Wooing a Latin Star, Kardashian-Style

I heard Kim Kardashian give a talk once about techniques she uses to inspire loyalty in her fans. Sometimes, she would jump on her $150 million custom Gulfstream and surprise strangers by showing up at their birthday parties.

I thought of Kim when I went on Instagram recently and saw John Leguizamo, the talented actor, writer and comedian, brandishing The New York Times’s logo with a red X through it. “Better not exclude me for speaking up!!!” he warned.

I wondered if there was any way, Kim-style, to fire up his allegiance to the paper. I called him and asked what his beef was. He had a lot to say. I told him I’d come to New York (sans jet) to hear him unreel his critique, hoping to reel him back in.

We went to Morandi in Greenwich Village. Leguizamo, 62, sported Rag & Bone jeans, a silver chain and a two-carat diamond stud. Over minestrone, he argued that New York papers were committing “cultural apartheid” by not having a percentage of Latino staffers that mirrored their makeup in the city, which is about 29 percent.

“We were here before everybody,” he said. “It’s not like we just got here. We just keep coming.” The Colombian-born descendant of a conquistador grew up poor in Queens.

Mr. Leguizamo’s got a soapbox and he’s comfortable on it.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

He said he always had a hard time pitching Latin stories in Hollywood even though Latinos are nearly 30 percent of the U.S. box office, noting that the suits told him audiences preferred to see white people. “I go: ‘I like seeing white people. I got no problem seeing white people. But I want to see me.’”

Despite the success of Bad Bunny, Jenna Ortega, Pedro Pascal and others, the odds are still stacked, he said. His complaints are encyclopedic, from Charlton Heston — “the whitest person on the planet” — playing a Mexican in Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil,” to Al Pacino playing a Cuban, Tony Montana, in “Scarface.” Pacino was an acting hero, “but he’s not Latin.”

“How about all the white women in brown face, like Kylie Jenner and Ariana Grande?” he said, referring to photo shoots that showed a darker skin tone. “It’s so bizarre that all these white girls are trying to look Latin but they won’t hire Latin women.” He added, “I see super-gorgeous Latin people in New York City and L.A. and Miami but never on the runway.”

When Leguizamo realized that the old white boys’ club in Hollywood was not going to pony up the career he envisioned, he branched out, using his humor to illuminate Latin history. IMDb likens Leguizamo’s influence as a breakthrough performer to Sidney Poitier. He’ll stir the pot again next month when he takes a turn hosting “The Daily Show.”

Should actors be bound to roles that match their ethnicity and sexuality? Would he still play his Golden Globe-nominated role of the drag queen Chi-Chi Rodriguez in the 1995 comedy “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar”?

“I don’t think it would be fair nowadays,” he said. “I’d be taking the role away from somebody who should be telling the story.”

He said that when white actor friends complain of their fading hegemony, he thinks, “Now you understand what it feels like,” adding, “Sometimes I just laugh with glee inside.”

Leguizamo sprinkled in the word “Latinx” and mocked Sarah Huckabee Sanders for banning it in Arkansas state documents. He scoffed at the notion that wokeness has ruined comedy: “There’s so much humor to be made of everything without having to hurt somebody’s feelings.”

I scanned his Instagram because I was writing about “The Menu,” the black comedy about a psychotic chef played by Ralph Fiennes. “My character in ‘The Menu’ is supposed to be this washed-up action star,” Leguizamo said. “I modeled it after Steven Seagal ’cause he’s a washed-up action star.”

A star at home in New York’s Greenwich Village.Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

When he appeared with Seagal in the 1996 movie “Executive Decision,” he angered the star by snickering at his dictatorial demeanor. “He took his elbow and rammed it into my solar plexus and shoved me against the brick wall,” Leguizamo recalled. “Then he dies in the movie. I showed up every day to that set. I know it was a fictional death but I wanted to believe it was real.”

I asked about all the Hispanics shifting to the Republican side — despite Donald Trump demonizing Latin Americans.

Leguizamo is a fan of Bernie Sanders and A.O.C. — “I think she can be president someday” — but he knows that Republicans can effectively harp on “socialism.”

“It works with Colombians, Venezuelans and Cubans, and Republicans know it’s a trigger word,” he said.

He thinks that if Trump — “a tiny little bitch” — is the nominee, “Biden’s going to kick his ass. If it’s not Trump, then we got to figure something out. Biden against DeSantis? I’m not sure that’s going to be so good.”

Is George Santos — who was said to have played a drag queen himself — dragging down the team? “He’s a Latin guy, but that doesn’t mean I support people just because they’re Latin,” Leguizamo said. “I want the best.”

So, I asked him, as we finished lunch, is The Times back in your good graces?

“I do subscribe online,” he admitted with a grin.

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