John Leguizamo

John Leguizamo / Courtesy of MSNBC

John Leguizamo has appeared in 100 films, produced more than 20 films and documentaries, and made dozens of TV appearances. After decades in the business, Leguizamo says Hollywood still underrepresents Latino artists and their contributions to American culture are often overlooked.

Leguizamo's talent for playing a range of characters has led to roles from Tybalt in the 1997 film "Romeo and Juliet" to Toulouse Lautrec in "Moulin Rouge!" in 2001 to a past-his-prime action hero in 2022's "The Menu." He's also the voice of Gor Koresh in the Disney+ series "The Mandalorian," Sid the sloth in the "Ice Age" movie franchise, and Bruno in Disney's "Encanto."

In a new MSNBC docuseries, the Emmy-winning actor and producer travels to cultural hotspots in New York, Miami, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Puerto Rico in search of what Leguizamo calls "exceptionalism" in the Latino community.

"There's so much wasted Latin talent in America right now. It breaks my heart to see all these beautiful dreams squandered," Leguizamo told NPR's A Martinez.

Breaking through inequalities

After pitching stories to production companies for 40 years without a "green light," Leguiazamo says he abandoned an idealistic belief that "talent will out." Instead, he tells Morning Edition that Latino artists must be more "aggressive" so their voices break through. And he points to how research for a one-man show on the Latino community's contributions to American history "made me want to make noise."

"Now I want more. Now I feel more entitled. Now I feel like we deserved. I'm not going to accept no for an answer," says Leguizamo.

The new series, "Leguizamo Does America," features his encounters with artists from dancers and directors to architects and activists.

"We sit down, we commune with a great Latin meal, and some of us do a little Latin dancing. And we share. We talk about what it's like to be Latinx in America at this time."

Leguizamo says inequalities persist and members of the Latino community must be "much more aggressive."

Leguizamo says that "things are not changing and they need to change now," but members of the Latin communities he visited maintain a "very positive hopeful attitude."

"It's happening. People are listening. They're paying attention. And they realize that there's a void and that it needs to be filled with Latinx."

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On working in an underrepresented community in Hollywood

I've been pitching for 40 years to Hollywood and nobody greenlights any script you write. I could write like Shakespeare, but if you had Latin characters and a Latin name, they weren't going to greenlight it no matter how amazingly brilliant it was. And I didn't know that because I was naive and ignorant and I thought America was a meritocracy. You know, I was idealistic back then, thinking that talent would out, but it doesn't.

On discovering Latino exceptionalism in America

That gives you confidence. That gave me confidence. It gave me power. It made me much more political. It made me much more outspoken. It made me want to get loud. It made me want to make noise. And that's what we got to do.

On fighting for more Latino representation in Hollywood

I feel like there's a lot of Latinx out there who are organizing, who are doing grassroots. And you see all these other Latinx people who are creatives who are coming up with Latin stories and want to see more plays. I was just in New York at the Public Theater and I was doing a workshop, but there were like four other Latinx workshops. I had never seen so many Latin creatives in one room, and we all hugged each other and talked and celebrated and high-fived. It's happening. People are listening. They're paying attention. And they realize that there's a void and it needs to be filled with Latinx.

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