Anyone who’s found fame as a performer can tell you a thing or two about working hard and overcoming obstacles. If that someone happens to be a Latino who paid his dues in 1980s comedy clubs and has succeeded onstage and on screen for the better part of four decades, he can tell you a lot about it.
The man in question is John Leguizamo, a 54-year-old, Bogota-born, Queens-raised performer whose humor, nerve and remarkable ability to impersonate an abundance of ethnic voices landed him in a solo Broadway show by 1998, led to an HBO special and paved the way for the TV, film and stage career he’s cultivated ever since.
If there’s a common ingredient in Leguizamo’s achievements, it’s his drive and a refusal to take “no” for an answer. And this, as it turns out, forms the thematic core of the Pepsi commercial that aired Thursday night during the Billboard Latin Music Awards.
“You know, I’m an overachiever,” Leguizamo told Adweek on a call Thursday afternoon. If you’re a Latino, he added, “you have to be four times better than the next guy to make it—it’s just a fact of life.”
The 60-second Pepsi spot shows Leguizamo, seriously late for a curtain call, dashing across Mexico City to get to the theater. He bolts from his hotel bed, dashes down an escalator and even commandeers a pedicab to reach the stage door just in time.
“I wouldn’t say hellish,” Leguizamo said when asked if his real life is anything like that, “but I would say hectic.”
What elevates the spot from mere slapstick are the etherial voices that echo in Leguizamo’s head as he runs, replaying many of the doubts he’s heard throughout his ascent to fame: “That accent is so difficult,” “your talent is not enough” and other …
The voices, it turns out, reflect Leguizamo’s real-life struggles as well. When Pepsi called to ask him to star in the spot, the basic concept was already in place, but, he said, “we talked about it and merged their ideas with my ideas.” The collaborative result is the theme of powering through difficulties. “You have to strive and not let obstacles take you down,” he said. “Obstacles aren’t problems—they’re challenges. And challenges are opportunities. That’s the way I see it.”
The opportunities Leguizamo’s cultivated haven’t been limited to stage and screen. As Adweek reported in 2016, Leguizamo was blazing yet another career path, this time with his own venture called New Generation Latino Media, which used digital video to help brands like P&G and Ford reach Spanish-speaking consumers. More recently, the firm expanded into a full-services production division called NGL Studios.
In addition to giving the actor and comedian another creative outlet, Leguizamo’s media company also lets him address the long-running shortcomings that tend to crop up when huge brands finally wake up to the Latino market and then try to reach them through advertising. Until recently, these flubs included taking an off-the-shelf English-language spot, dubbing it in Spanish and then assuming it would work. (It bears noting that Leguizamo’s Pepsi ad doesn’t just take place in Mexico City and doesn’t just star Leguizamo—it’s a from-scratch Spanish-language spot.)
So what do brands trying to reach Latino consumers get wrong? “Not talking our language—not talking to us, through us, but talking at us,” Leguizamo said.