Funny-guy John Leguizamo gets serious, talking politics and Perros
John Leguizamo has donned a remarkable amount of masks, transforming into villainous people on the big screen, characters in comedy sketches, and even a sloth in DreamWorks’ sugarcoated version of the ice age since arriving to Queens from Bogota, but no matter how many different faces or furs he has put-on, his skin and the heritage that lies underneath has remained inextricably with him through thirty years of versatile roles.
While his heritage has not always been a source of pride and has proven to be a challenge (as you will soon read), the subject of Leguizamo’s Latin roots and Colombian brownness have also proved to be a potent source of inspiration and drive. When Leguizamo isn’t acting, producing, playwriting, screenwriting, or simply making you laugh, he is fostering within others with heritages like his own the inspiration to vote, and to vote with Latino issues in mind.
On Sunday, September 25th 2016, he came to Philadelphia with the Campaign for Hillary for America, in which he frantically zig-zagged through four events across the city that celebrated hispanidad to promote voter registration and the official launch of IWillVote.com. But, before he got to The Puerto Rican Day Parade, Festival El Coqui, Boricuafest, and Pennsylvania Victory, he sat with me, bluntly effusing about his political interests and his experience as a Latino in Hollywood:
How are you hoping to inspire Latin@s to vote today?
I am hoping to rile them up, and get them to understand the importance of voting. Because if you don’t vote, it’s a vote for Trump. I know that in Florida, there’s a lot of right-wing Cubans who are not voting for Trump because of all of the offensive things he’s been saying about Latinos. I’m hoping to get Latinos to go out and vote, because it’s one of the most important elections in my lifetime that I’ve seen.
Why do you think it’s [this election] so important?
Because Trump is so divisive, he’s so offensive, he’s so… He’s not a businessman, he’s a salesman. He’s not presidential. He doesn’t have the skills or the tools to be President. He just should not be president of this country. No political party in the history of this country has ever put forth such an incompetent candidate as the Republicans have by putting forth Trump. And… And it’s offensive to our country, and dangerous for our country, and Hillary is next level, man. Obama saved us from The Great Recession that started in the Bush years, and you know we still have a lot to do, but he saved us from a fate that would have been terrible for this country, and I think Hillary’s a next-level kind of candidate, she’s going to take us to the next level. More jobs, more infrastructure, work that Obama tried to implement and wasn’t able to, but I think that Hillary, with her experience and knowledge and strength… I mean, nothing can knock this woman down, not even pneumonia! She’s the most powerful woman I’ve ever seen in my life.
Have you ever met her [Hillary Clinton]?
Yeah! I ran a fundraiser in New York City, and then I MC’d her NYS Laborer Union’s speech… I MC’d the whole thing, which was rough. Those Union people have a lot of strength man, I wanted to get up to their level but I couldn’t reach it. They’re intense. I love them. That’s why I’m here, that’s why I’m trying to get them [Latin@s] to vote. IWillVote.com is this new site for people that don’t know if they’ve registered or need to register. There they can go, and boom, there, it’s that simple.
How do you think Hillary, specifically, is going to take Latin@s to the “Next Level”?
Well, she’s always been for the working class, the middle class, her tax plan is to tax the rich, that way you create more systems to help. During the Reagan era I was a Latin guy trying to go to college, and all my funding was cut because of him. H.E.O.P…, I can still name them, all of them, because it was so horrifying and put me in an incredible debt. Hillary is going to help Latino people get to college, and reduce their burdens… Thanks to Bernie. That was the beautiful thing about Bernie, he lifted, raised the bar, and Hillary was beautiful enough to accept that we needed to change, and be a little more aggressive, and even be a little more socialist. She’s going to help Puerto Rico and improve upon PROMESA and stay on top of it because it’s not completely adequate.
You’re going to the Puerto Rican festivities and parades today. Will you touch upon that [PROMESA]?
I’m not allowed to be partisan! I’m not allowed, I swear, it is a public event so you’re not allowed to be partisan, but I can still say “Get the vote out!” because there are things that need to be done to help Puerto Rico in this economic crisis… I mean, no state in this country has had bankruptcy laws as aggressive as the ones in Puerto Rico, I mean it’s ridiculous, and the hedge funders are having a heyday making money while people are suffering in Puerto Rico.
How do you think that this country has progressed in its way of accepting Latin@s, since you have been in The United States [1960s-Present Day]? Have you seen growth while you’ve been here?
Alive? Here on Earth? Here in this room? Yeah, I’ve definitely seen a lot of growth and progress in our reach of power, our expansion in politics, and obviously in sports, the arts, uhhhh but it’s still not fair though, man. There are still a lot of issues, I mean we’re 17- almost 18 -percent of the population, and we’re not represented in the media, like maybe 3% of us are in the media? I mean it’s staggeringly sad how missing we are in so many areas, and, you know, there’s still a lot of racism, there’s still a lot of oppression… I mean in Texas, Arizona, those states that should be BLUE, but Latino people are getting gerrymandered out of power, and out of money for their communities, out of money for proper schooling… So, all those things need to change and Latin people need to be much more vocal, and… I mean, if Trump is President we’re gonna have a Latin Spring, you know… Seriously, we need to get much more aggressive, and much more vocal about the inequities. We’ve put more than 1.3 trillion dollars into this economy, just in the United States alone, I’m not even talking about Latino countries, and what are we getting back? We don’t get much back from it, while everybody else profits from our work. Sorry, that’s a lot of statistics, I’m a statistics nerd.
