Leslie Jordan: Damaged & Divine

By |2014-04-20T09:00:00-04:00April 20th, 2014|Entertainment|

By Christopher Treacy

Photo: Kelly Smith

When it came to playing the role of Preston “Peanut” Leroy in the Emerson Collins-produced film of Del Shores’ GLAAD Award-winning play, “Southern Baptist Sissies,” Leslie Jordan didn’t have much of a choice: the part was written for him.
Shores, who has worked with Jordan many times, took the part of Peanut – an aging, lonely barfly with a storied past – straight from Jordan’s formative years in California. See for yourself when the film screens at Cinema Detroit March 21-27 (http://cinemadetroit.com), when you can experience who Jordan might have become had he not opted to make some important lifestyle changes along the way.
“I’ve been sober for 17 years,” Jordan says over the phone from a West Coast Starbucks patio where he waited on a nearby car repair. “But years before that happened, I used to spend afternoons around this hustler bar on Santa Monica Boulevard. These rent boys would hang on the boulevard, and sometimes I’d take them home. We never heard anything about syphilis back then, but it was nothing to catch the clap – you’d know ’cause it’d sting when you tee-tee’d. For me, though, the attraction was more to hear their stories, several of which Del used in shaping Peanut’s past. I’ve known Del since he was ‘straight.’ I attended his wedding, I’m a godfather to his children. So he wrote the part for me.”
Jordan has maintained a high profile for the last 15 years, with his recurring character Beverley Leslie on NBC’s “Will & Grace,” plus memorable appearances on “Boston Legal,” “Ugly Betty” and in the “The Help,” among others. There’s also his memoir, “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet,” and several one-man shows, one of which was produced by friend and comedic peer Lily Tomlin. His collaboration with Shores on the play, film and spinoff Logo series “Sordid Lives” inspired his successful self-penned film “Brother Boy.”
Now he’s hosting “The Hookies,” the annual male escort awards ceremony presented by Rentboy.com for the second time and premiering his new comedy performance, “Fruit Fly,” which considers the question, “Do gay men really become their mothers?” In truth, Jordan’s been busy enough recently where we needed to clarify which project I was calling to discuss. Sobriety has been good to him.
“I can’t say ‘no’ to Del, especially after the success of ‘Brother Boy,'” he says. “The play ‘Southern Baptist Sissies’ is 10 years old, and I’m glad it held up so well. My initial concern was that it’s really two plays: one about these four boys struggling with their respective identities, and another about a pair of barflies dealing with years of internalized shame. But the two stories actually relate very well. I told Del, ‘Honey, I don’t want to just end up pitiful,’ so he allowed me to have a moment with one of the four young boys toward the end of the production that better cements the two plot lines.”
The scene Jordan’s referring to is a dramatic pinnacle wherein Peanut – having a rare moment of clarity – warns one of the central youth characters not to become like him. It brings the story full circle, linking the choices of youth to the regrets that often come with age.
The Emerson Collins film production of “Southern Baptist Sissies,” which also features Collins in the lead role, takes a striking approach in the transition to film by using live-to-film stage scenes mixed with close-ups recorded after the fact. The finished result preserves the intensity of a live theater performance and marries it with the technical savvy of a fully produced film; very little, if anything, is lost in translation, and it’s easy to see why Jordan’s stage performance won him an Ovation Award, the Garland Award and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. Collins and Jordan are joined by Dale Dickey (“True Blood,” “Winter’s Bone”), Willam Belli (“RuPaul’s Drag Race”), Bobbie Eakes (“All My Children”) and Ann Walker, Rosemary Alexander and Newell Alexander, all from “Sordid Lives.” The story itself chronicles several young men coming to terms with being homosexual in a church that demands nothing less than complete devotion. Since Jordan was raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Shores originally hails from Texas, both men (now in their 50s) have shouldered their own personal struggles with the confusing contradictions in organized religions; empathy for the characters wasn’t hard to find.
“Del and I are both what I would call ‘spiritually damaged.’ I clearly remember wanting to be a good Christian, to follow the teachings,” Jordan says. “I was spoon fed the Bible. The Baptist church requires a public profession of devotion, which is immediately followed by a baptism. I tell people I was baptized 14 times; it didn’t take! But, y’know, I’ve had to have my own journey to find sobriety and learn to put my faith in something else. Del and I and so many others were faced with that conflict – wanting to be good, to do ‘the right thing’ but confused by the message that we’re somehow defective merchandise. I can see parts of myself in all of those boys.”
Playing Peanut has been cathartic for Jordan in some unexpected ways. Every time his character appears, he’s either perched on a barstool or teetering his way onto or off of one, highball in hand and ice cubes clinking.
“It’s my dark understory,” he admits. “The first night we did it as a play, I came off stage and freaked out because I could swear I’d tasted vodka in that glass. You put me in that environment, under those dim lights, and it all becomes very real to me. In subsequent performances, however, I found immeasurable strength in being able to act out certain aspects of my real story, knowing how different my life is now – and then (I’d) walk out of that theater levitating on air.”

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BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.