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John Leguizamo says he got used to being 'dissed' as a Latin actor: 'You have to go to a lot of therapy to fix that'

May 8, 2024, 10:13 IST
Paul Morigi/Getty, Universal, Tyler Le/BI

Before John Leguizamo was an acclaimed writer, director, and film star, he was a young Latino actor just trying to get into audition rooms.


"It didn't matter how talented you were," Leguizamo told Business Insider of his early years. "You could act like Brando and James Dean. You could look like them. You could write like Shakespeare and William Goldman. You were not going to be given an opportunity."

Leguizamo's film breakout finally came in 1993, with his roles as Benny Blanco in "Carlito's Way" and Luigi in the live-action "Super Mario Bros."

But even before that, he had already started to take his career into his own hands with one-man shows like his 1990 play "Mambo Mouth," which ran off-Broadway and is based on his experiences growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens. By 1998, those shows had turned him into one of the highest-paid actors on Broadway — his show "Freak," which ran that year, achieved the rare feat of turning a profit, The New York Daily News reported at the time.

Leguizamo has been a staunch, vocal advocate for better Latin representation in Hollywood throughout his career, and he has long spoken about the difficulties in representing his culture on screen and stage.


But he's made progress, and now, that progress will benefit future generations. Thanks to a recent deal, his theater catalog is being made available for licensing through Broadway Licensing Global — including versions Leguizamo has adapted for high schoolers so that young Latin actors can perform his groundbreaking plays.

"I just hope that kids see themselves in my work, that they feel a link to it, that they feel that the DNA of my work sort of highlights them and their culture," Leguizamo told BI.

He's also working on season two of his docuseries "Leguizamo Does America," cataloging Latino culture across the country. And recently, he's taken on a "vile and twisted" role as an FBI agent in "The Green Veil," a drama on the free streaming service The Network.

For the latest interview in Business Insider's Role Play series, Leguizamo reflected on the calculus of taking roles that he felt were "denigrating" his culture, the euphoria of working on a film anchored in Colombian culture like "Encanto," and getting snubbed by the MCU.

On turning down 'Carlito's Way' multiple times and becoming a leading man

(L-R) Al Pacino and John Leguizamo in "Carlito's Way."Universal

You've spoken before about turning down "Carlito's Way" a few times before you eventually made the call to sign on.


They told me that they were going to give it to Benicio [del Toro] and I went, "Okay, I'll do it."

I mean, I'm curious — you said that it was an odd experience acting opposite Al Pacino playing a Puerto Rican. What else brought you into that film, other than knowing they were going to give the role to Benicio otherwise?

I've studied with some of the greatest acting teachers and all I get to play are drug dealers. So it was a mixed blessing.

But to play a drug dealer, I felt like I was denigrating my culture. I was taking us down. And in that era, you were made to feel that as a Latin man, there was only one of you that could make it. So we were mad competitive with each other, which is unfortunate. When they said Benicio, I was like, "Okay, I'm going to take it. I'll be the one."

Your other film breakout that same year was playing Luigi in the Mario Brothers movie. Today, video games are pretty hot IP. Back in the day, how much did you buy into the idea of doing a video game adaptation?


Well, first of all, to be a leading man was such a huge opportunity and a huge risk for these incredible directors, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton. They had seen "Spic-O-Rama," and they fell in love with my work and my ability.

I took the opportunity because it was my only opportunity, and I became the highest-paid Latino actor of the time. So that was another incredible opportunity — it would pay to fund my life, and I could do my one-man shows because theater doesn't pay that kind of money. I mean, whether it was going to work or not, who knew? I didn't know.

It didn't, because we failed at the box office and got bad reviews. But then it became this kids' cult classic.

John Leguizamo as Luigi in "Super Mario Bros." (1993)Warner Bros

On doing too many 'ice movies' and feeling dissed by 'Mr. and Mrs. Smith'

Has there ever been a role you've turned down in the past and then regretted?

Oh yeah. "The Devil Wears Prada," the Stanley Tucci part.



Also "Happy Feet," the Robin Williams part. And "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," the Vince Vaughn part.

I had my reasons. I mean, they're stupid, but I had my reasons.

What were some of those stupid reasons?

Well, for "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," it was because they were paying them $20 million and they were going to pay me scale. I felt dissed, and they probably weren't dissing me, but I felt dissed.


Sometimes when you're a person of color, you're so used to being dissed that you think you're being dissed, and sometimes you're not being dissed. So that's what happens, and you have to go to a lot of therapy to fix that.

