John Leguizamo is a household name in the entertainment industry, but even he still encounters hurdles. The 57-year-old Colombian-born multifaceted actor has been entertaining audiences since the 1980s, starting his career as a stand-up comic in New York, before making a name for himself in movies, TV and theater. But, as a Latino trying to break into the industry, his road to Hollywood was anything but easy.
"That's what I wanted to do with my work. I wanted to reach people who are like me, kids that were like me, that felt unseen or unwanted, that [felt like] you didn't matter. You didn't count," the Romeo + Juliet actor tells Seen host Nick Barili about his early days starting in the industry. "Because you have to fight that every day, that sense of, 'I can't do this. This place is not geared for me.' So, I wanted to shake that up and go, 'Yes, you can. Every one of us can.'"
I wanted to reach people who are like me, kids that were like me, that felt unseen or unwanted.
Leguizamo, who grew up in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, New York, calls his younger self "the poster child for a troubled kid." He credits several people for encouraging him to become an entertainer, including a friend named Indio who he would do open mic nights on the subway with, and a high school teacher who told him he should become a comedian.
"'Why don't you take your whatever it is that you do and become a comedian?'" Leguizamo remembers being told. "So it was like the first person that said, 'Oh, I could maybe do something with this.' And he was a mentor. When you come from the neighborhoods and we come from, you need somebody outside of you to tell you that you can, that you're worthy. So I needed that several times."
Real life set in when he was working at a KFC to pay for his acting classes while he was still getting an education. Knowing that he wanted much more, se puso las pilas, meaning he was determined to "fix my life." He first attended CW Post College, before transferring to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Something, however, felt off to him. While attending the prestigious acting school, he gradually became fully aware of his disadvantages as a Latino.
"Here I am in NYU, an A student. I had fixed my accent a lot by this point. And all the white kids in my class were going to five auditions a day. I was going to one every five months and I was like, 'Wait a minute, I'm working as hard as they are. I got better grades,'" he recalls. "And then I realized, 'Oh my god, I don't have the same opportunities as they have.' And I realized that it wasn't an equal playing field. It just was never going to be. And it disillusions you."
He continues, "You're a young man, and you realize, 'Oh my god, life is not fair.' Just because of how I look, how I sound, my economic class that I come from, it's just not a fair playing field. No matter how talented you are, it doesn't matter. But I thought talent was the great equalizer."
When he did get the chance to audition, it would be for the stereotypical roles of drug dealers, murderers or service workers. He portrayed a terrorist in Die Hard 2, a robber in Regarding Henry, and several other side characters in other projects, including an alley boy in Out of Justice. Unsatisfied with the roles that were available to him, Leguizamo opted to find other avenues to satisfy his creative juices; improv and theater.
"Working towards Hollywood, which was really 'Hollywouldn't,' was not going to be the place," he reflects. "So I tried to find other ways, other avenues, and I started finding theater, off-Broadway theater and performance art. Performance art was the place that I found my freedom… Writing became my way for me as an artist to be my full self and how I saw myself. Not how Hollywood or network TV saw me."
He finally gained recognition for the role of Luigi Mario in the 1993 video game adaptation Super Mario Bros. The film wasn't a commercial or critical success, but it led to more prominent roles including Benny Blanco in Carlito's Way. Two years later, he'd go on to star in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), which led to his first Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
"How do you create a Latin star in America when the roles are one-dimensional and not worthy of awards?" Leguizamo questions. "The ugly question is, why are Latin people not succeeding? What's the ugly question? Are we not smart enough? Not talented enough? Not good-looking enough? Not hardworking enough? No, none of those stereotypes and racist ideas because nobody tries harder with less access."
It's been reported that Latinxs and Hispanics -- who make up nearly 1 in 5 of the U.S. population -- are the biggest moviegoers, yet the screen does not reflect the numbers. Last year, USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative looked at 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019. The results? Seven percent of films from 2019 featured a lead/co-lead Hispanic/Latino actor, with 3.5 percent of leads/co-leads who are Hispanic/Latino across the 13 years. Hispanic/Latina girls/women only made up 1.9 percent of all leads/co-leads across 1,300 films.
