Levi Kreis knows what it’s like to be ones own worst enemy.
In A Very Sordid Wedding — the latest installment of Del Shores’ Southern-fried Sordid Lives series, Tony-winner Levi Kreis joins the cast as an anti-gay zealot evangelical named Reverend Jimmy Ray Brewton. While the film itself provides yet another good-natured ribbing of rural Americana, Kreis faced a kaleidoscope of emotions while working on the project — which quickly catapulted him back into one of the darkest periods of his life.
Unbeknownst to many of his fans, the now out-and-proud Kreis spent six years of his own life in self-imposed conversion therapy — hoping to unlight the fuse of his same-sex attractions. “A lot of us who are healing those wounds keep it very private,” he confides. “All that flies out the window when you’re playing a character like this. Showing up on set after doing my homework on the character and going to that place where I had to believe the words coming out of this guy’s mouth? That was a bit of a mindf**k.”
Kreis’s fire-and-brimstone role makes him part of a relatively recent showbiz tradition: casting well-known liberals as conservative villains to telegraph that the project doesn’t share these characters’ values. Examples include openly gay David Hyde Pierce and outspoken LGBTQ ally Rob Reiner playing men who opposed gay rights in the ABC docudrama When We Rise. And much like Alec Baldwin reveling in the weekly tweets of fury he incites from the White House via Saturday Night Live, Kreis says there’s a certain satisfaction in putting words into the mouths of his onetime adversaries.
Perhaps no one has performed this parlor trick with more finesse than the late Rue McClanahan. In her personal life, McClanahan dedicated considerable time and energy to LGBT community causes, while onscreen, she famously played women coming to terms with their own homophobia — both as Blanche Devereaux on the Golden Girls and later as family matriarch Peggy in the Sordid Lives prequel series on Logo. In the Sordid universe, her character wrestled with the fact that she had committed her son Brother Boy (played to Tammy Wynette-channeling perfection by Leslie Jordan) to a mental institution for being a cross-dressing homosexual.
As the character evolved, audiences saw that Peggy was haunted by the consequences of her actions. “Sometimes I don’t know how you sleep at night,” her daughter LaVonda says to her.
“Sometimes I don’t,” Peggy replies.
Series creator Del Shores says that McClanahan instinctively understood and embraced the character’s complexities. “Rue’s from Oklahoma and I’m from Texas,” he explains. “She was just as twisted as me.”
Shores remembers McClanahan being keenly aware of the potentially powerful effect of playing such a role.”Rue was such an ally and supporter of our community,” he says. “She actually felt that by playing this type of woman that she could shed light and expose this kind of ignorance and bigotry. Her demographic crossed well into the conservatives, so I believe she did just that, and as she brought many new fans to Sordid Lives, she educated them.” But where McClanahan seemed to easily spritz her performances with magnolia-scented charm, Kreis struggled to find his way into Reverend Jimmy Ray.
GETTING INTO CHARACTER
As Kreis took on the role of a preacher hellbent on making sure a tiny Texas town remains a haven for “traditional marriage,” the process exhumed a graveyard of ghosts Kreis had considered long dead and buried.
“No question it was a daunting experience for me to live in that headspace again because the scripture that I ingested to make me change, in fact, made me a suicidal teen,” Kreis recalls. “I was raised in a small-town fundamentalist environment, and after all these years of learning how to own who I am, you would think I’d be completely confident, given all the work I’ve done. But re-experiencing that level of self-hatred, I still caught myself having the occasional moment of apologizing for who I am.”
Nevertheless, Kreis knew it was essential for his performance that he get inside the Reverend’s head. “That’s the commitment we have as actors: you’ve got to be as honest as possible,” he says. “It was really difficult to get to a place to speak these words and have them come out being genuine — these words that gave me the deepest scars.”
A Very Sordid Wedding marks Kreis’ first onscreen work with Shores, although the two have been friends for years, and it’s easy to understand the bond they share. Shores grew up in the rural South — deeply closeted through his first marriage (to a woman). Kreis was reared in east Tennessee, where his fear of being identified as “one of those people” led to an adolescence of hiding his orientation behind achievements as a musician. And then suddenly, his time of hiding came to an end.
NOTHING TO FIX
At the time, Kreis was studying in Nashville at Belmont University and still actively resisting his attraction to men. “I was in this music history class, and there was this beautiful boy who would stare at me,” Kreis recalls. “I just knew he was conspiring with Satan to bring me down to his base level. So one day after class, I confronted him. Deep in the shame of feeling the attraction I had for him, I said, ‘Look, I’m going through reparative therapy, and Jesus can heal you.’” At first, the boy seemed receptive. “He told me, ‘I need someone who can help me through this.’” Ultimately, says Kreis, “I think it took us all of two weeks before we had sex.”
