John Leguizamo on ‘To Wong Foo’ legacy 25 years after cult film’s debut

The actor and comedian John Leguizamo is among a growing list of entertainers who wants transgender roles in films and television to be played by trans actors — at least for the foreseeable future.

“We have to make amends. Anybody can play anything, but the playing field is not fair that way,” Leguizamo, 56, told NBC News. “Not everybody is allowed to play everything, so until we get to that place, it is important for trans actors to get a chance to act.”

Leguizamo made the remarks ahead of the 25th anniversary of the drag queen cult classic “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.” In the 1995 comedy, Leguizamo plays Chi-Chi Rodriguez, one of three drag queens embarking on a cross-country road trip until their car breaks down in the fictional town of Snydersville, Nebraska. While never fully articulated in the film, Chi-Chi has widely been perceived as transgender by longtime fans of the film — and Leguizamo himself.

If the film’s casting were today, though, Leguizamo would want a transgender Latina playing the down-and-out drag ingenue.

“Latin people should be playing Latin people — no more brown face,” he said. “Enough of that, and the same thing in the LGBTQ community, same thing. There are actors out there who are out that should be playing those roles.”

With LGBTQ representation in mainstream media a rarity in the ‘90s, “To Wong Foo” — and the character of Chi-Chi in particular — made an indelible mark.

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“It was a powerful thing. I get lots of fan mail from LGBTQ teens telling me how my character helped them come out to their parents,” Leguizamo said. “They didn’t feel like they were seen, so that was a beautiful gift from the movie.”

The transgender actress Candis Cayne — who played a pageant contestant in the film’s last scene and was the “drag mentor” of the top-billed star, Patrick Swayze — reflected on that significance.

“Chi-Chi was a trans icon, but she also showed us that gay men and trans women can both perform and work in drag side by side, and that those relationships are symbiotic,” she explained.

Candis Cayne hosts the 19th Annual GLAAD Media Awards at the Marriott Hotel in San Francisco.Steve Jennings / WireImage file

As for the film more broadly, Cayne, who was “trying to make it big in New York City” as a drag queen when she was asked to audition for “To Wong Foo,” said, “It was really the first time that queendom had been profiled by mainstream Hollywood.”

Cayne’s role in the film earned her admission into the actors union, paving the way for her groundbreaking role in the ABC drama “Dirty Sexy Money,” making her the first transgender actress to play a recurring transgender character in primetime television.

‘We’re not equal until we’re all equal’

Leguizamo said the message at the heart of “To Wong Foo” — which shows that big city liberals and middle-America conservatives can not only coexist but also learn from each other — is one that still resonates today.

“America is better when we’re all united,” he said. “It’s called the United States of America, right? You see that in this movie. You see that when we get along, we’re stronger than when we’re divided.”

Leguizamo, who has embraced his role as an LGBTQ ally, is now writing a musical about transgender immigrants at Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention camps along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I realized with my voice and number of followers, I can give voice to the vulnerable,” he said. “I enjoy using my voice to make the world a better place for everybody, ‘cause we’re not equal until we’re all equal.”

And in his forthcoming musical, he said he is “making sure that the person playing trans is a trans person, so we can make it legit, make it real.”

“That just needs to be done right now,” he added.

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