John Leguizamo on His New Movie Fugly! and Torturing His Kids With Black-and-White Movies

Photo: Rommel Demano/Getty Images

Actor/comedian John Leguizamo has made autobiography and self-criticism staples of his body of work in both film and theater. One-man productions like Freak and Ghetto Klown are equally influenced by Richard Pryor and Woody Allen, full of self-lacerating gags about Leguizamo’s various neuroses. And in Fugly!, a new “anti-romantic comedy” film, Leguizamo co-writes and stars as a Latino actor who writes, produces, and stars in his one-man shows after being repeatedly typecast as drug dealers and pimps in Hollywood films. Vulture talked to Leguizamo about laughing at himself, torturing his children with black-and-white movies, and breaking Bob Hoskins’s arm while drunk during the filming of Super Mario Brothers: The Movie.

Is it true you were named after John Saxon because your mom was a big fan?
She wasn’t a big fan — she was turned on by him. She liked that dark, brooding type, so she named me after John Saxon from Enter the Dragon.

And Black Christmas.
I don’t remember that one …

He plays the cop who investigates the murders and winds up not catching the guy.
They can’t all be winners.

In a 1995 interview for Detour, you said you wished you could make a “Latin Annie Hall.” Some of the blocking during Fugly!’s dialogue scenes is Woody Allen–esque. And the film’s inter-titles have a Woody Allen–style typeface. Did you have Annie Hall in mind when you co-wrote Fugly!?
I think I always have Woody Allen in mind whenever I’m creating anything. He’s such a genius, and I think Annie Hall is one of the greatest movies ever written. I have studied it, so, yeah, I was definitely influenced. I wanted to take it to a different place and do different things. But I was influenced by it.

What particularly do you identify with in Allen’s films?
His early work was, to me, outstanding. So brave; he tackled a lot of mature themes that other people weren’t doing in comedies.

It’s interesting you single out the early films, since those films have the added element of Allen playing himself, as a persona. You often do that in your one-man shows, and now again in Fugly!, what you sometimes call an “exorcism” process.
My one-man shows are definitely exorcisms. Woody Allen was always slightly biographical, fictionalizing himself. But in my one-man shows, I’m much more naked. I’m doing more personal things, and taking comedy to a much edgier, much darker place. I feel American comedy is a little too light. World cinema, and Latin cinema, is much more comfortable with darker emotions.

One of the great things about Fugly! is that it’s casual about its New York–ness. A lot of New York filmmakers, like Dito Montiel or Spike Lee, have …
… all these iconic shots, right?

Well, it makes sense: “We’re in New York, let’s sell it.”

Exactly. There’s an almost defensive need to prove that they’re New Yorkers.
But when you spend that kind of money filming in New York, you want to show off! [Laughs.]

True. That having been said, I winced when your character in Fugly! fantasizes about taking girls to the Film Forum. They show great old movies, but their theaters have terrible sight lines! And the talking! How can you stand the talking?
[Laughs.] It’s so true. But everything is gone, man! All the great places where I used to go see classic films are gone. Film Forum is the last bastion of great old classics. World cinema, classics — where else can you see them projected? I don’t care how small it is, how bad the sight lines are: It’s still my favorite spot.

Do you ever read these lists of the “Best in New York”? Have you ever found one that represents Queens properly?
Queens is never portrayed correctly. All they show in movies for Queens is the elevated train at Roosevelt Avenue. That’s the only landmark they use. But there are a lot of other great Queens signifiers … like in All in the Family?

That was Queens back in the day. But movies usually don’t get those interesting 1920s buildings, and all the other ugly monolithic buildings, like the projects in LeFrak City.

You grew up in Jackson Heights while your kids grew up in Murray Hill, right?
My kids were born in the East Village. Then they grew up a bit in Gramercy Park. Now we’re in Central Village. Gramercy Park is right next to Murray Hill … or, as I like to call it, “Curry Hill.”

