John Leguizamo, prolific actor and veteran of the New York comedy circuit, made waves a few years ago when he openly dished dirt on some of his co-workers and peers in his book “Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life.” Chief among the pissed-off parties was Steve Seagal, who threatened to punch Leguizamo in the face if they ever crossed paths on the red carpet. (Steven Seagal doesn’t go to red carpets, who does he think he’s kidding?)
In 2010, Leguizamo adapted his book into a one-man play called “Ghetto Klown,” which garnered the comic the most glowing reviews of his career, and began a period of candid, personal introspection. Continuing in this vein is Leguizamo’s newest flick, “Fugly,” which depicts the life of a Hispanic, Bronx-born comedian who bears more than a passing resemblance to his creator. Leguizamo co-wrote, produced, and stars in the movie, and he plans on doing another one-man tour soon. Indiewire sat down with John to talk about “Fugly” and “Ghetto Klown.” Also present during out talk were Adam Segal (no relation to Steven) and an unnamed fourth party in a denim jacket.
What are you eating?
Gyro. [Pronounced JEER-ro.] How do you actually say it in Greek?
Tomorrow’s Halloween, so let’s start with something spooky: scary clowns. With “American Horror Story” and this weird scary clown thing going on in France, scary clowns are suddenly chic again. You were ahead of the curve there…
With “Spawn.” I was a clown from Hell [laughing].
Yeah. Any chance you’ll play another scary clown sometime? You were really good at it.
I would play a different clown, but hopefully Todd MacFarlane will write “Spawn 2” and being my character back. I wonder why he’s not doing it.
Do you have a Halloween costume?
[Points to himself.] You’re looking at it.
Wow. That’s really scary.
You look terrified. I’m going as myself, as a middle-aged man.
You co-wrote “Fugly,” and the character you play, Jesse, has a lot of parallels with you and your career. Was this a personal film for you?
Well, you know, it’s not my story but I did draw a lot from my personal life. I wanted to make it valid and to make it relevant you’ve got to draw from life. So I borrowed some elements.
Did you grow up in the Bronx?
No, Queens. Jackson Heights.
Oh, never mind.
Your character lives in the Bronx and I used to live in the Bronx. I thought we could bond. Anyway, between “Fugly” and “Ghetto Klown” you’ve been doing a lot of candid talks about your career and your life lately. Have you run into anyone who…
Yeah, run into Steven Seagal lately?
Oh, that stuff! No, I haven’t had any backlash lately. I had a lot back then, when I first said that stuff about…whoever I said that stuff about. But not anymore. It faded away.
So “Ghetto Klown” has gotten good reception. It’s really good.
Thank you, thank you. I have received some great feedback. Beautiful letters and emails from people, telling me how touched they are. Mike Nichols came and saw it. Diane Sawyer, too. I was very moved by their support.
So why are you getting so candid lately? These are way different than the roles you did back when.
True that, true that. “Fugly” definitely is a different path in my career that I like. Something much closer to myself than playing things that are so far from me. Like the Clown, and “To Wong Fu.” I think it’s a maturing of my skills, to be able to play myself, closer to myself.
Jesse’s not exactly a ladies’ man. He has a few issues with… the ladies. Is that how you were, or were you a stud in college?
I was a stud before college. I was a stud when I hit puberty! [Laughs.]
Did you plateau?
I did! That was the problem. I did plateau. I was used to a certain amount of attention from the ladies and then it disappeared for some reason. But then it came back later.
You were funny, which helps.
I was funny. I dunno, in college I got serious. I got fear that I was gonna be a failure. So I started to focus on my studies. But before that, I partied for a couple years.
But you didn’t fail.
Yeah, yeah, because I got serious in college and I said, Yo, I’m gonna be on minimum wage for the rest of my life, who knows where I’ll end up? So I got mad serious. Like Jesse. He got serious in college. And he focused on the love, cause he wasn’t getting’ any before. At all. He doesn’t get any love. So he blogs.
I can relate.
You don’t get any love either?
No, I mean the blogging part. I blog, he blogs. Speaking of which, you love Twitter. You’re always on it.
I love it! It’s much more intellectual, much more verbal than Instagram. I’m not very visual, so I find it a very powerful tool to connect with my fans in a safe way and exchange ideas. It’s a great disseminator of information. It can start causes, political movements, it’s a powerful tool.
Do you participate in any social or political causes?
I’m definitely for the Brady Act. I’m for gun control, definitely for trying to keep abortion clinics open. I’m for a lot of causes. I’m against fracking. Against knocking down the history in New York City. I’m for the Greenwhich Village preservation. And I also do a lot of charity stuff.
You’re a life-long New Yorker. Or a nearly life-long New Yorker, so you’ve been around, you’ve seen the gentrification of the cool neighborhoods. How do you feel about that, seeing your home change so much?
It’s kinda sad. I’m nostalgic, like everybody from New York, for the dirty old nasty New York. That was the great heyday. It was broke, beat-up, not too crowded. But it was creative, man. You had Patti Smith, you had The Ramones, you had CBGBs, you had Pacino, De Niro, De Palma, Scorsese. You had poets, the birth of hip hop. New York was amazing. The best theaters, the great playwrights were here. It was the creative civilization of America, possibly the world.
Do you think we can get that thriving art scene back?
No. New York has to go bankrupt again. It has to be affordable. Artists need to be together to cross-pollinate, and if it’s unaffordable artists can’t be together. The beautiful thing about Manhattan is it was bankrupt, there were a ton of artists from all over the country who would come here, and there was a great audience for them. The birth place for so many artists and so many movements. And that’s gone.
