John Leguizamo Says Rejection Made Him The Actor And Activist He Is Today

“I’ve been rejected my whole life,” actor John Leguizamo told me. After starring in over 100 movies, earning a Special Tony Award, an Emmy Award, and building a prolific body of work in entertainment, Leguizamo still calls himself a “scrappy kid from Queens.” And after 40 years in Hollywood, he is taking on his first leading role in a TV series, “The Green Veil.” He also wrote and executive produced on it.

The historical drama, set in the ’50s, is about the U.S. government’s role in stealing Native American land. He stars as Gordon Rogers, a hyper-ambitious immigrant-turned-government-agent who will do anything for the American dream, including selling out his people. Episodes of “The Green Veil” are available on a new, free streaming platform called The Network, which was created by Leguizamo’s longtime friend and collaborator on the project, Aram Rappaport.

All of the major streaming networks rejected the show, Leguizamo shared, because the series is a Latino and Native American story. “They keep saying that they want to be inclusive and have us on board, but they don’t green-light,” he said. “They don’t green-light our stories.”

For clearly one of the hardest workers in show business with one of the longest resumes I’ve ever seen, it’s hard to believe that rejection is still ever-present for Leguizamo. “They were never going to pick me — no matter how talented I was,” he said, recalling his career in Hollywood. “I could act like Brando, James Dean. I could write like Shakespeare and William Goldman. I was not going to get cast. My scripts were not going to be selected because of the content and because of my appearance.”

He continued, “At first I thought, oh man, I’m a little too rough. But it paid off because Hollywood rejected me. And that was OK with me because I’ve been rejected my whole life, so it’s fine.” Watch my “Salon Talks,” episode with John Leguizamo here on YouTube or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about his role in “The Green Veil,” guest hosting “The Daily Show” and why he calls the current state of America “terrifying.”

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You are a living legend. I don’t use that word lightly. I don’t throw it around.

I don’t take it lightly. I take it very honorably.

You have starred in over 100 films.

Not all good.

You have a brand new drama series, “The Green Veil.” It is historical fiction, but a lot of these events actually happened. Bring us into this world.

Well, the filmmaker, Aram Rappaport, who’s an incredible, brilliant man, was doing some research and found out that in the 1950s, the U.S, government was coming up with excuses and going into Native American people’s homes and taking their children from them, putting them up for adoption so they couldn’t inherit the land. So why? So they can give it to oil companies. And that went on from the ‘50s to the ‘80s. When I heard that, I go, “Yo, I’m in. I’m in.”

So we started creating this character, a self-hating Latin man, a person of color. People of color sometimes, when we’re trying to pass and trying to fit into society, can be even worse to our own people. And so that’s why this guy goes around snatching Native American babies from their homes.

We just started to recently hear about Native American children being taken to early 1900s and put into boarding schools and then “Killers of the Flower Moon” and then this, you’re like, wait a minute. It didn’t stop there? They continued to assault Native Americans.

You said self-hating. You play Gordon. He’s a government agent.

Right. He’s trying to pass so desperately. He’s got the white wife, the white child that he had to adopt, obviously because they couldn’t have a white child, and he’s trying to be the best in the department, be perfect for the FBI so they’ll be accepted in this community. And what happens to people like that? They get used up and spit out.

Gordon is very opposite of you. You’re outspoken. You’re an advocate. What is it like coming to work every day and having to play that person?

Ooh, it’s rough. I mean, I understand this character. I don’t need people to love him or like him because he is disgusting, but I need them to understand why somebody turns like that. 

Why somebody from our own community can turn against us. You know what I mean? That’s what I want to understand, how damaged they are, how psychologically twisted they are. That’s what I want people to understand, the makings of an individual like that.

Do you feel like it’s the fear, or you feel like it’s self-preservation, or . . .

Oh, yeah. Self-preservation. Obviously it’s fear-based, but it’s self-preservation too. Those two ingredients together that make them so insidious.

You have touched on it already, but this whole idea of whiteness in this country is often associated with success. Whiteness is a success, and he’s chasing that success.

Assimilating and passing. And we Latin people are finally getting to an intersection, a crossroads where we’re accepting and embracing our indigenous side, our Afro-Latino side and loving it — finally.