[Laughs.] Now, the difference between Jackson Heights and Murray Hill seems to be that Murray Hill has a Long Island Railroad stop, and Jackson Heights, as you’ve joked before, has public pools filled with pee.
You remember that joke? Lord have mercy. Those pools were like three feet deep, thousands of people in yellow water … green water.

I mention the pools because you once joked that kids need more “adversity” in their lives, because if they “don’t have adversity — once they hit the wall, they just break.” What kind of adversity do you wish your kids had more of in their childhoods?
Life is already hitting them kinda hard, because I bring plenty of adversity into their lives. I’m a very tough dad. I mean, I’m a fun dad, but I’m a tough dad. They have to play a musical instrument while they’re under my roof, they gotta read all the time … they both play two musical instruments. I make them watch black-and-white movies, and foreign movies, so they have to read subtitles.

That doesn’t sound like “adversity” …
It is to them! They’re like “Why?! Nobody else watches black-and-white movies.” And silent films! I make ‘em watch silent films. They’re being tortured.

Do they play the tuba or something? What kind of black-and-white movies are we talking about?
Like Abel Gance’s four-hour-long Napoleon.

Oh my God. Okay, that’s … okay.
That is painful. My poor kids. They’re like, “Dad, I can’t take it! There’s no dialogue, and it’s black and white! What is this?”

Back to Fugly! as autobiography: There’s a scene in the film where your character is called out for using things said to him in confidence in his one-man shows. In your own career, your one-man shows changed when you did Freak because that was the first show that was directly autobiographical.
Right, that was the first one that was directly autobiographical. The previous shows were more about people that I knew: Mambo Mouth was about the people on my block, in a Studs Terkel kind of way. And then Spic-O-Rama was loosely based on my family, very fictionalized. And then Freak was my first autobiographical piece. I followed that up with Sexaholix: A Love Story. And then Ghetto Klown is kind of a portrait of a middle-aged man as an artist. [Laughs.]

What was the point where you first felt comfortable bringing your life into comedic material that’s confrontational by nature?
I don’t think you ever really get comfortable. All artists draw from their lives, except they mask it, and camouflage it … which is the smarter way to do it. But for some reason, I really felt like I needed to name names. I felt I needed to share certain experiences that hopefully could change people’s lives who have had similar experiences. Being naked onstage like that was the best way to do that. At the time.

Fast-forward to Ghetto Klown: You and actor and Ghetto Klown director Fisher Stevens share or shared the same therapist.
He still does. I need to go back for a tune-up.

At one point, you joked that you stopped going to therapy because you felt like being angry at the world helped you creatively. But when you are in therapy, is it harder to get that almost-therapeutic fulfillment your one-man shows have previously given you?
As my therapist put it: Artists work through their traumas. And by putting that in their artwork, they can now control it, as opposed to it traumatizing them. They can relive it in a way that they can deal with it. So I guess Ghetto Klown was my way of dealing with a lot of traumatic experiences. I still need therapy. Therapy is what gives you the understanding, or the awareness, or the ability to deal with your trauma so you can use it. Therapy is what saved me when I was 17. I was forced to go to therapy in high school because I would have otherwise been expelled. They made me go to the Youth Counseling League. I went there for four years, until I was 21, and it saved my life.

When I say Fisher and I share the same therapist: We’re not in the same therapy session for half price. It’s not like tag-team therapy. We have different appointments. I mean, we’re both cheap, but not that cheap. I used to go to therapy twice a week. I loved it. I could have gone three times a week. [Laughs.] I wanted my therapist to move in with me: “C-can I room and board with you? C-can we be, like, college friends?”

Was there a set protocol or kind of behavior you were drawn to with your therapist?
My therapist is fascinating because he sounds just like my dad, but on Xanax. He’s this kind, Jewish man, and he’s really good with artists. But no, it’s very loose. I’m more demanding. I demand eye contact, and I don’t want them to be on the phone, texting while I’m talking.