Do you think there’s anywhere else like that now?
Yeah, there’s a lot of great creative places. Definitely San Francisco, the Bay area, Chicago.
You’re in “John Wick,” which is an inexplicable hit with critics. It’s so good.
Oh, come on, some of the best action work of any American star in cinema history. Beside Bruce Lee. He’s the only one who’s done action as beautifully as Keanu. I was impressed by him, man. I’ve done a lot of action, and I love action, and he was doing all that. You can’t do long shots like that, nobody wants to, they want to cut into the stunt guy. If you do a long shot like that, you have to do the work. I was really impressed by Keanu.
You’re one of the few smart people in that movie who don’t piss off John Wick. You stay on his good side.
For a change.
What was it like not playing a bad guy who gets killed?
A relief! Man, it was a relief. I like playing that guy.
Any more action movies in your near future?
Let’s hope so. At least smart action, with a little character and content. Not a big fam of the empty stupid rides.
So what’s going on with your Pablo Escobar project? I was reading so much about that and it just kinda died.
Still developing the script. It’s still not there. We’re hustling with it, trying to get it to be great. It can’t be anything but great.
I’m sorry, but it’s hard to focus with that picture behind you. [There’s a huge picture of John naked with a cello between his legs two feet away from us this whole time.]
Thank god for that large cello, a hah hah. A violin wouldn’t have done it. [Everyone in the room is laughing.]
Did you actually play the instrument?
I played it, but it didn’t sound good. It was painful. There were a lot of cats screaming in the background. [Impersonates a cat screaming.]
So what are you hoping to get out of “Ugly?”
“Fugly.” Don’t call me ugly, man.
I would never call you ugly. I’m looking right at the poster and I still couldn’t get it right. What are you hoping will happen with it?
I hope it finds its audience. I want people to laugh their asses off and forget their problems and escape for an hour and a half. Also, I’ve got to brag: this is the first fake male orgasm on screen in cinema history.
Is it really? [It’s not, I checked.]
Yeah! Have you ever seen one before?
I don’t know, I’ve never fact-checked to see if they were real.
There’s been plenty of fake female ones in the movies. And in life. [Laughs.]
Were the female ones in “Fugly” fake, too?
We didn’t get that far, man. I don’t think it was reciprocated.
I think the line is, “Elevator rides have lasted longer.”
We all gotta start somewhere, right? Build up your stamina.
He’s like, “Yeah, let’s move on, I’m uncomfortable, awkward…”
Oh, no, I’m not uncomfortable. I don’t wanna make you uncomfortable.
Do I look uncomfortable?
No, you look like you’re having fun.
Your shirt, by the way, is fantastic.
Bonobos, man. They hooked me up. That’s my new go-to. They’re the bomb. It’s not cheap, though. My pants are Bonobos, my sweater’s Bonobos. And they’re American. I dunno if they manufacture in America, but I try to buy Made in America when I can. I support my peeps.
That’s admirable. I try to buy Made in America, too, but I’m poor. I’m a writer.
[Laughs] Made in America is not cheap, bro.
What else is coming up for you?
Well, first tell your readers to follow me on Twitter cause I respond to everyone. I like that. [@JohnLeguizamo] Oh, oh! My graphic novel based on “Ghetto Klown” is coming out. That’s gonna be amazing! It’s my first one-man show that I felt could really work as a graphic novel. It travels through so many time zones, eras, locations, lives, it’s perfect for a graphic novel.
How does one adapt a one-man into a comic?
It wasn’t too hard. Because of the way “Ghetto Klown” was written, I did it as a documentary play, that was my paradigm, so the graphic novel was easy. It’s first person, then you go to the flashbacks, the places he’s talking about. Since I travel to so many different places, I take you there on stage through the suggestion of word or mime, we basically do the whole Shakespeare thing. Now she can draw it. Christa Cassano is doing a beautiful thing, and Abrams Books puts out some of the best books in the world. Brilliantly drawn.
Before I go, can you say something funny? You’re a funny guy.
You’re putting me on the spot, man. Um… buen provecho. Spanish for “bon appetite,” since we just ate lunch. For all the chefs out there.
“Chef” made me feel bad. I can’t cook very well.
Then you’ll never get Scarlett Johansson, man. Now that was a good sex scene. Sexiest sex-less sex scene I’ve ever seen.
So what’s your favorite sex scene that you’ve done in a movie? [John’s phone starts ringing.]
Uh, Spike Lee is calling me. [Answers phone.] Spike, what’s up? Yeah, yeah. I’m doing some press for my movie “Fugly.” I want you to come, man, come down! November 5th, next Wednesday. This Wednesday? This Wednesday. 6:30, Times Square. Yeah, I’ll shoot you all the information. No, I wrote it and I star in it. I wrote it, I star in it, I produced it, but I didn’t direct it. Right, yeah, I’ll be on The View, and TMZ, you know. [Laughs and slams table.] Yeah, exactly. I felt like I was selling myself to The Devil, but I’m controlling it as opposed to them exploiting me. I’m exploiting myself. Yeah, yeah, one of the best. It’s an incredible piece. Quincy Jones, right? That’s right, with Sidney Lumet. Right, true that. Absolutely, man. Yeah, I’m doing press and touring with my next one-man show. Can I shoot you times? Email or text? Yeah, I’ll send you both. Much love, man. Bye. [Hangs up.] Yo, Spike is com-ing! He’s my boy! But I gotta be in his documentary. About “Off the Wall.” That’s gonna be awesome.