3:10 p.m., April 29, 2009----John Leguizamo, a Colombian-American actor and producer, brought his raucous brand of humor and straight-forward sincerity to the University of Delaware Tuesday night, performing in the Trabant University Center and speaking about the struggles of a Latino actor trying to break into a non-Latino industry.
His talk was titled, “A Work in Progress (don't hate).”
Leguizamo was born in Bogotá and emigrated to the United States with his family when he was four. He was raised in Jackson Heights in Queens, N.Y., and got his start performing comedy routines on New York's IRT No. 7 train, eventually working his way up to study with noted acting teacher Lee Strasburg.
“He taught Brando, he taught Pacino, he taught James Dean, and here I was in his class pioneering. I was the only Latin man for miles,” Leguizamo said.
Leguizamo explained that they did a sense memory exercise where the students had to recall something painful from their childhood.
“I picked my dog being run over by a car, and you got to open up your emotions, so I'm faking it, and Strasburg comes up and says, 'Stop faking it. Come on, I know who you are, get into it. Bark, be the dog,' and so I bit him. And those were Strasburg's last words to me because he died that night.” Leguizamo went on to joke, “Now, I'm not saying I have powers like Carrie but just watch out.”
Leguizamo explained, “I wasn't born a natural actor so I studied until I became natural.”
Leguizamo then talked about his experiences with the First Amendment Comedy Troupe -- “You knew it was performance art because the cast outnumbered the audience” -- and with the New York Public Theatre, where his performance of Puck in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was called “feckless” by The New York Times. “Look it up,” Leguizamo said of the term. “I had to.”
He then spoke about his transition from stage acting to television acting.
“My problem was that I was really arrogant because I was a theatre actor. I was going to be an artist and I thought I was an incredible actor so TV was really painful for me,” he said.
Leguizamo said that in the 1980s, there wasn't much work available for Latino actors.
“The '80s was different, too, because they didn't want to hear from Latin actors,” he said. “All they wanted Latin actors for was to be drug dealers, gangsters, murderers or janitors. And it'd always be the same guys that auditioned. It'd be myself, Benicio del Toro, Benjamin Bratt and Esai Morales. And if it was for a gangster part, we all be in chains and leather jackets and all be like, 'What's up G? What's up dog?' And if it was for a janitor we'd all be like, “Hello, how you doing, how you doing? Can't complain, can't complain.'”
Leguizamo went on to talk about his experience acting on the show Miami Vice, or as he liked to call it, “The Latin exploitation TV series.”
“Miami Vice lowered the unemployment rate for Latin people in the country because we were a different despicable villain in every episode. So all of us were making money denigrating our race. It was incredible.”
After playing a Colombian mafia prince on the show, Leguizamo went on to act in movies alongside Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox in the film Casualties of War, and he explained his experience getting slapped by Penn.
“Sean doesn't believe in stage combat because he's too method for that, so he was slapping me for real and we're getting to the 13th take and my face is swelling up,” Leguizamo said. Eventually, Leguizamo slapped Penn first and quipped, “They closed the set on me, but I know Sean respected me for that.”
Leguizamo also entertained the audience when speaking about his on-the-set confrontations with actors such as Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell and Patrick Swayze, and he had the audience in stitches when explaining his encounter with Steven Segal on the set of the movie Executive Decision.
“He charged at me like a white rhino,” Leguizamo said about his altercation with Segal.
A recurring theme throughout Leguizamo's talk was how depression helps fuel his creativity.
“When I'm depressed I sleep too much, I drink too much coffee and then I can't sleep at all,” was a mantra repeated throughout the night, with Leguizamo using the line before explaining how he used the depression to write his one-man shows Mambo Mouth, Spic-O-Rama, Freak and Sexaholix: A Love Story.
“I understood that battling is when I am at my happiest. When I'm unhappy, I'm very happy,” said Leguizamo.
Whether it be about his family life -- “My father was like my Darth Vader” -- or his some of his career missteps -- “I turned down Philadelphia for Super Mario Brothers” -- Leguizamo's candor made it seem like he was speaking to a small group of friends he had known for years and not the crowded University of Delaware community packed into the Trabant Multipurpose Rooms.
The night was presented by HOLA, a Latino and multicultural student organization at the University of Delaware dedicated to promoting awareness and education of Latino culture to the campus community and co-sponsored by the Latino Heritage Office, Student Centers Programming Advisory Board, Resident Student Association, StUDent Government Association, Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, and the Latino and Multiethnic Greek Council.
Article by Adam Thomas
Photos by Duane Perry