And "Happy Feet," I had done "Ice Age." I was going, "I don't want to be doing all these ice movies." Such a stupid reason. But it seemed logical to me at the moment, and then I lost out on millions.

John Leguizamo played Sid the Sloth in multiple films in the "Ice Age" franchise.20th Century Fox

You ended up playing Sid the Sloth in "Ice Age" for 15 years — was there ever a moment where you were like, "I just can't do it anymore"?

Oh, no, I loved it. I loved Sid. I created that role with Mike Berg and Peter Ackerman and Chris Wedge. That was a creation of mine.

The original "Ice Age" was a drama. I was always on, but they had different actors. We had the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, we had Ben Stiller attached, and then it ended up being Ray Romano, Denis Leary, and myself.


It went through years of trying to get it to a comic beat, but I always loved that character. We created this innocent, naive, beautiful soul. I value that. I love Sid the Sloth.

On getting snubbed by Marvel and the role that got away

You previously said that you were asked to give up the Vulture role in the MCU for Michael Keaton. What did that moment feel like for you?

I didn't understand it. I think another actor would've sued because we had agreed on terms. We went through a huge negotiation period, and we had agreed on terms. I hadn't signed a contract, but we had agreed. I think those are sueable terms.

And then the head of the studio called me up and said, "This is terrible. I feel horrible, and would you give it up?" And I did. I felt like, if you didn't want me, I don't want to be there either, you know what I mean?

My grandma was like, "If they don't want you at a party, don't go." So I was like, you don't want me at the party. I don't want to be there. I felt dissed and diminished, so I didn't really want to be a part of it.


If they ever asked you back, would you go back? Or generally, sign on to a franchise of that scale?

I would if I was offered The Riddler or some part like that. I would go back to other franchises. I mean, if you make it up to me. But then they offered me some tiny scientist in the movie. I was like, "No thank you. Thank you, but no."

On 'Sigma male' Bruno and getting a bonus for 'Encanto'

Maribel and Bruno (voiced by John Leguizamo) in "Encanto."Walt Disney Animation

We have to talk about Bruno. "Encanto" was such a landmark film. After fighting for these kinds of projects, what was it like to see its massive success?

I mean, "Coco" was such a huge landmark moment. I mean, a whole Disney movie made about Latin people was huge. And then we got a second, it was like, "Wait a minute, have we finally arrived?" Even though we're 20% of the population, a third of the box office, a third of subscribers on streamers, a third of sports fans. Other than that.

To be so specific, a Latin movie specifically about a Colombian family, and then to have what it looks like in my family, Afro-Latinos, indigenous Latinos in your family that look like that… It was so satisfying, and I'm sure healing, on so many levels.


And then to be a massive hit that beat "Frozen" is incredible. It was such a huge hit that we got bonuses that weren't in our contracts — that's how big. Because Disney doesn't give you something that's not in your contracts. For them to give us a bonus on top of that after? Whew, you must have been huge.

Obviously, don't say anything that would get you in hot water, but would you come back for a second one?

Except I want it to be, all we do is talk about Bruno.

To work with Lin-Manuel Miranda, I mean, that's a dream come true. What a genius. He's a genius, if I can use the G-word.

It was just such a talented crew. I had so much fun improvising and coming up with this character that we made up together as we went along and made him hyper-sensitive, a Sigma male, a sensitive male figure.


On working with Spike Lee on 'Freak' and the projects that define his career

What are three works of yours that you'd choose to epitomize your career?

I would say, "Latin History for Morons," "Summer of Sam," and "Ice Age." I love voice acting. I really do. I take it very seriously. Mel Blanc was a big hero of mine, and I really transformed myself to be these characters.

And then film-wise, I mean, Spike Lee made me a lead where nobody else was giving me the opportunity. He set me free. I feel like we created this incredible, insane character, and we went to Cannes with it.

Spike Lee did "Freak" for HBO too. How did that play out? Did you get a call from him saying, "I want to film your one-man show"?

Well, it was the opposite. I called him and it was a long shot, a dream, he's never going to do it. And he said yes, and it was an amazing opportunity. What was even more exciting was the first time that I was in the editing room, I was allowed to re-edit the work. Because he said, "You know this show better than anybody. Look at it and see what's missing or what needs to be fixed."


And I went in there with his editor and with Spike, and it was so thrilling to have that control over my work because he was right. I did know it inside and out, I've been doing it for three years. And so all of a sudden, now my mind changed.

Now, I've done so much film. I mean, I've been in over a hundred film movies, but now I saw the editing. I'd been in editing rooms, but I never was able to manipulate that way hands-on. So that gave me the confidence to be a filmmaker, to be a director.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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