Why John Leguizamo 'needed' to perform at his latest venue: Rikers Island prison

John Leguizamo has been entertaining audiences for 40 years. But the role he seems to relish most lately is that of activist and advocate.

In his documentary short, “John Leguizamo Live at Rikers,” the comedian performs his hit 2014 one-man show “Ghetto Klown” in front of an audience of 400 inmates.

“I feel like they needed something. I feel like I had to give back,” he tells TODAY.com of his decision to create the film. “Had I made a wrong decision or a different decision here and there, that would be me.”

While the actor, comedian, producer and documentarian has long been outspoken about societal issues, his mission to shed light on matters that affect his community — from racism to reframing attitudes towards mental health — has intensified.

“I tell all Latin people that we are the group of people that needs the most therapy because we are put through the wringer in all aspects of society,” Leguizamo says.

John Leguizamo joins SAG-AFTRA and WGA members on strike on Sept. 14 in New York City.  (Getty Images)
John Leguizamo joins SAG-AFTRA and WGA members on strike on Sept. 14 in New York City. (Getty Images)

Leguizamo says a common response he's heard in regards to seeking out therapy is, "Estas loco" — "you're crazy" — or, "You don't need that."

“Therapy sounds like you’ve lost your mind ... 'You’re just spoiled,’ or ‘You’re just going through something. Drink more or party more,'" he says.

Negative perceptions of therapy in the Latino community might stem from expectations of a man "to be self-sufficient and handle his own problems without outside help," according to a 2023 study of mental health stigma conducted among Spanish-speaking Latinos in Baltimore, published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health.

Leguizamo wants to be open about his own experience. The "Encanto" actor says he's been in therapy since he was 17 years old.

"It saved my life, and it changed me completely. And I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for therapy," he says.

His message is simple: It's OK to seek help.

“It behooves you. It’s important. It’s like you go to the gym, you work out, you eat the proper food — you do the same thing for your mind," he explains.

That message extends to what he calls a "forgotten population": incarcerated Latino and Black youth.

Leguizamo admits he was nervous about performing his comedy in a prison setting for his latest project.

“I started working out a little bit more just to look a little more jacked, so they respect me a little bit more,” he jokes.

Leguizamo supports the New York City-based organization GOSO, or Getting Out and Staying Out, a program for incarcerated 18- to 21-year-olds that aims to reduce recidivism through education, employment and a focus on emotional well-being.

“Our prison system should be about rehabilitation, not punishment,” Leguizamo says.

Leguizamo says he was arrested several times and describes himself as "a problem child." As part of the documentary, he shared his story with a few of the young men enrolled in the anti-recidivism initiative.

"I felt like they could relate to that and hopefully see that I was able to turn my life around," he says.

He adds that the experience had a powerful effect on him, too.

“You start forgetting where you came from," he says. "Going there reminded me and that I have a responsibility not to forget them and to try to do as much as I can.”

One way he aims to lift up his community is through social media.

“You have to be there because that’s where everybody’s consuming their information," he explains. "I only have a million followers on the ‘gram, but my followers are really important people — the pundits, intelligentsia, influencers in the Latin community and in politics, the entertainment industry. So I have a lot of power there, and I know it.”

Exercising that power involves calling out racism and exclusion, and Leguizamo knows firsthand the impact that it can have on how you see yourself.

"I’ve been in this industry for 40 years, and I didn’t understand — I had internalized all the racism, so I kept blaming myself for so many things," he says. "I thought, 'Oh, but if I work harder, if I try harder, I will break through.' And not true, not true. The system was not built to help me."

In 2022, Leguizamo called out "colorism" in Hollywood and revealed in a conversation with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that he had "stayed out of the sun" so he could land jobs in the entertainment industry.

He also called out the lack of films that feature a lead Latino actor. He turned to data and metrics, tools he still uses today, to measure progress in how the community is portrayed on screen.

“We are the dominant group in America and you would not know it. I didn’t know it until we had the metrics because of the digital revolution," Leguizamo tells TODAY.com. "Now we have it all. We have all these metrics and you can measure it. And we know what we’re contributing and what we’re not getting back.”

The improvement he's tracked from the beginning of his career is "major," he says, "but it’s nowhere near enough."

"That’s the problem," he explains. "We’re 20% of the population and 30% of the box office. We hit a milestone, we add $3.2 trillion to the GDP, that’s massive. If we were our own country, Latinos in America, we’d be bigger than Canada, bigger than India, bigger than Brazil, bigger than France. I mean, it’s massive.”

For now, he aims to continue "fighting the good fight," reaffirmed by the kind of interactions he has with people he meets in the day-to-day.

“I get a lot more people stopping me on the street and telling me, 'Thank you for fighting the good fight. Thank you for getting into the good kind of trouble,'" he quotes.

"John Leguizamo Live At Rikers" is available now on the Black Experience collection on Xfinity and Xumo. (Xfinity and TODAY are part of Comcast and Comcast NBCUniversal.)

This article was originally published on TODAY.com