It’s wild because even in my own family . . .  for us Latin people, we understand colorism is alive and well in our families. My mom is lighter skinned, so she always thought she was the pretty one. My aunt is darker skinned, so she doesn’t think she’s as beautiful as my mom. And my mom has mad curly hair, but my aunt has straight indigenous hair. All these things since colonialism we valued European features, lighter skin, and people are always in denial in the Latin community.

Where do you think the shift comes from?

I think it’s Black culture fighting so hard to accept themselves.

I’ll take credit. Thank you. I’m just joking.

“I like being against the system. I’m just used to fighting it. Now I have to try to save it too.”

No, no, but for real, but for real. Black culture fought so hard against American assimilation because they didn’t let you assimilate. They didn’t let us assimilate either, but the lighter skin you are . . . There are white Latinos and that’s who’s always been in movies — white Latinos or white passing Latinos. But I think now we’re starting to accept our being indigenous and finding pride and beauty in it.

You not only star in this series, but you write and executive produce.

And we started this platform because this content didn’t sell to the regular streamers.

The Network.

Yes, The Network. You can get it, It’s free. And if you’re like me, anything free is for me.

So you went out to all of the big streamers?

And they loved it. They flipped out and they go well . . . and then they start offering my friend, the director, creator, tons of projects to direct, but not this one.

But not this one.

Because the content — Native American, Latino. They keep saying that they want to be inclusive and have us on board, but they don’t green-light. They don’t green-light our stories. We’re 30% of the box office in America — Latin people — 30% of subscribers on streaming, 30% of the sports fans, and you’re not going to have our stories.

“We Latin people got to get louder. We got to start using our power. We got to start organizing a lot more and getting more assertive about it.”

It’s crazy, man. They’re taxing us without representation. We have to do it ourselves. Tyler Perry said it. They’re not going to give us a seat to the table. We got to make our own table. I agree.

You’ve also been one of our favorite guest hosts on “The Daily Show.”

Thank you.

You’re great at bringing fun and understanding to some of these scary political times. What was that experience like for you?

Oh dude, it was like, it was incredible being on “The Daily Show.” First of all, I’m such a huge fan of Trevor Noah and Jon Stewart, huge and what they’re doing, like bringing comedy like you’re saying, to really difficult subject matter, making it fun and interesting.

Here I am in a writers’ room of 25 of the smartest, funniest people in America who are writing for me. Five of the top producers producing for me. You’re like driving a Ferrari where I was used to driving a Toyota and all of a sudden you’re in this hot rod. It’s incredible, man. I never want to leave.

Would you take that gig? Could you see yourself doing that? Like a three-year run?

I don’t know if I could do it as good as Jon Stewart, man. I watched him, now that he’s back and I’m like, dude, he’s funnier than ever and braver than ever.

Time off makes you a little more funnier. He had some time.

Yeah, it gets you sharp.

You wrote that op-ed for the New York Times in 2016 about Trump, and my favorite line was, “Donald Trump has done one good thing. He’s galvanized a conflicted and diverse community.” Do you feel like we have that energy now? It just doesn’t feel like election season.

Right now, I mean, the world is such a mess. We’re in such a conflicted world all of a sudden and we’ve been through this crazy massive election cycle. It feels like the election cycle never stopped from 2016 to now. It just feels like it’s been on full blast 24/7 since 2016. So it doesn’t feel like it’s fresh because we’ve been in it for so long trying to save our country.

I like being against the system, but now I have to play it saving the system that I’m against. It’s crazy. I’m just used to fighting it. Now I have to try to save it too. It’s like a double, double job now that I got to do.

Trump is polling better with Latinos right now than Biden. You have any reason why?

Yeah, because Latinos, they’re blaming him for the economy, which they shouldn’t be because COVID was the culprit and Trump not handling COVID was the culprit in damaging our economy. But our economy is doing great. It’s just inflation that’s messing up everybody’s paycheck. So I understand that. 

“It’s terrifying. It feels like our democracy is in grave danger.”

But also Latinos are not monolithic. Just like the Black community’s not monolithic, just like white folks. You got to come at us from all kinds of different angles and you got to come for us. The Democrats messed up in 2020 and did nothing. Did not spend dollars on us, did not have Latin consultants, did not fund our grassroots organizations, and our grassroots organizations gave us Arizona. They tried to give us Texas and they got close. 

Florida was difficult, but Republicans spent money, assets. They came at us through WhatsApp in Arizona and Texas and Florida, went to our radio stations, Spanish-speaking stations, gave them the right trigger words. Democrats need to step it up, need to fund our grassroots organizations.

