In 1991, with only a handful of minor film and television credits to his name, John Leguizamo burst onto the Off-Broadway scene with his first one-man show, Mambo Mouth. Now an internationally renowned movie star and Broadway favorite for his solo shows Freak and Sexaholix, the fast-talking firecracker is bringing his latest, Ghetto Klown, to the Main Stem. "I'm a survivor, baby," says Leguizamo, 46. "Who would've thought, 20 years later, that I'd still be here, coming up with stuff? But the wheels are still turning, baby. They haven't rusted over yet."
Directed by Fisher Stevens, Ghetto Klown began performances Feb. 21 and opens March 22 for a limited 12-week engagement at the Lyceum Theatre. The Broadway run follows the brief Chicago tryout, John Leguizamo Warms Up, which Leguizamo calls "an unplugged version" of Ghetto Klown.
While Leguizamo's previous solo stage work, including the Latino stereotype-skewering Spic-O-Rama, focused largely on the Colombian-born, Queens-bred performer's upbringing and family, Ghetto Klown charts his unconventional career path and includes showbiz anecdotes from his 2006 memoir, Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life. "Being the neighborhood clown has gotten me in trouble, but it's also gotten me to a lot of great places," he explains. "This new show is about my journey as an artist, what made me want to be an actor, and why I put up with all the nonsense, the successes and failures, the hitting bottom and then picking yourself up again."
Aside from acting teachers, managers and other behind-the-scenes players, Leguizamo tackles recognizable Hollywood celebrities like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal and Patrick Swayze. "It's the first time I'm doing impersonations," he says with an excitement that may or may not be shared by those he impersonates. "Most of the people are cool with it... but I have heard through their publicists that a few people aren't that happy about it." Though he admits that this negative feedback only sharpens his skewer, he knows when to bite his notoriously spicy tongue. "If you go too far, it can get ugly and backfire. You don't want the audience to think you're an ass."
Leguizamo's favorite target in Ghetto Klown is Baz Luhrmann, his director on William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. "He's got a great voice to imitate," he says, breaking into a hilarious Australian accent. "I talk about the audition that he made me struggle and suffer through to prove that I could play Tybalt in Romeo + Juliet. It was between me and Benicio del Toro, so I really had to fight and claw for that part."
Among his other film highlights, Leguizamo earned a Golden Globe nomination for playing a feisty drag queen named Chi-Chi in To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar. He also voices Sid the Sloth in the mammoth "Ice Age" franchise. Still, the former stand-up comic continues to return to the live stage to share his personal experiences. "I have a crazy need to document and analyze my life that even my therapist hasn't figured out," says Leguizamo, who will next be seen on the big screen in Vanishing on 7th Street, The Lincoln Lawyer and Fugly! "I love figuring out what the hell's going on with me. But it's a public execution; for it to have a sense of religion, it has to be testified and witnessed."
No longer content to exorcise his personal demons in smaller venues, Leguizamo has made the Great White Way his confessional of choice. "I love the idea of making it into a play — a piece of real, vital theatre that takes people on a journey. Broadway's also a more sophisticated audience, and this show is my rawest, most personal yet."
Leguizamo last appeared on Broadway opposite Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osment in the critically maligned 2008 revival of David Mamet's American Buffalo, which closed after eight regular performances and left the actor feeling a bit trampled. "I would've destroyed in that piece, but I just didn't have enough time," he insists with a sigh. "I was very upset, and I felt I was done wrong, so yeah, now I've got something to prove. Like a boxer, if I get knocked down one time, I'm coming right back at you."
Playbill, March 2011 issue.