Leslie Jordan :: Fruit-Flying Through the Holidays (and Life)
The great thing about life is that great unexpected and unpredictable things can happen. I mean, who would ever think that a 4’11", gay, flamboyant, and funny "ha ha" man would be one of the most sought-after scene-stealers on television?
That’s Leslie Jordan.
He is the type of actor and comedian who can take the smallest of character parts and make them a pinnacle element of any sitcom or dramedy on TV. He’s traveled far from his first TV series, "The Fall Guy" in 1986, winning an Emmy in 2006 for playing Beverley Leslie on "Will & Grace" and appearing in the acclaimed 2011 film "The Help."
Over those years, the sitcoms and other series in which Jordan has appeared include "Boston Public," "Ugly Betty," "Murphy Brown," "Newhart," "Bodies of Evidence," "Reasonable Doubts" and "Hearts Afire." A turning point was "Sordid Lives," Del Shores’ 1996 play in which he played Earl ’Brother Boy’ Ingram, a man institutionalized for cross-dressing. He repeated the role in the cult film (released in 2000) and the highly-lauded television series in 2008.
In fact, Jordan is such an endearing character actor that the word "recurring" to "leslying" because Jordan takes roles meant to be a one-time appearances and leaves the show runners figuring out ways to bring him back.
It has been over 30 years since Leslie Jordan began honing his craft at the University of Tennessee. When he moved to Hollywood in 1982 most thought he would be met with a lot of rejection, being so diminutive and so gay. But to Jordan, no obstacle neither size or being out was going to stand in his way. Leslie Jordan is truly bigger than life. We have learned from his autobiographical play "Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel," and his one-man shows "Like A Dog on Linoleum" and "My Trip Down The Pink Carpet" that those obstacles literally have shaped the Leslie Jordan we have come to love. Because you see, what Leslie gives us on stage, on television and on the silver screen is Leslie Jordan.
Note: those in San Francisco can catch Jordan this week through Dec. 22, 2012 at the Rrazz Room.
BeBe: I’ve seen you so much on television and a variety of television shows, it has escaped me how long you have been doing what you do. It has been over 25 years where we have had an opportunity and privilege of seeing your work on television.
Leslie Jordan: Yeah, I got off a bus in ’82, 30 years ago. I had a degree in theater from the University of Tennessee. I wasn’t a spring chicken either. I was 27 years old when I got here (Hollywood). You know what I’m proud of is not only have I kept the ship afloat, honey but also I’m the biggest whore in Hollywood. I’ll do anything. I do movies. I do TV. I do voices for cartoons. I host events. I do stand-up. You fly me to Plano, Texas to Frito-Lay, and I’ll talk about diversity in the workplace (he has to laugh at that one). Give me bus fare and a square meal and you’ve got me.
It’s so funny because I was reading about some young actor who is on a TV show that just bought a $1 million house. And I think, I’m sitting in a fucking one-bedroom apartment. Now it’s gorgeous, gorgeous you know, but I’ve never really had the money to buy no million dollar house! I think the thing with me is the fact that not only have I kept the career afloat, but I’m still pretty relevant. It’s like with Betty White, you still love to watch her. She’s not some relic from a long time ago. She can still make you laugh. That, I think, is what I’m most proud of. Because I’ve been doing it 30 years, honey, not 25, 30 full years and that’s not counting the two or three years of getting the degree in theater.
Like Dolly Parton
BeBe: And when you are on these television shows, even though they may be small parts in several episodes or one-time guest spots, you are a significant part of that episode.
Leslie Jordan: Ah, thank you.
BeBe: Honestly, when we walk away from the episode, even though you may have had only 45 seconds to a minute and a half of screen time, it’s something we remember. We walk away saying I remember Leslie in that one. Regardless of how small a part is, you make each one important and relevant for that episode. You bring it to the table all the time.
Leslie Jordan: I think also I realized pretty early on when I got to Hollywood that I would never be Robert DeNiro or Meryl Streep. I’m never going to be this kind of actor who disappears into the role. I’m more like Dolly (Parton) (we both crack up). There’s a lot of me, even in real life. So when you hire me, you just get me! I learned years ago when I would think maybe I should do something different on this TV show. Maybe I should drop the accent. And immediately the director would come over to me and say, ’ No! Just do you!’ Quite frankly, this may sound very conceited, I’ve never played a part that I felt was more interesting than me anyway (laughs). You can’t write this shit! You can’t write me or the life that I’ve led, the amazing journey that I’ve taken into my gaydom, my queerdom.
A TV series?
BeBe: Speaking of your gaydom, how was it being in Hollywood some 30 years ago as an openly gay actor?
Leslie Jordan: You know it was very ’wink, wink’ when I got to Hollywood. The casting people were gay. My agent was gay. My manager might as well of been (gay). She was a gay man in a Jewish woman’s body. Honey you are going to have to come sit on the ground for this one. I almost got the ’Mighty Ducks,’ I’ll never forget that. They (management) said ’you’re to play a hockey coach’. I said ’I can’t play no hockey coach. I’m too sissy! ’They said ’no, they (the movie execs) want you. The director has asked for you. But, you’ve got to keep your feet on the ground and keep your hands by your side.’
I went into them when I didn’t get it and said ’it’s because I’m big queer isn’t it?’ And they go ’no, actually, the problem we had was your Southern accent.’ Here I am sounding like Gomer Pyle. So, they asked if I could drop the accent. And, I said sure, knowing that I can’t. So, I did it again (the audition read) and I sounded Cockney (laughs).
BeBe: Which is the European Southern accent!
Leslie Jordan: Here I am with this Cockney accent thinking what the fuck is going on here.
BeBe: With all that you’ve done on television, I’ve wondered why there hasn’t been a TV show designed around you. I think the public would be ready for that.
Leslie Jordan: Well, there’s two reasons (why not). Two mistakes I made when I look back. In 1992, which was 10 years after I moved here, I had a very successful off-Broadway run of this show I did and wrote called ’Hysterical Blindness and Other Southern Tragedies That Have Plagued My Life Thus Far.’ Sort of about growing up gay in the Deep South, and having a father who was a Lt. Colonel.
All of sudden I was getting meetings when I came back to Hollywood from New York. And they would say that they loved the show, and the loved the mother character. I will have to say that there was a ’but’ in the room, a big ’BUT’. And they said that they didn’t think at that time that they could have a lead in a sitcom be gay. They asked could I come back and pitch them the story without me being gay? I walked out the door and told my manager ’fuck ’em’!
Now, what I should have done in retrospect, and what was so smart of Ellen (DeGeneres), was go along. You got to play the game. You know, I have always not played the game right. I should have said okay, and make him (Leslie’s character) a momma’s boy, you know, just a sissy, but he doesn’t have to be gay. We don’t have to go into that (being gay).
A peripheral character?
BeBe: Ambiguity is easy for people (viewers) to accept.
Leslie Jordan: Yeah, and then after the show was hit I would’ve come out. Ellen did it perfectly.
Then something happened (reason two) with this casting director named Tim Flack, who was my agent’s best friend, and my agent said let’s go talk to Tim about creating your own show. And, Tim said that Leslie was peripheral. He’s the character that comes in with the zingers. He did not think I could carry a show. It angered me so much. I started doing these one-person shows to show him that I could stand on stage (and carry a show).
Now finally I have an idea (for a series). I have a brilliant lady attached (to the project) named Alice West. She has six Emmys. She produced everything for David Kelly (creator of ’Harry’s Law,’ ’Ally McBeal,’ ’The Practice,’ ’Boston Public’, ’Picket Fences’). HBO has turned us down, which we kind of expected. Showtime, which we really wanted, had our script for over 2.5 weeks. But now, we’ve cleaned it up or the networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) for our next plan of action. And you know, now may be the time. I’m recurring on ’Raising Hope’ on Fox, and they are really loving my work over there. I think I’m gonna recur on ’The Neighbors.’ I play a black woman stuck in a gay man’s body, and I’m pretty fucking hilarious! It was on the Thanksgiving episode.
BeBe: I’ve got to find that episode somewhere. Seeing that would please me to no end!
Leslie Jordan: You know what’s interesting is that I am 57 years-old. And I’m ready. I think I would have messed it up (earlier in career). I had a lot of alcohol and drug problems in my past. I was partyer. I would go out to the gay bars every friggin’ night. And now, I’m at a point where I really, really think I could handle the whole thing. I’m not going to make mistakes. I’m doing it really slow. I wish I could go more into my idea.
About ’The Help’
BeBe: Well, I’m sure the public can’t wait for someone (network) to pick up your idea and run with it. I think we want a see a show built around you.
Leslie Jordan: Not only built around me, but I’m going to write it, which is the tough part.
BeBe: Now, Leslie going beyond television, you’ve been in a lot of independent films, other than ’Sordid Lives’ (Del Shores), which everyone remembers you from. I know you’ve done ’Eating Out: All You Can Eat,’ ’Magnus’... I love your role as the teacher in that, and others. I love independent films, but I thought it was great when I saw you in ’The Help.’
Leslie Jordan: That came out of nowhere. I knew the director (Tate Taylor), and he had to really fight for me. DreamWorks didn’t want me. They said I as a sitcom actor, and they really didn’t want a sitcom actor. He (Taylor) fought tooth and nail. And I was in the very first shot of that movie. Here we are an hour below Jackson, Mississippi sitting at a table. And, next to me is Viola Davis, and she is scribbling in her script. I turn around and on the other side of me is Sissy Spacek, and she is scribbling in her script. So, I thought, honey, I better start scribbling something. Then I went to the director and said, ’Tate, I’m a sitcom actor and I don’t want to be too big (over the top). I want this to be real. And the character in the book (by Kathryn Stockett) has a wife. Do you think I should butch it up.’ He said, ’Like you could!’ (We both laugh)
BeBe: Now, that would be acting (continued laughter).
Leslie Jordan: He kept telling me to calm down and just be real. Don’t worry about it. So, I did my thing. Gosh, to be apart of that. I have to honestly tell after 30 years of being in the business, I’m more proud of being apart of that (interrupting himself), well, it’s right up there with ’Will & Grace.’ I think ’Will & Grace’ was the turning point for the gay community (in television). But, it was so surreal to sit and see my best friends Tate and Octavia (Spencer) at the Academy Awards. I have known Octavia forever. I called her after the Academy Awards and I said ’Octavia, it was like trippin’ on acid or something! It was not even real to watch on TV in the beautiful Grecian gown. You were so pretty.’ And she said, ’Well, devil spanked! I could not breathe. They wanted me to give a speech, and I couldn’t even breathe.’
BeBe: She couldn’t inhale if she wanted to. She was spanked so tight in that dress (laughing). But, that was a surreal moment (Spencer winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for ’The Help’) on a lot of levels. As you say, many of us have admired Octavia’s work for many years. I most recently remember her recurring role on ’Ugly Betty’. And, I know she is working here in San Francisco Bay area on the movie about the Oscar Grant shooting (’Fruitvale,’ produced by Forest Whitaker, is to be released in 2013) portraying Grant’s mother.
Leslie Jordan: Wow! I haven’t talked to her lately. You know it’s kind of funny because when you reach that kind of level, when that kind of fame hits, I back away because you’ve got so many people coming at you. I used to talk to Octavia all the time, and I haven’t spoken to her in months. Hell, Octavia left right after the Academy Awards to Prague to do a movie (’Snowpiercer,’ out in 2013) with Tilda Swinton.. Honey, a little black girl from Alabama going to Prague with Tilda Swinton.
BeBe: It’s been great to see her elevate to where she is.
Leslie Jordan: She (Octavia) ain’t no Kardashian honey, she earned it! Every bit of fame, every movie, she earned it. Like me when I get my big moment, they’re gonna say he was an overnight success. And I’m going to say ’fuck you’ because that was the longest overnight. I earned this the old fashion way!
BeBe: Going back, we briefly spoke about playwright and film producer Del Shores, and I spoke with him and learned you are working with him again making his play ’Southern Baptist Sissies’ into a movie.
Leslie Jordan: Yes, we start filming soon.
BeBe: Great! And then you are now doing your holiday show in its San Francisco premiere Dec. 18-22. And as you said earlier, you are doing over 40 cabaret shows a year, telling your stories of your life, so, how is this brand new holiday show, ’Fruit Fly,’ going to differ from the others you’ve done?
Leslie Jordan: ’Fruit Fly’ asks the age old question, do gay men become their mothers? It’s very family-themed and has, oh my God, 52 different cues for lights, slides... it’s a dog and pony show. All I want to say is this one is the best one I’ve ever written.
Leslie Jordan will be appearing in the his San Francisco premiere of his brand new holiday show Fruit Fly through Dec. 22 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko. For show times and tickets go to www.therrazzroom.com.
Follow Leslie on his website at www.thelesliejordan.com and on twitter at www.twitter.com/thelesliejordan