Once again, So So Gay has managed to get hold of the incredible Leslie Jordan as he prepares to wing his way over to London with his latest one man show, Fruit Fly. Jordan tells us that his latest show takes a bit of a detour from his more familiar territory, as this time he wants to talk about family and his childhood – a subject he thinks we can all relate to.
‘It’s a show that’s trying to answer the age old question: Do gay men become their mothers?’
His shocking pronouncement aside, we were intrigued and couldn’t help but ask Leslie what his home life was like when he was a child.
‘My mother was the baby of 9 children in her family, and my father was also the baby of his family. I was the first born of the two babies and so ended up being photographed relentlessly. My mother has kept all these wonderful slides form the 1950s of me as a child with my umbrella and I am playing with dolls, and you know my father was a career army man? Anyway, with this show I have slides that appear behind me, great big pictures of my childhood, as I tell these stories which I think makes it really, really interesting. I did it in San Francisco at the Hotel Nikko which has the wonderful venue called the Rrazz Room and we were just packed every night’
The last time that Mr Jordan came to old London Town he was promoting his previous show, Walking Down the Pink Carpet, another upbeat one-man show where he told the world about his adventures in Hollywood. Imagine our surprise then when the 57 year-old actor told us he didn’t think he was a big enough star to fill the seats in London’s own Apollo theatre.
‘Oh. I think I was in a little bit over my head. It’s a huge venue and I don’t think I am a big enough star to pull in enough people for an 800 seat theatre – but we were very lucky to get it. They had apparently originally wanted to bring in Keira Knightly and Elizabeth Moss in The Children’s Hour and it ended up playing around the corner. Apparently Keira Knightly got a movie and it fell through, leaving a 12-week window. So, all of a sudden, I am heading over to London, to the Apollo, and I thought: ‘I’m never going to be able to fill that’. I ended up getting matinees of about 400 people, and I was ecstatic, but I think they ended up losing a bit of money on me. I think the Leicester Square theatre is more my venue since that does have 400 seats.’
Leslie has had the opportunity to travel around both the US and the UK with his shows. It’s said that the American sense of humour doesn’t always translate successfully to a British audience, so while we had him in our clutches we asked him if there were any differences between us and our American cousins, in terms of what he expected from his audience.
‘I find that UK audiences are a lot more interested in telling a story. They love stories it seems, your people, but then storytelling is like an art form over in the UK, and I’m really good at telling a story. American audiences, you have to grab their attention, because they will twitter and tweet and get on their phones – they can be the worst. It’s because of this that I will never go back to New York, because I have had it with critics there. But it seems that, for UK audiences, going to the theatre is a bigger part of what you do. I think the audiences in the UK are more polite, but you have to earn the laughs, which I noticed when I was last there. They aren’t just going to give it to you – you have to earn it. That said, I did notice that by the end of my last show even the critic in The Times gave me a wonderful review. I remember he said ‘I didn’t want to see this show … I hate one-person shows’, but then he said ‘by the end, he had me’. I thought ‘what a lovely compliment’.’
But as we talked to the veteran actor we were curious about whether he felt he had to change his material at all for the UK audience, to make up for the slight differences in language. He answered us with a story that nearly made us wet ourselves laughing.
“Now I think about it, there was a joke in my last play which I had to adjust a little. I had quite a history with rent boys – I just love the whole gay for pay thing. My mother used to ask me when I was a kid, ‘why are you so interested in the underbelly of life?’ But it’s true, I love strippers and whores, and carnivals that travel around with freak shows. So I had this joke in my last show where I said my accountant would say, ‘Well you always know when Mr Jordan is working. There isn’t a boy on the boulevard who doesn’t have brand new tennis shoes’. Now that was my biggest laugh in the States, but I took it to London and it didn’t get a good laugh at all. Well, there was a young man who works back stage and he told me, ‘we don’t say tennis shoes, we say trainers’. So, I went out the next night with the new line and the audience were roaring. That was the only line I had to change – tennis shoes to trainers. When the joke didn’t get a laugh at first I was so worried, I thought my southern accent is so thick and maybe they didn’t understand me. But then I thought, ‘of course they do, English is English.”
To talk to Leslie now it’s hard to really imagine the cute little fire cracker being anything other than the real life version of Beverly Lesley, the character he himself made famous in the amazing sitcom Will and Grace. But as we peeled back the layers of this man’s astounding life, we began to get a sense of who he is and where he came from. We were shocked by the depth of pain this man has felt in his life.
‘When I was 14 years-old I told my mother I thought I was gay. Now she did the best she could, but she didn’t understand. She didn’t even know what gay was really. So she took me to Christian Therapy, where they would give me therapy but then they would pray for me. I had one of them tell me, ‘when you have these urges, when you are attracted to someone of your own gender, that is the voice of the Prince of Darkness, you are hearing the voice of the Devil himself.’ Can you imagine?It’s a wonder I am still sane.’
Still, in the depths of sadness Leslie was able to find solace in writing, and over time was able to sow the seeds of what would eventually become inspiration.
‘When I was about 17 years-old I started journaling. Many years later, when I was in recovery, I had figured out why that was important. Someone told me that when you journal with a pen and paper it slows your mind down to the speed of a pen, and that means you can get some clarity. I knew that instinctively when I was 17 years-old, that when I was upset about things – because it was really hard being gay in the deep south at 17, in that day and age – I would write about it. I kept those journals for years. Under my bed, here in my loft, there are journals that probably go all the way back to when I was 17 years-old. It is hilarious and I was just mortified when I went back and read them, because they are so angst ridden. I wish I could go back to that 17 year-old and say ‘bunny, it’s going to get so much better, so calm down’. I started writing and then some time in my 20s I figured out that if I shared things with someone else, like when something was really bothering me, and read them a part of my journal, I felt so much better. It really does go back to the 12-step program and that idea that you are only as sick as your secrets.’