By Mikkel Hyldebrandt
The talented actor and comedian talks about stepping off a bus in Hollywood, finding himself, his unique spin on things, and how he cannot lose his Southern accent anymore.
If you were to go on stage and introduce yourself – what would that sound like?
Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome to the stage Emmy-Award-winning actor known from Will & Grace, American Horror Story, and The Cool Kids, Leslie Jordan!
What is your connection to Atlanta?
Since I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, it’s like a free trip home. I love performing in Atlanta!
You are right at home on stage – anyone who has ever seen you will attest to that. When did the acting/performer bug bite you?
I was funny as a kid mostly to keep the bullies at bay. You know they used to yell “smear the queer” when we played dodgeball, so I if I could make them laugh, they would leave me alone. My mother also said, when I was little, that I would perform, and my twin sisters would be my backup singers and never the main act. I used to race horses for exercise, and I wanted to be a jockey at first. Then I went back to school at 27 to study journalism, because I wanted to write, and someone recommended that I take the intro to theatre to cover my arts curriculum. So I went to that class, and we did improvisations and all that different stuff – and it hit me like a drug. After that, I went up to the teacher and asked how I could do this instead, and I got my degree in acting, and I got on a bus and went to Hollywood.
The audience is taken on quite a journey from your Southern Baptist upbringing in Tennessee, your introduction to Hollywood all the way up to today – tell us about some of those stops you make?
I got off the bus in 1982 in Los Angeles, and you know how some people say they will give themselves five years to see if it works out? Well I didn’t, because I was home. Because of my upbringing, I knew that I could find myself here, so I dropped anchor. And sure, I wanted to act, but first of all, I wanted to be in West Hollywood, because I heard that the queers were just hanging from the trees there! I was home, and then I stayed and created this career here. I’ve had to reinvent myself several times, but there has always been something to do for me. So, the show is very much about my journey of finding myself and reinventing myself.
So the show starts with a boy stepping off the bus to become an actor in Hollywood, and it ends in the White House. Three years ago, I was the grand marshal at a Pride parade in Washington, DC, and that’s when the Pulse massacre in Orlando happened. The White House reached out and asked if I would come to the White House and greet people as they came in as a commemoration of the victims of the massacre. They then asked me to stay longer, so this I could do first pitch at the Washington Nationals baseball game that was being dedicated to the Pulse victims, and I said yes absolutely, but the problem was the I never touched baseball or bat before! Luckily, I did an interview for TV there, and the TV commentator said that he was a baseball coach in his spare time, and he offered me to teach to pitch in the parking lot of the studio. So, when the day came, I stepped up to that pitcher’s mound, and everybody thought this was going to be a YouTube video, But you know what? I did good! The catcher came up to me afterwards, and said: “Dude, you can pitch!”
Beverly Leslie (Will and Grace), Brother Boy (Sordid Lives) and Sid (on Fox’s Cool Kids) are some of your most famous roles. Are there any connecting traits (besides Leslie Jordan) between them?
Like with Dolly Partin, there’s a lot of me in there. When I watch myself, and people tell me, oh, you were so great in this, I look at it and think I am just doing me. I will say that American Horror Story has allowed me to play some really crazy parts that are just really out there thanks to the creative genius of Ryan Murphy. But there’s just a lot of me, and I think even if you are a likable person, you can play someone who is dislikable just like Beverly Leslie in Will & Grace. Hilariously funny, but not that likable, right? I also can’t get rid of my accent, and that gets worse the older I get. When I was working on Star Trek, they told me I had to change my accent, because it was Deep Space Nine, not Deep South Nine!
In your book “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet,” you talk openly about your substance abuse, being broke, and just struggling to make it. You even state that you are mystified that you actually made it. Looking back; what kept it all together for you?
First of all, without tooting my own horn, I think I’m talented, and I’m good at what I do. The best advice I have ever been given about being successful is to show up and be of loving service. You have to be of loving service to the producer, who hired you, you have to be of loving service to the director and his vision, and as an actor, you have to be of loving service to your fellow actors. You have to remember you are always a worker among workers.
You are open about your religious upbringing and your struggles with coming to terms with your sexuality because of religion – what are your thoughts on religion or spirituality today?
I have always loved something Carrie Fisher said, who, like me, has had her struggles with substance abuse. Having been in and out recovery programs, she was always told that you must find a god or some way of understanding. It doesn’t have to be god, but it has to be something bigger than yourself, you know. She said that it made her an enthusiastic agnostic who would love to be proven that there is a god out there, but if he is indeed out there, he’s got some explaining to do! So for me, I seek, and in that seeking, I found my faith. So I seek, and I keep an open heart and an open mind. I wish I could believe, really believe, like my mom, but when you’ve had everything come crashing down as I have, what do you do when you realize it’s not enough? For a while I got into chanting, you know the nam-myoho-renge-kyo chant, and I asked my spiritual advisor what it meant, and he said it was more like the rhythm of life, so for a while, I changed it to: “nam-myoho-renge-kyo, get my ass on the Letterman Show.”
Sadly, “The Cool Kids” was canceled after just one season despite a really good reception. Your character, Sid, I read somewhere was originally straight, but you somehow made him gay?
What happened was, my manager said there’s something interesting going on at Fox, and I’m going to get you an audition. I got the script, and it said that my character was a straight Jewish man in his seventies, so when I got there, I told them that I’m putting a different spin on this. And the audition went so well that they actually changed the part to fit me even better – and they made him gay! The reason why the show was canceled was this political thing after Disney bought Fox, so now there are almost no comedies on Fox, but plenty of hour-long dramas and lots of sports programming. In fact, our Friday night time slot for Cool Kids is now live wrestling, so that says a lot right there.
Right now, you’re touring with Exposed – what’s next for Leslie Jordan? Will we see you on Will & Grace again? Will you be on another season of AHS?
They already called me on Will & Grace the minute The Cool Kids got canceled, so I will be back. And I really hope to be working with Ryan Murphy again, he is so incredibly talented, and he has his fingers in so many projects. I recently hosted an event where they had the live feed of the Tony Awards, and I was surprised to see that Ryan Murphy was up there on screen winning something again for his Broadway version of The Boys in The Band – I mean he is everywhere!
Last pitch for Exposed: why should people come and see this show?
Because it’s an evening of laughter – and it is always more than you’ll expect. I will give you more than you expect.
Leslie Jordan’s “Exposed” will be at the Westside Cultural Arts Center, Saturday, June 29, 9 pm. Peach is hosting a special VIP cocktail reception at 8 pm. For more info and tickets, visit freshtix.com.