Black Lives Matter was a huge awakening for America, a reboot for America to look at themselves and see what's going on.
"So not only are we invisible, but when we are seen, it's a negative portrayal," Leguizamo states. "Things are improving. I think COVID made us really look at ourselves in America. Black Lives Matter was a huge awakening for America, a reboot for America to look at themselves and see what's going on. I think everybody's trying to do the right thing and hire many more people of color. What I want to see, I want to see 20 percent of the roles in front of the camera and the crew. I'm not asking for extra. I just want what's due to us."
Leguizamo has been a part of it all, creating one-man shows like Freak on Broadway, having it air on HBO, and winning an Emmy. He'a also landed an Obie Award for Mambo Mouth, and a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award for his contributions to the stage. "But never getting my movies done," he relays, adding that he's been pitching stories for 30 years, thinking his writing falls short because they never got green-lit.
The Moulin Rouge actor admits to being told by studio executives that "Latin people don't want to see Latin people." And when he directed Critical Thinking, a drama released in 2020 based on the true story of the Miami Jackson High School chess team that became the first inner city team to win the U.S. National Chess Championship, someone told him, "Latin people don't want to see feel-good movies."
"There is an audience and a hunger. So, I know that exists regardless of what a studio head or network says to me anymore," he states, going on to explain how there are more liberties and opportunities in theater, touching on Hamilton's success.
With experience comes thick skin and confidence in one's voice. "I got scars on my head from hitting that glass ceiling. Luckily, I'm hard-headed so I don't really feel it," he jokes. The way to handle hardships, he advises, is by speaking one's truth.
"It's interesting because the rule is, you become a celebrity, you get a set amount of success, you don't talk about your problems. You don't talk about the difficulties. You act like, ‘Oh, it was a magic carpet ride,’ you know," he shares. "I feel like it's really important to talk about all the problems and all the difficulties, especially if you're a person of color – and especially if you're Latinx. There's a lot of the people struggling, and we need to change things."
The Encanto star adds that his son, Lucas, helped him speak out against injustices. In an attempt to help his son from being bullied, he created Latin History for Morons, to give him information about Latin history "to strengthen him, to arm him." But what he found was that there was no mention of Latinxs contributions.
"It's like we didn't exist," he reflects. "So I started doing that research and learning so much. And the crazy thing was I was the one that was healing. I was the one that was being empowered. And then I realized, Oh my god, I can do this for the 70 million Latinos in America. I can do this maybe for the 500 million speakers in the world through this work."
Spike Lee is another person who showed him how to speak out, even if it leads to consequences, like losing followers and being sent hateful messages on social media. Leguizamo is also fully aware that he "benefitted from being light-skinned" in the industry. He understands that there is still colorism within Latin culture, "but there's colorism in Hollywood too."
"I stayed out of the sun so I could work," he admits. "I definitely would not go in the sun for years. It was a conscious thing because I could work. And all the Latinos that made it so far, a lot of them were all light-skinned. What happened to all the Afro-Latinos and the majority of indigenous Latinos? They don't get a shot, you know. So, there's a lot of things we got to deal with in Hollywood, and we got to fix, and we got to speak out and we got to speak up."
And creating change starts with one person who can inspire others. His next move, to run for Governor of the Academy. "You have to step up and make a change and change it from within," he expresses. "I feel like if you've achieved a certain amount of success, it's your duty to give back."
"You can't be an ostrich and stick your head in the sand and pretend it's not happening, not existing. I don't," he says. "I'm just too socially conscious, and I feel like I had to fight to get here, and I've earned the scars and the wounds, and I want to talk about how I had to fight to get here."
"I don't want any kid to go through what I went through. I don't want any Latin kid to go through what I went through. I don't want any white kid, Black kid, Asian kid [to go through what I went through]," he adds.
And with that, Leguizamo says he has "so much" left to accomplish and wants to help the next generation "get their work done, made, produced."
"There's so much great talent out there. I want to be that studio exec that gets their material and their product green-lit," he expresses, adding that he's doing it "pa' la cultura."