Talking to John Leguizamo is a bit like seeing his one-man shows. He’s very funny, thoughtful, and you have to pay attention, because there’s a lot going on and you don’t want to miss a word. I interviewed John in between stops on a tour of his latest live show, Work in Progress. – Brett Singer
Let’s talk about Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. Is it fun to come back to a role (Sid the Sloth) three times?
Oh, I looove Ice Age, man. I love that character I created. I worked really hard to get that character to be an entity unto itself, y’know? I’m a big fan of Mel Blanc. I think he was a genius. The way he did those voices, they felt [like] they could only exist out of that drawing, y’know what I mean? So that’s what I tried to do. Come up with the voice, the personality, so you didn’t think of John Leguizamo. I didn’t want people to think “John Leguizamo”, I wanted people to think “this is Sid”, you know? I felt like I accomplished some Mel Blanc-ism there.
Was there a process where you tried out different voices?
I tried 50 voices for the director. He didn’t like anything. (Editor’s note: as he tells this story he switches voices.) I did the (Southern) Southern cop voice for him, (Indian) I did this type of voice for him, perhaps that could work, (Peter Lorre style) this type of voice, (normal) I did everything, man. So I said, “give me some Discovery channel footage of sloths.” When I learned that they store their food in their cheek pouches, that’s when it call came together. I stared walking around the house with a sandwich, and I said (gradually shifts into Sid’s lisp) how’m I gonna come up with this voice, how’m I gonna come up with this voice…Voice! This is the voice! This is the character! True story. (Laughs.)
Do your kids like seeing you, or hearing your voice, in movies?
Not at first. Now they love it. At first they were creeped out. They were too young. They didn’t understand. “Dad… cartoon… why does it kinda sound like…” But now they dig it. They asked me to be in Ice Age. I heard Ray Romano had his kids in it, so I said if he can, I can too. So I got my kids in it.
Do you want them to go into show business?
No. I just thought they would get a kick out of this.
But you specifically don’t want them to go into acting?
No, cuz I love ‘em.
You don’t think they’ll look at you and say, look at what dad does, maybe we can do that too?
Of course they do. They wanna be actors, and I say, “That’s great.” But I don’t really mean it.
Do you think there’s any way to keep them out of it?
I’m going to try and steer them into other things. You can’t be an actor unless you need to be an actor. You cannot want to be an actor. You have to need it. That’s the only way you can do it.
Is that what it was like for you growing up? That you needed to do it?
Absolutely. I totally needed to do it. I needed that form of expression and without that form of expression I was lost.
I saw your Tony-nominated solo show Sexaholix, which had some bits about parenting. For example, the one where you have to stay home with your infant son for the first time and you call your dad for help. (In the show, John’s dad says he should get a beer, and offers the immortal advice, “If he’s screaming, he’s breathing.”) Did that really happen?
Yeah, it did. I tweaked it a little bit, but it happened. [My wife] was smart enough to know that I needed to bond [with the baby] and the best way to bond is to just be with the kids, and do the diapering, do all that stuff and be with them… It’s true. There’s no bonding like when you actually have to do things with them.
What about dads who don’t change diapers?
Not anymore. That was back then. Life isn’t like that anymore. You don’t have that luxury anymore. Guys gotta do shit that women used to do, and it’s good. I see a lot of dads feeding those babies at the park, with the bottle. It’s tougher for us, it’s tougher for the dudes. But in the end, you do get closer to your kids.
Do you think because we pay more attention to our kids then our parents did, we worry about them more?
Hell yeah. I mean, the whole world is worrying. It’s so bizarre. I used to hang out in the street all day by myself, until the lamppost went on and then I had to come in for supper. Then I’d beg to go back out. If I begged enough, maybe I could go back out for another half hour after dinner. But I’d be out there all by myself. We never let our kids out by themselves.
Is the world more dangerous, or are we more worried?
I don’t really know, dude. I talk about this with my friends, and nobody has an answer. I thought maybe Americans were just crazy fearful, but I went to Colombia last week for a film festival and my aunts are all paranoid too.
I grew up in the Bronx and I would hang around on the corner when I was 6, 7, 8 years old. But I can’t imagine letting my boys do that.
I know, I know. I mean, I want to let my daughter go to the store across the street… but I don’t even know if she can cross the street by herself at eight years old, y’know what I mean? We knew how to cross streets back then. (Laughs.) It’s so weird, isn’t it?
Did you have any expectations of what being a parent would be like?“My parents were so immigrant and so driven, and I can’t help but do that to my kids.”
Nothing prepares you. I think people don’t prepare you because they want you to suffer like them. (Laughs.) But nothing prepared me for this. I never knew that I could love something outside of myself so much like I love my kids. And the amount of pain and suffering that comes with that.I used to live such a carefree life! And it makes you care about the world in a way that I never did before. Like, protect this world for them and the future. I never felt that before, you know? It’s interesting how that love for your kids just bleeds out into so many other things.
Another line that I love from Sexaholix is when your daughter is born and you say something like “I looked her in the eyes and said ‘I’m going to screw you up in ways you can’t even imagine’.” Do you really feel that way?
Yeah. I mean, come on. You know we’re gonna fuck ‘em up somehow. I already know. And I’m so guilt-ridden about that. I read tons of books about parenting, about siblings. I’m so obsessed with doing it the right way. But I still catch myself doing crazy things. Doing things my parents did!
You read parenting books?
Did you do that before they were born?
When it started to become more difficult. When the terrible threes came. That’s a horrible thing. Siblings without Rivalry was my favorite.
Lots of men don’t read parenting books.
Well, I knew I was raised in a fucked-up way, so I didn’t want to be the one that contributed the worst to my kids. (Laughs.) It’s more of a competition with my wife. Who’s gonna be the one to pass on their fucked up-ed-ness to their kids?
Do you ever look at your kids and say to your wife, okay, that came from me, that came from you?
Yeah. You can see that. Nothing you can do. Even if you’re aware, and you read, you’re still doing shit. My parents were so immigrant and so driven, and I can’t help but do that to my kids. [I tell them] “You have to earn everything. I’m not buying you another toy.” And I go, oh my god. That’s my parents. (Laughs.) “Earn every toy, every Wii, every Nintendo DS – you have to read a book, you have to earn it.” They’ve got to read certain books over the summer, or they don’t get the ping pong table. They gotta earn everything.
One more thing: we loved your Captain Vegetable on Sesame Street. That was my son’s favorite bit when he was little.
I loved that sucker, man.