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Actor, producer, playwright, screenwriter and director John Leguizamo participated in an annual event held virtually this year.
In its 17th season, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Distinguished Speaker series looked a bit different for 2020 – the event was held virtually, free to UTRGV students, faculty and alumni. Leguizamo joined the conversation via Zoom, and spoke on the facets of representation in the entertainment industry and other spheres in the United States.
Leguizamo, an Emmy Award winner originally from Queens, New York, has been a creator and artist since he was in his adolescence. He was originally scheduled to appear as a Distinguished Speaker in April this year, before the coronavirus pandemic took the event virtual.
The UTRGV Distinguished Speaker Series, hosted by Student Activities, has featured major speakers such as former leader of Russia Mikhail Gorbachev, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, author and civil rights activist the late Dr. Maya Angelou, Emmy award-winning CNN host Larry King and Grammy/Oscar award-winning R&B artist John Legend. Leguizamo’s feature as a Distinguished Speaker was moderated by Dr. Greg Selber, a journalism professor at UTRGV for 20 years.
The pair discussed that while the Latino community makes up nearly 20 percent of the country’s population, only 1 percent of the stories being told in Hollywood actually represent perspectives from the community.
“Why aren’t they putting us in shows and why aren’t they telling our stories?” Leguizamo said.
Leguizamo’s career spans decades, and covers the realms of the stage, screen, animation and documentary. He noted he studied under acclaimed actor, director and practitioner Lee Strasberg, and said finding a mentor and continuing with education is the key to success in whatever career path one chooses.
“I never got into this business to be famous, I got into it because I loved the craft,” Leguizamo said. “Find the best teacher in your community, in your area, and study. Learn the craft, and then you can throw down with anybody.”
Legiuzamo said that as a performer, being trained in his field has made working with other trained actors even better – they are able to talk shop and break down a scene in collaborative, creative ways.
He also spoke on his most recent film, “Critical Thinking,” about a dedicated teacher who inspires a group of Latinx and Black teens to become chess champions. The film, which Leguizamo directed and stars in, took him two decades to complete due to constant rejections and because “no Latin executives appreciate our culture.”
“This pandemic is so interesting because it took so much away from us, but it also gave us a lot of things,” Leguizamo said. “I had a chance to really write about the things that I was passionate about without distraction.”
Leguizamo, who has earned a successful career with his unique performances, vivid one-man shows and written feats, added there is always more work to be done. He said an actor’s job is always ongoing, and he recently auditioned for an adaptation of Pinocchio.
About 80 questions were asked during the event, and Leguizamo was able to speak to a few students on their questions and how he has been able to navigate the spheres of art and influence. He encouraged everyone to vote, learn and celebrate the culture that strengthens Latino communities across the nation and world.
“If we Latin people are the largest voting block at 32 million registered voters – and Texas is 40 percent Latino and 12 percent Black – we have a big chance of turning that blue,” Leguizamo said. “Zoom learning is not the greatest, but have faith that the hard work will pay off.”