This pandemic has done odd things to the influencer and social media community. Influencers who snapped selfie after selfie are blending into the background, and stay at home orders have given us hour after hour to do nothing but saturate content, and with social and political unrest, mindless Instagram content just doesn’t do it for us anymore. An unlikely hero has emerged at 4’ 11” and 65 years old, with a growing social platform that would make a millennial sweat the competition. Leslie Jordan’s secret? Don’t try, just be. A great message for us all, especially during Pride.
A stage and screen actor, writer, and comedian, Leslie Jordan has made a big splash in both the entertainment and the LGBT world. With a history of bigger than life characters, such as Beverley Leslie in Will & Grace, multiple characters in American Horror Story, and of course, Brother Boy in Sordid Lives, this Emmy Award winner has survived a Southern Baptist childhood, the AIDS crisis, a shared jail cell with Robert Downey Jr., drug and alcohol addiction, and show cancellations as well as show successes. His recent quarantine Instagram stories have made him a household name with appearances on major network outlets as well as a follower base of 3.7 million and counting. His stories are indeed colorful, his signature drawl adorable, but the person behind the persona might surprise you.
What kind of child were you growing up? Were you the class clown?
I was the class clown because I had to keep the bullies at bay. During dodgeball they would yell “Smear that queer!” and I would have to tap dance or get creamed. So, I was always somewhat the class clown because of that. That is my defense mechanism… if I can make you laugh, then you don’t get too close. Sometimes I have to say to myself ok, turn it off, turn it off. But I was extremely popular in school. I wasn’t good at sports and stuff, most of my friends were girls. I ran with the girls.
You moved to Los Angeles in 1982. What were your biggest culture shocks?
In retrospect, I have to say I wasn’t looking to get into the entertainment industry. What I really came to LA for was for having to grow up in a repressed, Southern Baptist upbringing. I had heard of West Hollywood and that there were queers hanging from the tress, and I literally dropped anchor. People say, oh I’m going to give it five years to make it in Hollywood. It didn’t matter to me – I had nowhere else to go, I was home. It was wonderful. 982 was a rough time – it was a city in crisis. I think the biggest shock was getting here in the early ages of the AIDS epidemic. Realizing that, as a community, we were going to get no help, we had to do it ourselves. We started cooking out of the church at Fairfax and Fountain, that became Project Angel Food. We started gathering and having meetings, I was in the forefront. Of course, we were still partying, that was the weird thing. It was like the sinking of the Titanic – it was last call, honey. I had a tiny crystal meth problem, so I was very energetic. I got a lot done. They told me they were going to start this organization, Project Nightlight, where you sit up all night with people that are scared and I thought oh this is perfect, I’m up all night anyway! It was a wonderful time, but it’s weird to look back and think of all the sadness. In the 80’s and early 90’s we basically went to memorial services. I buried an entire directory of people, and I’m not even exaggerating.
You were an out and proud actor before our recent boom in LGBT visibility on screen. Was it a difficult decision to embrace your personality and sexuality in your career?
I didn’t early on. People think I did. You’d go out at night and see every casting director in town and half the producers dancing at the gay bars, but during the day it was very wink wink. I had a gay agent that would literally call me and say listen honey, keep your feet on the ground, keep your hands at your side, put your voice in your lower register. They would tell me to butch it up for certain parts. We had these words like “fay”, used if they want a momma’s boy, but they would never say “gay.” So, people think that I was just running around queening it up – no way! There was a lot of internal homophobia within me too, with the way that I was raised. I remember thinking this last year on The Cool Kids and thinking, this is so easy, the acting part. Even when I play Beverly Leslie I’m acting. But when I played my part on The Cool Kids it was so gut wrenching, I was just being me for the first time and for someone who had struggled in the past. I had gotten out here and developed a drug and alcohol problem, not getting sober till 1997 – so you’re talking years of just craziness. When I got sober in 1997, I could ask for a gay character, but early on they wanted Niles from Frasier – he wasn’t even gay! They wanted urbane, witty, and ‘hello darling’ and you know, I don’t do that. I went in and read for Sex and the City and a straight guy ended up getting the part. Aaron Sorkin kept saying can you do this, can you do that, and I remember finally saying, “you know there are lovable cocksuckers. There is such a thing… we are lovable, we don’t all have to be kind of bitchy and queeny. We can still be nelly and lovable.” It was a journey and thank god I did get sober and started going to recovery because my journey into sobriety became my journey into my queerdom. I could say to you right now that I am 100 percent comfortable in who I am, what I am and that has not always been. I may be able to have acted it, that’s what you saw on the screen. I wasn’t 100 percent comfortable and my mother would call me and say “gay gay gay, why do you always have to play gay?” That’s like somebody saying “black black black why do you always have to play black?” It’s the same, it’s what I am! She’s proud now. I tell her now after she asks why I always must play effeminate – “it bought you a condo!”
