Words: Emma Cox
He's best known as “the little camp guy” from Will & Grace. But 63-year-old Leslie Jordan’s latest role in Sky1 comedy Living The Dream sees him playing straight - something he’s delighted about.
He plays Aiden, a resident at the Florida caravan park run by British ex-pats Mal and Jen Pemberton (Philip Glenister and Lesley Sharp).
And in the upcoming second series, he even gets flirty with Jen’s mum Maureen, played by sitcom legend Paula Wilcox.
Attitude caught up with him on set in Spain and chatted about being a gay icon, acting opposite divas such as J-Lo and Lady Gaga, and earning money - or not, as it turns out...
Why did you sign up for Living The Dream?
I like it because it’s different. The character was not gay, even though I guess I carry a certain kind of baggage. This season I have a flirtation with Paula Wilcox. Last season, I was desperately in love with Jen, played by Lesley. I like that because I tell you, in the US I’m the go-to gay guy. The all-gay men, the all-gay queen. You need an old sissy called Leslie? I’m there.
Plus, the casting director took me to lunch and pursued me. That doesn’t happen a lot. In LA it’s like, well if we can’t get him we’ve got this one and this one, but these guys really wanted me.
What sort of discussion did you have about Aiden being gay or straight?
There wasn’t really a discussion about Aiden’s sexuality because I didn’t bring it up. I said to them: 'Listen, I am the most easy-going actor in the world because I’m also a writer. My pet peeve is when an actor says, ‘I don’t think my character would say that’. Yes he would, it’s on the page! So, I’m always reverent and obedient about sticking to what they want me to do.
And how would you describe Aiden to anyone who hasn’t see the first season?
He is an impoverished southerner. My big struggle has been taking lines that were written by British writers and a lot of times I’ll ask to change things because we don’t say things like “knackered”. His trailer is fixed up immaculately and he dresses a certain way but he’s the middle man between the white trash who live at the park, and the British owners. I think he is one of the few in the trailer park who realises their dilemma: that if they don’t make money at this, they could lose their Green Card status and have to go home. They’re here with their kids trying to make a new life and they’re trying their best.
Did you know any of your British co-stars before you started work?
I knew Lesley from The Full Monty. I had to look Phil up! I knew Paula Wilcox because I used to be addicted to so many of the old British sitcoms.
You’re a fan of British TV?
Yes. I would crack up as a kid at Are You Being Served? and Fawlty Towers. I loved doing Benidorm in the UK, that was funny. The thing about American sitcoms is they all started with Borscht Belt comedians, which is an area of New York [state] where all the Jewish comedians would go in the summer. And there’s a rhythm in the way that they write. It’s like Seinfeld. I auditioned 22 times for Seinfeld. But realistically, what am I going to do on Seinfeld? Because it’s a rhythm, like Woody Allen, that I don’t have. I’m southern. My accent goes much better with silly humour. I love silly. I’ve always been the funny guy who comes in with the zinger line and I did that for 33 years and it culminated with winning an Emmy for Will & Grace.
Does it bother you that success came quite late in life for you?
You know, I really am a good actor. I have a degree in theatre from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga which was our little local community college. And I remember my professor told me: 'You know Leslie, you're capable of genuine artistry, you’re that good, but we have never had an actor come through this programme as lazy as you.' He spelled it out. He said: 'You’re going to go to Hollywood and you’ll just work in sitcoms and nobody will ever know what a really good actor you are'. And so I’m hoping that maybe, you know, it’s not too late.
So, does this feel like a new stage, a bit of a new phase, for you?
It’s a whole new phase. We’re doing more Will & Grace and I have a new series, The Cool Kids. I got rich for the first time ever. I got money.
I would have thought Will & Grace would have made you rich?
No. I was making $7,500 an episode which is starting salary. And they were making $750,000. I made one per cent.
