Leslie Jordan, one of Lavender’s favorite stars, is coming to CAMP November 13-18 to perform his one-man show, Fruit Fly. This flamboyant Southern gentleman is most famous for his hilarious role on Will and Grace, as well as his appearance in The Help and his role as “Brother Boy” in Sordid Lives. But more than anything, Jordan is famous for his talent, wit, and absolute charm. His Southern charm and infectious laugh had our sides in stitches in a recent interview.
Kathleen Watson: Can you tell us about Fruit Fly and the inspiration behind this show?
Leslie Jordan: I wanted to answer the age-old question, “Do gay men really become their mothers?” I have a history of one person shows that goes all the way back to 1992 with my first, called Hysterical Blindess and Other Southern Tragedies that have Plagued My Life Thus Far. It actually came about because a casting director had told my manager—they were toying with the idea of making a show for me—the casting director told my manager that “Leslie is peripheral. He comes in with these zingers, but he could not carry a show.” So I thought, “Well, I’ll show him.” I thought if I could stand on stage and keep people interested for an hour and a half, then maybe they would consider me for my own show. It just took on a life of its own. I got this amazing director.
All I wanted to do was showcase myself. All of a sudden, we’re headed to New York, it ran off-Broadway, and it was wildly successful. But nothing happened. I put that idea aside, and then ten years later, I came out with another idea. I had struggled with drugs and alcohol, and now I’m fifteen years sober! I wrote a show called, Like a Dog on Linoleum because that was the way I was when I was using—had a lot of activity, just not really getting anywhere. I did very well with that. Just over the years, in between television work, I’ve toured with these one-person shows. As Lily Tomlin said, “You give yourself the best part.”
The big problem with these one person shows is that I’m on the road now most of the year. I wanted to stay in town during pilot season last year, and the Celebration Theater (which is the local gay theater) said they would love to give me two months…the money was even good for theater! But they said they wanted a world premiere. I said, “Honey, there’s nothing left!” I’ve regurgitated my life on stage for years now!
But my mom was home and showed me this box of slides…and they were so beautifully preserved that I wrote a show called Fruit Fly about the journey I’ve taken with my mother, who is a very devout Baptist woman and has loved me. As she loves to say, I “fell out of the womb and landed in her high heels!” It’s mainly about her journey…
KW: So, can you answer the question of if gay men actually do become their mothers?
LJ: I don’t want to get into it too much because that’s the journey of the play. I told my mother when I was about twelve that I thought something was up. So I was sent to therapists for years. Christian therapists that prayed over me and told me things like, “When you have these thoughts about people of your own gender, it’s the voice of the Prince of Darkness that you’re hearing.” I remember thinking, “well, he has a loud voice because I’m having some BAD thoughts.”
In California, we just banned reparative therapy. You cannot tell a minor, “we’re going to fix you,” because that’s quackery…After what I went through, at 42 years of age I was able to realize that even my drug use and my alcohol use went all the way back to that. It was a lot easier to be gay when I was a little loaded. My generation came out in bars. We didn’t have these wonderful gay choirs and gay golfing events . You know, meeting people outside the arena. That was the only thing we had. You went to the bar! And if you go to the bar, you’re going to drink!
What a wonderful journey I’ve taken the last fifteen years…I’m 57 yearold right now, and I’m closer to my authentic self than I’ve ever been. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m 100% comfortable with who I am, what I am. It’s all in the show. It’s about that journey. Even though it’s wildly funny, there’s a lot more to Fruit Fly than what people are expecting. They show up for a few laughs and leave thinking, “wow.” People relate more in Charlotte, North Carolina because of my Baptist upbringing. But that’s everywhere. You could apply it to Catholic, Mormon, whatever.
KW: What was it like from a peer standpoint growing up in the Deep South? Did your friends know?
LJ: It’s so interesting. I think of myself as a real people person. Always the life of the party; I love to talk. When I look back, I didn’t have friends as a kid. I didn’t. I was a gregarious recluse. If you put me in a social situation, I functioned perfectly. But I don’t remember having friends. My mother told me that my dad asked her, “Why does Leslie only play with girls? Why does he just have a few friends that are girls? Don’t you think that a 7-year-old boy should have lots of boys to play with?” And I realized that now…I also had identical twin sisters who are 22 months younger than me, and they had each other. And then there was me.
The beauty of these 15 years of sobriety is that I’ve learned that I love, love, love and need, need, need a lot of time to myself. I do remember in high school there was one gay boy that I knew. We talked about it, but we didn’t interact at school. That was just understood, that the two gay boys can’t be running around at school because someone would figure it out. It was really “wink, wink.” It was an odd kind of time—it’s hard to realize unless you were there how dark that secret really was, how deep and dark, especially from the church aspect…So I didn’t come out. In retrospect, when I come back to Chattanooga, my hometown, everyone says, “Oh, honey. WE knew. Everybody knew.” But I knew, of course.
