Like much of his work, John Leguizamo’s sixth play deals with a father-son relationship — only this time, he’s the dad. Leguizamo, 52, is himself the father of two, and it’s his son, Lucas, who becomes the focal point of Latin History for Morons — opening today at the Public Theater — when a classmate calls him a racial slur. The actor and playwright penned his theater debut — the one-man show Mambo Mouth — when he was just 24. It was the early ’90s, and Leguizamo started writing because he was tired of the small and offensive roles he kept receiving. His career has reflected that resistance: He’s toggled between Hollywood blockbusters, big campy roles like To Wong Foo, and one-man shows like Freak, his brilliant semi-autobiographical play that fused genres to create a new form of storytelling. Leguizamo spoke to Vulture on the phone in between performances of Latin History to discuss American racism, playing too many “Janitor No. 3” roles, and why his wife edits everything he writes.
After I watched Latin History for Morons, I thought about James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which was the letter/essay that he wrote to his nephew.
Oh my god, it’s so beautiful. You know, of course I’ve read a lot of James Baldwin but I hadn’t read that piece until somebody told me, You know, it’s just like that one essay. It gave me confidence to continue, because no matter what you write, there’s some place in the process where you lose confidence. I think every playwright does. So at those points, reading that was really powerful. And, you know, all the literature that I’ve been reading. Eduardo Galeano’s book Open Veins of Latin America, one of the great pieces of literature in understanding Latin American people and our history and our passion and our problems. It’s such a masterpiece. So all these things motivated me. Obviously, the start of this whole thing was the fact that it was so hard to believe that my son is bullied at school with racist monikers. It was just shocking to me. And the fact that they couldn’t stop it. I wanted my son and my daughter to feel incredibly proud of their heritage so nobody could rob them of that dignity.
That’s what we’re seeing right now on a national level — racist bullying.
Absolutely. In all the research I’ve done, it’s not the first time. When I read about the Repatriation Act in the 1930s where, right after the Depression, they hunted Latin people by their Spanish surnames in the Southwest — even if they were American citizens for generations and generations — and took their homes, their land, and removed them — 500,000 people. I mean, there are just a lot of slights against Latin people that need to stop. And this whole immigration thing is really destructive because it motivates hate crimes. Latin people now have 60 percent of hate crimes perpetrated against them; we’re the highest minority right now. What is going on? It’s so hateful. This country was founded by Latin people — the first United States were actually by Latin people, the first cities were by Latin people. We didn’t just get here. And the migration that happens from the South to the United States was something that naturally happened because Latin people are mostly Native-American anyway. You see those people being rounded up by ICE, and you look at pictures of Native-Americans being rounded up in the late 1800s. They look exactly the same except for the clothing.
Andrew Jackson did much of what’s happening right now.
Right, it seems so similar, man. And the fact that POTUS 45 has likened himself to Andrew Jackson is just despicable. He was called bloody Andrew Jackson for a reason. It’s not the most positive of monikers, you know?
Why do you think marshaling that animus against immigrants has been such an effective weapon?
Because he’s got a dissatisfied constituency that needs to blame somebody; they need a scapegoat. And what better scapegoat than an ethnic group you can vilify? That’s what he’s looking for, and he gives these people confidence to hate on somebody so they can feel better about themselves, but it does nothing to fix their problems. The jobs that Latin American people are doing are not any jobs that any of them would be doing, because if they were, then they’d be doing them.
I think something really important you do in Latin History for Morons is, you point out that America, the nation-state, was founded on genocide. Considering all that’s going on right now, do you think the country can ever actually reckon with that past?
Right, but it changes. You saw how many people went to Dakota to fight against the pipeline. I mean, that’s a difference. Who would’ve fought back then in the 1800s for Latin people? Maybe there was one or two. I’m sure there were some white people that crossed the line, I’m sure that they endangered their lives. But people have a different conscience now. They don’t need to take their land so they can feel more empathy towards Native American people and immigrants.
In Ghetto Klown you talk about how your writing process begins from a place of anxiety and depression. Is that still true for you or has that changed over the years?
No, it’s always the inciting incident — something very traumatic for me. In this piece, there was so much joy in the research that it balanced all the pain and the peace.
You’ve said that your therapist has said that artists use their work as a way to work through their trauma. Would you be worried that if you were completely content, you wouldn’t be able to produce work?
If I was content or happy like that I wouldn’t care then, would I? I’d be like, “Okay, go fuck yourselves. I’m not writing anymore.” The way life is, it doesn’t really stop throwing curveballs at you. It’s a fact of life, it’s always going to sucker punch you somehow.
Is there anything that your wife asked you not to include in Latin History?
[Laughs.] Yeah, and I did already. I took it out. Which I think made it better. There were just too many facts and too many details of things that really happened that she goes, “No, you can’t do it.”
Does she read over everything before you make it an official production?
