‘Ghetto Klown’ Leguizamo Gets Laughs From Depression: Interview

John Leguizamo is probably best known to audiences for his creepy portrayal of pygmy fetishist Henri de Toulouse Lautrec in “Moulin Rouge.”

A favorite of director Spike Lee (“Summer of Sam”) the Colombian-born actor has been performing his solo shows like “Mambo Mouth” on and off Broadway since 1993. Raised in Jackson Heights, Queens, Leguizamo, 46, is a master of cross- gender mimicry. He has the social satirist’s gift for lampooning stereotypes while defusing their prejudicial power.

In his new show, “Ghetto Klown,” Leguizamo slides under his own microsope, telling the audience about competitive dissing in high school, mentors like famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg, and the bouts with depression that inspired him. To direct the show, he chose his longtime friend Fisher Stevens, with whom he once appeared in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

We met at Bond 45, a trattoria across the street from the Lyceum Theatre, where he dove into a plate of profiteroles before a recent preview performance of the show.

Gerard: What, exactly, is a ghetto klown?

Leguizamo: My parents were incredibly strict, almost military style. At Murry Bergtraum High I wanted to be as different from my father as possible. So I acted out in school, I was very anti-authority.

Round Table

Gerard: Were you a hoodlum?

Leguizamo: The thing I gravitated to was being the class clown. It was very competitive. There was a table in the lunchroom were the funniest people sat. It was an imitation of the Algonquin Round Table.

You would diss anyone who came within 10 feet of you. But I started to realize there were people who were really imaginative, who made up crazy stories, who were charming comedians.

Gerard: So you began to take it seriously?

Leguizamo: To be a comedian, you gotta jokesmith, there’s no way around it. Sure there’s inspiration, but you gotta be jokesmithing. I was writing in the subway, writing when I got home. All over the place. I had files of stuff. I took acting very seriously. I didn’t care about anything else but being great.

Paying for It

I would go down to the docks and talk to the girls, the trannies, and pay them, because you know they wouldn’t talk unless you paid them. And I would do it like a reporter, write it all down. I wanted to do something about all the different personalities in the neighborhood, people I didn’t know, just to show how varied Latin experience is. I’m doing a kind of oral history, oral tradition. What I’ve always quested for is a sense of tradition, a sense of history.

Gerard: In “Summer of Sam,” you played a philandering husband who had some pretty raw sex scenes with several actresses. Was that fun?

Leguizamo: No, it was embarrassing. If you get excited it’s embarrassing, if you don’t get excited it’s insulting. It’s no- win, man.

Gerard: What can you tell us about the new show?

Leguizamo: It’s James Joyce, a portrait of the artist as, well I guess as a middle-aged man, about the trajectory of trying to be an artist. It’s about the hard knocks that you encounter along the way, the failures and how you have to pick yourself up. I’m being as raw and honest as I’ve ever been.

Gerard: What’s the hardest part of a show like this?

Leguizamo: Revealing the embarrassing stuff, the humiliating stuff, the personal failures. Dealing with depression. We all deal with depression but it’s good for me, it helps me be creative. Helps me focus on what I want to do.

I didn’t perform for a long time. I tackle it in the play a bit -- it was performance anxiety, horrible fear of failure. It was very painful. So I did movies instead.

Sometimes I’m comfortable with it, sometimes I’m not so comfortable with it. I didn’t want to just do a comedy show, I wanted it to be as edgy and daring and scary as possible.

“Ghetto Klown” is at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., where it opens on March 22. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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