Dr. Rob Lopez (Leguizamo) stands by his wife, Seattle Mayor Margot Cleary-Lopez (Toni Collette), in The Power.
"I'm very method," says actor John Leguizamo, and his preparation for parts bears out this admission.
To play a line cook in Jon Favreau's 2014 film Chef, he wanted to toil for a month amid the sharp knives and scalding-hot stock pots of a Manhattan restaurant. For the 2004 Ecuadorian thriller Crónicas — in which he appeared as a tabloid reporter on the trail of a serial killer — he traveled with a news crew and made regular thirty-second appearances on a local television channel.
But what kind of deep dive do you take if you're cast in Prime Video's limited series The Power, as Leguizamo was, to play the father of a teen girl who can suddenly shoot electricity from her fingertips?
First, because his character, Rob Lopez, is a doctor in charge of clinical trials at a pharmaceutical company, he went to hospitals and spent time talking to physicians. But as for playing a concerned parent, Leguizamo realized that much of his legwork had already been done. Sure, navigating a world in which girls and women fight the patriarchy by electrocuting men — it would take some work to get into that headspace. But caring about one's offspring? That came second nature.
"I'm a dad," Leguizamo says simply. He's been married for twenty years to Justine Maurer, and he attests that the births of their two children — Allegra, twenty-three, and Lucas, twenty-two — dramatically altered his world view.
"The weird thing that happens when you're a parent is that every child becomes your child. By having kids, you're no longer the most important person in your life. You're like, the least important person in your life. And it's great, it's very liberating. All of a sudden you understand what it means to live outside of yourself."
After almost four decades spent in the spotlight, that change is refreshing. Over those years he's appeared in more than 100 films and thirty TV shows, from Spike Lee flicks to Sesame Street, from blockbusters of all stripes (Baz Luhrmann opuses and action movies) to animated features (Encanto, Ice Age). When he shows up, you expect him to be florid and at the center of a scene — louder than anyone, funnier, sometimes more emotional and often bristling.
But Rob, in The Power, is none of these things. He is off at the margins most of the time. At home, he attempts awkward but sensitive conversations with his children, who are chagrined that he won't just go away. Meanwhile, his wife, Margot Cleary-Lopez (Toni Collette), is out in the world, making things happen.
"It was a chance to play a Mr. Mom sort of guy to Toni Collette's powerhouse mayor, the breadwinner of our family," says Leguizamo, who relished the idea of portraying a modern man — thoughtful, enlightened, socially progressive.
"I really enjoyed playing Rob. A lot. I feel like [the show] represents the household that I have. I felt comfortable in it, I felt like I could own it. And it is antithetical to my childhood. I didn't want to repeat what happened in my childhood with my kids in any form. And I've been in therapy since I was seventeen to make sure that that never happened."
The son of Luz Marina Peláez and Alberto Rudolfo Leguizamo was born in Bogotá, Colombia, but grew up in Jackson Heights, New York, in a tough, unforgiving household. Life outside the home offered no oasis for a boy small in stature and with an undiagnosed case of ADHD. But Leguizamo quickly learned that the best way to ward off thrashings from his father and insults from his peers and parents was to rely on his quick wit and ear for accents.
"I could do voices," he says. "I was always doing characters, imitating someone. I made the kids laugh. They wouldn't beat me up. My parents wouldn't beat me up, either. Humor was everything for me. It made the days go by. It made my life seem much more tolerable. Comedy was a survival instinct."
It didn't hurt that his neighborhood in northwest Queens was vividly multi-racial. "Jackson Heights is the largest melting pot in the world — always has been, still is," Leguizamo says. "I had the pick of accents. I could do the Irish. I could do the nice Jewish neighbors we had around the corner."
He was seventeen when a math teacher saw potential in Leguizamo's endless disruptions and suggested he might better channel his energies in an acting class. "I was a punk, so I said, 'Eff you,'" Leguizamo remembers. "But then I went home and looked through the Yellow Pages. And I found Sylvia Leigh's Showcase Theater at 57th Street and 10th Avenue."