After that, Kreis finally began to seriously question the nature of his shame. “I’ve always been a very sincere boy,” says Kreis, “and I wanted to know the answers to the questions I had about myself and my relationship with God.” At one point in college, he even spread three different translations of the Bible on his dorm room bed, hoping to triangulate the common truths tucked within.
“The conclusion I began to come to was that maybe God didn’t have an issue with me and perhaps there was nothing for Him to fix,” Kreis says. He confided this conclusion to his roommate Chris, inadvertently setting off a life-changing chain of events.
“Chris took that to the Baptist Student Union and requested prayer for me,” Kreis says. “The union felt responsible to let the college board of directors know what was going on; so they began deliberating on what to do with me.”
By this time, Kreis had also already had a Top Ten hit as a songwriter in the Christian market. “An intern at the Christian label where I was signed let them know what was happening [at school],” Kreis explains. “So a week later I was dropped from the label.”
COMING INTO FOCUS
“I was really angry with God at that point,” Kreis remembers. Disillusioned, Kreis relocated to LA, where he met Del Shores at a performance of Shores’ play Southern Baptist Sissies. “It took me right back: the tiny town and high school graduation — where I was valedictorian with a C average,” Kreis says with a chuckle. “By the end of the play, I was in a fetal position from laughing so hard.” He sought out the playwright, and they became friends as Kreis began to more fully accept his sexuality.
However, that did not necessarily mean the music industry was ready to accept it. He soon went through eight major labels. “No one knew what to do with me,” explains Kreis. “Until Rufus Wainwright introduced audiences and industry people to the idea of an openly gay crooner, there just wasn’t any precedent for someone like me.” Still, there were some artistic benefits: “I was getting really authentic and honest in my songwriting. I was beginning to write more and more about our experiences as LGBT youth.”
It was here that Shores would play another defining role in Kreis’s life, coming up with the title for his debut album, One Of The Ones. “It’s an innocent jab at the embarrassing number of boys I really believed were ‘The One,’” Kreis says sheepishly. “The album deals with all the demons we face in terms of our relationships as gay men — as we fumble in dark rooms and on the apps to try to become the versions of ourselves we really want to be.”
Finally, Kreis’ career started coming into focus. Mainstream TV shows such as Vampire Diaries, Sons of Anarchy and Days of Our Lives began licensing his songs. And eventually, his path led him to Broadway, where he ended up playing rock’n’roll piano pounder Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet — a performance that won him the Tony award for “Best Featured Actor in A Musical” in 2010.
Through it all, Kreis and Shores kept in touch. “I’m not sure how the conversation started with Del and I regarding playing the role of Reverend Jimmy Ray in the film. Maybe I was just at the top of his mind, since I had just played a preacher in Violet on Broadway,” Kreis says. Whatever the reason, it seemed like high time for him to work with Shores, whom Kreis refers to as “the writer/director that saved my life” with his humor. And despite the personally traumatic nature of the subject matter, Kreis found Shores to be a remarkable and intuitive director. “Our working together was a long time in the making, and it was definitely worth the wait.”
FORGIVENESS IS THE FOUNTAIN
So, in retrospect, how does Kreis feel about the religious culture that tried so hard to convince him to change? “When you look back at a fundamentalist upbringing and see people whose convictions damned you to Hell, at some point, you have to ask yourself: can I force these people to have different convictions?”
Kreis chooses to channel his energies into more practical pursuits, including work on an album he recently released called Broadway at the Keys — in which he performs classics from shows including Pippin, Rent and (naturally) Million Dollar Quartet. But he has more to be grateful for than career success.
“I’m now eight years sober from using crystal meth,” Kreis reveals. “All of this change sprang from the realization of how little I valued myself and began a quest for self-love.” Kreis also says that when he stopped judging himself so harshly, it allowed him to judge others less harshly, as well — even those whose beliefs are diametrically opposed to his own.
“If there is anything that has impacted me over the last year,” he concludes, “it’s that we’ve all become so intolerant of each other that we can’t have meaningful disagreements anymore.“ However, his journey has helped him continue to find compassion “for those who truly pain me,” says Kreis. Though he admits that it’s not always a simple process:“Its much easier to just say: f**k ‘em.” But the work pays off in surprising ways. “I have a secret for you,” Kreis shares. “Forgiveness is a fountain of youth, and letting go is the best wrinkle prevention there is.” Ultimately, he believes advocating diversity necessarily includes being tolerant of those with problematically different religious or political opinions. “The message of the film says it all,” Kreis explains. “Dear friends, let us love one another. Period.”
Last modified: October 3, 2017