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What a character!

What a character!


Leslie Jordan takes a break from Will & Grace to reprise his juicy roles in Sordid Lives and Southern Baptist Sissies, part of a yearlong Del Shores repertory in Los Angeles

Fans of Will & Grace know Leslie Jordan as Beverley Leslie, the hopelessly homophobic closet case who periodically sashays into their favorite sitcom while toting a wicked Tennessee drawl (typically aimed at nemesis Karen Walker, played by Megan Mullally). But Jordan's distinct Southern accent has given voice to delightfully dysfunctional gay characters for years. In Sordid Lives (1996), Los Angeles playwright Del Shores's white trash comedy that went on to become a 2001 cult film costarring Delta Burke and Olivia Newton-John, Jordan played the cross-dressing Brother Boy, who suffers from "a bad case of homosexualism with a touch of transvestism" and lives most of his life thinking he's Tammy Wynette. And in Southern Baptist Sissies (2000) Shores's exploration into the lives of four churchgoing queers, Jordan camped it up as the always inebriated barfly Peanut.

Now through the end of the year, all six of Shores's Southern-fried confections (produced between 1984 and 2000) are being reheated for A Season of Shores at Los Angeles's Zephyr Theatre, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. "It's the same age as me," says Jordan, who recently spoke with about the identity crisis brought on by reprising his Brother Boy and Peanut personas at the same time. (Makes his moment in the live Will & Grace episode that aired on January 12 look like mere extra work.)

So how are you keeping your roles straight--no pun intended--right now?I feel like Sybil...I don't quite know who I'm supposed to be every day. I'm performing in Southern Baptist Sissies. I'm doing all the tech rehearsals for Sordid Lives. I just did my one-man show, Like a Dog on Linoleum, in Palm Springs to sold-out audiences. And then I did that live Will & Grace episode. So I don't know who I'm supposed to be.

Are performances of Sordid Lives and Southern Baptist Sissies overlapping? Saturday afternoon is a Sordid matinee, but I told Del, "Honey, I'm not going to do a matinee. I don't mean to be a diva, but to get in drag like that, and then jump out of drag, and then do an evening performance of Sissies...that's just insane."

How do you separate Peanut from Brother Boy?It's weird; it has something to do with those high heels. Last night, while the techs were adjusting the lights, I thought, I'm not going to put on my heels, but I couldn't do Brother Boy without the high heels on. So here I am completely out of drag with these fluffy high-heel bedroom slippers on. Brother Boy has a much different vocal pattern [than Peanut], and there's a kind of innocence to him that I can fall into real easy by just kinda battin' my eyes.

Peanut, the Southern Baptist Sissies character, is so jaded. He's been sittin' on that bar stool. He's closer to me--I'm a recovering alcoholic. I used to tell my friend Del Shores all my stories. I really did sit on a bar stool at Hunter's down on Santa Monica Boulevard, and there's all those boys just 30 days out of prison. And there I'd be with a drink and a checkbook. People would say, "You oughta go up to Numbers; they have better rent boys." I'd said, "No, honey, I like those bargain-basement boys. I'm not going to spend $200!" I would tell Del all these stories. Then he called to tell me he'd written this play, and we did a read-through. I was so angry with him. I said, "You have told every one of my stories...I'm sober now, I don't want to go back and relive all that mess." He said, "I think it'll be very healing," and I said, "I think that's my business." But he was exactly right. It's been so healing. I kind of live out my "drunkelogue" every week. Peanut is easy to tap into.

What is it like returning to these roles after all these years?I had several concerns when Del said "Do you want to do it?" I'd been touring with Like a Dog on Linoleum, where I have a big cut of the box office and I can make a couple grand a night, and I said, "So what does this pay, dear?" And he said, "$23 per performance." I said, "Gosh, honey, I don't know if I can go out there for $23." But my biggest concern, especially with Sordid Lives having had the success it had as a movie, was that it would be camp, like Rocky Horror Picture Show. What if people show up dressed like the characters and holler things out or something? [Ed.: This happens regularly at midnight screenings of the film in Palm Springs.] So we've been real careful, especially with Sissies, to remain true to the gist of the play.

Also, it's the first time I've ever performed Brother Boy onstage sober. We were in that play on the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga [10 years ago], and I used to get bored because my character had these huge I'd go down to the Spotlight [gay bar] and have a drink. It's really interesting to be completely sober and present. I think [audiences] are going to see a sterling Brother Boy...very alert!

Does Brother Boy still think he's Tammy Wynette?Yes, we're keeping it exactly the same. A lot of the young stagehands didn't know who Tammy Wynette was. There was a reference we worried about that didn't make it into the film. At one point in Sordid Lives the Noleta Nethercott character, which was played by Delta Burke in the movie and will be played by Patrika Darbo--big soap opera actress [formerly of Days of Our Lives]--in the play. She says, "You just better be glad I'm not Latin and don't have a knife." It was a reference to Lorena Bobbitt. That had just happened when the play first came out. Latinas have such funny tempers, so it may work anyway.