Speaking of therapy: Last year, you were asked to participate in some 20th-anniversary screenings of the Super Mario Brothers movie. Is it weird at all to hear kids telling you that the film meant so much to them growing up, given that you were pretty miserable when you made that film?
I was just a miserable human being at that time, but the movie … was tough. I gotta say, I had the most fun time on a movie off-camera when we wrapped. I had a lot of fun off the set, but on the set, it was kinda tough. I was very used to calling my shots, very used to being free … it was hard to improvise as these characters. They weren’t based on real people that could help to make it real … it was not easy.

But kids love it! I remember these 8-year-olds came up to me and said, “We love you, Luigi!” And I thought, I gotta stop badmouthing this movie, but kids really like it. I don’t want to ruin their experience.

Those kids grew up, and some are even expecting a sequel.
Oh, yeah. Lots of people ask what’s going to happen with the sequel. I go, “I don’t know if there’s gonna be a sequel! I don’t want to get your hopes up high.”

This is something you’re probably sick of talking about. But can you talk about the time you got drunk with Bob Hoskins and broke his hand?
Yes. We were shooting Super Mario Brothers, and we were doing this scene towards the end of the movie. And I’m driving the [Mario Brothers’] truck, and we’re speeding out. We were drinking too much because we were all miserable. So we drank a lot between takes. I’m a New York driver, so you know I’m not good. And they let me drive the truck because I said I could do it.

And Bob was standing by the Super Mario Brothers’ van, the plumber truck. And he had his hand out … he was standing near the door. It was one of those old-school trucks where the door slides out. So I hit the accelerator really hard, then I hit the brake really hard and stopped on a dime. And the door came flying out, smashed his fingers. He was cursing and Cockney rhyming: “Aw, ya broke me coke — me coke…” Ah, whatever that thing is in his finger. In the film, you can see him holding some gun. And he’s wearing a cast that they painted pink with stubby little fingers, all kinda glued together.

One interviewer unkindly suggested that starring in crap for money was a good thing for you, since it led to your one-man shows. Since you kind of address that question in Fugly!, would you say it’s possible to look back on films like The Pest and Spawn as necessary evils?
Absolutely. All your experiences help you, man, the good ones and the bad ones. The bad experiences teach you even more! You learn a lot more from your failures than your successes. Super Mario Brothers was a milestone for me. Here was a Latin guy in the ‘90s being the lead … that was huge. And getting paid crazy money … that was a big deal. That helped me get my quota up and gave me money to do theater.

You’ve got a couple of different projects coming up. Is there one in particular you’re really invested in?
The one I’m really looking forward to is Stealing Cars. It’s such a beautiful piece, based on the real story of this middle-class white kid who fell through the cracks. It’s got Felicity Hoffman, William H. Macy, and Paul Sparks from Boardwalk Empire. This kid went to a reform school and was able to fight against the abuses built into the system of these reform school. It’s a really powerful piece.

Do you have any plans for more theater?
Ghetto Klown is too expensive for me to do again. That was my favorite show I’ve ever done. I’m working on my new one, A Latin History for Dummies. I’m gonna do that routine in comedy clubs in Buffalo, Cleveland, Denver, San Francisco, then Maryland. Then I’m gonna take a break, then I’ll look to do it at the Berkeley Rep Theater.

So you’re scripting and reworking the material for that now?
Yeah, exactly. It’s a work in progress right now. I’ve workshopped my stuff for years now, everything including Spic-O-Rama, Mambo Mouth, Freak. Comedy clubs in New York have allowed me to test that stuff out; people there have been very nurturing. I want this piece to be really accessible because my ultimate goal, after performing in colleges, is to do it in prisons and high schools. So it’s gotta be really accessible because those people turn off to a lot of facts.

John Leguizamo on Showing His Kids Old Movies