Confessions of a character

Leslie Jordan's bumpy, offbeat life sets the stage for a wealth of material.

By Rob Kendt
Special to The Times

Nov 18 2004

Leslie Jordan never cried onstage and he wasn't about to start.

"Like a Dog on Linoleum," Jordan's new solo show, is an uproarious, take-no-prisoners spin through 30 years of high-risk, drug-fueled hedonism. But toward the end comes a sobering moment: the deathbed epiphany of a friend with AIDS.

Jordan didn't even want to include the scene. "I fought [director] David Galligan tooth and nail — I felt the scene was too didactic," he says. "Too preachy."

Worse, it was making him tear up in rehearsals. But Galligan prevailed: The accepting God his dying friend describes underscores Jordan's own difficult trek toward self-acceptance.

It was a recovery as much from his strict Southern Baptist upbringing as from substance abuse. He was raised in a conservative, religious family in Chattanooga, Tenn. His father, a soldier, died when he was 11 and shortly thereafter he discovered all manner of pain-numbing behaviors.

After a tear through disco-era Atlanta, he arrived in Hollywood in 1982 to work as a character actor. These days, he's most widely recognized as Beverley, the high-society nemesis of Karen (Megan Mullally) on the NBC comedy "Will & Grace."

Theatergoers also know him as Brother Boy, the institutionalized drag queen, in Del Shores' "Sordid Lives," and Peanut, the barfly in "Southern Baptist Sissies."

His success came in spite of binges on drugs, alcohol and men, not to mention a jail stint with cellmate Robert Downey Jr. It's an exhausting three decades to revisit every night.

The key, he discovered, was to recount rather than relive the moment.

"See, we actors want you to watch us relive the story," Jordan, 50, says with an indulgent smile, sitting in the modest dressing room of the Elephant Asylum Theatre where "Like a Dog" has been extended through Dec. 5. "But in real life, we tell the story; we may get a little farklempt, but we stop, collect ourselves, and continue. We don't relive it."

Reanimating his demons onstage has become something of a trademark. In "Southern Baptist Sissies," Shores drew on Jordan's history for the character Peanut, who has a taste for strong drinks and dangerous pickups.

"I was livid," Jordan recalls. "But he talked me into it and the oddest thing happened: The first night I walked onstage as Peanut, I went to the stage manager after the show and said, 'You know, I taste vodka. I'm a recovering alcoholic; you have to really make sure — you didn't swish this in a vodka bottle or anything?' And he said, 'No, it's tap water!' "


His sobriety came at a price. Eight years ago, when a second arrest for drunk driving convinced him to sober up, he got a rude shock: His out-and-proud attitude ("You have to have been 'in' to come out," he exults in his show) had been enabled by extensive self-medication.

"All of a sudden, you took away this medicine that I had sort of anesthetized myself with, and I was riddled with internal homophobia," Jordan says. "If you had asked me at 42 years of age, when I got sober, 'Are you a proud gay man?' I would say, 'Honey, I've ridden on floats.' But I was loaded the whole time!"

It wasn't hard to trace his shame to its source: a religious upbringing that taught him that his "urges" were the "voice of Satan." ("I remember thinking, 'He's got a very loud voice!' " Jordan exclaims.) It's a worldview that's not exactly on the decline. Though his home state of Tennessee was not among the 11 that passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage Nov. 2, the prominence of the "moral values" vote was enough to unsettle even the most spirited Southern sissy.

"Someone said there are two classes of gay people in the United States: the fabulous and the fearful. There's nothing really in between," he says. "The fabulous, we're on both coasts, but we forget about that huge country out there."

He hopes to preach beyond the urban gay choir next, possibly with a cable special. "I think I have a message to that young gay man or that young gay woman out in our hinterland…. They're wondering, as I wondered, first of all, will they ever find their tribe? … And secondly, is there a God that loves them?"

The latter question is one Jordan continues to hash out with longtime friend and collaborator Shores, whose father was a Southern Baptist preacher.

"The problem with all us boys is that we equate God with religion," Shores says. "I still struggle; I do lash out at what I perceive as God, but it's really the bastardization of God by these people who hide behind their church, their book."


Like a Dog on Linoleum

Where: Elephant Asylum Theatre, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Dec. 5

Price: $25-$30

Contact: (323) 960-1083