In his new Broadway play, "Ghetto Klown," John Leguizamo gets into shoving matches on movie sets, is sucker-punched by a best friend, is nearly sued for libel by his own father and gets kicked out of the house by an angry, fed-up wife. But the truly epic battles in the one-person show are with himself, pitting, as he put it, "a driven perfectionist, workaholic egomaniac and control freak" against a tortured, self-doubting artist trying to get his groove back.
"The goal was to create an opus magnum," says Leguizamo, "To go more raw, more honest, deeper and wilder than I'd ever done before. I tried to be as ruthless with myself in that as I could."
Of course, Leguizamo examines his personal and professional past through the prism of satirical humor and gyrating physical comedy that his legion of fans has come to expect since 1991, when he blazed onto the downtown theater scene with his award-winning "Mambo Mouth" and proceeded to sketch more of his life in the subsequent monologues of "Spic-O-Rama," "Freak" and "Sexaholix … A Love Story."
In this fifth solo turn, directed by longtime friend Fisher Stevens, the star is assisted by original video, photographs and other visual aids enhancing the "klown" part of the show. That particular appellation, by the way, came courtesy of Al Pacino, who became exasperated by Leguizamo's penchant to ad lib during the filming of the 1993 gangster flick "Carlito's Way." Indeed, in the show, Leguizamo takes a sharp scalpel to Hollywood, though Pacino gets velvet glove treatment compared to, say, actor Steven Seagal.
"'Take off your makeup and be yourself, John. You're a clown, you're a clown, Huah! Huah!'" says Leguizamo, mimicking the iconic growl of Pacino. It's a rare moment of levity as the actor sits in a restaurant in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, a far cry from the character he played in "Carlito's Way," Benny Blanco — Pacino's Puerto Rican nemesis — or, for that matter, his manic onstage persona. On a marathon to promote his Broadway show, Leguizamo appears every inch the Latino supernova in a tailored tan suit and white shirt, his thick, dark hair swept back from a broad forehead. At age 46, the onetime enfant terrible is still youthful but seemingly mellowed into a thoughtful artist and family man, married with two children.
Leguizamo insists, however, that the "ghetto" in this clown is deeply embedded, liable to flare at any moment, especially when he drinks, confronts primal tests of loyalty and betrayal, bumps up against authority and reflects on his tempestuous upbringing in the Jackson Heights area of Queens, the son of an immigrant Latino couple who chased the ever-elusive American dream. "Getting ghetto" is how he describes both the rage and the mocking humor that inform the new show, which grew out of frustration with his career seven years ago.
"I came out of a place, the late '70s, where the goal was not to become famous or to make money, there was disdain for that," he recalls. "It was all about making art… in little black boxes with audiences on folding chairs. I wanted to reclaim that, to take my time with this show, to protect it, to nurture it, to give myself permission to fail."
Leguizamo says he began without a script, booking himself onto the college circuit and appearing in front of students in Georgia, Delaware and Santa Barbara. "I had to get drunk to do it," he says. "I'd take my resume, some index cards and just talk for two hours. And then I'd run home and, before I passed out, I'd write it all down. It was incredibly liberating." The improvisations were later augmented by long sessions with director Stevens, during which the two would indulge in games of one-upmanship, daring each other to be more and more revealing.
The script that slowly began to emerge was developed further in regional theaters, including the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and two stints at the La Jolla Playhouse. "To play La Jolla was a longtime dream of mine, and there'd be Q and A's afterwards, which is a favorite format for me," says Leguizamo. "And what audiences said they wanted was more personal stuff. And that's what I ended up doing."
Since "Spic-O-Rama," Leguizamo has mined his immediate family's misadventures, including his father Alberto's dictatorial manner and his mother Luz's resentment at being saddled with caring for John and his younger brother, Serge. "Spic-O-Rama" was thinly veiled autobiography, but in "Freak," Leguizamo chose to "name names" — inspired, he says, by his idol Richard Pryor, who unflinchingly exposed his life in his routines. Needless to say, his family was not amused. Leguizamo says that he and his brother do not speak, that his father threatened to sue him and that his mother was at first offended, then apologetic and finally grew to love the show — and the attention. "Llike me," he says.
Leguizamo is even more scathing when it comes to his film career, painting a portrait of greedy agents, duplicitous directors and run-amok actors. He ridicules Seagal, with whom he made "Executive Decision," describing him as "big and fat and running like a girl"; recreates getting into a shoving match — in full drag, no less — with Patrick Swayze on the set of "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar."
Leguizamo say he got caught up at one point in the "getting paid and getting laid" syndrome. But the distortions of Hollywood's funhouse mirror were palliated by living in New York, keeping in touch with high school friends and getting married and having children. He is proudest of his work in movies such as "To Wong Foo" and "Summer of Sam" and as the voice of Sid the Sloth in the "Ice Age" franchise. He is on-screen in a featured role in "The Lincoln Lawyer" and is looking forward to the release of "Fugly!," which he wrote and in which he stars as a comic not unlike himself. "I love the freedom of independent movies," he says.
Leguizamo says the most difficult challenge of "Ghetto Klown" was in creating the character of his wife, Justine Maurer, on the stage. (A previous, short-lived marriage to actress Yelba Osorio is also part of the show.) "I thought we were going to have some very unhappy conversations about the fact that I wanted to put our fights up there," he says. "But she was cool with it. It's actually made us closer than we've ever been."
Leguizamo says performing the show has been both "cathartic" and "a pain in the ass." "To have to relive it, I feel like ….. what's the name of the guy who's chained to a rock and gets his liver eaten out every day? Prometheus? It keeps all these emotions really raw. And I go through moments when the whole thing depresses me. And then at other times, it's incredibly freeing. Because I'm done with all that. It's no longer a demon inside me, driving me.…"
Leguizamo pauses and laughs. "What exactly am I saying? Maybe I'm bipolar. Maybe that's what I'm revealing here."