What kind of emotions come up for you when you think about the political future of our country right now in this moment?

It’s terrifying, man. It’s terrifying. It feels like our democracy is in grave danger. The Supreme Court seems like it’s a puppet for Trump. I mean, they’re stalling on immunity. Come on, you can’t give a president total immunity because then they can do criminal stuff and they’d be above the law. That’s not OK. And they’re hemming and hawing and saying, what if they use it as . . . Nobody’s going to use it as a weapon. They can’t.

And it’s just crazy. I mean, I hope by November 4th everybody gets a clear head and maybe they don’t want to vote for Biden, but vote against Trump and vote for Biden. I mean, even if you can’t wrap your mind around Joe who’s not much older than Trump, he’s only four years older or three.

They were in high school at the same time.

Right, right. So they’re not that much older.

It’s colonial times, but it was still a time.

Right. And Trump is making gaffes and tripping on himself, not being able to walk up ramps or down, farting on himself. Yo, go for the lesser evil.

It’s scary times. But I feel like what you said, like regardless of what happens, those of us who care, who love our communities and who love this country will get together and we’ll figure out what the new normal is.

We who love the idea of this country because I love the idea of this country, that we’re all equal, but it’s never really been that. But I love the promise of that, and that’s what I fight for.


That someday we’re all going to be incredibly equal and all be respected and there’s decency in this country. That’s what I fight for. America still has a lot of work to do.

That’s a good clip. Maybe you should run.

If you’re my vice president, I’m in, I’m in.

One of the reasons why you’re one of my favorite artists is because you have so many credits. You’re constantly working. Traditionally, minorities, we have to work so much more. I read that Giancarlo Esposito said he contemplated suicide before he got “Breaking Bad” as a way to take care of his family.

Get that insurance policy.

Late last year, Taraji P. Henson broke down in tears during “The Color Purple” press run over pay disparity. When or how can we push the conversation forward? I mean, even your show, you had to start your own network.

Disparity is huge. Obviously we’re not getting the same amount of money, but it’s not just Hollywood, it’s everywhere. Latin women are the lowest-paid workers in America and they are the number one small business start-ups in America at 80%. And what drives America? Small businesses. But they are the least to get bank loans. The least to get venture capital. And that’s where the problem is. 

“My scripts were not going to be selected because of the content and because of my appearance, not because of the quality of my work.”

Here we are, Latino people have reached another crossroads, which we add $3.2 trillion to the GDP every year. That’s crazy amount of our contribution. And then where are we in the corporate boards? Where are we as CEOs in companies and banks, in tech? Invisible. We’re not there. That’s where the real discrepancy happens. I mean, that’s where it starts. We’re not getting promoted. 

I talk to a lot of executives, Latino executives, and they go, “Yo, they’re asking me to train all these people coming in. They get promoted, they move up, they become CEOs and I’m still not being promoted, but I’m good enough to train though. So I got the abilities, but why am I not getting promoted?” We know why. Because he’s a person of color and he’s Latino.

I think being vocal about it is more important than anything.

And we Latin people got to get louder. We got to start using our power. We got to start organizing a lot more and getting more assertive about it. We got to start using all the tools that are available to us. We got to boycott, protest, call out, write letters, and just not stop and calling them on their lack of inclusion. 

A lot of my white friends are feeling like, “Oh, it’s not my decade anymore. Oh, they’re only hiring people of color.” I go, “Well, welcome to my life.” That’s been my whole life. They were never going to pick me no matter how talented I was. I could act like Brando, James Dean. I could write like Shakespeare and William Goldman. I was not going to get cast. My scripts were not going to be selected because of the content and because of my appearance, not because of the quality of my work.

Your work has changed the industry, so congratulations on that.

Thank you.

Do you feel like you ever been underestimated just coming out as a kid from Queens, making all these waves?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. First of all, I never thought I’d be at this level, so that’s crazy. But I’m a fighter, man. I’ve been a scrappy kid from Queens forever, and it paid off. At first I thought, oh man, I’m a little too rough. But it paid off because Hollywood rejected me. And that was OK with me because I’ve been rejected my whole life, so it’s fine. Come on, keep coming. Bringing that. Bring that to me because it doesn’t deter me. It doesn’t stop me. It only makes me stronger and better.

Well, you’re here making it happen. The first episodes of “The Green Veil” are now streaming on The Network.

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“Salon Talks” with D. Watkins onYouTube

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