The actor John Leguizamo is well-known for his film roles. Since his Hollywood debut in the early 1990s, he's played a dizzying array of characters, from Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge, to Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, to Sid the Sloth in the Ice Age series.
Leguizamo is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking one-man shows. He shot to stardom in the theater community after his debut in the critically-acclaimed off-Broadway show Mambo Mouth. Leguizamo continued his one-man hits with the 1998 Broadway show Freak, which earned two Tony Award nominations. His most recent show, Ghetto Klown, premiered in 2011.
Leguizamo mines his own life for material, particularly his childhood. Born in Bogotá, Columbia, Leguizamo immigrated to Queens, New York at the age of four. The actress Rosie Perez explained his remarkable influence on Latino artists, telling PBS, "We had never seen someone depict Latin culture in the way he did it. He attacked subjects that a lot of Latin people didn’t want to attack, like the self-loathing, the self-hatred. All these things that we all relate to, but didn’t have the nerve or guts to admit."
A new documentary traces John Leguizamo's career from Mambo Mouth through the development and performance of Ghetto Klown. The film is called Tales from a Ghetto Klown, and it premieres on PBS stations this Friday.
The actor's one-man shows are characterized by his boundless energy and funny quips, but the documentary revealed the stress that comes with performances that utilize one's own troubled past.
"I was talking about having a breakdown, a meltdown, and I wasn't very comfortable revealing that kind of information," Leguizamo says. "But I felt it was important for the artistic journey because I know I'm not the only one who's ever had one. I know lots of comedians and actors have had that."
"That happens a lot; the pressure builds up, you magnify [your own expectations], you start thinking that the world expects greatness out of you 24/7, [and] it's hard to get on stage."
Reliving the serious troubles of his past still takes an emotional tole on Leguizamo. "There were rehearsal times where I lost it," he says. "I couldn't talk, I was crying like a baby."