What was the defining moment that started your journey in sobriety?
Jail! I went to jail! The last year of my drinking I went to jail five times. It would always start at Marix in West Hollywood. I would always say oh great, happy hour I’ll have a few drinks then go home. Then it would be 2 am and I didn’t know how that happened. But I got arrested for the 5th time and was sentenced to 120 days and I did about 15. I got out because they didn’t have any place to put Robert Downey Jr. I’m not making that up! They put him in with me for one night – that’s my big claim to fame. It was Dec 11th, 1997. We worked together years later, on Ally McBeal, and I thought oh god I was in prison with him, I wonder if he’ll remember. He did immediately. That was it right there. I had hit bottom. Some people have an emotional bottom where they’re sitting at home thinking, I can’t do this anymore. Or I’m sick and tired all the time. Not me, honey I had a bottom – a jail cell. I was working on the worst TV show in the world, called Pacific Blue with Mario Lopez in bicycle shorts. I was the crazy man in the alley. That was the only way I could get out of there; I called my agent. And I said, “please come get me I have to work tomorrow.” I called my friend (actress) Beth Grant, she said just leave him, because you are going to end up dead in a ditch. I said look, I have to do number two and there’s no walls and there’s no paper and you have got to come get me because I’m about to shit my pants. I held it for eight hours, they finally came and got me. That was the worst part. And then I had to go to court for my sentencing. Well, I’m 22 years sober now.
The first time Leslie Jordan started his mainstream visibility was for his Emmy winning role of Beverley Leslie in Will & Grace. What was supposed to have been a one-time guest role played by a woman (Joan Collins, no less) became one of the most loved recurring characters of the show. What hit your mind when you went up to accept your Emmy?
I remember I had planned a speech in case. But it just flooded out. My only regret was that my win wasn’t at the Emmys, it was the Creative Arts Emmys which is the week before. No one got to see my speech and it was so heartfelt. said there are two ways to combat homophobia – one was through humor, which I’ve learned, and the second was by putting a face on it. These characters on Will & Grace were probably the first gay people that many people in American let in their homes. Characters that we laughed with and loved and there was a lot of progress made. Because I think when it’s all said and done people will look back and say Will & Grace was when the tide turned. Right there. I really do think it’s that important. When I first started working on that show, people would stop me and say, aren’t “you on TV?” “I’m on Will & Grace!” and it would be a straight guy and immediately they’d say, “my wife watches that” or “my girlfriend watches that.” And by the end of the show, I’d be walking by a construction site and the workers would be yelling “hey, I loved you on that show, you’re funny!” I thought, you know, that’s progress right there.
Leslie Jordan has appeared in every form of media – plays, web series, stand up, one man shows, and his popular cruise appearances. He is a prolific writer in addition to his acting and his autobiographical shows have played off- Broadway and on national tours to critical and audience acclaim. His one man shows have a charm to them, he gives off the sense that he is just telling stories that come to his mind. But there is a beautiful process at play, hitting the comedy, the drama, the highs and lows of his life. How is your creative process different for stage verses film?
