God, Gays, and Southern Baptist Sissies: A Kiki With Leslie Jordan

The Emmy Award-winning Will & Grace actor talks about his latest project with longtime collaborator Del Shores.

Dale Dickey and Leslie Jordan in <I>Southern Baptist Sissies</I>.
Dale Dickey and Leslie Jordan in Southern Baptist Sissies.
(photo courtesy of Southern Baptist Sissies)

“I got a check yesterday,” Leslie Jordan enthusiastically says. It was a residual for some reruns of Will & Grace, the show for which Jordan won his Emmy Award playing the improbably closeted Southern dandy Beverly Leslie. “It was much needed and a huge surprise. I’m treating myself to a two-hour massage this afternoon. Thank you, Beverly Leslie!”

Hence, we only officially had 20 minutes to conduct this interview, but something said this Chatty Cathy was going to blow right past that limit (he did), especially since we were talking about one of his oldest friends in the world, Del Shores, and the new film of his play Southern Baptist Sissies (now playing at festivals across America).

A tale of four young Southern Baptists (who also happen to be gay boys), the play is a heartbreaking and hilarious look at the lives of gay men under the stifling influence of fundamentalist religion. Jordan plays the local gay barfly, Preston LeRoy, or “Peanut” as his friends know him.

TheaterMania spoke to Jordan about the play and his long working relationship with writer/director Shores.

Leslie Jordan
Leslie Jordan
(photo courtesy of Leslie Jordan)

How long have you known Del Shores?

Oh my God…Del Shores and I met, I would say, thirty years ago…and Del was STRAAAIIIGHT back then!!! And honey, I have really good gaydar. I can spot a homosexual at forty paces. Not so much anymore. In my day I could, but now you just don’t know. Anyway, I was best man at his wedding. I am godfather to his two beautiful daughters. It was an awkward time in our lives because his wife would constantly ask me, “Why don’t you quit messing around with these hustler-type rough straight boys and find you a nice gay boyfriend?” And I told her that if I ever found a gay Del Shores I’d get married.

But of course “gay Del Shores” is redundant.

Ten years into the marriage he had to say to her, “I always thought it was something that would go away and it hasn’t and it’s not fair to you that we stay married.” And it was UUUUGLY. Oh, it was bad. Now, he swears he called me — I don’t remember this — and said, “I have something I need to tell you, but I can’t. It angers me that I can’t, but the reason, Leslie, is that you have the biggest mouth in Hollywood.” I thought he had cancer! He finally said, “Leslie honey, I’m gay.” He swears I giggled and said, “Oh honey, we’re going to have so much fun.” And we have! I have been his muse. He has absolutely written for me.

Tell me about the process of filming Southern Baptist Sissies.

We shot in front of an audience. There were four performances. I felt a little tricked. I don’t want to work for SAG [Screen Actors Guild] ultra-low budget. I’ve been at it for thirty years. I just turn things down. I can’t do it. I can’t work for one hundred dollars a day and a hot meal. But Del said that we were doing ten days on SAG ultra-low budget. I said, “Delford, honey…”

But you did it.

Well, he said we would be filming pickups. Now to me that sounds like an hour or so of extra work beyond the four performances. No no no, honey…I was in that freezing-cold theater…we didn’t have any heat! We had one heater, and we gathered around it like we were Boy Scouts. We were there from six in the morning to seven or eight at night for ten days. We shot every inch of that play like it was a film. But we have so much fun it’s hard to say no when he says, “Come and work for one hundred dollars a day.” It’s like family. With Del Shores I have a say in the project…maybe too much say.

How much say did you have in the development of your character, Preston “Peanut” LeRoy?

I lived that life. I used to sit on a barstool at a place called Hunter’s. I’m six years sober now, but I used to drink on days I didn’t have work and I loved it. It was very naughty to have a drink at noon. And then all the sudden it’s happy hour. Then all of a sudden it’s two in the morning and you’re still there.

Leslie Jordan and Willam Belli in <I>Southern Baptist Sissies</I>.
Leslie Jordan and Willam Belli in Southern Baptist Sissies.
(photo courtesy of Southern Baptist Sissies)

So it’s partially based on you.

Every one of those hustlers I mention in the play, like Travelin’ Ray — well I got arrested with Travelin’ Ray. They’re real people! Italian Joe was very real…an Italian Stallion. Over the years I told Del all these stories, forgetting that when you tell Del Shores something, it’s going to end up in a play. All those stories create a wonderful diversion from what’s going on with the boys.

But your role is not just comedic.

In the original scene, I ended just stumbling off after last call. I said to Delford, I don’t mind being a buffoon, but there’s got to be a way I interact with the boys. So he wrote me this scene where I offer some advice to Andrew [Matthew Scott Montgomery], and that’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie. That’s the kind of collaboration we have. I couldn’t do that on a TV show! But in this theater environment I can tell him I’m unhappy and ask for more. And he’s willing to give me more.

So much of this play is about the role that religion, specifically Christianity, plays in the development of the four men at the center of the story. Was religion a big part of your childhood?

The church was everything: our social engagements, Sunday morning, Sunday evening. Wednesday night was the hour of power. We had Bible study on certain days. Saturday afternoon was choir practice. I wanted desperately to be a good Christian. I was a good boy. You reach an age where you begin to rebel. It hits you that you’ve got this secret. My religion believes that there’s a lake of fire where people who don’t make a public profession of their faith in Jesus Christ by getting baptized end up. And we don’t sprinkle, honey. We dunk. I’ve been baptized fourteen times.

It sounds like you just needed confession.

That’s all I needed. I just needed to confess and have it over with. Religion was everything. I got sober at age forty-two. The first thing they tell you in the program is that you must believe in a God of your own understanding. And I thought I’m screwed because I don’t believe. I’ve been a closet atheist my whole life. Nobody really knows if there’s a God — not Oprah, not Joel Osteen, not the Pope. Nobody has touched or felt or conversed with God. They say they have, but let’s get real. I think that is what keeps me from coming out as an atheist. I think to myself, even the atheists don’t know that there isn’t a God. Nobody knows anything.

So you’re more of a cheerful agnostic.

I’m an enthusiastic agnostic who would love nothing better than to be proven wrong. If he is up there, however, he’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.

There has been such incredible progress on gay rights since 2000, when this play was first staged. Is this story still relevant?

That was my big concern and I would have never said that to Del. I thought, we’ve been there, we’ve done this. What’s interesting is that when we’ve taken the film to the South, there has been such an overwhelming response. It’s such a bigger issue there because everyone in the South grew up in the church. There’s an old quote that I love about the gay community being made up of two categories: the fabulous and the fearful. We who live in L.A. or New York, we don’t think twice about walking down the street holding hands. We’re the fabulous. But this is a huge country. There are millions of Republicans who detest us, think we’re monsters, and think it’s a choice. So is it still relevant? Absolutely.

Click below to watch the trailer for Southern Baptist Sissies: