John Leguizamo

By
Photography Christian Anwander

Published May 31, 2016

JOHN LEGUIZAMO IN NEW YORK CITY, APRIL 2016. PHOTOS: CHRISTIAN ANWANDER/HONEY ARTISTS. STYLING: ANDREW HOLDEN/HONEY ARTISTS. GROOMING: MARK ANTHONY/JUDY CASEY INC. USING DIOR HOMME. SPECIAL THANKS: RR DONNELLY’S DSG STUDIO.

With 133 acting credits to his name, 10 writing credits, 17 as a producer, and five songs on film soundtracks, Bogotá-born, Queens-raised John Leguizamo takes the term “working actor” to its extreme. His reasoning behind doing so is simple and earnest. “I dig what I do so much,” he tells us. “It’s when I really feel the most alive. Work for work’s sake doesn’t thrill me but when I’m in the zone, I’m creative and the expression is free. There’s no high like it in the world for me.”

This mindset has produced work across a variety of media including animated voiceovers, over five one-man shows, and notable roles on television (Miami Vice, ER) and film (Carlito’s Way, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!). Leguizamo performed his last one-man show, Ghetto Klown, twice on Rikers Island before adapting it into a graphic novel, which has been nominated for an Eisner Award. He admits, though, that he didn’t always have this voracious, non-judgmental attitude towards different forms entertainment.

“It was huge but I was such a theater snob,” he recalls of landing his first major gig: a recurring role on Miami Vice at age 19, in 1986. “It was a different time where theater people really looked down on TV acting, so I was like, ‘This is nothing, man, I’m better than this shit.’ I was really arrogant,” he continues, adding, “What a punk.”

Now, at age 51, Leguizamo has returned to Florida, the very state where he began his professional career, with a role in Season Two of the Netflix family drama Bloodline. In it, he’s Ozzy Delvecchio, a wrench thrown at the Rayburn family in the wake of Danny Rayburn’s murder. Under the sweltering sun of the Keys, his character gradually comes to a boil, using his charisma and the Rayburn’s underestimation of him to become a credible threat.

In addition to his role on Bloodline, Leguizamo co-stars with Bryan Cranston as an FBI Agent in The Infiltrator, due out July 13, and has just wrapped a three-week run of Latin History for Dummies—the new one-man show he’s been working on for the last three and a half years—at La Jolla Playhouse. Come July, he’ll begin another run of it at Berkeley Rep, and in March 2017, he’ll return the show to his home city of New York at the Public Theater.

When Leguizamo called us last week in what he described as a “groovy” mood, we spoke about him joining Bloodline, the personal nature of his one-man shows, and the high school lunch table as a comedy springboard.

HALEY WEISS: I spoke to Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman, [two of Bloodline‘s creators], last week and they were telling me you have quite a bit of energy on set. Is that a constant state of being for you?

JOHN LEGUIZAMO: [laughs] I love life, man, and I embrace every minute of it so maybe I bring that on the set. I love people and I want to have a good time. Acting is kind of a calling for me so I’m just happy to be there and do great work. That’s the happiest I am, when I’m doing great work.

WEISS: How did you become involved in Bloodline? Did you audition or did they send you a script?

LEGUIZAMO: They called me—Glenn, Todd, and Daniel Zelman, the creators—and they said, “You know, we’ve got this character, [but] we want to make sure you’ve seen all the episodes.” I had seen three or four by that point and then they said, “See the rest of the season then we’ll talk.” So I saw the whole season—I was in Colombia doing a movie and I was two miles up above sea level so my Internet sucked. I could only get half an episode at a time or something like that, and when I finally watched it I was spellbound by the writing, the acting, and the quality of it all. It was so realistic and respectful to the writing and acting. There are only a few shows that do that kind of stuff, like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Girls.

WEISS: What attracted you specifically to Ozzy as a character?

LEGUIZAMO: I love those wild cards. I grew up with a lot of cats like that and they always were so surprising, magnetic, and electrifying. You can’t be with them too long because they burn you out but the energy, the impulsivity, and the freedom connecting them to their animal energy is just so powerful to watch. It’s dangerous to live like that but it’s riveting to watch. I was happy to do a character like that, this guy who was really too smart but not educated enough, [to see] what happens when you have too much intelligence but not enough education, what happens to an IQ when it’s squandered like that. I found that the character was so sharp and then that sharpness, that desire, and that ambition made him dangerous.

WEISS: Had you been to the Keys before you started filming?

LEGUIZAMO: No, but it was a dream! Tennessee Williams, one of my favorite playwrights, [lived] down there. You always heard about the Keys and how amazing they are and, well, it’s like a highway with some bars on it. [laughs] It might have been really cool back in the ’50s when it was less populated but I don’t know. I love the crew, the cast, and the producers, so that was a great time, but once I wrapped I was like, “Oh, now what am I going to do with myself?” You can’t really walk anywhere. Where are you going to go? Everything closes at a certain hour and it’s a highway with bars on it; that’s what it is.

WEISS: Was the cast welcoming when you started? Did you feel nervous at all going into it because they had already spent a season together?

