John Leguizamo: 'If you're in a Disney movie, you exist in so many ways' (exclusive)
Latinos make up 20% of the American population. And, yet, according to research conducted by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, they represent less than 6% of the characters seen on screen in Hollywood and less than 5% of those behind the camera.
This is the landscape that Encanto, Walt Disney Animation’s latest musical, and the 60th in its vast canon of films, will be released into — a landscape that actor John Leguizamo hopes will soon begin to shift.
“Encanto alone is going to change the percentage of Latinx in front of the camera,” the actor tells Yahoo.
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“Disney is the cultural barometer of the world. If you're in a Disney movie, you exist in so many ways.”
Leguizamo voices the character of Bruno, the exiled member of the Madrigal family, who have all been blessed with gifts granted to them by a magical house up in the Colombian mountains. Bruno can see into the future. Isabela (Diane Guerrero) makes flowers bloom wherever she steps. Luisa (Jessica Darrow) can carry any burden.
Every Madrigal has their own unique power, except for one: the hero of the story, Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz). But it’s she who first understands that their home might not be built to last, and when she sets off in search of Bruno — what she discovers might change her family forever.
“I think a lot of previous Latin movies in Hollywood were a little tone-deaf,” says Leguizamo. “Latin people became kind of generic. And not just excluded, but also negatively portrayed. So for us to be portrayed as a dysfunctional-functional family — whose family isn’t dysfunctional? — is so powerful.”
But representation doesn’t count for much if it doesn’t come from a place of truth and experience, and the publicity for Encanto has largely centred around the efforts of Disney animators to ensure authenticity by consulting a Colombian “cultural trust” — experts from all walks of life who could advise on aspects as disparate as native vegetation, traditional foods, and the diversity of characters’s skin tones.
Leguizamo, who was born in Colombia’s capital of Bogotá, points out both the inclusion of buñuelos, a type of fried dough fritter, and espadrilles, the world-famous sandal first invented in Colombia.
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The film’s co-director and co-writer, Charise Castro Smith, was also keen to ensure that Encanto reflected Colombia’s history, even if its story is firmly rooted in the fantastical. While the word “encanto” has many uses, often connected to ideas of joy and celebration, here it refers specifically to a place of refuge.
The Madrigal home, and its surrounding town, sprouted up out of the ground when the family’s matriarch, Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero), needed it most, having fled her home after an unnamed attack. It’s an unexpectedly clear-cut metaphor for the internal displacement that’s happened within Colombia over the past few decades. 106,000 have had to leave their homes due to conflict or violence in the past year alone.
“The conquest came and disrupted all these nations — Aztecs, Inca, Maya, Taino. And since then we've been trying to find our footing,” explains Leguizamo. “Wealth doesn't trickle down, and it doesn't trickle down in Latin America. So there's been a lot of unrest, trying to create a society that has more parity. It’s really powerful for a Disney film to touch upon anything slightly political.”
Encanto also marks somewhat of a full-circle moment for Leguizamo’s career. In a Vanity Fair piece from 2017, Lin-Manuel Miranda revealed that the actor’s early stage work — a series of autobiographical pieces in which he’d play every character — first inspired him to go into theatre.
“Witnessing a Latino actor write and star in his own show,” Miranda wrote. “Revelling in the specificities of our culture with brilliant, razor-sharp wit and a uniquely hip-hop energy, exploded my every notion of what theatre could be.”
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Miranda would, of course, go on to write what Leguizamo calls one of “the biggest, best masterpieces in theatre history, Hamilton”. It was a colossal hit on Broadway, took home 11 Tony Awards, and threw open the doors of Hollywood. “Lin now inspires me!” says Leguizamo. “I inspired him, but now he inspires me to keep going and to push further and to not accept rejection in any kind of way.”
Miranda has found another way to repay the favour — he was the one to phone Leguizamo and ask him to be a part of Encanto, which features eight of his songs, in both English and Spanish. The film marks Leguizamo’s first return to animation since he bid farewell to one of his most beloved characters: Sid, the maladroit ground sloth from the Ice Age franchise. And it’s a medium he admits to having a particular investment in. In his words: “I am an animated voice snob.”
Encanto bucks the recent trend in animation of packing a voice cast with A-listers and hoping their star power alone will carry the film. Instead, actors like Beatriz, Leguizamo, Angie Cepeda, and Carolina Gaitán have been chosen primarily for what they can bring to their characters, in speech and song, as opposed to their characters being moulded around their outside persona.
“That's what I look for when I see an animated voice,” Leguizamo adds. “I don't want to hear a star's voice or a celebrity’s voice because it takes me out. I want to believe that character only exists in this movie.”
When prepping for Ice Age, the actor pored over documentary footage of modern sloths and tested out “like 50 voices” for the filmmaking team before settling on Sid’s distinctive lateral lisp.
Days after the interview took place, Disney+ confirmed that Sid would be returning to the (small) screen with The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild – though it’s yet to be confirmed whether Leguizamo will be voicing the role.
And it’s not the only cultural property the actor’s starred in that’s now been set for a revival. Todd McFarlane is currently working on a reboot of 1997’s Spawn, with Jamie Foxx in the lead, while a new, animated Mario film will be snapping at the heels of 1993’s Super Mario Bros, in which Leguizamo starred as Luigi.
“I think it's beautiful,” Leguizamo says of both projects. “I think it gives validity to the original more. It makes people go, 'oh, if they had to make a remake, they must have loved the first one'.
"I guess you live long enough, they will be remaking a lot of your stuff.”
Encanto is in UK cinemas from Wednesday, 24 November. Watch a trailer below.