Interview with John Leguizamo

John Leguizamo—Latin History for Morons
Director: Tony Taccone
Berkeley Rep
Jul. 1-August 14, 2016

Toba Singer: What has been the evolution of your career? Did you welcome the chance to move out of the comedy club circuit to theater, film, and TV?

John Leguizamo: I didn’t do much time in comedy clubs: I did my initial work in performance arts theaters. I found I couldn’t create or tell a complex story when people were sitting around drinking, getting loud, and where there is no intellectual space. But there is something about the comedy club atmosphere that challenges you: the aggressive energy of the audience. They want to be felt and seen by you. They want immediacy from you; want you to continuously feed them. To do this show, I had take it into a different kind of venue that would allow me to go quieter or be more vulnerable. So we did New York’s Public Theater, utilizing the incredible talent of its artistic director and dramaturg, Oskar Eustis, continuator of the pioneering work of Joe Papp. He’s done “Fun Home,” “Hamilton,” and is brilliant!

TS: The show’s title, “Latin History for Morons,” places the burden of ignorance on the audience. Why did you choose to impeach those in the room, there to be educated, rather than the race and class-biased education system, as Malcolm X and Howard Zinn did?

JL: Zinn’s book, “A People’s History of the United States,” is the book I should have had in high school. Zinn was a revolutionary, committed to presenting what really happened, the hidden history we have been deprived of, but which shaped who we are. How can you not be a victim of this system, run by the big corporations? How do you get what you need out of it? How do you help your kid in high school when the resources aren’t there?

TS: Is multiculturalism a viable remedy for the deficits and wrongdoing in our education system? Doesn’t it try to “make the problem just go away,” by conveniently dissolving the particular into the general?

JL: My show asks society to tell me the truth. Latin people have participated in every war from the American Revolution, where Cuban women fought, to the present, where we are the majority of combatants. We fought in the Civil War, the French and Indian War, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, two world wars, in Korea, Vietnam, as well as the Gulf War. We get no credit, no literature refers to our participation, and you don’t see it on TV. When we’ve been made invisible, is it surprising that Latinos have the highest high school dropout rates? So, I am not asking for “multiculturalism.” I am asking that our contribution be present in the recorded history of this continent, and that it be taught in the schools.

TS: Will there be a sequel, something like “Latin History II: Fighters, not Morons” to tell the stories of Pedro Albízu Campos, Lolita LeBrón, or Oscar López, who has been in prison for so long? Imagine a sequel where we learn the origin of Tupac Shakur’s name—his father having been Latino—and about the contributions of the many who fought back successfully against their oppressors?

JL: Our heritage is a feudal system, and so many of us are still tied to the land, where you owe the landlord, and you are paid on the basis of what you produce or how much of the crop you pick, and what of that they think they can get away with paying you until you show them otherwise. We did not have enough time in ninety minutes to keep all these things in. I would have liked to have included the contributions of Che Guevara, Gabriel García Márquez, Latinos who discovered important disease cures, the list goes on and on, but as of now, no, there is no plan to do a sequel. Right now I am working on a project with Ben De Jesus [who is in the room filming our interview] of Diamante Pictures, and the American Masters documentary series, and who filmed my “Tales from a Ghetto Klown.”

TS: I have been watching your character, Ozzie DelVecchio, on “Bloodline.” Though the majority of Bloodline characters are impressive for the complexity written into them, it seems like they’ve left the heavy lifting to you to create complexity for Ozzie. What is his motivation and what does he ask of you as an actor?

JL: When the Bloodline people asked me to be part of the cast, they said, “We want you to do a scary, threatening, fearless character. I was down with that, but felt that Ozzie DelVecchio needed some complexities, and Todd Kessler, as a writer and director on the series and Daniel Zelman, and Glenn Kessler, as writers also, were great about it. Unlike in network TV, where the director is a hired gun with no decision-making power, Todd was able to take the time to talk out the character with me, and agreed that Ozzie is a very smart guy who channels his intelligence into the career he hadn’t dreamed he’d have, but the one life dealt him. Like any other worker, the longer he stayed in his line of work, the more skilled he became at it.

I have done a lot of research on the sociopath personality, and didn’t want him to come off as the profile I found in my investigations, because in many of them the amygdala has been damaged. So they are people without affect, no feelings for others. Whatever empathy they seem to have is fake. They are incapable of genuine love; if they love, it is narcissistic and controlling. Ozzie is not like that. He does have feelings of love for Eve, at the same time that he needs to be in control.

It’s interesting to create characters in which two contradictory emotions coexist, because this is how people are in life. Ozzie experiences himself as an angry, fearful and desperate man. Eve is a damaged woman. It could be that the damage that was done to each of them, each in its own way, is what brings them together.

TS: How do you feel about directing, compared to acting and writing?

JL: I’ve directed before, but I love acting so much more, and I love writing, especially if what I write ends up in the hands of today’s cable and Netflix directors, who, as the Bloodline directors do, work in an open and collaborative way. A lot in the TV network industry isn’t appealing to audiences, so it’s the golden age of cable and streaming. The Bloodline directors have direct input, and that’s when creativity happens. In cable and streaming, directors are taking huge moral and literary risks, and so content is king. “Bloodline” is going into season three, a testament to the wisdom of taking those risks.

TS: How did you prepare to write for the stage?

JL: First of all, I was drawn to the innovations in story telling that you can experiment with onstage: Whether the Rashomon two-characters-with-contradictory versions way, or the backward-forward narrative. I studied with Bob Mckee, read great books like John Yorke’s “Into the Woods,” about the five-act structure, was part of the lab at Sundance, where I developed the film “Fugly,”and got better and better at story telling. Theater saved me, and that’s where I got my real education, from Aeschylus and Euripides, to present-day playwrights. I think I was an autistic savant when it came to learning how to write for the theater.

John Leguizamo will be signing his book, “Ghetto Klown,” at Books Inc. in Berkeley on Friday, July 15, at 3:30 p.m.

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.