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John Leguizamo speaks the truth about his life in 'Ghetto Klown'

Benny Blanco from the Bronx. The Violator. Sid the Sloth. Mr. Wolf. These are the many faces and voices of John Leguizamo. However, it was his hit one-man show entitled “Mambo Mouth” playing different Latino characters, that garnered him his first taste of success. Three HBO comedy specials and several film roles later, Leguizamo takes the stage once again for his fifth comedy special, “Ghetto Klown,” which airs tonight on HBO at 10 p.m. With this show, he talks about the highs and lows of his professional and personal life. I had the chance to speak with Leguizamo when he premiered "Ghetto Klown" at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach this past Tuesday as he talked about the original production of the show, collaborating with director Fisher Stevens and the different reactions “Ghetto Klown” received when he toured it in two different countries.

"Ghetto Klown" Miami premiere -slide0
Steve Mesa
John Leguizamo takes the stage at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach as he premieres his fifth comedy special, "Ghetto Klown."
Steve Mesa

How does the process go in terms of getting ready to get material from your life to put in your show?

John Leguizamo: The process is that I do a quick Wikipedia search on my childhood so I catch up on people who knew me or forgotten me. I did that quickly and then I get to the important thing, which is what triggered me to want to be a comedian, an artist, a performer. From there on, I also look some of the mentors who saved me and some of the people who have pushed me in the right track. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with a lot of problems and issues, giving me lots to draw from. In the one-man show, you got to know the culprit in your own undoing. That’s the biggest secret and recipe for this.

Seeing that the comedy special is an hour and a half, was the stage production longer than that?

Leguizamo: It was an hour and fifty minutes.

In picking what goes in the TV special, do you talk to (director) Fisher Stevens and make suggestions on what to keep or not keep?

Leguizamo: You need somebody like Fisher. Fisher is my objective eye. He has known forever. He knows everything about my life. He is my friend. He’s an actor and he’s also a great director. We collaborated a lot. The thing of it was after I did Broadway, I toured with it some more. I went to London, than I went to Colombia where I translated it into Spanish. That process got more and more compressed so I think shaved ten minutes of from Broadway. For the HBO thing, I got rid of certain things and it made the show even better. It’s a tighter show. I think that is where the magic is. The tighter you get it, the better the show it is.

When you tour with a show like “Ghetto Klown,” was there any different crowd reactions from the jokes you told that you didn’t expect?

Leguizamo: In Texas, I went to Austin, Houston, McAllen, Corpus Christi. In California, I went to Sacramento and San Francisco. I went to those places to see how they vibe and to see if any of my New York references too New Yorky and stuff like that. They all dug it in Texas. They dug it in Miami. They dug it in La Jolla Playhouse. The difference was when I went to Canada and England. Canadians are so polite that they do not want to laugh so they were very quiet. I didn’t know if they didn’t get it, but they stood up at the end so I knew they liked it. Otherwise, I would have thought I was alone. In England, they are felt uncomfortable with the subject matter, which was interesting.

When you were on stage in Canada and England, was there a point during the production where you were you felt like you were in trouble?

Leguizamo: In Canada, I panicked even though I was warned by a lot of Canadian comedians.

At least you got a warning.

Leguizamo: I did get a warning and I was also warned about England as well, but it still doesn’t prepare you for the amount of silence. I’m used to hollering and hooting and the audience stomping their feet and then all of sudden, you hear nothing but crickets. I was like, “Oh my god! I am all alone.” It was basically like a rehearsal. I just had to go and be in the show for myself. In London, it was different. They were there with me, but they were judgment me there.

You did “Freak” in 1998 with Spike Lee and now, you have “Ghetto Klown,” which you did with Fisher. Was there a difference between Spike and Fisher in terms of how they approached those projects?

Leguizamo: Absolutely. When Spike and I decided to do “Freak” together, we talked about making it like “Woodstock,” to do it like a documentary and let the mistakes live and let it feel less polished. With Fisher, we were like “Let’s not make a comedy special. Let’s show an artist at work.” That’s what we tried to do. We had an amazing crew here and we were trying to capture an artist at work. I had an A-list of such talented people working with me like Aaron Gonzalez, who started off as my assistant and then became the visual expert for the show.

You did “Ghetto Klown” ten years after doing “Sexaholic…A Love Story.” Were you ever nervous when you were doing the show on Broadway or do you get more comfortable once you did the tour production for your show?

