An Evening with Leslie Jordan: Emmy winning, gay actor transforms tragedy with humor & sass

Leslie Jordan posing for the camera and his new show An Evening with Leslie Jordan

Leslie Jordan brings laughs, gossip and tales of growing up as a gay person in the South to his new show, “An Evening with Leslie Jordan.”

Photo courtesy of Reaction Productions.

Originally Published in The Badger Herald, October 18, 2012

Actor Leslie Jordan (“The Help”) introduced himself to Wisconsin via the unlikely route of Los Angeles. Shopping in Nordstrom, he selected a shaving brush for purchase, and when it came time to check out, the bill came to $110. “For a shaving brush?” Jordan said. “(The cashier) said, ‘Oh well, Mr. Jordan, this is made out of badger.’ And I (Jordan) said, ‘I don’t even know what that is!’”

A few weeks later, Jordan checked his schedule and realized he was sitting down to an interview with The Badger Herald. “Isn’t that strange?” Jordan chuckled.

A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., Jordan left the South in 1992 to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. Although he was originally told his career would suffer because of his southern twang, 35 years of acting suggest otherwise. Standing at 4’ 11” Jordan is best known for his comedic role as Karen Walker (Megan Mullally)’s sassy-mouthed nemesis, Beverly Leslie, in the television show “Will & Grace.” Jordan won an Emmy for the role in 2006 for Best Guest Actor in a Comedy Series. Jordan has also made TV appearances on “Desperate Housewives,” “Boston Legal” and “Ugly Betty.”

©1998 NBC Studios.

Audiences may know him from the cult-classic film “Sordid Lives,” or his HBO special, a one-man show called “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet.”

This Friday, Jordan will be performing his most recent production, “An Evening with Leslie Jordan,” at Madison’s Barrymore Theatre. Like comedian Kathy Griffin (“My Life on the D-List”), Jordan addresses the audience in a gossipy manner, sharing naughty stories from the world of Los Angeles’ entertainment industry.

Jordan’s “evening of stories” will also include tales from his childhood, growing up as a gay person in the South.

“When you came up in the ‘50s, everything was conservative. You had ‘liberal,’ but not in terms of being a little gay boy. I had no outlets,” he said. Jordan also comes from a religious family. He says his time in the church was bittersweet, full of activity on one hand, but emotional pain on the other.

“If there was gonna be a New Years Eve party, it was at the church. A Christmas party, it was at the church,” he says. “You start realizing – you reach a certain age – and you kind of think you might be gay, but you’re taught at church … that’s where we learned to hate ourselves.”

Yet, Jordan has found humor in that pain, both in the past and recent events. He laughs when he recounts an incident where he encountered homophobia in Los Angeles’ gay district. While standing in line to use an ATM, he overheard a man behind him use the word “faggot.” Jordan pounced.

“I blew up! I was never so angry. I said, ‘You are in the wrong part of town. This is West Hollywood. We don’t talk like that here.’ Well (the man’s) friend jumped in. ‘Oh we’re sorry! He’s bisexual.’ I said, ‘No he’s a fuckin’ asshole that needs to learn some goddamn manners! … It’s time to put the plug in the jug,’ ” Jordan said. “After being teased as a kid you think, ‘My God, I put up with it my whole life; I’m not gonna put up with it at 57 years of age in West Hollywood.”

©2010 Breaking Glass Pictures.

Jordan’s ability to find levity in painful situations is a hallmark of comedy itself. “Comedy is tragedy two weeks later,” Jordan says. “I started when I was about 17 years old. I was just filled with a lot of angst … I started writing … And so then I would read my writings to friends, and they would laugh.”

Jordan started his career in entertainment by transforming these writings into his first show. Audiences responded to his stories. “I realized that when I put tragic things that have happened to me and I tell them as a story, people empathize and people relate and people laugh,” Jordan says.

Leslie Jordan is a bibliophile, holding books famous in the gay and lesbian community.

Leslie Jordan holding (in)famous books, iconic in the gay and lesbian community.

Photo courtesy of Reaction Productions.

These days, Jordan spends more time fretting about his age than homophobia. He is conscious of his white hair. “I’ve felt like Madonna sometimes, always trying to stay relevant. At least she can put on new wigs, and new songs and reinvent herself,” he says.

Jordan notes that younger audiences may be unfamiliar with some of his show’s cultural references, in contrast to older generations.

“I do a lot of jokes in my standup … I’m having to talk about, for instance, some actress like Debbie Reynolds. And I’ll say, ‘You younger gays don’t even know who the fuck she is,’ ” Jordan says. “Just Twitter on, Honey. Just Twitter on. Y’all Twitter away and we’ll come back in a minute.” He laughs.

However, some of the topics Jordan addresses – such as bullying – are things all audience members can relate to. Jordan says that he speaks to young adults in the theater lobby after his shows. “They’re as young as 19 (or) 20, and go, ‘Wow! Your story.’ Because we’re still bullied and not fitting in,” he says. “Everybody’s got that, ya know?”

Despite the stigma Jordan experienced, he looks back on his upbringing in Tennessee with fondness. His mother, through Southern discipline, shaped Jordan’s character – reinforcing the importance of dependability and sociability.

“My mother was such a part of my life. She was the den mother in cub scouts. She would volunteer for the school talent show. My mother was always there,” Jordan says. “And I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, get off me!’ on my manners – you know, ‘Please,’ ‘Thank you.’ But I thought, ‘I’m a pretty good human being because of all that.’ So even though (I) come out of the South, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Jordan says that, in addition to a taste of his Southern charm, audience members can look forward to an intimate evening:

“They’re not much I can do, Honey. There’s a lot on this planet I can’t do, but what I can do is stand on stage and tell stories.”

“An Evening with Leslie Jordan” will run at Madison’s Barrymore Theatre on Friday, Oct. 19 at 8 p.m.

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