John Leguizamo may be best known to audiences for his roles in big Hollywood movies like “Spawn,” “Executive Decision” and “Moulin Rouge.” But the multitalented and multihyphenated comedian is a stage performer more than anything else. After honing his acting chops at the Lee Strasberg Institute, Leguizamo hit the New York theater scene in 1990 and snagged an OBIE award for “Mambo Mouth,” his satire of racial and ethnic stereotypes in American culture. Eleven years and two Broadway shows later, he returned to the boards with the quasi-autobiographical “Sexaholix … A Love Story,” the basis for his latest (and fourth) solo special for HBO. Raucously funny, yet surprisingly poignant, “Sexaholix” is an exercise in catharsis for Lequizamo, who reconstructs the history of his life, beginning with his Dickensesque childhood in Queens, N.Y., and ending with the birth of his second child. Laying himself bare, the native Colombian attacks myriad subjects that alternately elicit belly laughs and empathy. Family grievances, abortion, fatherhood, the joys of nonmarriage, cunnilingus — everything is grist for his comedy.
Onstage, Leguizamo is a kinetic dervish of activity, giving a balls-to-the-wall performance that includes dancing, air-fucking, old-school rappin’ and even a karaoke rendition of the Harry Nilsson weeper “Without You.” In the process, he gives life to an arsenal of personalities so twisted and emotionally disfigured that Sybil looks positively approachable by comparison. There’s the lisping Fucks Funny, the stuttering lesbian Aunt Esperanza, hot Nami Rapunzel Garcia, Penny the queefing waitress/actress and a belt-wielding Papa Leguizamo.
In an act rampant with raunchy juvenilia and over-the-top characterizations, it’s easy to overlook just what a shrewd social observer Leguizamo is. His street-level philosophy on male-female relations and class-consciousness is pointedly hilarious and more relevant than anything postulated by an overeducated, undersexed sociologist. “Sexaholix … A Love Story” is exactly that: a love story, albeit a dysfunctional one. For all his unflattering anecdotes about neglectful relatives and wacky ex-lovers, John Leguizamo is really a mushy sentimentalist at heart. He just has a very funny way of showing it.
“Sexaholix … A Love Story” airs Saturday, April 13, at 10 p.m. on HBO. Leguizamo talked with Salon over the phone from his home in New York.
Thanks for taking time to do this. I know your schedule’s pretty hectic these days.
It’s crazy hectic, but I heard your show is amazing so …
I heard your show is amazing.
Ahh — you’re just saying that cause I said yours is good.
No, no, no — I don’t kiss ass.
No, not at all.
Your first one-man show was 1990′s “Mambo Mouth.” Being a relatively unknown commodity at the time, was it tough to get theater owners to take your work seriously?
At the beginning it was. I’d work with these great directors on Broadway, and they wouldn’t return my calls. It was just crazy. It was all about getting the director to direct the show. And then I got it ["Mambo Mouth"] up, and this teacher Wynn Handman fell in love with it and put it on in the hallway of his theater days before the real show — on folding chairs, on a makeshift plywood stage. My playbills were like loose-leaf paper. [Laughs] And all of a sudden I got reviews and there was Madonna, John Kennedy Jr., Olympia Dukakis, Pacino, Sam Shepard, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon — it was crazy. It was like that movie “A Matter of Life and Death,” the Michael Powell film, where the guy dies and goes to heaven and he’s standing next to Abraham Lincoln, George Washington — that’s what it felt like to me. [Laughs]
In 1999, you won both the Emmy and the ALMA for the televised performance of “Freak.” Why do you think the play resonated with so many people?
It was the first one-man show that was a personal story. Most one-man shows are about somebody else. This was the first one that was about me. [Laughs] That could be taken as egotistical and vain, but I had something to say about my messed-up life. And it was very unique in that respect. It was sort of exposing myself, roasting myself.
It must be tough to go out on a limb thinking people have an interest in your particular life and are willing to pay money to hear about it.
It’s weird because, first of all, you don’t think anybody’s gonna be interested. Then when you’re exposing everything about yourself, you’re like, “Oh my God — I don’t want people to know all this.” But you gotta do it because the art kinda takes over. The art of it says you gotta expose all the nitty-gritty, you gotta show the pimples.
In “Freak,” you’re very honest about the less-than-ideal relationship you had with your father growing up. What was his reaction when he first saw the play? Did you consult with him before you began writing it?
No, I didn’t consult him at all. I was afraid that he might have heard of it just ’cause he might watch TV or something. [Laughs] And, well, he showed up and surprised me. I didn’t know he was in my dressing room. I was talking to Mike Myers, and then all of a sudden I see this seething face in the corner. I go, “God, that looks so familiar from my childhood. I can’t remember.” Then I turn around and it’s my father and he says, “How dare you!” And he ran away and then we had a big confrontation in the alley. And we made up. You know, typical soap opera drama: huggin’ and kissin’ and cryin’ and all that.
So, was your father there for the opening of “Sexaholix?”
Oh yeah. It was a different relationship. Plus, he’s hardly in it. He said, “How much am I in it?” And I said, “Just a little.” He said, “A little bit is too much.” I didn’t want this to be about him. This is about my growth — sort of like “Freak Part 2.”
Is everything fodder for your act or do you draw the line at certain subjects?
I used to not draw the line at anything and I think I will continue to do that. Everything is fodder to be mocked and satirized. I mean, why not? You start taking yourself too seriously, and that’s when all the problems begin.
What impact did growing up in New York — particularly Queens — have on your sensibilities as a writer and performer?
Oh man, growing up in Queens was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It was such a crazy melting pot that I got to know everybody from every corner of the world. It was the greatest education of my life. I grew up with Jewish people, black people, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Argentineans, Colombians, Jamaicans, Koreans — they were all in my neighborhood. Sometimes it was tough, but a lot of times it was really a lot of fun. It was fun goofing on each other’s differences.
Aside from your father, has anyone you’ve mocked in your act ever gotten angry with you?
Everybody. [Laughs] How about everybody? Is that enough people for you? Every family holiday everyone jumps on me. You know, we’ll eat, we’ll giggle and laugh and dance a bit, and then all of a sudden after a few drinks everybody turns on me. “John, why did you do that to us? What makes you think that you’re the only one? Everybody looks at us … yadda yadda yadda.” And then I have to buy them big Christmas presents. Even family has a price.
How long does it usually take to accumulate material for your live performances?
It takes about two years at least, if not more. Stuff is in my head and I write down a lot of little anecdotes. Then eventually I have a whole mess of anecdotes and a theme and a story and I start outlining. And then I write like a maniac for weeks and months until I have what I consider a play.
You’ve carved out quite a niche for yourself doing voice-overs in animated movies. Do you get the same satisfaction playing Sid the Sloth as you doing playing Benny Blanco or Toulouse-Lautrec?
Oh, it’s such a different thing, man. It’s hard to compare. There is a great joy in finding a voice that really makes the creature come to life, that it’s not just you, but it’s this creature, it’s this “other.” That I love. When I saw “Ice Age” put together, I was like, “Wow, the choice really worked. I really was able to make it come to life.” Because you shoot it all by yourself in a room without visuals … you really have to make that sentence jump out of the page. You have to really sell the physicality. I worked my ass off, ’cause I love animation so much. Mel Blanc to me was like the Brando of animators.
From “Summer of Sam” to “Doctor Dolittle” to “Romeo + Juliet,” your movie choices have been all over the creative map. What influences your decision to take on certain roles? Is there anything specific you look for in a character?
I guess my modus operandi was always to do things as far away and different from me as possible. That’s why I did Toulouse-Lautrec, “Wong Foo,” “Spawn.” I would just look for roles that I felt had some kind of dramatic arc, some kind of change. You can’t just do a character just ’cause it’s interesting. That’s not enough for me, anyway. Now, my new modus operandi is to try to do things that are closer to me and see what that feels like.
If you had the power to wipe one film off your résumé, what would it be?
[Laughs] Wow … OK … yeah … that’s a tough one. God — there’s a few of them. See, there’s not just one. I would say “Super Mario Bros.,” but kids really love that movie, so I feel bad that I’m hurting their feelings. I can’t pick that one.
So we’ll go with a runner-up then.
“Pyromaniacs.” [Laughs] That movie should’ve been really funny and it wasn’t.
Does that happen often?
Yup — that happens many times, my brother. [Laughs] You get told one thing at the meeting. At the first interview at dinner, everybody’s charming, drinking Chablis, a little martini, and we’re all gonna be great friends. And you get on the set and it’s a different story.
At this stage in your career, is a show like “Sexaholix” as important for you as your live shows used to be?
It is — in terms of my art, my craft. It sharpens up what I need to say, sharpens up my writing skills. Theater is like the Olympics of acting. Film is easy compared to theater. It tests who real actors are because you don’t have help from editing or from directors. You gotta just give it everything you got and commit to it. [Theater] is where you learn how to tell a story, where you learn that you don’t need to plan your movements. Because in theater, everything can go wrong. You have to be improvisational and stay loose.
After you started making a name for yourself in movies, did you ever find yourself getting lazy when it came to focusing on your live act?
Not lazy — I just didn’t do it. [Laughs] I don’t do it until I have material, so I don’t perform. I just do my movies and when I’ve had enough of that and I feel that Hollywood has sucked the living soul out of me, then I go back to theater, which is my gasoline, my fuel. It really feeds me.