John Leguizamo is bringing his one-man play, “Ghetto Klown,” to the Fox Theater at Foxwoods Resort Casino on April 13.
The Colombian comedian started his journey to fame when he was a teenager when he called himself “the Ghetto Klown.”
In the 1970s, he was arrested while trying to perform standup on a NYC Subway, when he used to be, as he calls.
In an exclusive interview with NBC Connecticut, the star of such films as “Carlito's Way”, “To Wong Foo” and “Moulin Rouge” talks about the ups and downs of his life as a teenager in Jackson Heights in Queens, the inspiration for his latest solo show, his thoughts about Latinos and Obama and about his first lead movie role in Spanish, which he is filming in his native Colombia.
A “ghetto klown,” he said, is a person who grows up with nothing.
“This is the guy on the street, when we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have vacations, and we didn’t travel to Capri or anything or (the) Bahamas,” he said. “These are the guys that just make you have a blast. Just hung out on the corner and talk nonsense and just made everything seem like it was all right.”
Leguizamo’s play centers on what it’s like to live in a ghetto, but he said the ghettos of America look like castles compared to those in Colombia.
“Those horrible buildings there in Jackson Heights on 90th St and Denmen, I know about the ghetto over there yeah, but I didn’t grow up in that,” he said “And Colombia, I did go there and I went to the one in Medellin too, Las Comunas. I went to Las Invaciones. Yeah, I’ve been to them. It makes American projects look like castles, like fancy living,” he said.
In the United States, the drug dealers were in the neighborhood, but that was not his life.
“I went a whole different way,” he said. He said he was more of a nerd.
“I was more of a nerd and I got in trouble and stuff like that, so that’s what you’re going to see in the show. I went a different path even though my friends were hoodie and stuff,” he said. “That’s not that the way that I went thank goodness. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be where I am.”
Growing up, Leguizamo was a class clown and making people laugh is a personal trademark.
Accepting that inner clown was part of his formula to success.
“I mean it happened for me when I used to watch Richard Pryor and Spalding Gray when I was a little kid and I was depressed or I felt … like a misfit.,” he said. “Watching their stuff, and sharing their pain like that, made me feel so connected and so OK about myself.”
And now he is doing for others what they did for him and opening himself up, whether it’s on the big screen or on stage.
“I feel like that’s what I can do for people. They see what I go through and that it’s not all the glory that everybody thinks it is. It’s actually hard work and learning how to pick yourself up after failures or problems and that’s where the secret lies,” he said. “It’s not whether you succeed or fail; it’s how you keep picking yourself up and starting over again.”
When asked what good memories he keeps from his days in Jackson Heights, he brought up one you might not expect.
“Getting arrested on the subway when I commandeered -- I tried to do my standup my friend. My best friend talked me (in)to going on and kicking the conductors booth and I grabbed a mic and I started doing my jokes and I got arrested, handcuffed and everything and my mom had to bail me out!,” he said. “Also, I remember I got beat up a lot on the streets, but of course we were like the third Latin family in the neighborhood and there was a lot of white flight. I was getting beat up by girls, white guys and everybody, even my own people.”
He is a role model as a successful Latino and said the American Dream comes about from being in this together.
“We can make this place a better world by just treating each other with a little more respect, a little more sensitivity. There’s room for everybody and it’s so much better when it is a mix, a melting pot, it’s so much more exciting, so much more creative and fertile when it is a melting pot then when it’s not.”
Leguizamo said Hollywood is paying attention to Latino actors and Oscar Nominee Demian Bichir, who was born in Mexico, is one of his favorites.
“I love him love his performance on that film. And in movies or TV, it’s starting to pick up again, but we disappeared for a little while -- Latin and black people from the big screen -- because they weren’t taking any risks and they were just hiring the same people and it’s very white-centric,” Leguizamo said. “I think we have to make noise, Latin people have to make noise. They have to organize and make noise and complain because we are the highest movie goers, and we have a trillion-dollars in buying power in this country. … Latin people are the highest minority to see movies.”
With national elections coming up, he supports Democratic values rather than Republican.
“Well Republicans are not for us, I mean they have not shown any signs that they are for the Latin people,” he said. He said Republicans are making people Latin heritage scapegoats for immigration issues and the economy.
He has supported President Barack Obama and continues to do so.
“He wants that Latin vote. He’s definitely fixing the economy. He’s doing everything that the Republicans are always fighting against. He’s saving Social Security, that’s important to us. He’s making health care available to everybody, which is important for Latin people. He’s bringing back jobs. He’s for us. Republicans are not".
In addition to “Ghetto Klown,” his recent films are “One For the Money” and “Lincoln Lawyer,” He is also shooting a pilot for NBC, based on the British show, “Only Fools and Horses.”
He is also shooting a movie in Spanish, “El Paseo” with director Harold Trompetero. It will be shot in Colombia and it’s his first Spanish-speaking lead. Tickets for “Ghetto Known” are on sale now for $35, $50 and $65. The show is only for mature audiences.