John Leguizamo, the hyperkinetic actor, dancer, comedian, mime, tragedian, and impressionist, warns his audience at the start of Ghetto Klown that they're about to witness a "cautionary tale."
No question, Leguizamo's latest one-man show, which debuts March 22 on HBO, brims with examples of misguided behavior: Do not eat a heaping plate of fried grasshoppers, get drunk, then vomit the next morning on your co-star while filming To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Do not try to upstage Al Pacino in Carlito's Way without expecting to be chewed out by the legendary actor. And do not make fun of family members in autobiographically inspired one man shows unless you're prepared to deal with lawsuits filed by your own parents.
While Leguizamo gets plenty of comedic mileage out of catastrophes both professional and personal, Ghetto Klown also goes deep at times, revealing a savvy raconteur who, in his fifth on-stage memoir, has figured out how to compress 49 years of life experience into a tight, two-hour story that keeps audiences wondering what's going to happen next.
Leguizamo spoke to us about using depression as the gateway to creative rebirth, the "Haiku effect," and other tools for shaping story points from the raw stuff of life.
Ghetto Klown plays Leguizamo's neurotic tics for laughs but the actor says he's not really kidding about the depression that for him precedes each burst of creative energy. "It's true! Every time I've had one of those deep paralyzing kind of shut-in depressions, it makes me want to prove something. Bottoming out helps me focus. I guess it's nature or my inner self telling me I need to deal with certain things, to grieve. When I surrender to the depression, there's like a re-birth and I'm ready to create something."
Leguizamo repeatedly showcases his ability to condense life-changing milestones into fast-paced vignettes capped by concise punchlines, as when he reenacts being slapped in the face 13 takes in a row by Sean Penn in 1989 movie Casualties of War. Finally, director Brian DePalma stopped the cameras, walked over to the actors and solicitously whispered to his star: "Sean, how's your hand?"
Besides getting a big laugh, the episode succinctly speaks volumes about Hollywood power structures. "I call it the haiku factor," says Leguizamo. "The shorter you can get things, the more economical you can make it—either verbally, visually, or emotionally—the tighter, the more condensed. There's beauty in that. That's why it took me eight years to whittle things down and find the important beats."
Ghetto Klown traces Leguizamo's evolution from a cocky raw talent blessed with an inborn gift for mimicry into a sophisticated artist. He credits the deepening of his creative process to a succession of mentors who challenged him to push past the crowd-pleasing tricks he'd mastered during his youth on the streets of Queens, New York. "Until somebody taps you on the shoulder and says, 'You can do this,' it's very difficult to move forward," he notes. "I do believe in mentors, so in this show, I tip my hat to them. A mentor gives you the permission, the self-love you need to get to the next level."
"You can't be a great at what you do and not study," says Leguizamo. "A lot of actors just go out there and have a lot of personality, which gets them to a certain place but it isn't the real goods."
Sent to Manhattan acting coach Sylvia Leigh by an alert high school teacher, Leguizamo learned to enunciate by repeating her tongue-twisting drill, "The lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue."
Next came legendary Method Acting guru Lee Strasberg (Robert DeNiro, Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman). He wasn't fooled when Leguizamo brought the rest of his acting class to tears with a showy but shallow "breakdown" scene. Scolded by Strasberg for faking it, Leguizamo forced himself to go deeper.
"Lee Strasberg was very demanding," he says. "I was emotionally constipated. I had to ask myself, 'What do I have to do to be as open and free so I can access that emotion. What is blocking those paths?'" As an actor and a storyteller, he says, "You have to do deep analysis of yourself and at the same time you have to be an observer of human behavior."
Transforming the sprawl of an entire lifetime into a cohesive narrative arc proved to be Leguizamo's biggest challenge. "How do you tell your personal story in two hours? What are the moments that count so it doesn't sound like a resume or laundry list of successes, or else, that you're just being bitter?" he muses. "It took eight years to figure out the important moments because to fit your whole life into a three-act structure, you have to do a lot of soul-searching."
From a technical standpoint, Leguizamo says, "You have to set up 'call backs' that give the story unifying force, you need inciting moments that propel you into the second act and then for third act you have to wrap everything up, pay it all off and send everybody home."
Leguizamo's fractious relationship with a perpetually disapproving father, his 30-year friendship with street pal "Ray Ray," a common sense grandpa, recurring depressions and the quest for his ideal woman provided universally relatable throughlines in Ghetto Klown. He says, "The more specific you are about the events in your life, the more universal they are. People don't relate to generic. Early on I learned when you get very detailed about certain events, they really resonate."
While autobiographically based work depends on an intensely personal point of view, Leguizamo relies on outside perspective to sharpen his story. "You need to be isolated at the beginning, but then you have to go out and perfect the piece to make sure the statement you're trying to make is clear." For Ghetto Klown, director Fisher Stevens provided an objective view of the material. "Fisher's known all my girlfriends, he's funny and insightful and we even share a therapist—not at the same time; I'm cheap but not that cheap—and he helps me get that objective eye," Leguizamo says. "You need some person who's able to tell you, 'That may be interesting to you but it's not really interesting to our story.'"
Audiences also help fine-tune the narrative, Leguizamo says. "I like to do Q and As because I believe audiences have a collective intelligence. If I sense something didn't work or needs tweaking, I'll grill the audience after the show. I want that feedback but not to please the audience. I'm not there to please the audience. I'm there to make the story as tight and exciting and provocative as it can be."
Leguizamo found out the hard way that memoir-centric narratives can land a storyteller in hot water legally. "I have lawyers now who read my material very closely because I've had lots of lawsuit threats," he says. After getting sued for his first one-man show, Mambo Mouth, he added, "You learn very quickly that if you leave anything in there that's dubious or just opinion, then you're liable for a lawsuit. You have to make sure everything is meticulous to protect yourself. Even if something is really funny, if it's just my opinion, I have to take it out."
Ghetto Klown gains its dramatic heft from a succession of betrayals, disappointments and anxieties. From a storytelling standpoint, Leguizamo observes, it's all good. "The beautiful thing I've learned about being an artist is that the ugliest things in life, the worst experiences—we see beauty in it. That's what an artist does. We see beauty in the darkest parts of human nature. You can use everything that happens to you, so nothing becomes really bad, ever. It's always fodder for creativity. That's the great gift you get from being an artist."