John Leguizamo Interview on Hollywood Racism
The “Leguizamo Does America” host tells IndieWire how he plans to improve Latino representation across the industry.
John Leguizamo’s Latin crusade dates back decades. Over the past 30 years, her performances and outspoken off-screen presence have combined autobiography and activism, portraying confident Latina personalities while advocating for greater representation. From his wry and autobiographical one-man shows (“Mambo Mama,” “Freak,” “Latin History for Morons”) to dynamic screen roles such as “To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newman,” “Carlito’s Way” and ” Moulin Rouge!” Leguizamo’s persona has essentially become a brand name that can be transferred to many pop culture templates. In the past few years, he’s played ‘Bruno’ in the ‘Encanto’ earworm ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’, the obnoxious celebrity in the horror satire ‘The Menu’ and Gor Koresh in ‘The Mandalorian’ .
Leguizamo has now added another degree to his resume: TV host. With MSNBC’s “Leguizamo Does America,” the 62-year-old travels the country visiting Latino communities from New York to San Francisco. Leguizamo’s template is equal parts Anthony Bourdain and Rick Steves, as he explores the history and culture of various American locales through meals and conversations with the locals he finds there.
The show is off to a good start, proving that Leguizamo’s crusade for more Latino storytelling in popular media was no fool’s errand. After last week’s release, “Leguizamo Does America” finished second in the Sunday 10:00 p.m. slot, narrowly trailing “The Ingraham Angle” on Fox. “Fox beat us just because it was the only right-wing show at the time,” Leguizamo said, speaking with IndieWire on 30 Rock this week. “Maybe I’ll steal some of these people.”
He spoke at length about his ongoing mission to address gaps in Latino representation and how his new program reflects that goal.
As a travel show, “Leguizamo Does America” follows a familiar format. What attracted you to this?
The travel show is just a cover, you know what I mean? I can talk about the things that really excite me and interest me. The best way to do this is through food, laughter, dancing – and then we can still sneak in history, information, data, concepts that are harder for people to digest.
You spend a lot of time talking about the underrepresentation of Latinx audiences in movies and TV. When did you start to notice the difference?
It’s been like a desert of Latino faces in the media since I was a kid. Obviously I knew there were glass ceilings, tokenism. I knew what was going on since I was a child.
How did you perceive this change when you became an actor?
Even as a kid I said, “Wait a minute. How come we all pay the same tuition, I get A’s, they don’t, and I get called five times a day to play a drug dealer because I’m Latino? It was like Jim Crow. The breakdown of casting each day with the roles available was “White Romantic Lead, White Doctor” and so on. They wouldn’t see you. When I started seeing the data, my mind was blown. I said, “Wait a minute—we’re the largest ethnic group in America, the oldest ethnic group in America, and we don’t have representation?” I recently saw that we account for 30 percent of US revenue, 4 percent of streaming, and still less than two percent of the faces in front of the camera. Forget behind the camera, where it’s less than one percent. I began to realize more and more that this was completely unfair. It was an aggressive exclusion.
How much change do you see now?
It has changed a little, not much. I mean, come on: last year it was maybe two percent in benefits. This year it is three percent. It’s still not okay. We are 20 percent of the population, so we must be 20 percent of the leaders.
What about the role of Latino perspectives in the studios?
I first saw that Latinos were huge in New York, and then I saw it when I went to Los Angeles—but not in the executive offices. Not in my agent’s office. Not in my manager’s office.
The word “diversity” sure gets thrown around a lot in Hollywood.
It’s a buzzword, but with what effect? I’m glad everyone else has a big part to play, but we’re still shut out. I hate to compare, but either we don’t complain enough or we aren’t loud enough to demand what we deserve. Some of you may not even know that we are excluded. Leaders won’t do anything unless someone tells them to.
As a producer, how difficult is it to present new projects through a Latin lens?
I throw up a lot of historical pieces that are incredible. I get all this historical information from the 1700s or 1800s and they tell me, “Oh, we don’t do period stuff,” “We don’t do feel-good movies.” This is Hollywood racism disguised as Hollywood wisdom.
