John Leguizamo: An Examined Life

leguizamoActor and comedy pioneer John Leguizamo has performed  one man stage shows, and been in over 80 movies (“Carlito’s Way”, “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar”, “Ice Age”). This year is a big year for John. Not only is he co-starring in the new Kevin Hart film “Ride Along” hitting theaters this week, he’s also got his fifth HBO one-man Show, “Ghetto Klown” debuting on March 22nd, and he’s got a movie coming out later this year with Jon Favreau called “Chef”. He stopped by the SiriusXM studios in New York City this week to sit down with Ron Bennington in front of a Live Studio audience to tape an episode of SiriusXM’s Town Hall series and talk about several of the projects.

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John talked about some of his favorite experiences making movies (Where God Left His Shoes, The Take among others), a teacher who inspired him to get started in show business (his math teacher), and how he got back into the business after a ten year hiatus.   And of course, he talked in depth about what his one-man stage shows mean to him.

He knew early on that stand up wasn’t for him, but he loved being a storyteller and playing characters on stage. He differentiates the work he does from stand up.  “There’s a beginning, middle and end,” he said, which is different from the “set up, joke, set up, joke” rhythm of standup. “Everything is interconnected and that takes massive amounts of work to make the whole thing one piece.” In fact, he told Bennington, “the last one almost killed me…. this was the roughest and hardest of all.”

The shows take an emotional toll on him as well, partly because John’s past has always played a big role in his art. A self described “Ghetto Nerd” he spent his childhood in neighborhoods where he needed to learn to fight and be street to survive, but also spent time learning, reading and self-teaching as part of the work ethic his parents instilled.  All of those experiences play into his shows, as does the frequency with which his family moved around during his childhood, creating what Bennington referred to as, “an examined life.”

“We moved every year of my life when I was growing up until I was about 15. I always had new friends, I always had new blocks I had to deal with, new fights to establish myself. And I never had…like a record of who I was. I always was the new guy. And everybody was always talking about their shared experiences, talking about how much fun they had a couple years back and I was like the new guy. So I think my plays are sort of my therapy of recording my life, and giving myself a sense of roots and establishment.”

He credits the style of his stage shows to an impressive list of performance artists who came before him, each creating their own type of single person live theater experience.  And in keeping with his beliefs about giving back tribute to those artists,  Leguizamo talks about those  who inspired his shows:

“Before I started doing one man shows…[the one man shows]  were historical pieces. So I took a page from Eric Bogosian, who put rock and roll and sex and anger into it, and Whoopi Goldberg who put the ghetto and the poetry into it, and I took a little bit from Lily Tomlin who did this interesting mind play.  And of course Spalding Gray who had done conversations about himself.  And I took these little pieces, and created my own hybrid of the autobiographical one man show.  Except now it had to be self lacerating….because you can’t talk about yourself and just talk all the good shit.  Then you’re just a crazy narcissistic ride, that nobody wants to be a part of.”

Later in the hour, Leguizamo  reminisced a bit about the early days, when he was still working out what he wanted to do with his art.  Long before he started producing his one-man shows for HBO, there were the downtown clubs. But since he wasn’t doing stand up, he wasn’t  playing around the comedy clubs; instead he would find himself at the performance art clubs of New York discovering how to express himself.

“I went downtown, and went to the performance art and luckily it was really happening in Manhattan, cause…you need poverty and you need a broken down city that’s affordable… for artists to thrive– and that’s why we don’t have any artists left in Manhattan.  Berlin is the spot now.  Cheap and affordable.  So there was all these performance art clubs,  Gusto House, Knitting factory, PS 122, Dixon Place, The Kitchen, there was a ton of them.  I would go there and do my weird stories and I would play all the characters.  And people dug it. So that’s how I found myself.”

He’s got a lot more plans coming up too.  More one man shows, including one possibly inspired by Jonathan Winters, and there will always be more films.  And of course, John Leguizamo’s new movie “Ride Along” opens this Friday, January 17th in theaters everywhere.  “Ghetto Klown” premieres Saturday, March 22nd on HBO, and John Leguizamo is also starring in John Favreau’s new film “Chef” which opens Friday, May 9th.

You can hear Sirius XM’s Town Hall with host Ron Bennington in its entirety  this Saturday night January 18th at 8pm on Raw Dog SiriusXM Comedy Hits 99.  It  will re-air on Sunday at 3pm and 9pm (all times eastern).  Ron Bennington is also the host of  Unmasked, and The Ron and Fez Show on SiriusXM satellite radio.