By Brian Waddle
On an unusually cool August afternoon, I had a lovely telephone conversation with Emmy Award-winning actor Leslie Jordan, who will be visiting Houston on October 8 for a National Coming Out Day benefit performance celebrating OutReach United’s 10th anniversary. Jordan talked about his years in the cast of Will & Grace, the much-anticipated sequel to Sordid Lives, his drug-rehab experience and his coming-out at the age of 42, and his love affair with Houston humidity—all of course, in his beautiful Southern accent. Here are some excerpts from our chat.
Brian Waddle: It’s a real pleasure to visit with you this afternoon, Mr. Jordan.
Leslie Jordan: Honey, are you calling from Houston? I bet it’s hotter than hell there. I [came through] Houston one time on a bus—it was my first time going to Hollywood. Oh my God, it was like dripping hot.
When you were on the pioneering Will & Grace show 15 years ago, did you ever think so many positive things would happen for our community in such a relatively short amount of time?
You know, I felt like something was happening. I started in the third season, and by then it was a pretty big hit. When I first got cast on that show, straight men would come up to me and say, “Dude, aren’t you the one on Will & Grace?” They would tell me their girlfriend or wife watches it, but never admit they did, too. But by the end, I’d have construction guys yelling at me, holding their jackhammers, “Hey! I love you on that show!” So somewhere the tide had turned. As I said in my Emmy acceptance speech, the best way I know to combat homophobia is through humor. [In seventh grade] I was funny and I could tap dance and do things, so I wouldn’t get beat up. The other way to combat homophobia is to put a face on it, and progress was made when Americans allowed those Will & Grace characters into their homes. I’m so honored to have been a part of that.
Beyond that iconic gay television character, you also played Brother Boy in Sordid Lives, one of the all-time favorite characters in gay film.
Wait until you get a load of Brother Boy in the sequel.
Oh wow, have you finished shooting?
We just finished it. It’s a good thing you brought that up. We were in Dallas; we shot in the Rose Room. We raised one million dollars online and worked with Caroline Rhea and shot most of it in Canada. Olivia Newton-John was not able to do it, so we just got Whoopi Goldberg. And it is as funny, if not more so, than the first one. It picks up 20 years after the original, and I’m stuck in Longview, Texas, and I go on the lam with a serial killer! You should come out to Palm Springs for the opening in January.
Be careful what you wish for! So the OutReach United organization you are coming to Houston for is an important cause. Talk to me about your view on coming out and living as your true, authentic self.
It all started when I got sober 20 years ago. It wasn’t alcohol for me—we used to dance and all I’d do is chase [crystal meth] all night long. I did that for 10 years. The thing about all drugs is that eventually you have to come down. And it’s just destroying our community. Honey, I can spot a tweaker at 40 paces. [So] I just took away all my medications. I was 42 years old, and I’d been the life of the party—honey, I was going to gay bars at 15. You know what I mean? And I took away all that, and I was riddled with internal homophobia. 42 years old, and here I am, the queen of everything, and I don’t know what to do with my hands! I can’t explain it—I couldn’t bear to talk, I hated the way I sounded, and all of a sudden I had to take this journey. I went to treatment, I went to prison, and I took a journey into my queerdom. 42 years old and having to figure out what do to with myself. . .
The first five years of my sobriety were the roughest years of my life. My career was not going that well, I had to put everything on hold, I was broke. But in the midst of all of that, something clicked. I did a lot of work on myself. When I was on Will & Grace, I was sober, and that was my comeback. In my recovery program, we were taught to write, because it slows your mind down to the speed of a pen. I have boxes and boxes of those journals under my bed. They are some of my most prized possessions.
I was the son of a lieutenant colonel, and I’ve been effeminate my whole life, and you have to face all of that perceived shame. And the worst was my own internal homophobia. I’d been taking drugs for so long, [before taking] this long journey into sobriety, that I had forgotten who I really was. I had denied and forgotten how effeminate I am, just by nature. And I can honestly tell you, in almost 20 years of work on myself, I am closer to my authentic self than I have ever been. I am perfectly happy with who I am and what I am.
My show you’re going to see in Houston is called “Straight Out of Chattanooga,” and it’s about what you and I just discussed. It’s about what changed, what happened, my struggle with drugs—and I couldn’t be more excited to share my story with all my friends and fans in Houston.
What: OutReach United’s 10th Anniversary featuring Leslie Jordan
When: October 8, 6 to 9 p.m.
Where: Jaguar Houston Central, 7025 Old Katy Rd.
Brian Waddle is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.