Leslie Jordan is one of the most consistently recognizable faces in popular entertainment. Appearing in several TV shows and films like Sordid Lives, American Horror Story, and The Cool Kids, Jordan will forever be known to millions for his iconic role as Karen Walker’s frenemy Beverly Leslie in NBC’s Will & Grace.
Jordan may only stand at four feet eleven inches, but his charm and personality is taller than the Empire State Building. Throughout his career, he has remained constant, relevant, and above all, funny. The stories he can tell will have you entertained for hours.
OUT FRONT had the pleasure of chatting with Jordan about Will & Grace and his character in addition to upcoming projects and how he fell into the crazy world of showbiz.
Hi Leslie! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I am a huge fan of Will & Grace, and it is quite an honor to chat with the one and only Beverly Leslie!
Why, thank you! That’s very sweet of you.
Let’s start off by talking about Will & Grace. How was it getting together again with the cast for the reboot?
You know, they had called me early on way before the reboot happened, and Max Mutchnick said that my character flew out the window 12 years ago in the finale, so they were trying to figure out how to work that out. Max said, ‘Maybe you can come back as Beverly Leslie’s evil twin, Leslie Leslie.’
Then they decided to get rid of the finale and sort of pick up where we left off, which was the perfect decision. They got very ambitious with the finale! There was a lot going on. Anyways, I didn’t show up until episode five, so everyone else sort of had their little reunion, but Megan Mullally paid me the sweetest compliment. She said between our banter, she truly felt that Karen Walker was back. I thought that was very sweet.
I read that the role of Beverly Leslie was intentionally written for Joan Collins. How did you end up with it?
I got in so much trouble over telling that story! Her husband wrote me this letter telling me stop because it was making her look like a diva. I know the role was written for an episode where Beverly Leslie played by Joan was going to steal Rosario away from Karen. They were then going to get into this big sort of Dynasty cat fight. I heard a rumor that she didn’t want her wig jerked off, but yes, I don’t tell that story much anymore because her husband fussed at me. The letter was like a cease and desist letter saying it was diminishing his wife’s chances for other roles. It’s not like I’m saying they fired her ass and got me!
Well, I honestly can’t imagine anyone else playing that role but you! What is your favorite part about playing Beverly?
I think getting to work with Megan Mullally. She’s a lot like me. She’s the kind of actress who can’t just stand there, she’s always pouring a martini or something. I remember watching her and thinking, she’s funny, but she’s no Leslie Jordan! Then we walked out in front of the audience and I made my entrance, well, well, well, and it was like a comedy tsunami. I caught her eye and she looked at me and we were like, it’s on. It’s like verbal ping pong when you work with her. Having comedy partner like Megan is the best.
Did you ever think Will & Grace would become such a phenomenon?
I did, and I’ll tell you why. I am good at assessing things out and getting the lay of the land. I always know what’s going on around me. People think I’m not paying attention, but I am. I remember thinking when I got on Will & Grace, you got a gay writer and you got a straight writer, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick. David is there to make sure it doesn’t go too gay because there is still a huge part of America that would not be ready for that, and Max is there to make sure it doesn’t go too straight or conservative. They just fight and abuse each other, but they knew this is a show America was going to welcome into their living rooms.
There are two ways to combat homophobia. One is humor. I learned that in junior high during dodgeball. Smear the queer they would yell, and I’d just tap dance all around. I can make people laugh. Second way is, you have to put a face on humor. These are characters and people that were going to be welcomed into people’s home. I look back and think how time has changed through the run of the show. When I first got on, people would stop me in the street and be like, you’re on that TV show, my wife or girlfriend watches that show all the. And these would be big, burly straight guys. Eight years later, men like that will be yelling at me how much they love the show.
And you think the show kept up with the times well?
I do. I think the struggle was that so much has happened in the past 12 years since the show went off, how do you keep it relevant? How do you keep it current? But honey, we did our work, and let me tell you, when comes down to the bottom line, this show is funny!
Beverly Leslie is a very conservative, right-wing republican. Is it challenging to play that?
It is just easier to be a buffoon! There are people who cannot play that, but I knew exactly who Beverly Leslie was. It was like Jeff Sessions before he became Jeff Sessions. He is just a buffoon! I thought it was so much fun to play that character, and it just naturally evolved.
It wasn’t just about being a republican or just a friend of Karen’s that nobody liked. We knew he was gay, and he has this business associate that he takes everywhere with him. It’s hilarious, because I know that man. That kind of man is still around. These closeted, deep south, Baptist church guys with frosted hair and being as nelly as they can be. There was one time, this church song leader was talking about his wife, and I counted him saying that 11 times. I wanted to say, ‘oh honey, we get it.’
Speaking of republicans, would you ever run for public office?
Oh my God! No! I think it boils down to, I am 20 years sober, and I have been in jail and places that you could never imagine. I have so many skeletons in my closet; they wouldn’t be able to drag half of them out! I’m an actor. That’s what I do.
Have you always had a passion for acting?
Oh gosh, no. My passion was horses. I rode horses my whole life and I got an exciting job exercising racehorses on a farm and I ended up going to New York. I wanted to be a jockey. I was butch, I don’t know what happened! I didn’t have any desire to act. I was in a high school play and I was really funny, but when I was 27, I got sick cause I had to diet so strenuously to keep my weight down. To be a jockey, you have to weigh 108 lbs. I’m little, but I’m not skinny.
So, I went back to school and everybody said to take Intro to Theatre to get my arts elective out of the way. I did and we did improv, but all of sudden I just knew that this was it. I went to the head of the theatre department, and he first said I needed to pronounce theatre correctly. Second, it’s a lot of work. I was willing. So, I got a degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. In 1982, I got on a bus and headed for California. I wanted to do sitcoms. I had this plan, and my mother had sewn $1,500 into my underpants. I had a suitcase, a dream and a degree in theatre, and I was going to make it!
Unfortunately, The Cool Kids was not picked up for a second season by FOX. How your experience with that show and what was it like to work with comedic icons Vicki Lawrence, Martin Mull and David Alan Grier?
Yes, it is unfortunate, but I was very proud of it. We didn’t have a lot of gay writers on our staff, and a bunch of them were like frat boys, but they were really open to my suggestions and ideas. They wouldn’t want to offend anyone, so they would come to me asking if this was offensive, and I’d say yes, but hilarious! And I had such a wonderful working relationship with David, Martin and Vicki. I adore all three of them and we got along really well which is not always the case. It makes for a wonderful working relationship. The show was about growing old and friendship, and it’s like the Golden Girls on crack! Funny and silly and I hoped it would have lasted for a long time.
You have also been touring the country with your one-man show, Exposed. Can you tell us more about that?
I would do these one-man shows over the years to help me supplement my income, and they have gotten so popular. Last year, I did 44 venues! I figured I can stand on stage and tell funny stories about things that are going on in my life and make money. “Exposed” is like the best of it all. That is what I am really good at. I can tell stories and go on forever.
Do you have any other upcoming projects that we should be on the lookout for?
I think that’s it, but I always got something clicking!
Photo courtesy of Leslie Jordan