At first he was unsure what to make of this new universe, filled with sense memory exercises and discussions of technique.
"The coin didn't drop right away," he recalls. "But eventually it did. Eventually I did a scene, and I crushed it. And all the kids that were there watching — they were NYU students, and they asked me to be in their films. And to me, to be in an NYU student film? That was like I'd made it to Hollywood."
He made his television debut in 1986, playing a simmering, violence-happy son of a drug kingpin on Miami Vice. After the seriousness and commitment of his scene partners at Sylvia Leigh's, he was shocked by what it was like to trade dialogue with Crockett and Tubbs.
"They were huge, the two of them, and I think a little over the show," Leguizamo says of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, stars of the NBC crime drama. "They were still friendly and whatnot. But they didn't act like the actors from my acting classes. They were not as method-y.
"It was very different for me. It was like, [ puzzled voice ] 'What is going on here? Acting is supposed to be painful. You're supposed to be suffering and lost in it.' And these guys, they'd come out of the trailer, shoot something and then run away. And I was like, 'Wow. That's TV?'"
Fortunately for Leguizamo, it was also the golden age of the one-person show. Watching the greats — Eric Bogosian, Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg — take the stage alone and speed-shift through characters gave Leguizamo the idea for Mambo Mouth, which would win him an Obie Award in 1991.
It was the first of what would become a string of solo shows, each received with growing acclaim. Freak, seen first off-Broadway and then on HBO in 1998, won Leguizamo an Emmy for his performance; the show was also Emmy nominated for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special.
"It seems less an act of impersonation than an instance of possession," Ben Brantley wrote in his review for the New York Times when Freak opened at the Cort Theater. "There's a whole city of people inside this young man's slender frame."
In Mambo Mouth, Leguizamo vanished into seven distinct Latino characters, from sex-obsessed teen Loco Louie to smarmy talk show host Agamemnon. But as dimensional and poignant was his portrayal of trans sex worker Manny the Fanny, you won't be seeing Leguizamo slip into heels, a long wig and a red cocktail dress anytime soon.
"The time for that has come and gone — and I like now better," says Leguizamo, who has also gone on record that if the 1995 feature comedy, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, were remade, his character, Chi-Chi Rodriguez, should be played by a trans Latina. "Transgender and non-binary people deserve a shot, which they would never have gotten back in the day. There's so much talent out there that's being wasted."
Leguizamo knows a thing or two about representation. Back in high school, when he told his parents about his acting aspirations, they didn't hold back. "They were like, 'We didn't come to this country for you to be worse than us.' They didn't see any Latin actors working anywhere. They thought I was going to be a bum my whole life."
To the contrary, he never lacks for roles. And in recent years he's added two more Emmy nominations to his résumé: in 2018 and 2019 he was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie, for Waco and When They See Us, respectively. Still, Leguizamo wonders what it is with Hollywood — why aren't there more people who look like him working in film and TV?
"I feel like our entertainment is twenty years behind what's really happening in America, in the world, and I don't know why," he says. "When I walk outside in L.A., New York, Miami, Chicago, there are Latin people everywhere. Then I go see a movie [and they're] completely absent or not empowered. I'm like, 'It's so strange. Why are movies so far behind?'"
He does everything he can think of to get people to ponder this question. He's written op-ed pieces for newspapers, and during his turn as guest host on The Daily Show, his guests featured the likes of CNN political commentator Ana Navarro and U.S. Representative Ritchie Torres.
His 2017 one-man show, Latin History for Morons — which went to Broadway and was filmed as a Netflix special — is built on explaining the richness and importance of Latin history to his unseen young son.
Since then, Latin History has turned into a "but-wait-there's-more" business incubator: on September 19, for example, PBS will debut American Historia: The Untold History of Latinos, under its umbrella series, VOCES, produced by Latino Public Broadcasting and hosted and executive-produced by Leguizamo. In the three-part series, he makes his way through Mexico, the U.S. and Puerto Rico, highlighting eminent as well as obscure figures in Latino history.