Briefly, before the interview, you mentioned to me that you are a “political freak.” What is something that you’ve learned while doing your own research to stay informed?
Okay, so every time Latino people vote, it’s a huge status demographic in statistics. Think about it, we’re in a lot of the swing states: Florida, Nevada. Texas should be a swing state, it’s crazy that it’s not, since it’s so gerrymandered. I’ve been studying that, and it’s so… Crooked, you know? See, they’ll take the State, and they’ll look at all the pockets of Latinos and Blacks, and they’ll realize that White people are a minority, which is a threat to their interests. So, the only way they can stay in power and take all the money from the communities in-need is to figure out those ethnic or racial pockets, and carve all away around them to make them a district to essentially cut them out. Their vote doesn’t count, and they’re not getting the money. It is so evil, and so crooked. Arizona is another one that is horrible that way. A lot of those States wouldn’t even be RED states if they weren’t so gerrymandered. It’s terrible.
Getting back to representation on the media, which you’ve briefly touched upon, and since this is Hispanic Heritage month and all…
It’s not even a month, it’s just a couple of weeks strung together, I mean we don’t even have a proper month. It’s kind of weird. It’s just a Latino history segment to keep us happy. We’re not enough for them to be a damn month, I guess.
Your upcoming performance is going to be as a lead in the film Perros, in an unusually very dark and serious role [for you]. What do you think about that, about going back to Colombia to film? What emotions stirred within you?
Well, you know, Latino filmmakers are changing Hollywood in so many ways, more and more we have more success behind the camera because the last three Oscar winners have been Mexican directors. Birdman, Revenant, Gravity… We’re winning a lot in those areas. We’re allowed to be expose our full talent in front of the camera, but they’re still holding back on us to get us in front of that camera a little bit. Uh, and it’s definitely not because of lack of talent… Latino filmmakers are doing such great stuff that I wanted to be a part of it. This is the director’s second Spanish-Language film, and he has powerful and incredible filmmaking. Latino filmmakers are taking risks that Hollywood isn’t allowed to take because they have to be much more commercial, so these risks are happening always in the Independent and in the Foreign films, and Latino filmmakers are making great strides in these two genres. I was in Colombia for two months, in real jails, and real prisons. Third-world life in jail. In some ways, it’s way harder than any American prison. Here it’s an industry, which it’s really sad, preying on immigrants, and it shouldn’t be an industry. In other countries it’s a chance to correct people, since you know, it’s a correction facility, but in Latin America there are a lot of people in the jails but it’s more humane because everyone is together... The jail I went to was in Bogota, and everyone was together but there were three separate yards that kind of connected. One was for VIPS because, of course, wouldn’t be Latin America without VIPS, the general public, and then child molesters and pedophiles because otherwise they’ll be offed. We shot in a real jail that was defunct, and we had some of the cons that had been set free previously there that had come back to work in the jail that they had actually been in prison in! Which was wild, and they consulted and made sure that we stayed on point, and they made fun of us all the time. They wouldn’t hold back their language or their insults, that’s for sure.
It’s a Spanish-language film, as well….
Colombian Spanish… Which, as you know, Spanish isn’t just Spanish, just like English isn’t just English. It’s like going to Alabama, and then New York, everyone’s got their own version of English in the United States. It’s the same thing in Latin America. I had a coach 24/7, doing tongue-twisters to sound like I was a farmer from there [Colombia].
Speaking of the Spanish-language, did you find it sincere when Senator Tim Kaine delivered that speech? He was accused of pandering to Hispanics. Where you like, yeeessss speak Spanish that’s awesome!, or did you find it cheesy?
Whenever politicians try to talk to us in Spanish, or address our needs in Spanish, it’s a plus! How can any of that get skewed negatively? Look, even Bill de Blasio tries to talk Spanish. I love it, he’s trying… He’s got the grammar and the vocabulary, but the accent we gotta work on. Kaine’s is pretty good. I appreciate it. It’s usually us learning all of White culture, and having to desaturate ourselves into that White culture, and it’s never a two-way street, so I really appreciate that effort.
How has your Latinidad proven to be a strength? How has it proven to provide setbacks and certain challenges in this already cut-throat industry? Have things gotten better for you [for being a Latino]?
In terms of Hollywood and being a Latino actor, it’s… It’s been hard. I mean, a lot of producers go up to me and say “Too bad you’re Latino because you’d be so much further along [if you weren’t],” and they don’t mean to be hostile, they mean it with love, you know, and it’s true. All my White friends go to 4 to 5 auditions a day, and I go to one a month, maybe? If I’m lucky. Just, my opportunities are way less, but the great thing is that I’m a Latin person and Latin people are mad resourceful you know? My parents used to have three or four jobs to make ends meet, and that’s kind of the same tradition I’m following.
Hollywood says no? I say forget you, f*** you, you know? I go write my own stuff, I do speeches, I go to comedy clubs, I do small independent films, I’m even a voice actor. J-Lo too, you know, you’d think being fine and being a superstar would be enough, but no, she gotta do perfumes, cologne, a TV series, clothing line… You gotta work three times as hard to get the same job that a White guy does, it’s just a fact of life [as a Latin@], and you just grew up knowing that…. I tell my kids, you know, a White person can have an undergraduate college degree, but you have to have a Masters if you’re Latino, because you have to be better than the other White person, because when you’re out there in the real world they’re already going to look at you with a strike [for being Latin@].