Leslie Jordan, the diminutive comic actor with the big Southern drawl, entered our consciousness in a big way with his Emmy Award-winning portrayal of Beverley Leslie on the sitcom “Will & Grace.” Before that he worked on stage and on the big and small screens in a variety of productions. Notable among them were Jordan’s collaborations with writer Del Shores, with whom he has an incomparable working relationship (as well as a similar background), exemplified by the movie and TV series “Sordid Lives.” In addition to his recent role in the movie “The Help,” Jordan continues to do sitcom work and tour the country with his one-man show.
Gregg Shapiro: You have performed your own work as well as work written by others.
Leslie Jordan: My first one-man show went to New York in ’92. So I’ve had a 20-year run of my own stuff. You get so spoiled. Last week I did that show “Raising Hope” with Cloris Leachman, and it was a ball. I had a really good time. But to me that’s what I do, kind of like waiting tables. I do that so that I can afford my own stuff. I start next week on another new (TV) show called “Neighbors.” But meanwhile I’m getting on a plane in an hour to go to New York to do (my original solo piece) “Fruitfly” at the All For One Festival. Your readers are going to see my standup – there’s not a whole lot of difference.
Your current tour includes elements of your solo piece “Fruit Fly”?
Absolutely! It’s all the stories of “Fruit Fly,” but it doesn’t have the music and the slides that accompany it. But I have never had a complaint. Actually, in a cabaret setting they like it better, just me and a mike.
There’s an intimacy that you have with the audience in that setting.
Right! It’s almost like a musician putting together a set. I hesitate to call it standup, because I don’t really fall into what I call standup – (unless) it’s a bar and there’s a lot of alcohol (laughs). I’m a storyteller, and if you’re drunk, you can’t keep up and then I fall into more jokes, talk dirty.
Do you have a special place of honor where you keep your Emmy?
It’s on my kitchen table! It’s in the middle of my kitchen table when you walk in the door. I’ve downsized. I used to have this huge loft and lots of beautiful boys who would stay. It was a dog-and-pony show, there were so many people. But I’m on the road now almost eight months of the year. I’ve downsized to a tiny one-bedroom. When you walk in the door there is a kitchen area and I’ve got it right there on my kitchen table!
What did it mean to you to be a part of such a groundbreaking network television sitcom?
I was so honored when I won that Emmy. Over the years I’ve worked on so many sitcoms. I’ve done good work and maybe could’ve gotten nominated from other shows. I’ve always felt there were two ways to combat homophobia. One is through humor. I learned that in junior high school, during dodgeball (laughs). If I was funny, I could keep the bullies at bay. The second is to put a face on it. I think America fell in love with those four characters. They welcomed them into their living rooms. For many people it was the first time they’d seen a gay person. I think we laughed and loved and a lot of progress was made.
What do you think of the gay characters who have since appeared on television, including this new fall TV season?
I’m pitching a series right now that has me as a gay character, but he’s kind of closeted because it’s the Deep South. He’s not a part of the gay culture. In my series, I pitch it as not having a lot to do with the gay culture. I turn on the TV (today), and it just seems like the same gay character. What I said in my pitch is that there are two types of gay people in the world today. There’s the fabulous, which we see on television. Then there’s the fearful. There’s a whole group of gay people who, for whatever reason, are not caught up in what we call the gay culture. My complaint is that every gay person on TV is fabulous. That’s fine, but there’s a whole other aspect to being gay. Even when it’s two couples having a baby, one of them is fabulous. One is more like a football-loving gay man that you wouldn’t think was gay. But then there’s the partner, screaming his head off. And that’s fine. But why does everybody have to scream and be so nelly?
Your homeland of Tennessee has been in the news quite a bit in recent years for its anti-gay legislation. What do you think it will take for Tennessee to embrace its LGBT citizens?
For the old people to die. I’m dead serious. You talk to anybody in Nashville – Nashville, the hippest city in the country. You go to Nashville, and it’s like L.A. Chattanooga, too, is so progressive, and Memphis. Anybody under 30, even the Bush twins, could care less. The old people just have to die. You’re not going to change their mind in any way or form. They are as firm in their beliefs, and it all boils down to the Holy Bib-iot. They believe it’s the word of God, and there’s not one thing you can say to dispute that in any way. You can’t try to show them the history of the Bible. You can’t tell them that Leviticus was not for Christians. Christ railed against the Levitical code. Nowhere in his teachings does he mention homosexuality. And if you do believe that the Levitical code, slaves obey your masters, don’t eat shellfish and if your wife’s on her period, put her in the backyard, she’s unclean. They pick, they choose. But it’s like talking to a wall.
Leslie Jordan appears at the Barrymore Theater in Madison on Oct. 19 and at the Oxford Theatre in Eau Claire on Oct. 21.