In fictional films and TV shows, Leguizamo made it a habit early on to ask directors to change the last name of his character to reflect his Latin roots. "Once they cast me, they're already on board," he says. "They're cool with it. I'm just like, 'Can we make it a Latin character?' They go, 'Why not? I should have thought about it a long time ago.'"
In The Power, the dystopian novel that is the basis for Leguizamo's new series, its author — British writer Naomi Alderman — gave Rob the last name of Cleary. But on the set, Leguizamo didn't have to put in his usual request. As the feminist sci-fi page-turner was adapted into a limited series, the Rob character — so ancillary he was barely part of the book — was expanded and given a Latin surname, Lopez.
"We loved the idea of a [biracial] family," says Jane Featherstone, an executive producer of The Power. "We were like, 'Who can we find to play Rob Lopez?' and John was the obvious choice. I have found him to be such an extraordinarily gifted chameleon. In every role, he does something different."
From the moment he arrived on set in Vancouver in March 2020, Leguizamo had a plan: he'd remain in character as Rob — patient, affable, eager to please — even when the cameras weren't rolling. Then Covid tested his strategy: there were lockdowns, a location change from Vancouver-as-Seattle to the much more improbable stand-in of London, cast exits and, finally, a decision to move back to Vancouver and reshoot the London-as-Pacific Northwest footage.
At this point, Raelle Tucker (The Returned, True Blood) stepped in as showrunner, a job that came with the unusual task of calling Leguizamo and asking him to shoot almost all of his scenes over again, this time with Toni Collette as Rob's wife (Leslie Mann had previously been cast and shot all her scenes).
"I told him, 'I need you desperately to be my partner in this, because I can't tell the story without you,'" Tucker relates. "And John showed up. He was so incredibly positive, and we held hands through this. He was very much a partner for me."
As it happened, the joint venture included some suggested tweaks to Rob's dialogue, which Leguizamo proposed in "the nicest way possible," Tucker says. "He'd send me text messages with emojis and encouraging words. But if he thought we could do better, he'd push, and I respect that."
The reshoot took five weeks, and there was no time for rehearsal. "We had to jump into the deep end," says Collette, who was well aware that she was joining a cast and crew who'd been together for three years and were now returning for a do-over.
Still, one of the joys of The Power is watching Leguizamo and Collette cycle through the many stages of a long marriage — the enduring attraction, unaddressed resentments, trade-offs and, ultimately, the undoing of a once-solid partnership.
Of her union with her costar, Collette says, "You can never determine what a connection will be like, how the chemistry will be. But I won the lottery with John. He's so present and aware. So playful and willing to try and fail and try again. And he made me feel so comfortable."
This is what it is like when John Leguizamo's colleagues talk about him: a certain tone creeps into their voices, and you sense that they're struggling with something. They're saying things that they genuinely believe, but they're worried that because their perception of him is so glowing, they'll come off as insincere.
Just listen to Carolina Saavedra, executive producer of MSNBC'S Leguizamo Does America, a six-part travel show in which Leguizamo visits cities with large Latino communities and shines a light on their food, music and cultural contributions.
"I wish there was a way to prove that what I'm saying to you is true," Saavedra says. "But I could not be more earnest in saying that he is so supportive and encouraging to everyone. He's such a kind man. He's aware of what everyone's doing and their contributions to the show."
Before production began, Saavedra relates, Leguizamo expressed some concern about never having hosted a docuseries — he knew he couldn't hide behind characters or clown around. Then he realized that all he needed was to be himself.
"He's so engaged, so charming and genuinely interested in who he's talking to," Saavedra says. "He's taken on the tough task of making sure that we, as a community, receive the attention that we deserve." That change in tone — an apologetic awareness — creeps into her voice. "I mean truly, honestly, and I'm not just saying this, he deserves all the flowers."
The interviews for this story were completed before the start of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #7, 2023.