Q&A: Actor/comedian Leslie Jordan


Leslie Jordan says he's always been horrified by the way he sounds.

"I open my mouth," he says in his nasal, effeminate, Southern twang, "and 50 yards of purple chiffon comes flying out."

Lucky for him, he's been able to spin that chiffon into a glorious ball gown of a career. He's won an Emmy for his guest role on Will & Grace, accumulated more than 90 movie and TV credits, and performs his one-man show in 45 cities a year.

That's why he was on the phone last week - to talk about Stories I Can't Tell Mama, which he's bringing to Talbott Street Cabaret for his Indianapolis debut. In the show, he tells stories about his life and career. He's got a million of 'em - some bawdy, some touching, many uproarious.

"I'm sitting here in my underpants," he says. "Wait till you get me dressed up and onstage. I'm hilarious."

Here's some of our conversation.

NUVO: Tell me a story you can't tell mama.

Leslie Jordan: Most of my stories involve growing up gay in the Baptist church in the Deep South, with a dad who was a lieutenant colonel in the Army. My mother and my grandmother took one look at little Leslie and thought, "He's going to need some help." They circled the wagons as only good Southern women can do and created an amazing little secret garden where I could play with dolls. I could sew, and Mother taught me to twirl the baton. But we didn't tell Daddy.

I left Tennessee at 17 and ended up in Atlanta in about 1973. It was like a buffet for gay men and I partook. I'm also sober 15 years. With my generation, we figured it was a lot easier to be gay if we were loaded. The '70s were all about psychedelics and marijuana. Then the '80s rolled around and it was Quaaludes and staggering around in your platform shoes. The '90s was about cocaine and making some money. And here we are.

NUVO: I'm going to ask you about some of the television shows and movies you've done. Tell me whatever pops into your head. Let's start with Desperate Housewives.

Jordan: I've known Mark Cherry, who created that show, for a million years. But I never did say, "Are you ever going to write me into the show?" Finally, nine seasons in, they wrote me this part. I did two episodes and then never heard a word. Those four girls were just tired of doing it, I think. Not that they weren't friendly. But the least they could do was smile for the new boy when they came to work.

NUVO: The Help.

Jordan: The Help was life-changing. I'm more proud of that than winning an Emmy for Will & Grace. I had read the book and fallen in love with the book. It's my generation. We had Roberta my whole life, from the time I was in diapers. She raised me. I knew that story. I knew those women - the catty white women and the black women. I had done a play years ago that toured called Southern Baptist Sissies that starred this kid Tate Taylor. We got to be really good friends and we kept up over the years.

He called me and said, "I've got this movie based on the book The Help." He grew up with Kathryn Stockett, who wrote the book. He said, "I want you to play the editor." I said, "No, that's not a good part for me. He's a blowhard. He's married. He's straight." He said, "Every Southern town had one of these guys in the '60s - that man who's married with children but you know he's gay."

NUVO: Will & Grace.

Jordan: I just went in and auditioned. The character's name was Beverley Leslie, but that was already on paper. People think they wrote that for me, Leslie Jordan. They'd actually written that for Joan Collins. The episode was, she was going to steal Rosario the maid away from Megan Mullally's character, Karen Walker. They were going to get into a fight across a billiard table in Karen Walker's mansion and pull each other's wigs off. At the last minute, Miss Collins refused to let them pull her wig off.

NUVO: You're in a movie called Sordid Lives, which people call "a cult classic." For those of us not in the cult, what can you tell us?

Jordan: I played a man in a mental hospital named Brother Boy who thought he was Tammy Wynette. And I'm in drag. Olivia Newton John plays a lesbian I go on the lam with. We did this as a play first, and it was a huge hit in L.A., but it was in a 77-seat theater. We raised $400,000 for the movie, which is like no budget. The movie started playing in film festivals around the country and got a following in the gay community. Then a theater in Palm Springs, Calif., started playing it and people were thronging to the movie. It spread, and it runs every summer in Provincetown (Mass.), San Francisco - it's gotta be a big gay mecca - and it's rabid. I knew I'd finally made it when I went to the West Hollywood Halloween carnival and I counted 11 Brother Boys.

NUVO: Tell me something good about being 4-foot-11 and something not so good about it.

Jordan: I was raised by a mother who convinced me I was special. I never had any problem with being short, ever. I made a joke the other night without even thinking about it. I met this guy, he was about 6-foot-5, and my face was almost at his crotch. I said, "I'd have to go up on you." When you're short, you don't go down on people; you go up on 'em.

NUVO: Will you eat at Chick-fil-A?

Jordan: I grew up on Chick-fil-A. Chick-fil-A was started right outside of Atlanta in a little diner called The Dwarf House. Then they moved into a mall. We would drive to Atlanta and eat a chicken sandwich and go Christmas shopping. Then over the years, I heard they had put their first Chick-fil-A out near Palm Springs and I would drive out there to get a sandwich. I knew they were very religious because they weren't open on Sundays. But I really want to caution our gay community that we don't become brittle. Let people do what they do and leave us alone, and we need to leave them alone. If that's their policy, fine. I'm not going to give them my money because I know what their policy is now, but I'm not going to chastise them.

NUVO: You once shared a jail cell with Robert Downey Jr. What did you talk about?

Jordan: We didn't say a word. He was dope-sick. It was Oct. 11, 1997, the last day I had a drink or a drug. They said to me, "We don't have room for him and you're going to get out." I was sentenced to 120 days; it was my unfortunate incarceration for DUIs. They said, "We can't let you out till the bars close because of your history." So I talked and he was so sick. I got to see him years later on Ally McBeal; we worked together and he remembered me immediately. He said, "I know you," and I was going "Shh, shh, shh," because I didn't want him telling anybody we met in jail. But look at what staying clean and sober has done for him.