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John Leguizamo’s on-screen characters run from Bronx-born Benny Blanco in Carlito’s Way to Latina drag queen Chi-Chi Rodriguez in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. Although Leguizamo’s career has been a series of hits (Die Hard 2, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) and misses (Super Mario Bros., The Pest), the fact remains that he is a leading influence on Latino actors in Hollywood. He may have spread some stereotypes, but heck, he’s the only actor in American film history to have successfully shot Harrison Ford in a movie. The man has made his mark.

While his journey as an actor has allowed him to cross paths with some of Tinseltown’s leading men, including Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and Arnold Schwarzenegger, he has also relished smaller projects, often preferring the stage to the big screen. And in the midst of his acting career he has managed to pen a series of award-winning one-man plays – Mambo Mouth, Spic-O-Rama, Freak (which debuted on Broadway) and Sexaholix… A Love Story – uncensored, colourful and high-energy accounts of life-based events.

Leguizamo was at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival this summer to perform his latest work, a semi-autobiographical one-man show entitled Klass Klown. Based on his 2006 memoir Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life, the show includes, as one might expect from the book’s title, plenty of hilarious tidbits about some prominent A-listers. The actor/writer/comedian sat down with Naked Eye to chat about contact highs with Harrison Ford, getting slapped around by Sean Penn, and why you better stay the hell out of Kevin Costner’s light.

Klass Klown was directed by Fisher Stevens, who also produced The Cove. It gives us the impression that you were trying to do something bigger, that you were trying to have more meaning with this show. Was that the case?
The play definitely wanted to have a deeper meaning, to go deeper. Still be hilarious and crazy, but yeah, have a deeper meaning. And it’s a broader scope. The other ones have been little parts of my life. Freak was about when I was 16 and Sexaholix was about my sexual failures. This one is about the career and the journey of an artist, so it’s a broader scope.

Your comedic style seems to take more influence from Latin American or European artists as opposed to American. Where do you find your references?
In Latin America, artists are also much more – well, I don’t know about European – there is a much deeper comedy. Comedy is about more things; it’s more inclusive of life and more inclusive of reality of life. American humour tends to be kind of TV-like, kind of cute. There’s a cute factor and a lack of dealing with real things.

It tries to be witty, but it doesn’t try to be deep.
Doesn’t try to be deep, yeah.

The journey that you take us through in the show seems like a rough ride, but it comes off in the end as a successful one. Do you feel like you’ve come full circle and that you’re exactly where you should be at the moment?
I think one has to come around to a place where you feel, “I am where I’m supposed to be.” Wherever that is. Doing the show was great for me because I didn’t wanna do theatre for a long time, and I’m having such a great time, and I feel so incredibly creative and protective of this moment in my life. I’m doing these movies now and I’m really mad that I’m doing them because it takes me away from the play. I’m having an amazing time. Working with Fisher [Stevens] and Arnold [Engelman, the producer] has been incredible. We have some amazing conversations, really deep thinking about things. It’s a lot of fun.

With strong roles such as Benny Blanco in Carlito’s Way, do you feel that you’ve paved the way for Latino roles?
When you’re doing your thing, you’re just doing your thing. You don’t really understand what influence it has. It’s only until you meet fans and young kids and they feel that they were really inspired, or they do my shows at their schools, or they use them as monologues, or they study it. Then you go, “Oh, okay, I’m so glad that it has a longevity.” That makes me feel incredible.

In Klass Klown you spill a little Hollywood gossip. Do tell: did you really slap Sean Penn? And did you really smoke weed with Harrison Ford?
I did hit Sean back, but not as hard as I make it out to be in the play; and he did slap the living crap out of me. Harrison Ford, oh it’s hard. I can’t say that… Let’s say there was definitely a ?contact high for both of us. We won’t say who was smoking it, but there was definitely a secondhand contact situation.

Being a celebrity now is much different than it was when you began your career. Looking back, now that you see what it entails, would you have wished to have more fame?
I don’t envy anybody in their position. I definitely would like to have a lot more power to do the things that I really wanna create. That’s the only thing that I long for and quest for, is to have that power to make whatever movie I want to make. I like independent movies  much more than I like big commercial movies, and television more.

You’ve shared the screen with some pretty veteran co-stars. Who was your favourite A-lister to work with?

Sean Penn was the best to work with. He was in Carlito’s Way too, and that was incredible.

Who gave you the best advice?
Kevin Costner taught me about lighting, which is pretty great: to get the hell out of his light. That stuck with me and I’ve always passed it on to other people. Like, “Yo, you’re in my light, man. Just get the hell out of my light.” I’ll never forget that.

Photography by: ERIC GAUDREAULT
September 13th, 2010