I ran away to come out. I went to Atlanta, Georgia. First, I went to Knoxville, and that was a little too close because everyone in Chattanooga goes to Knoxville. Everyone in my dorm room knew I would sneak out and go to gay bars and Bette Midler concerts. It was Atlanta where I knocked the hinges off the door, honey. I hit Atlanta about early 70s, and it was a buffet for gay men. And I partook! That was amazing.
KW: What is your favorite part about solo performance? What resonates with you?
LJ: When you work in front of the camera as I have for most of my career, you’re an actor for hire. I heard a long time ago that film is a director’s medium, tv is a writer’s medium, and stage is an actor’s medium. I was really happy on Will and Grace because it shot in front of a live audience and you got that feedback. You got a little bit of both; you’re working in front of the camera, but it’s still nowhere as artistically satisfying as when I stand on stage and speak my words. I go home and say, “What are you, a Kardashian? Do you think your life is somehow interesting, that you want to stand up there and regurgitate it for everyone?”
It started when I was about 17 years old. I started journaling. And under my bed, right here in my loft in Hollywood, I have journals that go all the way back to 17. I still journal obsessively. They taught me, when I got into recovery, that it’s good to write because it slows your mind down to the speed of a pen. And you get clarity. So I started writing. When the scary monsters under the bed began their low moan, I would write. And then I started reading the things I had written aloud to people, and they would laugh. And somehow, I had this gift of being able to talk about my troubles in some sort of entertaining way. And then when I got on stage, I found out it was lucrative as well. Let’s just put the cards on the table—I could make money at it. That’s when I began to do these one-person shows.
Everybody has a story. It’s interesting! I’m in love with the whole process of a one-person show. I’m my own boss. I have a marketing firm that just books me. I’m like this aging show pony. I don’t even know where I am half the time! I said earlier that I’m closer to my authentic self than I’ve ever been, and they tell you in recover that you’re only as thick as your secrets. And honey, the tabloids can’t go after me! I’ve spewed everything! What would they have to say that I haven’t already said?
When I do get those doubts and think, “Come on, just shut up about yourself,” I’ll get a letter. A lady came up to me in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. She said, “I came to see you because I thought you were funny on Boston Legal with Betty White. I had no idea I was here for my son. He’s 11 years old. I’ve known since I found his sister’s dresses in his toy box from the time he was 3 years old, and I’m allowing him to do his own journey here.” I hugged her. That’s some heavy stuff. When I gave her my free book (called My Trip Down the Pink Carpet), she said, “Will you sign this book to my son so I can give it to him when he comes out to me?” I was a blubbering mess. I’m still a blubbering mess. She said, “It’s rough in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and it’s really rough.” That’s why I think I do what I do. One lady asked me, “Honey, do you know you have a ministry? Your story of coming to accept yourself for who you are is a ministry.”
So I’m bringing my ministry to St. Paul!
KW: What else can we expect from Fruit Fly?
LJ: Fruit Fly is one of my favorite ones I’ve written…it was the first one where I sat down knowing the through line. I wanted begin when I was a little boy, and I thought that my mother was a fairy princess because she was so pretty. I want to take the audience on a journey until I took my mother, my Baptist mother, on a gay cruise to Alaska. I didn’t think it through. And then, when we actually got on the boat, I remember thinking, “What the fuck were you thinking?” You know, “LEATHER PARTY…UNDERWEAR NIGHT.” You know gay men! They’re on their way to Alaska.
But something really amazing happened on the way to Alaska. First of all, the whole boat adopted her. My mother became the queen of the cruise. And trust me, she had lots of competition. There were lots of queens on that ship. My mother, for the first time, got it. I don’t want to go into the whole story, but it involves two 85-year-old lesbians, Petey and Jane. Busiest little lesbians I’ve ever seen…they’ve got such a zest for life. They took us to dinner, and my mother got it. After dinner with Petey and Jane, she turned to me and said, “Honey, it’s not even about sex, is it? It’s about who you fall in love with.”
It’s this journey from just a kid in Tennessee to his late fifties, and his mother is in her seventies, and we’re on a trip to Alaska with a boat of 2,000 gay men. I don’t want to get too heavy with it, because it is wildly funny.
Leslie Jordan’s Fruit Fly will be at CAMP Bar in St Paul from November 13 to November 18. Make sure you catch this legend before he flies away! For more information, visit www.camp-bar.net/FruitFly