels singled out. Some feel left out. I did get some Asian and Arab fan mail saying, “Make fun of us, too.”
Q: Do you think that getting these stereotypes out in the open helps to create a healthy atmosphere for dialogue between various groups?
A: Well, I don’t know about all your highfalutin talk, but that’s the way I grew up. So I was very comfortable with it and everybody made fun. Some you got along with and some you didn’t. You learned that every group has great people and every group has [expletive]. Being P.C. is boring as sin. ‘Cause it’s like fake politeness, and then people go home and say what they really think. So if you say all your [expletive] up front and you confront them and tell them about themselves, then you have a sort of respect.
Q: As a Latino, you’re pretty much out there, one of the few role models for Latinos. The difference is that you’re creating the images. Do you feel that extra pressure? Is there anything in particular that you’d like to communicate, correct or convey with the power that you have to affect the way people view Latinos?
A: I only feel the pressure about my so-called “role modelness” from Latin wannabe intelligentsia, the guardians of what Hispanics are supposed to say and do. Like rabbis protecting the Talmud. But I just gotta follow the beat of my drum. I do what makes me feel and makes me laugh ‘cause I can’t do anything else. I know Latin people are proud of me regardless, ‘cause I get a lot fan mail inviting me to their homes for dinner unless it’s a set up and they’re planning to off me.
Q: Do you feel like a trailblazer for younger Latinos?
A: What kids tell me is that they feel so inspired by the show that they wanna be actors, writers, directors. That my making my own thang, shows them that they too can make their own thang. And in the show I’m articulate, funny, irreverent, angry and vulnerable. Those already are Latin qualities we rarely are allowed to show in stupid, flat, one-dimensional roles.
Q: You do a pretty good woman, especially the character based on your mom. Did you always have that sort of ease, for the lack of a better term, with your female side? It’s given hope to a lot of gay men that you might be bisexual.
A: Thank them for the offer. I take it in great pride. If I was gay, I would be the gayest man alive. When I did “Mambo Mouth” and the female character, Manny the fanny [a transvestite], I went downtown to the Meat market and interviewed (very corny, I had a pad and everything and a tape recorder) and would talk to them and ask them about their lives and this and that. And I went home, and I would try to imitate what they told me.
Q: Your ease with gay issues is unusual, especially for a Latino. Did this come from your gay, theater-loving uncle who is one of the very few positive images in “Freak”?
A: Yeah, you learn that gay people don’t affect your straightness. If you’re straight, then how is some other person’s preference going to endanger you? It’s so damn stupid. And most gay people are super intelligent and creative and contributors to our culture and collective psyche. And I learned that from my Uncle Sanny who gave me a chance to rechannel my self-destructiveness into something which brought me success and power.
Q: In future theatrical ventures, will you continue to use personal adventures and traumas? Are we likely to hear about your brief marriage and divorce? Your relationships with women in your life right now?
A: Aha! That is the future. I’m going to write the most incredible movie I have ever been in for myself. Like I did with my one-man shows. From off-off-off -Broadway to Broadway to film. That’s my next quest, my next challenge.
Q: Among your future projects for your production company is the development of a film script by Frank Whaley called “Pleasant View Avenue” and the bio-pic of Mexican bandleader Juan Garcia Esquivel, a musical touchstone of the ‘60s. What’s the appeal of those stories for you?
A: Frank Whaley’s script touched me where I live. The story of two little brothers I could relate to with messed-up parents on their way to becoming damaged goods. Could have been my story. And his writing is something I could never approach for precise simplicity. So that’s the kind of things we’re going to do. Things we feel passionate about. Be it cartoons, TV, independent, big budget. Passion is the criteria.
“Freak,” Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York. Ends July 4. (212) 239-6200.