Even if you don’t know his name, you surely know Leslie Jordan from something. The actor with the pronounced Southern drawl has made his presence known in films like “The Help” and “Sordid Lives,” TV appearances from “Murphy Brown” to “American Horror Story,” and – of course – his Emmy-winning performance as Beverley Leslie on “Will & Grace.”
When he’s not shooting a film or TV series, though, he tours around the country performing one of his numerous one-man shows. He’s bringing his latest, “Straight Outta Chattanooga,” to Le Fais do-do on Saturday. Before his return to Atlanta, we caught up with Leslie from his home in Hollywood to get the lowdown on his newest show, his work on “American Horror Story,” whether or not he might return for the “Will & Grace” revival later this year, and more – much more.
What can audiences expect with your new show 'Straight Outta Chattanooga'?
Well, you know, years ago, I worked with Lily Tomlin, who’s one of my mentors. She produced – I mean, she was my money for “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet,” one of my shows that went to New York and the West End of London – she asked me, “Do you make money when you’re out on the road?” And I said, “No, it costs $1,600 to ship my set.” She goes, “Your set? You don’t need a set! Just you and a mic.”
Over the years, I’ve written so many shows that are just a conglomeration of stories. This one started because I found out that I live – and I’m sitting there, right now as we speak – in Tupac’s old apartment. He lived here in this building. It was built in 1989, and he lived here in the early 90s. And there was this girl who said, “You know, he lived in my apartment. I get his mail.” I thought, “Bitch, you don’t get his mail. He died a long time ago!” So I went to the post office.
So I thought it would be funny to use that poster. It’s all marketing, you know, that “Straight Outta Compton” poster. And I began telling those stories. I talk about what a rebel and a thug I am, and just how over the years, how much trouble I’ve gotten in just kinda… If you Google my name, and type in “Starbucks,” there was an incident that involved 10 cop cars! These boys called me a faggot – in the West Hollywood Starbucks! I threw my tea in his face and said, “Not in my house, honey!” And they called the cops on me.
I’ve got lots of stories, plus it’s also about a boy who, my goodness gracious, in 1987, my mother sewed $1,200 into my underpants, and I got onto a Trailways bus and went to Hollywood. I had a suitcase and a dream. So, you know, it’s a bunch of stories. Oh honey, I do everything. There’s a dance break. I dance to “Faith” by Aretha Franklin, ‘cause the black kids taught me to dance. They used to call me the “Blue-Eyed Soul Brother” in school. I was the only one who went around, because I wore platform shoes and I ran around with black people, which was just unheard of.
It's just a bunch of stories, and it ends – I’m just so proud of this – with my favorite new story. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’ll make people buy tickets. I was in Washington, DC, headlining [their] Gay Pride when the Orlando tragedy happened. And I was taken to the White House. Our dear ex-president wanted a gay presence for the tourists. So the Gay Chorus, myself, and…while in the White House, I was asked to throw the ball out for the Washington Nationals, the first pitch. Honey, I’ve never held a baseball in my life! But I got out in front of 38,000 people, and something really amazing happened. I’m not going to go into the whole thing, but that’s how I end the show.
So it’s an amazing – actually, I think it’s my best show. And it’s interesting, because I premiered it in Washington that week. So the ending changed. A lot of things changed. You debut a show, and then there’s a massacre of 49 gay people. The show took on kind of a different meaning. I’m really proud of it.
What are your plans while you’re in Atlanta?
I won an Emmy – see how I got that in there? – 10 years ago, and I thought that would really up my cache with film and TV. It didn’t, really. I had to hit the road. I do 44 venues a year. I leave tomorrow for Cathedral City to do Pride out in the desert. I just got back from Modesto. I can’t tell you where all I’ve been.
The point is, I get to Atlanta, I fly in on a Friday, I get there late. Saturday, here’s my usual thing. I’ll probably have breakfast at the Flying Biscuit. And then I’ll go to Mary Mac’s Tea Room for lunch. And then Sunday morning, I’m going to rent a car and drive up to Chattanooga, and I get to stay with my mother a full week. And then, I go straight to Savannah for three months, in which I’m shooting a big television series – for SkyTV.
What’s the show about?
It’s called “Living the Dream,” and it’s about this family that moves from England. They buy a trailer park (laughs) in Florida – it’s supposed to be Florida; we’re gonna make Savannah look like Florida – they buy a trailer park. I’m one of the main trailer park people.
So that’s exciting. I’m gonna be in the South for quite a while.
Your Emmy came for your role on 'Will & Grace.' Since the show is returning, is Beverley Leslie coming back?
I don’t know. I really don’t. I haven’t been contacted. And that’s not bad news. I know the way it works. You get a pickup for 10 episodes, and then once the network announces the pickup, there’s a lot of putting together stories, you know what I mean? There’s a lot, and they’re real careful with all of it. So what I’m thinking is, they’ll go back into production in July. That’s when the actors will come in, the scripts will be written. So I imagine some time in early summer, I’ll hear. I mean, I can’t imagine them doing it without me, but then again, you never know. You know, they killed me in the finale.
But they also separated Will and Grace for two decades in the finale, so I’m wondering how much they’re going to pretend that didn’t happen.
We’ll see. I’d love to be a part of it. I’m more excited – I really want to hear from “American Horror Story.” They’ve been picked up for three more years.
That’s right. So far, you’ve appeared in 'Coven' and 'Roanoke.'
Yeah, and was offered “Freak Show,” and had to turn it down. It was the biggest mistake of my career. I was offered “Freak Show,” and right before I went to work on “Freak Show,” I was offered a reality show over in London. “Will & Grace” is still huge over there, and I had to do it for the money. I mean, that’s a terrible thing, but come on. Someone said, “Oh, you’re going to go on shows like ‘American Horror Story.’” They pay those regulars so much, and if you’re five episodes and under, you work for scale. And that’s a lot of money.
