"I love when my work can be really dark and sad and really hilarious, when I hit all those notes. And I think I'm getting there," said actor/comedian John Leguizamo of his latest one-man show, Sexaholix… a love story, opening at the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown L.A. on Mar. 12.
Sexaholix first opened on Broadway in December 2001, where it had a very healthy—and lucrative—run, making Leguizamo one of Broadway's all-time best-paid stars. The show, adapted for the screen under the direction of Marty Callner, also aired on HBO in 2002. But even with all that under his belt, at the time of this interview, Leguizamo was hard at work in rehearsals in New York to take the West Coast run of Sexaholix, his fourth solo project, further artistically. Leguizamo explained that he feels the show "never hit its total stride."
"It never got to the perfect place I wanted it to," he said. "And now that I have a little time, I made it a little darker, a little more painful." As an artist, Leguizamo seems to find joy in constantly challenging himself and to find satisfaction in his work by trying to "find a little more of the nastiness in life, the grit of life."
Leguizamo confessed that, initially, he didn't intend Sexaholix to be so painful. He said he "just wanted to create and tell these stories, like Freak," the 1998 autobiographical one-man show that played on Broadway for two years, because he had "never seen any Broadway shows by somebody about themselves." Having written and performed one-man plays since the '80s, Leguizamo claims his rightful place as an innovator in the solo-show genre, specifically in his move away from the Begosian brand of multiple-character vignettes and toward a true confessional form based on the performer's personality and life story.
Freak indeed broke new ground in terms of personal revelation. But whereas Freak told Leguizamo's life story up until he was 16 years old, Sexaholix incorporates stories from throughout his entire life. Specifically, the show came from Leguizamo's life-long desire to do a piece about relationships. He took a couple of "relationship things" he wrote down in diaries and turned them into scenes, "and pretty soon I strung them together." Not long after, the play took on a life of its own because, as the actor explained, "Plays, when you write them, kind of speak to you and tell you what they want to say. You can't really control it as much as you think you can."
As for the title, said Leguizamo, "It represented my growth from a young man to a man having kids." Sexaholix is the teen gang he and his friends started in high school after they couldn't get into the cool gangs. "And it was love, and sex—because it's a fine line between love and sex… and that's why Sexaholix was great because it was all about the drive, the women, and career, and everything together, just like an addiction of sorts," the actor enthused in his characteristic machine-gun delivery.
Never at a loss for words, and with the familiarity of an old friend, Leguizamo spoke candidly about himself during our interview. And despite being on the receiving end of a telephone 3,000 miles away, I felt I was sitting front-row watching him perform live. His high energy, confidence, and charisma came across loud and clear. Like his shows, this performer is always entertaining: moving and touching one minute, hilarious the next. He recounted several anecdotes with great embellishment, bringing everything to life, injecting them with humor: like the time he lost his voice—squeaks and all—for a few seconds onstage during the run of Freak on Broadway; he and his girlfriend had to learn to sign language in order to communicate because he was on vocal rest for about a year after that. He even impersonated the characters he was describing, like the one time Lee Strasberg critiqued his scene in a master acting class. Strasberg died that night and Leguizamo admitted, "I always felt it was me, because then I studied with Herbert Berghof and he passed away, too."
It is this ability to turn painful situations into humorous ones and to laugh at himself that makes Leguizamo so endearing and human, and enables his audiences to relate to him so well. And it's the immediacy of this human contact that makes stage work so rewarding for the actor. "There's nothing like it," he said. "The audience is right there. They scream when you make them feel something. And if you don't make them feel something, they won't respond. You'll know that you sucked at that moment. It keeps you real."
It seems that transforming real life into art has been the driving force behind Leguizamo's success. He credits acting with having "saved" him. The Queens, N.Y., native was 17 years old when he fell in love with it, after being "a real troubled guy." Acting helped him focus his energy in a more positive way instead of "being so self-sabotaging."
Although he has managed to achieve the kind of success in film and onstage most people only dream about, he hasn't forgotten the challenging nature of the acting business and advises up-and-coming actors to never quit. Said Leguizamo, "It's good to have side jobs to fall back on because the acting business is a real weird business. It goes up and down. But you should always pursue your dream and never give it up. If you have a passion for it, just do it because you love it."
Keeping It Fresh
As with his life, Leguizamo approaches every role he takes on with great passion, and he particularly likes going places he's never been. His long, diverse list of film credits (such as painter Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge, drag queen Chi-Chi in To Wong Foo, tough-guy Tybalt in Romeo + Juliet, diabolical villain Clown in Spawn, etc.) is a testament to that. When considering a new role, he said, "I'm always trying to do something I've never done before. That's usually when I really go for it. It's always like you gotta do something to shock you, to rock your world. It keeps you honest that way."
His most recent ventures into film include Empire, which he also produced, and in which he plays a gang lord. It's something he wanted to do solely "because no Latin guy had ever been the lead in a gangster movie." (Born in Bogota, Colombia, Leguizamo is half Colombian, half Puerto Rican.) He also stars in the soon-to-be-released Spun, in which he plays Spider Mike, a high-strung, ultra-paranoid crystal meth dealer.
Leguizamo also recently tried his hand at directing, and it seems to have inspired a new love in the actor. "I did this movie for HBO [Infamous], and it came out pretty amazing. I'm pretty pleased, so we'll see." Eventually, he said, "I think I want to be like Woody Allen, directing myself in my own projects."
When asked if there was anything he'd still like to try, Leguizamo let out a big laugh, then quickly said, "Yeah, I'd like to do a sci-fi thing, that's what I'd like to do. That'd be fun. Like live action/animation together, something crazy like that."
Given a little time, I have no doubt Leguizamo will do something just that crazy, and much, much more. BSW