Leguizamo: I was nervous early on in the run when I was doing these unknown, small-unannounced venues because I haven’t read it out loud and here I was doing it for a bunch of strangers, which is the way I rather do it instead of doing it in front of people I know. It was nerve wrecking because I didn’t know how they were going to react. I didn’t if it was going to combustible or if it was going to make me quit or if I was going to be too embarrassed about it. I didn’t know. I went through the first run and I was like, “You know…it needs work.” There was a lot of personal stuff, but they dug it and it gave me the confidence to keep going.

Recently, you went to South By Southwest with your next movie, “Chef.” A couple of days ago, you made an appearance at the Miami International Film Festival.

Leguizamo: I love the Miami International Film Festival.

Having done a ton of film festival appearances, what kind of vibe do you get whenever you get the chance to these film festivals or does it depend on the city you are in?

Leguizamo: It is all incredibly different. Cannes is very sophisticated and very international. It’s a film festival on steroids. It’s grand…very tough to get into…very intellectual…and it’s an incredible to get into a festival like that because they will walk out of your movies or they will slam chairs on their way out. It’s a high-stakes film festival. Sundance is more of an arty scene and South by Southwest is much more hipster. Telluride is much more about filmmakers and Miami Film Festival is about Latin intellectuals. It feels like I am surrounded with my smartest family members because everyone is bright and worldly.

“Chef” was shot in Miami last year. The last time you filmed a movie down here was in 1996 for “The Pest”? Was shooting last year in Miami different compared to when you did “The Pest” 18 years ago?

Leguizamo: Miami use to be a smaller city back when I did “The Pest.” There was less people and less traffic. It was much quieter and easier to shoot back in those days. Now, it is a little trickier to get quiet or to shut down a street. It’s not as easy as it use to be. It is still fun and a blast to shoot in Miami, but now, the city is a major metropolis.

What changed in your life from the time you did “Sexaholic” to doing “Ghetto Klown”?

Leguizamo: The journey really started when I did “Mambo Mouth.” It’s interesting because my journey started far away from me, talking about how I knew neighborhood people, then it became an anonymous Latin family who owned a laundromat and then I started some of my personal stuff during my teen years with “Freak” and then my romances, my sexual hang-ups and my sexual failures with “Sexaholics.” With “Ghetto Klown,” I do longer scenes here, play more characters talking to each other and I started doing intimidations. It all lead to this moment…to be much more raw and to be much more personal.

A couple of years ago, PBS aired “Tales from a Ghetto Klown.” They shot it around the time you were getting ready to go back on Broadway. As you were trying to get the show together and having cameras following you around, were there times where it was too much with you?

Leguizamo: Yeah. I am a performer and I am use to having cameras around, but when I am creating, it’s different. I don’t want to be thinking about anything but my process. It was daunting to let them in that much, but there were times where I had to tell them to go away. I just couldn’t divide my mind into two things and I was about to open on Broadway so I was like, “You have to leave me alone because I can’t focus because I know you’re watching me. I feel like I am being watch and I can’t really pretend you’re not there because you are there so you going to have to go.”

You have had a great acting career and some great roles over the year. What is your personal favorite role?

Leguizamo: In movies, right? Because for me, “Ghetto Klown” is the highlight of my life. I cried the other day at a premiere because I didn’t know if I could accomplish it so that was incredible. In movies, I love these two little movies that are hardly seen. “The Take” with Brad Furman because I really felt like my acting was went to really incredible and mature place. I was really seasoned. I also liked “Where God Left His Shoes.” I felt like these two little movies were a formative transition in my career.

What do you personally want fans of your film work and comedy specials to take away from watching “Ghetto Klown”?

Leguizamo: I want everybody to be inspired. I want everyone to realize that just like I learned through my art, the beautiful thing about being artist is nothing bad that happens to you are bad as it seems. We see beauty in everything as artists and I think you will find that the show is healing and it’s inspiring. It inspired me to tour across the country where other people were incredibly inspired by my show and that’s the point of the show. You are going to laugh your ass off, you are going to heal with me and you are going to be inspired to achieve your dreams. I am going to give you the formula to success.

“Ghetto Klown” premieres tonight on HBO at 10:00 p.m. It will re-air on HBO on Match 27 (9:00 p.m., 4:15 a.m.) and March 31 (10:30 p.m.). It will also re-air on HBO2 on March 24 (9:00 p.m., 2:20 a.m.) and March 29 (12:35 a.m.).

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