I think SAG scale for an hour-long show is $8,000. But, you know, once everyone puts their hand in, I don’t get but $3,000-$4,000 of it. And that’s one month’s bills! I’ve got a house in Tennessee for my mother. I’ve got lots of – I live a big life! But anyway, I was offered “Celebrity Big Brother,” and they offered me $150,000, and I said, “Fuck Ryan Murphy!”
Now 'Coven' and 'Roanoke' are two very different seasons for the show. How did they compare?
Well, immediately, walking on the set of “Coven” with Jessica Lange, I graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in Theatre. And I was told by the head of the department, “Leslie Jordan, you’re capable of genuine artistry. You’re that good of an actor. But you’re the laziest actor I’ve ever worked with. You’ll probably go out to Hollywood and be on those silly sitcoms that no one will ever know that you’re a good actor.” And the minute I met Jessica Lange, that’s what hit me. I thought, “You know what, Leslie? You’re capable of going toe-to-toe with Jessica Lange. And forget Jessica Lange – Frances Conroy. Now that’s an actress – my God!
So the same thing happened. I worked hard. I really did. My part on “Coven” was not that big, but I worked hard. So then, when they handed me this script – and it’s so odd, the way it happened. I was in Palm Springs having breakfast. My sister was with me. I have twin sisters. She named one Jana, and the other Janet. So Jana became “Cricket” when she was young. She’s always been Cricket. So we were eating breakfast in Palm Springs. [Someone from] the next table leaned over, and said, “You don’t know us, but we write for Ryan Murphy,” and blah blah blah, and “we’re gonna bring you back to television.” I said, “I never knew I left!” They said, “No, we’re gonna bring you back in a big way.” So when I got that script, the character’s name was Cricket, for my sister.
The very first scene we shot was in a living room, and there were only five actors – me; Kathy Bates, Academy Award winner; Angela Bassett, Academy Award nominee; Cuba Gooding Jr., Academy Award winner; and Sarah Paulson, who hasn’t won an Academy Award, but she’s won a million Emmys. I remember thinking to myself, there’s a lot of golden hardware in this room. But my theater professor said I’m capable, and I went toe-to-toe with them.
“Will & Grace” is fun, and it’s silly. It’s like verbal ping-pong. You can’t ask for a better partner than Megan Mullally, and it excites me, but I’ve done sitcoms for so long. The other excites me a little more. “American Horror Story,” because you get to act.
You get to act with some real heavy hitters and certainly hold your own. It’s fun seeing you on the show.
Well, thank you. We’ll see. Mr. Murphy’s husband told me, “Ryan repeats your lines constantly, in your voice.” And I said, “Well, that’s a good thing, I guess.”
In other recent work you’ve done, there’s the new sequel to 'Sordid Lives, A Very Sordid Wedding.' What’s Brother Boy up to?
I think I can give it away. (Laughs) I’ve been out of the mental hospital for 17 years, and I’ve been working at a drag bar in Longview, Texas that’s real pitiful. You know, those pitiful drag bars that are out there in small towns. And I put together a little routine called, “We Three Queens of Opry Are.” And I do Tammy, Loretta and Dolly. A serial killer comes in one day, and I go on the lam. It’s the funniest line, the biggest laugh in the movie when the family’s watching – the family doesn’t know it’s me, like Sissy and Lavonda. Sissy says, “Y’all stop, I’ve got to listen to this program on TV. The serial killer’s loose!” “The serial killer’s recently been seen with an elderly woman” – and the woman is me, running across the parking lot after we rob a 7-Eleven! With my hair in pigtails! (Laughs)
But there’s so much more to that movie than you think. It’s got an important message, with the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, and the current climate in Washington. I’m really proud of it. You know, Del [Shores] wouldn’t let me see it, because I’ve got such a big mouth, and he didn’t want – there’s a really big surprise at the end. There’s a big actress who comes in, and you’re going to fall on the floor. A cameo from a really big actress.
You've been in plenty of shows over the years. The one that sticks in my head is “Boston Legal” when you were on with Betty White. There was a point where she hit you over the head with a skillet.
Oh, it’s the cutest story. You know, Ms. White was – that was sort of the beginning of her return. She said, “How many did they hire you for?” I said, “Five.” She said, “Me too. Either I’m going to kill you, or you’re going to kill me!” And so, when she killed me, she said,
“I’m so sorry. I don’t want to hit you with a skillet.” I said, “Well, Ms. White, come here. It’s rubber. It’s a rubber, pretend skillet.”
That bitch walloped me!
If you look at it – honey, she hit my head so hard, my head snapped sideways. I was supposed to fall on a furniture pad. She lifted me out of the chair, and I flew across the room. But the funniest part was – she was just horrified, but my agent called the next day, and said, “They need you back for one more.” I said, “But they killed me! Maybe I didn’t die.” And then he goes, “No, she’s got you in the freezer!” Now, here’s the joke, and only Ms. White and me were in on it. I said, “Ms. White, come here, look.” They’ve made me lay down in a freezer and covered me in blue paint and ice crystals. It was the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever been through. And then they put frozen food all over me. Well, you’ve got to be real careful when you use food – it can’t say Birds Eye or something, so they’ll make up names, and they’ve made up all these different names. I took and put right above my head, if you ever go back and watch it. There’s a frozen food on top of me – it’s called Freezer Queen!
Leslie Jordan’s “Straight Outta Chattanooga” comes to Le Fais do-do’s on April 1. The show will be preceded by a meet and greet for VIPs at 8 p.m. Tickets are $65 for general admission, and $100 for VIP. A portion of the ticket sales benefits Ready 4 Hope.