Yeah, she does. She never really has any qualms about anything, but when it’s the kids she gets very protective. She’s really good at editing and cutting things. I tell her this piece is too long, and she’ll be able to slash right through it, brutally so.
Do you want your son to see the show?
I don’t know if I want him to see it. I’m not sure that he has the distance. I think he’s really trying to distance himself from the bullying, and I don’t think he wants to remember that. But I think later in life he’ll appreciate it. He is the hero of the piece.
We recently included your show Freak on a list of the 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy. Did it feel like a creative breakthrough when you wrote and performed it?
I was definitely trying to do something that was different. Latin humor is a little more emotional; there’s a lot more pathos and an anti-authority element in Latin comedy, for obvious reasons. That personality is what Freak allowed me to express, so I definitely didn’t want to do just comedy. I wanted to have the pain of life and the pain of my childhood and the pain of growing up in a tough environment, but I still wanted to laugh because we laughed through it anyway. It was incredible because Freak became a hybrid of a lot of different styles: part play, part stand-up, part autobiographical piece, part mime, with music and everything. I borrowed the anger and sex from Eric Bogosian. I borrowed the playwriting idea from Lily Tomlin, the urban poetry from Whoopi Goldberg.
Were there roles, especially when you were first coming up, that you would have refused because you thought they were offensive? Or were you just hungry for work and willing to do what was necessary?
Yeah, obviously at the beginning I was hungry for work when I was 19 and 20, but after that I was like, “Is that all there is?” It got so demoralizing. I’d gone to NYU and I’d trained with some of the great acting teachers and I was constantly doing Murderer No. 2 or Janitor No. 3 and it was just like, “Am I always going to have a number next to my name?” Luckily, the lack of opportunity made me write my own stuff, and that’s how I wrote Mambo Mouth. Latin people seemed to be invisible and we didn’t have a place to put our voice, so I started experimenting with these shows, and I did it in all these performance-art spaces. It was interesting to see all these college kids really digging the work so I was really encouraged by it.
When did you feel like you had made it?
I’ve got to say, it definitely was when I was doing Mambo Mouth, and the New York Times review came out. And in those days you waited until like one minute after midnight by one of the newspaper stands. That was a tradition. You’d stand there with your press agent at midnight in some Times Square kiosk, and you bought it directly and you’d know by the review if the play was going to close or open. Newspapers had that kind of power. To see the glowing review, and then the show got sold out, and then it moved to another theater, moved to another theater, then HBO did it. That was wild. I felt like, Wow. That’s when I really felt like I made it.
Are there any roles you regret doing?
[Laughs.] At the time, there was a lot of stuff I regretted. I don’t regret it as much now because I’m like, what am I gonna do? Super Mario Brothers, I used to whine about that a lot, but then people say it’s part of their childhood and it’s a good memory and I’m like, “Okay. Who am I to judge?”
Do you think the industry has changed significantly?
Yes and no. Definitely we’re still very underrepresented in terms of population and especially because we’re one of the biggest ethnic groups to buy tickets to movies. We’re huge consumers of entertainment. They’ve proven that Latin Americans surpassed African-Americans as moviegoers, they go two or three times, they go in huge groups. So in terms of representation I don’t know why we’re still so far behind. It can’t be because there’s no talent, we’ve got so many talented actors out there. Lin-Manuel Miranda proved it. The most successful Broadway show was all Latin and black people doing roles that nobody would cast them in a movie, ever. I mean, it’s just like, “Yeah, you better catch up with the times.”
Something in Latin History I thought was interesting was how you touch on political correctness when you’re having a fight, and the words you want to use are “faggot” and “bitch” and “retard.” It seemed like a smart way to address this conversation that we’re having in comedy a lot.
I don’t have a problem with political correctness, because it is in the evolution of language and the evolution of a culture not to keep putting people down using certain words that weren’t offensive and were considered okay, and now they’re not okay. I’m glad those words are no longer valid to be used in public. That’s what that piece was about — even “retard” you can’t use anymore. And I’m okay with that.
Have you felt like you evolved in terms of using certain words that would be verboten now?
I’m a 50-year-old man so hopefully something has to happen to a person by this age. And definitely living in New York and living in a sophisticated society, you learn what things not to say and not to offend people. I don’t think anybody who is civilized wants to put somebody down or offend anybody accidentally. And New York is the perfect place to help you learn how to be a socially acceptable human being — you learn to appreciate it and love it, and then you don’t want to live anywhere else where it’s monolithic.
Which is why when they say that we’re in a bubble, it’s a misinterpretation of reality.
Right. You know, I just want us to exit from the union. How great would that be if all the blue states left? We pay for everything that the red states need.
You’ve always been really honest about the actors that you’ve worked with. Who was the most difficult?
Steven Seagal was impossible. He was literally impossible. He was such a diva.
This interview has been edited and condensed.