Are audiences different now than they were when you first performed it? The boys that we hired [for Southern Baptist Sissies] this time are younger, and I think it works better. There used to be this really emotional scene where a light would come up on a drag queen and she'd do this really moving number that, in rehearsal, we thought was just gorgeous. And it would get huge laughs. It was really uncomfortable. Del kept saying, "There shouldn't be laughter." So we had the drag queen turn her back to the audience. And I noticed, in this particular run, audiences are so into that particular moment that they don't laugh at all...not one single chuckle. I've also noticed that Del has a little money the production values are much bigger. And the advance buzz is great; every single performance is sold to the gills. That makes it very exciting!

Have you added any new layers to either of the characters?I used to want to cry onstage every night. Oh, I'd sit and listen to every sad song I could think of. What was my favorite song to listen to? There was a song called "Melissa" by the Allman Brothers. I'd just sit there and bawl!

It was just exhausting. It's the different between American actors and British actors. British actors can just do it with technique and make you feel the same thing. But American actors are like Dustin Hoffman, drilling a hole in his tooth to feel the pain for Marathon Man. His face was all swollen, and Laurence Olivier said, "My dear boy, why don't you just try acting?" Now, at my age, I'm relying more on technique. And I haven't heard one complaint. Look, if I'm going to go out there six nights a week, I don't want to be an emotional wreck. I'm 50 years's a job. I do and I give and everyone's pleased. And I go home and I'm not exhausted. I'm realizing more and more that there are ways you can bring the tears on, or at least the semblance of tears. Nine times out of 10 we were a bit masturbatory before, when actually it's a much more interesting choice not to cry. You might get a little verklempt, and then you adjust, and that's even more endearing and touching to an audience than you sitting there blubbering.

How is the Del Shores stage different from the Will & Grace stage?The thing that I love about Will & Grace is that there's a clear-cut reason for my character to be there. I come in with the zinger. My character seldom has much to do with moving the story ahead. I know exactly what my job is there. It's just a party, basically. I'm just having a ball.

Like Brother Boy and Peanut, Beverley Leslie definitely has some major issues about his sexuality. Have you ever yearned to play a well-adjusted gay person?[Laughs] I don't see that on the radar. I would love to, though. But I love that [Will & Grace] really tapped into something: that Southern closeted homosexual with a wife. We have this wonderful cowboy bar episode coming up on March 3. My [character's] wife has died now, and I'm kind of a free man. So my "business associate" Benji and I go to this cowboy bar. And they had me in these female stretch Wranglers tucked into white boots, a glittery cowgirl shirt, and this big ten-gallon hat. And one of the characters says, "What are you doin' here?" And I say, "I'm just here having a drink with my business associate." And Will goes, "You're still trying to push him off as your business associate in the middle of a gay bar." [Cackles hysterically]

Will & Grace's Brokeback Mountain moment! So how do your Del fans differ from your W&G fans?When I get recognized somewhere, it's almost always 50-50 between Will & Grace and Sordid Lives. I was thinking, as I watched the [Southern Baptist Sissies] audience the other day, Del's fan base is very Palm Springs--it's gay gentlemen of a certain age. We've got to start getting these younger guys in! What amazes me with Will & Grace fans is how young they are and how straight they are. The guys always come up and go, "You are so funny on that show. My girlfriend watches that show." [Laughs] They never say they watch it. But what a wonderful thing to be part of a TV show that has done so much to combat homophobia, just with laughter.

What do you hope audiences will get out of these new revivals?Well, I hope to get jobs out of it! People say, "Oh, you do theater!" And I say, "Honey, I do theater to get better TV and film roles." But no, I think that Southern Baptist Sissies is a really important piece right now, especially with our current government. I read in the paper where in Kansas City somebody hollered out to Bush, "Have you seen Brokeback Mountain?" And he said, "Well, I'd love to talk about ranching." So there's still work to be done. And Sordid Lives is Del's coming-out story, which still has resonance. Those scenes with the son and the mother are verbatim. He called me the night he had the conversation. He said, "I told my mom." And I said, "What did she say?" It was really quiet, then he goes, "She asked if I was the man or the woman." And that was one of the scenes in Sordid Lives.

Any "sordid" stories from the return engagement?Well, I do have one: I have to shave myself for my Brother Boy role because I'm hairy as a monkey--it's the gay cardinal sin! So I went out to Palm Springs this weekend and hired several young men to shave me...just to shave me! So I'm slick and I'm ready and I hope people come see me!

All six of Del Shores's plays are playing through the end of 2006 at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave. Please consult with the box office, (800) 595-4849), or for a comprehensive schedule.

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