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Why Actor John Leguizamo Is "A Sucker Like Jesus."

The star regales us on life in the Tenderloin, getting slapped by Sean Penn, and his one-man show at the Orpheum.

John Leguizamo reflects on his rise from humble beginnings to Hollywood and Broadway acclaim in Ghetto Klown.

Actor and writer John Leguizamo is known for movies like Moulin Rouge and Carlito’s Way and for lending his voice to the Ice Age franchise, but he’s also produced and starred in a series of acclaimed one-man shows, including the Broadway hits Freak and Sexaholics...A Love Story. His latest, Ghetto Klown, chronicling his unlikely trajectory through show business and the surreal nature of major Hollywood productions, returns to the Bay Area for a two-night run on April 26-27. 

You’ve said that Ghetto Klown is “everything I wouldn’t want the general public to know.” So why tell us?
I’m sacrificing myself [laughs]. My dad used to say “Don’t be a sucker like Jesus,” and that meant don’t give it all away to someone else, look out for yourself first. He was an anti-Jesus. He didn’t like to share. That attitude was my inheritance, and now I’ve done everything with every molecule of my body to reject it. It’s great for me to get my demons out. Nobody can blackmail me because it’s all out there.

Are you looking forward to coming back to San Francisco?
I love that city. I remember I was doing Freak at the Theatre on the Square in 1997 and I lived in the Tenderloin, back when it was really tender. I felt like I was living in Times Square, and nobody lives in Times Square on purpose. My assistant got assaulted. It was fascinating, in a scary way.

Why the hell were you living in the Tenderloin when you’d just made $2 million shooting Spawn?
It was the only place that would take my dogs.

You originated Ghetto Klown at Berkeley Rep in 2011, then took it to Broadway. How did the project start?
I hadn’t done a show in 10 years. I had an emotional situation with the last show [Sexaholics] and I didn’t want to do theater anymore. I had crazy stage fright, actually, believe it or not. But I started doing these talks to college kids, and plying myself with alcohol to get back onstage, and the kids really loved it, and pretty soon I had the material for a new show. I thought that the kids, if they saw where I came from and that I was just like them, they’d know you can make it, and that helped me.

You’re famous for being very candid about the people you’ve worked with. Like when you told everyone that Leonardo DiCaprio hires hookers—
Oh my God, I said that!

Wow, even you can’t believe it. In this show you talk about guys like Pacino, Steven Seagal, Brian De Palma. Do you worry that they’re all going to show up at your house one night?

[Seagal voice] “I’m waiting for you, John.” But no, I’ve already heard from everybody. Pacino says he’s not going to come to the show. His buddy saw it and his girlfriend saw it and they said, “I love this show, but he can’t see it.” And I said, “But it’s good things I’m saying.” And they said, “Maybe.” Seagal said he’s going to kick my ass if he ever saw me on a red carpet, but I’m not worried because I haven’t seen him on too many red carpets lately.

Sean Penn already slapped you on the set of Casualties of War, but that was in the script, right?
Oh man, I wanted to slap him back so bad. I was green and young and at first you’re like, wow, I’m acting with one of the legends. But De Palma loves reality and doesn’t mind somebody—me—suffering for it, so I got slapped and slapped and I was like, “This is the seventh take, we already got it!” My face was lopsided. We lost continuity because I didn’t look the same anymore. And then of course they cut it from the movie, so it was all for nothing. I didn’t want to complain because you don’t want to get fired, so I just stayed slapped like a little bitch. But I really wanted to slap him back.

Most people know your Ghetto Klown director Fisher Stevens because he won an Oscar for The Cove, a documentary about dolphin hunting. What made you want to work with him on this?

I wanted to give the show a more documentary feel. Like something Ken Burns would do, but onstage. I asked Fish to direct it because he and I’ve been friends forever. We met doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream [off-Broadway in 1987], where I put itching powder in his underwear. I thought it would be a funny, Method thing to do, I thought people would pick me up on their shoulders and say I was the funniest Puck ever. All of a sudden in the wedding scene [the whole cast] starts screaming. Turns out that itching powder is like fiberglass.

Some of the early Broadway reviews for Ghetto Klown were not that glowing, but you ended up winning an Outer Critics Award and a Drama Desk Award. Do you feel vindicated, or do you just not care what critics say anymore?
I didn’t used to care, and then I started to care, and now I don’t care again. It’s not good to care, but you can’t help but get suckered in. If you want to believe the good stuff you’ve gotta believe the bad stuff too, and neither one is reality. By the way, [New York Times critic] Charles Isherwood hates everything anyway, and everyone already writes terrible things about him, so I didn’t have to. Playwrights, everybody—Jon Robin Baitz wrote a whole scathing thing about him. I’d just be one of a thousand people casting aspersions on him, so I didn’t.

Ghetto Klown plays at the Orpheum, April 26-27. For tickets and info, go to SHNsf.com

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