John Leguizamo Confronts ‘Hollywood Racism Masked as Hollywood Wisdom’

The host of "Leguizamo Does America" tells IndieWire how he plans to improve Latino representation across the industry.
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 27: John Leguizamo speaks onstage during the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 27: John Leguizamo speaks onstage during the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on March 27, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
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John Leguizamo’s Latino crusade goes back decades. Over the past 30 years, his performances and outspoken off-screen presence have merged autobiography and activism, as he delivers assertive Latino personalities while advocating for more representation. From his acerbic and autobiographical one-man shows (“Mambo Mama,” “Freak,” “Latin History for Morons”) to dynamic screen roles such as “To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newman,” “Carlito’s Way,” and “Moulin Rouge!”, Leguizamo’s persona has essentially become a brand transferrable to any number of pop culture templates. In the last few years, he’s played the “Bruno” in “Encanto” earworm “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”, an obnoxious celebrity in the horror-satire “The Menu,” and Gor Koresh on “The Mandalorian.”

Now Leguizamo has added another notch to his resume: TV host. With MSNBC’s “Leguizamo Does America,” the 62-year-old travels across the country visiting Latino communities in cities ranging from New York to San Francisco. Leguizamo’s template is equal parts Anthony Bourdain and Rick Steves, as he engages with the history and culture of various American locales through meals and conversations with the various locals he finds there.

The show is off to a good start, proving Leguizamo’s crusade for more Latino storytelling in popular media hasn’t been a fool’s errand. Following its launch last week, “Leguizamo Does America” ranked in second place for the Sunday 10 p.m. slot, coming up just short of “The Ingraham Angle” on Fox. “Fox only beat us because it’s the only right-wing show on at that time,” Leguizamo said, settling into a conversation with IndieWire at 30 Rock this week. “Maybe I’ll steal some of those people.”

He spoke at length about his ongoing mission to address shortcomings in Latino representation and how his new program reflects that goal.

As a travel show, “Leguizamo Does America” follows a familiar format. What appealed to you about that?

The travel show is just a front, you know what I mean? I can talk about the things that really turn me on, that I care about. The best way to do that is with food, laughter, dance — and then we can still smuggle in history, information, data, concepts that may be more difficult for people to digest.

You spend a lot of time talking about the lack of representation for Latin audiences in film and TV. When did you start to notice the discrepancy?

Since I was a kid, it was like a desert of Latin faces in the media. Obviously, I knew there were glass ceilings, tokenism. I knew all that was going on since I was a kid.

How did you perception of that change when you became an actor?

Even when I was a kid going to college, I was like, “Wait a minute. How come we’re all paying the same tuition, I’m getting A’s, they’re not, and I’m getting five calls a day to play a drug dealer because I’m Latin?” It was like Jim Crow. The casting breakdown every day with the roles that were available were like, “White romantic lead, white doctor,” and so on. They wouldn’t see you. When I started seeing the data, it blew my mind. I was like, “Wait a minute — we’re the largest ethnic group in America, the oldest ethnic group in America, and we’ve got no representation?” More recently, I found that we’re 30 percent of the U.S. box office and four percent of streaming, and we’re still less than two percent of the faces in front of the camera. Forget about behind the camera where it’s less than one percent. I started becoming more aware that this was wholly unfair. It was aggressive exclusion.

How much change do you see now?

It’s changed a little bit, not enough. I mean, come on: Last year it was maybe two percent of the leads. This year it’s three percent. That’s still not OK. We’re 20 percent of the population, so we should be 20 percent of the leads.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by David Lee/Touchstone/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5878443i) John Leguizamo, Spike Lee Summer Of Sam - 1999 Director: Spike Lee Touchstone USA On/Off Set Drama
John Leguizamo in “Summer of Sam”David Lee/Touchstone/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

What about the role of Latin perspectives at studios?

First I saw that Latin people were huge in New York, then I saw it when I went to L.A. — but not in the exec offices. Not in my agent’s office. Not in my manager’s office.

The word “diversity” certainly gets thrown around Hollywood a lot.

It’s a great buzzword, but to what effect? I’m glad that everybody else is getting great representation, but we’re still excluded. I don’t like to compare, but either we’re not complaining enough or not being loud enough to demand what we deserve. Some of us may not even know we’re excluded. Executives are not going to do anything unless somebody calls them on it.

As a producer, how hard is it to pitch new projects through a Latin lens?