What challenges did you face in presenting your own TV show?
It took six years to make this show. How can I download history in minutes? We’ve been here five hundred years and we have to explain that we were the first slaves in America, that between 1830 and 1930, 6,000 were lynched, burned or shot here in America. We are the only American group that has millions of us deported. I mean, how do you download all that to present the story? They don’t get it. But Cesar Conde, NBC’s first Latino executive, and Rashida Jones, the first black woman executive, got it and greenlit it. This is what we need: Latino leaders who know our culture and can greenlight projects.
For a while there, it seemed that the advent of streaming might widen the field a bit.
There is movement everywhere, but not enough, especially for the optics. HBO dropped all Latino programming, Netflix pulled all Latino programming, even though Nielsen just came out with Netflix stats showing that Latinos are going to Latino content, Latino stars, and Latino culture. They visit it. They should support it, because it means 4 billion dollars in America alone.
How present was your show behind the scenes?
75 percent of our crew was Latino, our presenters, writer and director. That was easy. There are almost 70 million of us in this country. It wasn’t hard to find Latin excellence everywhere. I mean, I’ve found beautiful activists with no money doing the most incredible things. I found great actors, choreographers, politicians. There are so many people doing amazing things all over America that don’t get the flowers they deserve.
How much more do you expect from the show?
I would like to go to Texas for a second season. Basically, I do my “Arroz con Pollo” tour from my one-man shows. These were 26 cities across America that are huge cities with Latino populations. I’ve been to six of the 26 this season. Texas has seven of them. I mean El Paso, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Corpus Christie, McAllen, Amarillo! There are also many in California: Sacramento, Bakersfield, San Diego, LA, Oakland. Then there’s Seattle, Denver, Tampa, Orlando, West Palm Beach, Boston. These are big cities and I want to cover so much ground. I would like to speak to go deeper into Chicano culture. I am Caribbean and Colombian, but I love all my Latin cultures.
Conservatism has increased among Latino voters in the United States. How much did you try to include this eventuality?
I want to be better at it. I really want to reach across the aisle, but I’m not that good at it. Some are religious, conservative, homophobic, pro-life. I need to work on myself to not be so triggered.
As a liberal, what would you like to see to address this issue?
Democrats are messing up because they don’t spend money on us. They don’t have Latino advisors. Bernie did it right, but so did the Republicans, unfortunately. They went for us on Spanish speaking stations. Put money in it. He hired Latino consultants to come after us.
Part of this situation is influenced by the political unrest in Latin America itself.
The problem with Venezuela and Maduro clearly affects Florida, but it affects all Venezuelans and Colombians. The trigger word is “socialism” and it makes them blush easily. I mostly deal with the USA because that’s where I live and I only have so many hours in the day to fight evil.
What potential do you see in a future president with Latin American roots?
Not Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, but if Joaquin Castro or the AOC gets through one day, that would be great. Or Ritchie Torres. We’ll see.
When fans come to you these days, what surprises you about their relationship with your work?
I’ve been getting a lot of “Thank you for fighting for us and speaking up” lately. This is new. I also get it from people working in industry. Apparently before that it was Benny Blanco from the Bronx. Lots of gays like Chi-Chi Rodriguez. Kids love Sid the Sloth. Others like “Pest”. And some mention “Mario Brothers”.
You generated headlines complaining about the lack of Latino voice actors in the new animated “The Super Mario Brothers Movie.” What do you think of the conversation?
I stated my opinion. The directors of the last one fought very hard to have inclusivity, to be there, and it’s sad that they went backwards instead of forwards. They didn’t meet the times. I know it’s a big hit, but that doesn’t make it okay.
Now it’s about sequels and spin-offs. Would you consider one of these gigs?
If they start doing the right thing and add more inclusivity, I’d consider it.
NBC News Studios’ “Leguizamo Does America” airs Sunday nights at 10pm on MSNBC. Also broadcast on Peacock.
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