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John Leguizamo's 'Fugly': A Funny Take On A Latino Actor's Life

John Leguizamo, Olga Merediz and Yul Vazquez talk about their roles in "Fugly!", John Leguizamo's hilarious, fictionalized version of a Latino actor's life.
Image: John Leguizamo at Fugly! Premiere
Actor John Leguizamo, at a red carpet premiere of his new movie, "Fugly!" 108 Media

NEW YORK, NY -- Actor John Leguizamo has long mined his own life for material for comedy routines and his acclaimed one-man shows. Now the star of films, TV, and Broadway has turned memories of growing up as a “ghetto nerd” into his latest film, “Fugly!”

Leguizamo calls “Fugly!” an “anti-romantic comedy.”

“It’s an anti-romantic comedy because it’s not your usual female rom-com, like they usually are very geared towards women,” he said at a press roundtable in New York City recently. “This one is geared towards men, so it is definitely more about the sex than romance – but guys, we are romantic too!” He describes “Fugly!” as the story of a “playa, a playboy” who keeps falling in love.

“Fugly!” opens in theaters on November 7, and will be available on video-on-demand on November 25.

In the film, Leguizamo plays “Jesse Sanchez,” a fictionalized version of his younger self. Like Leguizamo, his character grows up in 1970s New York City, heads off to college, and then struggles to find success as a stand-up comedian. “Fugly!” also stars Radha Mitchell, Rosie Perez, and Ally Sheedy.

A scene with John Leguizamo and Rosie Perez, from the new movie "Fugly!"108 Media

In addition to depicting an unconventional romance, “Fugly!” takes a satirical look at the travails of Latino actors. When Leguizamo’s character tells his girlfriend that he booked a TV part, she exclaims, “Which part did you get, the rapist or the mugger?” His answer: “I got the drug dealer!”

“I wanted to show an actor's life, but in a more fictional way,” Leguizamo said. “Because I do my one-man shows that are very personal. I wanted to do something a lot less personal, and have fun with it, and be freer – and that's why “Fugly!” came to be, about a Latin actor’s career and what happens to these dudes.”

In the film, when Leguizamo’s character complains about “always playing a guy with a gun,” his agent reminds him that his niche is “Angry Urban Guy.”

“Fugly!” takes a satirical look at the travails of Latino actors. When Leguizamo’s character tells his girlfriend that he booked a TV part, she exclaims, “Which part did you get, the rapist or the mugger?” His answer: “I got the drug dealer!”

Leguizamo says that today's Hollywood (or “Holly-wouldn’t,” in his words) offers more opportunities for Hispanic actors. “This industry still has some issues with us that should be gone by now. But in these past few years things have really started to change because the digital age is very democratizing," he said.

"We have facts and statistics, and we know that Latin people are $1.3 trillion buying power… and we love entertainment, we will see something three or four times,” said Leguizamo, who also pointed out that Latinos are the top moviegoers, and that Hollywood studios want Latino dollars.

From left to right, Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo and Olga Merediz, at a recent premiere for the movie "Fugly!"108 Media

As in many of his projects, Leguizamo’s family plays an important role in “Fugly!” Asked whether his relatives have gotten used to his rollicking portrayals of them, Leguizamo laughed. “They don’t get used to it! I think the more I do it, the less they get used to it! Their tolerance diminishes. But I always promise them that I will never do it again… But this is definitely fictional, that is the beauty of it.”

Tony-nominated actress Olga Merediz said she loved playing Leguizamo’s mother. “I have known John for a while, I did his old House of Buggin’ TV show,” she said. “I kept wondering if I was going to get a chance to meet his real mother, but we were on a tight shooting schedule. I was actually dying to meet her!”

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Playing Leguizamo’s “Moms” was not always easy; Merediz had to slap him across the face (twice) for one pivotal scene. “We did a lot of takes to get the different angles. It was hard to slap him because John is so adorable and slapping him is the opposite of what you really want to do. But it was true to the character, and that’s what John wanted!” (Merediz can currently be seen in a recurring role in “Orange Is The New Black” and in the upcoming film “Top Five.”)

In “Fugly!” veteran actor Yul Vazquez plays Leguizamo’s older brother. “I had worked with John on two movies before, so it felt pretty seamless, working with him again,” he said. “These are two brothers who are competitive with each other, who have lifelong rivalry. I tried to play him as honestly as possible, yet to find the humor even in the dark scenes. And John gives you a lot of room to explore your (acting) choices.” (Vazquez can also be seen in the current movie, “Kill The Messenger.”)

John Leguizamo and Radha Mitchell in a scene from the movie "Fugly!"108 Media

Looking ahead, Leguizamo said that he has more projects in the works, including a live show called “Latin History for Dummies” and a musical, “A Pain In The Aztec.”

And despite his success, Leguizamo said that it was easy to tap into his years of struggling to break into the entertainment industry. “That stuff stays in you, that doesn't go away, all the struggles, those memories are pretty fresh,” he said. “…And you remember the struggles, the battles trying to get jobs, trying to get out of being stereotyped and being pigeonholed. Luckily I was very fortunate to grow up in New York and there is a strong Latin presence here – and a lot of Latinos before me were breaking down doors.”