Vassar Today

Finding this Role: John Leguizamo

By Debbie Swartz

Growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, John Leguizamo used comedy to keep himself out of trouble, but making people laugh—which he affectionately calls a “ghetto defense mechanism”—wasn’t something the teenager initially considered as a career. The words of a math teacher changed his outlook.

“He said to me, ‘You can take your annoying, attention-getting ways and make something useful out of them. If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can make something out of you,’ ” Leguizamo says. “That was my first insight, that I could turn this into something positive instead of self-destructive. I started acting, taking acting classes, and I found myself in those classes.”

Leguizamo talked about his life and creative work during a December visit to campus. The actor, husband of Justine Maurer ’90, shared his thoughts in a workshop with film students and later participated in a lecture, followed by a question-and-answer session with film professor Mia Mask.

During the lecture, a packed audience watched video clips showing Leguizamo on film, television, and stage: As Dr. Victor Clemente on the 2005–06 season of ER, Gladyz in Spic-O-Rama, Bennie Blanco in Carlito’s Way, Vinny in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, Jesse in Fugly!, and Manolo Bonilla in the Ecuadorian thriller Crónicas.

Leguizamo discussed his first forays into Hollywood, including difficult decisions about whether to accept certain roles. Following his first job in a major film—he was Pfc. Antonio Diaz in Casualties of War—Leguizamo was asked by director Brian De Palma to star in Carlito’s Way. The role was Bennie Blanco, a Latino drug dealer who eventually becomes the downfall of the title character, played by Al Pacino.

“I was very conflicted about the whole thing. I turned it down about three or four times. Then I realized I better take it, or someone else will take it and I’ll be out of a job. I jumped in and I got to work with Pacino, one of the great actors of our time and a hero of mine,” Leguizamo says. “That was the most fun I ever had on set. It was an incredible experience for me.”

In the movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and such stage shows as Spic-O-Rama—in which he, respectively, played novice drag queen Chi-Chi Rodriguez and Gladyz, a sexually provocative mother with a towering hairdo—the actor continued to show his versatility.

“In my mind, I was going to be the Latino Flip Wilson,” says the actor about channeling his “inner Latina.” I grew up with Flip Wilson, and when he did Geraldine, that just cracked me up. Nobody had done that since him, so I felt like I would take the baton and do my version of Latina women.”

His versatility paid off. Leguizamo won three CableACE awards for Spic-O-Rama, an Obie for Mambo Mouth, Outer Critics Circle awards for Mambo Mouth, Freak, and Ghetto Klown, and an Emmy for Freak. In 2002, he received an Entertainer of the Year award from American Latino Media Arts, and in 2004, earned a Norman Lear Writer’s Award.

With memorable performances in the films Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet, the Ice Age franchise, Spawn, Summer of Sam, Nothing Like the Holidays, The Lincoln Lawyer, and Chef behind him, Leguizamo has focused on Fugly!, a new film he cowrote, produced, acted in—and catered, Leguizamo joked.

The film tells the tale of a Latino comic and actor whose near-death experience forces him to revisit his personal and professional life (it even includes a mention of Vassar).

Leguizamo talked about Latino film characters in his conversation with Mask. Hollywood has come far in its portrayal of Latinos and Latinas and their lives, Leguizamo notes, but much more should be done. Hollywood has successful Latino directors like Alfonso Cuarón—father to Jonas Cuarón ’05, Leguizamo says—but they are more often creating big studio films, not stories about the lives of Latinos. There is definitely a market out there for those types of films, he says, and there are screenwriters and directors who can make it happen.