LEGUIZAMO: I don’t know if I was nervous but you feel like the new kid on the block, definitely. They were a seasoned team. I knew some of the folks, I knew Linda Cardellini from when we did ER together—she was always great, such a cool spirit—and I had to work with Ben Mendelsohn who’s one of the great actors of our time. I had a lot of scenes with him and I was thrilled to be on the set with him; I just wanted to see how we were going to play it. I don’t know if tennis players feel like that but when you have a great opponent—although I didn’t feel like he was an opponent—you just know your game is going to jack up and it’s just going to raise the bar. I couldn’t wait for that elevation.

WEISS: I know you’ve done a few one-man shows. It seems like such a massive undertaking to write, produce, and act all of the roles at once. What spurred you to do your first one, Mambo Mouth, in 1991?

LEGUIZAMO: It wasn’t massive when I did the first one because I would just do one character in the performance art clubs and be that one character for 10, 15 minutes at a time. That’s it. The crowd would fall in love with that character and I’d go, “Shit, it’s time to do another one.” Boom! So I’d come up with another one. That was my first show that I created, all these characters that I would do one at a time. Then when I started performing I was like, “Holy hell, how am I going to survive this?” I was giving it my all in 15 minutes but now I had to do it for two hours.

I wasn’t even in a theater because I guess nobody believed in me, so I was in the hallway of a theater on a platform that they would move so the main stage show could go on at eight o’clock and I’d be gone. But all of a sudden Sam Shepard, Arthur Miller, Al Pacino, Raúl Juliá, and John F. Kennedy Jr. were in my 70 fold-up seats. That was the most exciting moment of my life, having their butts sore on those rickety chairs for two hours. [laughs]

WEISS: How did they find out about it? Were you getting good press and attention?

LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, in The New York Times. Back then, The New York Times made you or broke you. That was the deal—Frank Rich was the voice of theater. Luckily, I fell on his good side.

WEISS: Some of your one-man shows are very autobiographical. Did you have any hesitation about being so open?

LEGUIZAMO: When I was creating and writing it—because I write my stuff first and then I start putting it on its feet—you just go into this headspace where you’re free, free to say whatever you feel like. Then, when I started putting it on its feet I was like, “This stuff is mad personal. I’m not really sure I want the public to know this.” I had trepidations and there are levels of embarrassment and humiliation to it, but in the end of it you just feel so free, because now I’ve got nothing to hide, nothing to pretend because everybody knows my shit. It gives you incredible freedom afterwards.

My mom [comes] to see my shows because she’s so proud, but I’m talking about losing my virginity, my ex-wife and our sexual problems, and she’s sitting in the front row smiling. I just go, “Mom, you can’t sit in the front row, you can’t smile. You have to go way in the back and dress in black. If I see you it’s like you’re breaking in when I’m having sex with my wife. It’s just wrong.” [laughs]

WEISS: How early on were you interested in acting and performing? Is it something you’ve wanted to do since you were a kid?

LEGUIZAMO: Yeah. I didn’t dare believe that I could do it because there weren’t any Latin people performing. I didn’t feel like it was a possibility or reality that could happen. So many people, my friends and family, were all saying, “You’re so funny. Why don’t you become a comedian or an actor?” But it wasn’t a reality at the time, it wasn’t a road that Latin people were accepted in. Eventually I heard it enough times and I was working at Kentucky Fried Chicken when my math teacher said, “You’re failing in school, you’re messing up, why don’t you just try this?” I said, “Alright, let me try it,” and I started going to acting classes and I loved it. I thought, “I may not make it but I love doing it.”

WEISS: Did your family encourage you or were they nervous about you pursuing it?

LEGUIZAMO: They freaked. [Speaking in a Spanish accent] “You’re going to throw your life away—everything we worked for? What are you going to do with yourself? How are you going to pay for it?”  They were right; there was no possibility. How did you see that trajectory for your kid? I’d be terrified even now for a Latin kid wanting to be an actor, but back then? Forget it. They must have thought I was going to be working in restaurants and driving cabs for the rest of my life.

WEISS: When did you decide you were going to pursue it professionally despite what anyone said or thought? 

LEGUIZAMO: I think around 19, 18… First I went to C.W. Post and I was a psychology and theater major and then I transferred to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts as a drama major. 

WEISS: Did you start writing around that time?

LEGUIZAMO: I was always writing. I was writing in high school because it was a really competitive school for class clowns; I used to have to write all of my snaps and my disses the night before and then act like I was making it up the next day. I would be jokesmithing. I had files with tons of disses that I would try to write as I was on the train going to school. At Murry Bergtraum [High School] if you were really funny you sat at this table at with all of the funniest dudes, the toughest, the coolest—everybody sat at that table. It was like the ghetto Algonquin Round Table. [Comedy] was my entry, my membership card.

WEISS: Do you remember your first public performance? Is there one that stands out to you as a turning point?

LEGUIZAMO: It was at a performance art space that’s no longer around, Gusto House… All of these great performers from all over the country lived on the Lower East Side, and they would take somebody’s living room that opened right onto the street, open the door and charge tickets and put up chairs. We would use the kitchen as a green room and I did this show, and I was new so I did my show around midnight or 1:00 AM, and all of these college kids from NYU were all drunk but everybody stayed. I did the bible as told through Hispanic people and they laughed and applauded. I thought, “Oh my god, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

SEASON TWO OF BLOODLINE IS NOW AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX.