Openly gay actor Leslie Jordan talks about life, religion and his many comedic adventures
by Mark Smith
‘I think if you tell a child that there is a red man with horns down in the earth holding a pitchfork and that you’re going to burn forever, it’s spiritual abuse.’
— Leslie Jordan
Actor Leslie Jordan is perhaps best-known for his role as the queenly Beverly Leslie in the TV series “Will and Grace.” In fact, he captured an Emmy for his role in the series last year.
But there’s much more to the man — including roots that run deep in the South and an acting career that began in the early ’80s.
Born in 1955 in Chattanooga, Tenn., Jordan spent his formative years there, immersed in the care of horses.
“I grew up riding,” Leslie recalls. “Because of my size, [4-foot-11] I always wanted to be a jockey — but I knew that was never going to happen. I ended up exercising race horses — and that was something I realized I couldn’t make a lot of money at so I knew it was time to move on.”
In 1979 Jordan landed in Atlanta, Ga., where he spent the next three years living in the ramshackle Pershing Point Hotel. The experience would later lead to a book about his time there, and eventually a movie called “Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel.”
“It was such a funny time,” Jordan recalls in his trademark queenly southern drawl. “The place was always full of drag queens and dope dealers and queers. I can’t remember all of it because I would get so high…and we would wander the halls from room to room. You’d end up at one party and then another and I don’t even think I spent more than three nights in my own room the entire time I was there because I was always passing out at somebody else’s place.”
After the rough stint in Atlanta, Jordan decided to head back to Chattanooga and return to college.
“I was going to major in journalism,” he recalls. “Because I always liked to write. A friend of mine suggested I take this acting class as an elective and that changed everything.”
By 1983, Jordan headed for Hollywood.
At the moment, he is with his assistant at the Verizon Wireless Store, picking up a new mobile phone. Dressed casually in ripped jeans, a white t-shirt, Massistt French tennis shoes and a jacket he describes as “a car coat [he] stole from the MGM costume wardrobe of the ‘Bob Newhart Show,’” he’s excited to talk to Q-Notes about what’s going on in his life and the rest of the world.
What was it like growing up in Chattanooga, in the ’50s and ’60s?
I fell outta the womb and landed in my mother’s high heels [laughs]. Honestly, it wasn’t easy. But it could have been more difficult, I suppose. My father died in a plane crash when I was 11. He was a devout Southern Baptist So was my mother. I don’t think he would have been able to cope with me. But with just my mother and my sisters there it wasn’t so bad. [Begins singing “Chattanooga,” by the Lennon Sisters]. Remember that?
No — not really. When did they do that song?
1960s? I don’t really remember.
‘I fell outta the womb and landed in my mother’s high heels.’
— Leslie Jordan
So was the religious stuff an issue?
I suppose I’m a recovering Baptist. I’m actually working on a book about growing up in such a religious family. You know I got baptized 14 times [laughs[? They had to keep doing it ’cause it never took. If I was Catholic I would have just gone to confessional — but Baptists don’t have that sort of thing. So every time I did something bad I would go get Baptized again! Seriously, I think if you tell a child that there is a red man with horns down in the earth holding a pitchfork and that you’re going to burn forever, it’s spiritual abuse. There’s so much shame involved with being told that if you’re gay there’s something wrong with you — and I believed it at the time! All the problems in the world boil down to two words: organized religion.
So I take it that it was an issue?
You know, there’s nothing worse than a mean Christian. I remember there were these little women at church who would always say the cattiest things about other people in the church, like “she’s gotten so fat,” or “poor thing she’s as ugly as a mule.” I guess they thought it wasn’t a sin and they could get away with it when they always follow it with “bless her heart.” She’s getting to be the size of a house, bless her heart [laughs].
What made you decide to take that first acting class?
It was just on a whim, really. But I’ve always been funny. I could use humor to get myself out of all kinds of bad situations. So, when I got up in front of everybody and realized that I was very funny and all eyes were on me — I loved it! Actors that say they’re “doing it for the craft” are so crazy. I’m like, don’t lie honey it’s because all eyes are on you and you know it.
What made you decide to move to Los Angeles?
I had a big dream. I was so broke I couldn’t even take a Greyhound to Hollywood; I had to take a Trailways. I ended up here with a suitcase and $1,200 sewn into the lining of my underpants so it wouldn’t get stolen!”
I read that in the beginning, you made your living off a lot of commercials?
Yeah. You remember a woman named Clara Peller? She was the actress that was in those old Wendy’s commercials — she would always yell, “Where’s the beef?” I came to Hollywood around the time that companies were starting to make just these outrageous commercials — and they wanted unusual character actors — so I got a lot of work. There were some pretty funny ones — I was the elevator operator for Hamburger Hell in the Taco Bell commercials. And I was the PIP printer man. But, I was never the hero or the lead. I was always the kind of guy that used the wrong kind of lawnmower!
I’m looking at this body of work you’ve done, from “Hysterical Blindness” and “Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel” to “Like A Dog on Linoleum.” How much of you and your own life figures into these stories? How much of the character you project is you?
A lot of it comes from my own experiences — and the characters I play are always a part of me. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to make a living playing different variations of myself.
Quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to play a character that was more interesting than me [laughs]. There’s too much of me.
You’ve worked on so many things — which do you prefer, stage, TV or film?
I prefer stage, but it doesn’t pay. I need to replenish the kitty and do some television work. I live so far beyond my means. But I do love TV in front of a live audience. My first love is stage. But then I love money, too.
Do you have any future projects coming up on television?
Well, I shot a pilot last year with Lily Tomlin and Mary Kay Place called “12 Miles of Bad Road.” It got picked up for 13 episodes, but it won’t begin shooting until September — so it’s going to be a while before I get anything from that. But it’s a great part. I play “Cousin Kenny.” I sit around gossiping with Lily and Mary Kay. It’s great fun!
Did you like working with Lily Tomlin?
She was wonderful! We just glommed onto each other. She told me she was having so much fun that she didn’t know why we hadn’t worked together before. I had to send her a letter later telling her how much I loved her.
Totally different subject here — tell me — who do you support for the next presidential election?
Gosh, I don’t know. I was such a Howard Dean fan. I’ve met Hillary and I like her and I like Barack Obama. I need to do some research before I answer that [laughs]. I do know who I don’t want — that awful Mitt Romney or anybody else who’s anti-gay.
—Leslie Jordan will speak at the HRC Carolinas Dinner Feb. 24 in Charlotte.