Because what happened was I came in so late, they just didn’t have money. It used to drive me crazy. I didn’t win the Emmy until the show was off the air. The Emmy was for the final season. So, when we came back 11 years later they offered me almost the same salary. I said no. I’ve never made money, even on my other shows, because I’m just the funny guy that comes in with the zinger. When I got to Hollywood I wanted a big house up in the Hollywood Hills and I wanted to be the gay version of Hugh Hefner. I wanted seven twinkly blond boys in their thongs all over me and I wanted everyone to come to my house on Sunday and have brunch. But my life is so not that! What I want now is for my mother, who is 82 this year, to go to her grave knowing that my sisters and I are set.
You starred with Lady Gaga in American Horror Story in 2016. What was that like?
Pretty amazing but they were all night shoots. She’s a night girl. It’s like 3am and she’s getting ideas. She says: 'I’ve got a good idea, let’s head to the parking lot, let’s shoot and go'.
You must have had a night out with her though?
I didn’t. You know, she is so insulated in her little fame. I’ve never seen that and it’s of her own making, I think, because I’ve worked with huge actors before and never that where it’s a little ridiculous. Like we’re in Griffith Park in LA shooting and it’s late at night, who’s going to come after you? There are three bodyguards who walk her back and forth. I’ve never met an actress who doesn’t come to make-up. That’s where you have a gossip and have some fun. But she has hers done in the trailer. She’s a good girl, I genuinely like her but oh… Like, we were in a cornfield in Malibu and shooting this scene and there were helicopters above us. She says: “They’re after me.” I’m like, “What?” and she goes, “The photographers can get $100k just from this.” But the helicopters were just putting fires out, I think. It was the same when we had Jennifer Lopez on Will & Grace. Four SUVs pull up, she jumps out, then her ex-husband Marc [Anthony]. I liked her too, but they had announced the day, “Miss Lopez will not be rehearsing.” Then we go, ‘What? We’re going live in front of an audience without rehearsals?” She showed up immediately and said, “Guys I’m so sorry it was a scheduling thing, and I am so scared because I’ve never done a sitcom.” But anyhow she was lovely.
Is there anyone you’ve never met who you’d like to meet?
Dolly Parton. I grew up in Tennessee. I used to smoke a lot of pot and she would come and do a concert in the high school auditorium for her fans and I’d drive up. I loved her. Then one day my friend called me up and said, 'Are you sitting down?' He told me she was doing a TV show and had seen me in Murphy Brown and wanted me to play her brother. My friend told her, 'Oh my God, Leslie is your biggest fan', and she said, 'Well I’m his biggest fan'. And she asked where I was from and my friend said, 'He’s just white trash from the hills of Tennessee', and she said: 'Well honey, aren’t we all?' But it never happened and I’ve never got to meet her.
What reaction do you get when you meet Will & Grace fans? They must love you.
They cry. Little gay men cry. When it’s all said and done and we look back, in America that was when the tide turned. It really changed. Audiences allowed those people into their living rooms, they had never had gay people and we laughed and we loved and I think progress was made. And the way I could tell progress was made when I first started Will & Grace, perfectly straight guys would come up and say: 'Aren’t you on TV?' and I’d reply: 'Yes, I’m on Will & Grace. They’d say, 'My girlfriend watches that'. They’d never say, 'I watch that'. But by season eight, these guys in the street were going, 'Hey, buddy, we love you on that show'. They were able to say in front of their buddies that they watch that show because funny is funny. There are two ways you combat homophobia, through humour - I was the funniest guy in the class - and through putting a face on it. That show did it all.
Do you think under the current political climate things are going backwards?
I think it’s two steps forward, one step back. I don’t know anyone over 30 who really cares about whether a man loves a man or a woman or someone else. It’s so much posturing and it’s so much just political but I think that love will prevail, so I don’t worry. People worry, they say he [Trump] is going to take away everything. No he’s not. Love will prevail.
Living The Dream returns on 8 January on Sky One.