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THEATER

Just Try to Shut Him Up

John Leguizamo speaks his mind: on stage (in his one-man 'Freak' show), offstage--heck, even when he can't talk.

May 31, 1998|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — In his solo show "Freak," John Leguizamo, 33, mines the adolescent traumas of feeling like "an alien outsider." An immigrant from Colombia, the actor tells stories of being a fish out of water in this autobiographical play--which opened last February on Broadway and became an instant success. It has, perhaps ironically given the subject, brought Leguizamo his greatest acceptance yet, including two Tony nominations, one as co-author (with David Bar Katz) and one as the show's star.

Stirring up a rock 'n' roll energy at the Cort Theatre, Leguizamo conjures more than 35 characters drawn from the 'hood--Italian toughs, Irish lassies, Jewish princesses--and his own dysfunctional family, including Granny as a foul-mouthed, boozy exorcist, Mom as a neglectful disco queen, Dad as a physically abusive raging alcoholic waiter and Uncle as a gay, deaf theater junkie. No one is spared the performer's sharp tongue, least of all himself.

Playing to a large Broadway house, however, has left Leguizamo a virtual mute offstage. Forced by his doctors to remain on strict vocal rest offstage since previews began, he speaks only in performance. For a recent interview at his house on Manhattan's Lower East Side, he took a reporter through a living room dominated by a large graffiti painting, past hallways decorated with posters of films he's appeared in, including "Spawn," "Carlito's Way," "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," "The Fan," "The Pest," to a study crammed with fan mail and the workings of his Lower East Side Films production company. He sat down at a computer, responding to questions by rapidly typing his answers, which appeared on screen--and are reproduced here. He said his no-talking rule makes him feel like "Stephen Hawking without the genius." But he proceeds with his characteristic blunt humor.

Question: How does playing Broadway compare to your previous experiences off-Broadway with your one-man shows, "Mambo Mouth" and "Spic-O-Rama"? Your audiences get pretty raucous these days, I hear.

Answer: There are much larger groups of Latin people coming, and then your suburban, run-of-the-mill white folk, and I feel that white people look around a lot 'cause they're not used to people responding and just carrying on at a theater. The audience gets carried away sometimes. We've had fights in the balcony. Sometimes I've had to stop totally. I say to the audience: "Don't you just like theater? So much [expletive] goes on not just onstage but in the balconies. Now shut up 'cause this isn't audience participation and I got a play to finish."

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Q: You've also just been nominated for two Tonys. Were you surprised by that level of acceptance from the Broadway community for a show that gets pretty raw at times?

A: It's great because theater is really important to me. That's what I used to learn about life and to educate myself. I would read every play, and I learned about women from "Virginia Woolf," learned about family from "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and learned the word "mendacity" from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." I would use those big words against my father. He would get mad at me for something and I would say, "I smell the stink of mendacity in the house." He'd say, "Shut up and go to your room till you can speak like normal people."

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Q: You've mentioned that you loathe exposing yourself and your family on stage in "Freak." Why do it?

A: 'Cause it's too late to pull back. Developing this show was a speeding train, and I couldn't find the brake. It was fun at first till I got reactions from my family; then I realized, oops. Then after doing it and doing it, I would look out into the audience and see these impassive faces now and then, or faces just laughing at me and at my family and it was a little weird. 'Cause I couldn't tell if they were laughing with me or at me. It felt like some kind of fun-house mirror of my life and I didn't like it. Then other times I'm fine. See, theater is great and scary that way.

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Q: Steve Martin once said that he was stunned at how audiences can just take in stride what seemed to him to be the most self-damning and revealing material he'd put into his plays. Not only take in stride but also apply it to their own lives. Does this mitigate your fear of exposing yourself?

A: You find that out after the fact, but not while you're doing it. I feel very vulnerable, and judged and all kinds of negative things 'cause it's stuff that's in my head but it feeds the show. It's like this emotion monster that feeds on anything negative or positive, it doesn't matter.

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Q: It sounds like the audience is both friend and enemy to you.

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