Known as for his candid, hilarious performances and his 4-foot-11-inch stature, actor-comedian Leslie Jordan is one of the most recognizable faces in television and film. He's cultivated a diverse body of work since the late 1980s, taking an Emmy Award-winning turn as Karen's swanky rival Beverley Leslie in the long-running sitcom Will & Grace and playing newspaper editor Mr. Blackly in the 2011 drama The Help.
Like a diary come to life, his one-man live show places his most bitter struggles with substance abuse and homophobia in a humorous light, illustrating one of Carol Burnett's best aphorisms: "Comedy is tragedy plus time." Jordan will visit the Barrymore Theatre Friday, Oct. 19.
I asked him about his past struggles, his current work and why life now is all gravy.
The Daily Page: What should people expect from your Madison performance?
Jordan: I have such a wealth of stories from my previous one-man shows that it's almost like a musician putting together a set list. I haven't been to Madison before, so I'll probably open with a story about Will & Grace, and people will want a story about this or that. But it's just a dog-and-pony show. It'll be a night of me.
I've got so many stories about Hollywood and working with people like George Clooney and Billy Bob Thornton. I've got stories about growing up gay in the Baptist church. I've been baptized 14 times. [Laughs] My dad was a lieutenant colonel in the army, and his son was a baton-twirling sissy, so who knows. I recently did a performance in the backyard of a mansion in Houston, and I just got filthy. I don't know what that was about. I had a heckler that was so drunk at the party that I had to say, "Shut your hole, honey -- mine's making money." I blame it on the Houston heat.
You get very candid during your one-man shows. Is there material that doesn't make the cut because it's too personal?
No, that's the problem. There's no filter. Since the time I was a little boy, my mother would say, "Just because it pops in your head, [it] doesn't mean it's got to come right out of your mouth. You can think!" When I was about 17, I started journaling obsessively. I don't know what that was about, but to this day I write every day. I've also been in recovery from substance abuse for 15 years now, and part of the recovery work is journaling, because it slows your mind down to the speed of a pen so that you get some clarity.
And then I'd read [my journals] to a friend or something, and they'd laugh. I'd say, "This isn't funny. This is my very tragic life!" [Laughs] So I realized I could talk about these things in front of a live audience and make some money off of it.
The interesting part is that all my demons have set me free. Sometimes I berate myself after a show. I'll go home and say to myself: What do you think, you're a Kardashian? You think your life is so interesting that you just regurgitate anything that comes into your head?
But then I get the most amazing letters from people who have had struggles who felt better after seeing one of my shows. I have to tell you that through all of this, at 57 years old, I'm closer to my authentic self now than I've ever been. I'm happier than I've ever been, and I'm perfectly comfortable with who I am and what I am.
Is this a recent change, or have you grown happier over time?
It happened sometime around my 50th birthday. I was of that generation with the long hair, saying that life was over by 30, blah blah blah. And when I hit 50, I realized, gosh, it feels like [my life] is kind of beginning now. I got sober October 20, 1997, which was the day of my unfortunate incarceration. I did a little time with Mr. Robert Downey Jr. in the same cell. [Laughs] But when you hit that kind of rock bottom…
The interesting thing is that alcohol was never my problem. In college, I loved to take diet pills to study. We'd pass out what we called trucker speed or black beauties. But what you didn't realize is that you have no retention, and with me it always had the opposite effect because I'm so hyper already. It's like giving a hyper kid Ritalin. And then within the gay community, all of a sudden everybody was doing little bumps of crystal meth, which has such a horrible name now. Back then it was called Tina. You just had a little bump on the dance floor, but while everyone would go dance and talk, I'd just want to go home and relax.
So I went through all of that in my 30s, and when I got sober at 42, and you took away every crutch I'd ever had, it took a lot of work. But right now I'm so content with my life. Everything is gravy.
I'm sure the critical acclaim surrounding The Help provided a boost as well.
It just fell in my lap. And my God, I got to go to the big opening, and then people were winning Academy Awards, and I thought: Wow, I was a part of that. But it was just me being happy for everybody. It wasn't like, "Oh my God, now I can power this engine into some big career and be as big as Madonna!" It felt like a gift.
It's hard to explain, but it's easy to get caught up in things like that, especially with the drinking at the Hollywood parties and so on. But I'm just not caught up in it. It's my job, and that's wonderful, but I have this other huge life. I love what I do, and if I get to stand on stage in Madison and do what I love, I think people will respond.
As a sort of side note, 1990's Ski Patrol was a film of yours that my brother and I watched constantly when we were little.
Oh my God! [Laughs] I get recognized for that more than anything I've done, can you believe that? I love to drive up to the snow [in California] -- you can get to Big Bear Lake in about two and a half hours from where I live -- and it's like I'm Madonna among the youths and the ski bums. It's like, "Look! It's Murray from Ski Patrol!" [Laughs] And I always say, "Guys, a dog farts in my face, okay? I've done better work."