I pitch a lot of historic pieces that are incredible. I got all this historical information from the 1700s, or the 1800s, and I’m told, “Oh, we’re not doing period stuff,” “We’re not doing feel-good movies.” It’s Hollywood racism masked as Hollywood wisdom.

What sort of challenges did you face in pitching your own TV show?

It took six years to do this show. How could I download our history in a matter of minutes? Five hundred years of being here, and we have to explain that we were the first slaves in America, that 6,000 of us were lynched or burned alive or shot here in America between 1830 to 1930. We’re the only American group in which millions of us deported. I mean, how do you download all of that to pitch your story? They don’t get it. But Cesar Conde, the first Latin executive at NBC, and Rashida Jones, the first Black woman executive there, they got it and they greenlit it. That’s what we need: Latin executives that know our culture and can greenlight projects.

For a while there, it seemed like the advent of streaming might widen the field a bit.

There is movement everywhere, just not enough, and it’s mostly for optics. HBO let go all the Latin shows, Netflix called all the Latin shows they had, even though Nielsen just came out with stats for Netflix showing that Latin people do go for Latin content, to Latin stars, to Latin culture. They do visit that. It behooves them to support because that’s $4 billion to streaming in America alone.

How much representation was there behind the scenes on your show?

Seventy-five percent of our crew was Latino, our showrunners, our writer and director. That was easy. We’re almost 70 million people in this country. It was not hard to find Latin excellence everywhere. I mean, I found beautiful activists with no money doing the most incredible thing. I found great actors, choreographers, politicians. There are so many people doing amazing things across America not getting the flowers they deserve.

How much more of the show are you hoping to do?

I would love a second season to go to Texas. I’m basically doing my “Arroz con Pollo” tour from my one-man shows. That was 26 cities across America that are huge cities with Latin populations. This season I went to six of the 26. Texas has like seven of them. I mean, El Paso, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Corpus Christie, McAllen, Amarillo! California has a ton as well: Sacramento, Bakersfield, San Diego, L.A., Oakland. Then you’ve got Seattle, Denver, Tampa, Orlando, West Palm Beach, Boston. These are big cities and there’s so much ground I want to cover. I want to talk to do a whole deep-dive on Chicano culture. I’m Caribbean and Colombian, but I love all my Latin culture.

There has been a surge of conservatism among Latino voters in the U.S. How much have you tried to engage that contingency?

I want to be better at it. I really want to be able to reach across the aisle, but I’m not as good at it. Some of us are religious, conservative, homophobic, pro-life. I need to work on myself so I’m not as triggered by that.

As a liberal, what would you like to see happen to address this issue?

The Democrats mess up because they aren’t spending money on us. They don’t have Latin consultants. Bernie did it right, but so did the Republicans, unfortunately. They went for us on Spanish-language stations. Put money into it. Hired Latin consultants to come after us.

Part of this situation is informed by the political unrest in Latin America itself.

The whole problem with Venezuela and Maduro definitely affects Florida, but all Venezuelans and Colombians are affected by it. The trigger word is “socialism” and it makes them easily go red. I’m mostly concerned with the U.S. because that’s where I live and I only have so many hours in the day to fight evil.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 14: John Leguizamo attends "The Menu" New York Premiere at AMC Lincoln Square Theater on November 14, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)
John LeguizamoGetty Images

What potential do you see in a future president with Latin American roots?

It ain’t Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, but if Joaquin Castro or AOC get through someday that’d be great. Or Ritchie Torres. We’ll see.

When fans come up to you these days, what surprises you about their relationship to your work?

Lately I’ve getting a lot of “Thank you for fighting for us and speaking out.” That’s new. I get it from people in the industry, too. Obviously, before it was Benny Blanco from the Bronx. A lot of gays like Chi-Chi Rodriguez. Kids love Sid the Sloth. Others like “The Pest.” And some people mention “Mario Brothers.”

You generated some headlines for complaining about the absence of Latin voice actors in the new animated “The Super Mario Brothers Movie.” How do you feel about the way that conversation played?

I spoke my mind. The directors of the last one fought really hard to have inclusivity, to have me in there and it’s sad that they went backwards instead of forwards. They didn’t meet the times. I know it’s a big hit, but that doesn’t make it OK.

There is now talk of sequels and spin-offs. Would you consider a gig in one of those?

If they start to do the right thing and add more inclusivity, I’d consider it.

NBC News Studios’ “Leguizamo Does America” airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. Eastern on MSNBC. It is also streaming on Peacock.

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