June 04, 2001 12:00 PM

John Leguizamo

In Moulin Rouge, a cancan-dancing Nicole Kidman gets to show off her legs. Poor John Leguizamo has to hide his. “For most of the film I’m standing on my knees on fake ankles,” explains the actor, who plays the 4’11” French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the $50 million period musical. “My knees were hurting, man. Nicole and I would fight for the masseuse.”

An easy battle, considering that Leguizamo, 40, had to fight for the role in the first place. Director Baz Luhrmann had wanted an Englishman to play Lautrec, a lisping bohemian dwarf, but relented after Leguizamo auditioned for two hours. Why so keen? Toulouse-Lautrec “was crazy. He was a nut,” says Leguizamo—clearly qualities to which the Colombian-born comic can relate. When he was 4, Leguizamo’s family moved to Queens, where his experiences as a smart-tongued Hispanic kid provided fodder for a stand-up comedy career that has taken him from the downtown clubs of Manhattan to Broadway and, eventually, Hollywood. In 1995 he garnered strong reviews as a transvestite in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar and hasn’t looked back.

Next up is Collateral Damage, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a 22-city tour of his new one-man show Live, for which he has a fresh source of material: longtime girlfriend Justine Maurer, 33, and daughter Allegra Sky, 1½, and son Ryder, 6 months, with whom he lives in New York City. Only one thing is missing. With kids, he says, “you never sleep.”

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