With stage you must play to the back seat. It’s kind of a heighted reality. It drives me crazy when I see people on stage mumbling and I want to say save it for the camera, we got to hear you! I’m all for that Marlon Brando mumbling but speak up! It was always the opposite for me. I had done stage with Sordid Lives as a stage play and Southern Baptist Sissies, and then we shot it, so you have to pull it down a bit. That was always the challenge. To take it down. Jimmy Borrows who directs me in Will & Grace always said to me, “you know Leslie you are really funny when you don’t try to be.” And I get that. Sometimes you’re being big and broad and look at me, how funny I am and you’re funnier when you take it in a film direction. I worked on American Horror Story with David Lynch’s daughter and she would just holler, “take the air out of it,” in front of everyone, I wanted to tell her there are Academy Award winning actors here, honey. I love what I do with my one man show, that’s what I love. When I can stand up and tell stories about my life and just talk to you like I’m talking to you right now and garner a laugh. The whole acting thing has gotten exhausting to me.
Leslie’s recent spotlighted success represents years of hitting the pavement as well as disappointments. For every Will & Grace and American Horror Story, there are failed pilots, short lived series on the CW, gay themed comedy shows that never made it, and cancellations on projects that should have worked. How do you handle the ups and downs in the industry? Your last show, The Cool Kids (with Vicki Lawrence, Martin Mull, and David Alan Grier), was hilarious but was cancelled.
I’ve gotten so good at it that sometimes I even mask it with myself. I was gutted, I was really gutted. I didn’t see it coming. Charlie Day had talked to us two days before and we had our flights scheduled to go to New York to go to the upfronts. And then the phone rang, and Charlie said it’s not going to happen, the series is cancelled. I said “cancelled?” I was so gutted. I don’t cry anymore… I used to cry and carry on, oh poor me. I was just kind of gutted. Then what happens? The phone immediately rang, and it was the Will & Grace people saying their loss is our gain, we want to pin him for a couple of episodes. It was another bump in the road. You move on.
In his performance and even in his Instagram appearances, Leslie seems grounded, intimate, and real. What you see is what you get. He doesn’t know what’s going to come out of his mouth any more than you do, but you know it’s going to be hilarious. He did make some headlines when he threw his Starbucks drink at someone shouting gay slurs – to clarify it wasn’t hot coffee but rather sweet tea, totally acceptable. Reality is a big part of Leslie’s life, but it didn’t work out for him for Celebrity Big Brother UK, not even the big paycheck could quiet his distaste of the experience. What was your favorite part about appearing on Celebrity Big Brother UK?
No favorite part. Seriously. None. The only fun part was that they hired me so quickly. I had three days to get ready and it was booked so quickly. That’s a huge show, the biggest show in all of Europe. From the moment my foot stepped off the plane it was a nightmare. It’s horrible. You don’t have a watch, a newspaper. Time is boring and never ending. Oh god. They would punish me by taking my food away. I got rice and beans for five days. If I don’t get my food I’m mean as a snake. You know I spit on Gary Busey? I spit right on him!
How is Leslie Jordan as a person the most different from Leslie Jordan the persona?
I am such a recluse. I read a lot. I have not left the house after 6 pm without a paycheck in about five years. I don’t go out at night. I’m in my pajamas. I don’t know when that happened. I was raised with identical twin sisters, and they always had their own thing together, so I just spent a lot of time in my room. I don’t know how to turn it off even if there’s just one other person. I will be talking/performing, but I’m not good at small talk. spend a lot of time alone and I love it. I love it, I love it, I love it.
How have you changed the most from your first acting gig?
With Pride festivals cancelled around the world, Pride has a quiet, more intense energy this year. No flashy headliners, no parades, no after parties, but a chance to reflect on how far we have come, with social and political pioneers of Pride paving the way for the future. Pride comes in packages of all sizes, whether knowingly or without realizing it.
I seriously could have talked to Leslie for hours and hours, there’s a lot of life that has been lived and learned. He is a personal hero, making gays in the entertainment industry a group to contend with – he is my pioneer in Pride. If you have the opportunity to see his one man shows, do it. Meantime, you can get a load of her on Facebook at facebook.com/thelesliejordan and on Instagram: @TheLeslieJordan.
Last modified: June 16, 2020