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Actor Leslie Jordan's new book, “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet” (read an excerpt here), is a collection of stories and anecdotes from his childhood in Chattanooga, Tenn., and his career in show business. The book also contains frank musings on his battles with substance abuse, coming to terms with his homosexuality, and his thoughts on religion, spirituality and God.
Jordan is best known for his role as Beverley Leslie in the series “Will & Grace,” for which he won an Emmy in 2006. In this exclusive TODAY Q & A, he reveals the backstory behind some passages in his book, and talks about his next career moves.
Q: In your book, you write: "In 1982, I stepped off a Greyhound bus at the corner of Vine Street and De Longpre Avenue in downtown Hollywood. I had $1,200 sewn into my underpants. I had a tiny suitcase. And I had dreams. I had dreams as big as the California sky!" This sounds like it's right out of a movie. What were you thinking?
A: It wasn't even a Greyhound. I couldn't even afford that. It was an old Trailways bus. I had $1,200 I had saved and I had a little suitcase. Back East where I grew up, there's lots of foliage and lots of hills. When you step off a bus there, all you see is sky. I remember thinking that this was how big my dreams were. We must bear in mind that this was years before "Ellen" and "Queer Eye."
I remember stepping off and thinking that it might not be a good idea to let anyone know that I'm a homosexual, which is hilarious because I'm probably the gayest man I know. I had these huge dreams and they came to fruition so quickly. The year that I got off the bus was 1982, and shortly after, a whole new era of commercials was ushered in where they wanted "characters." I had that perfect deadpan … for these commercials. Within the first eight months I had eight national TV commercials. I'm a true Hollywood success story — knew no one, had no connections.
Q: This is by no means a Hollywood glamour story. You talk about drugs, alcohol, being broke, living in rundown places, being thrown in jail. In your book, you say: "How I managed to keep my career afloat is a mystery to me." In retrospect, how did you keep it together?
A: When I was writing the book, I thought "Who wants to hear another story about some actor who lost his way?" But my story is a little unique in that I realized when I was 14 years old that I was different. I think a lot of gay people use drugs and alcohol to quell that fear and shame — especially people of my age. When I hit Hollywood, it was full-blown. I was a party boy. It amazes me that I made it … to be able to have led this amazing career when I was out every night. Every once in a while I'll see old reruns of myself and I see I'm giving it my comedy best, but with dead eyes — no sparkle. I was in the middle of all that abuse. But now I'm a recovering alcoholic with many years of sobriety.
Q: You dedicate the book to your mom, and say you are very proud to be her son. Tell me about her, and the influence that she had on your life and career.
A: My mom will never march in a gay pride parade with a big sign. She is very private. She lives in Chattanooga. She tries so hard to understand me and my life. But she said to me once, "Leslie, if I live to be 105 I'll never understand this need you have to air your dirty laundry. Why can't you just whisper it to a therapist?!" She doesn't understand. I was raised in a religion that I never felt embraced me. That wasn't her fault. I had this amazing childhood. My mother is of her generation. If I'm going to ask her to accept me exactly as I am, I have to give her the same. She has read part of the book, but my sisters told her which chapters not to read!
Q: You say that you think your dad went to his grave ashamed of his son. Have you come to peace or closure with the loss of your father and how he felt about you?
A: [Recently], the most amazing thing happened. My mother told me a story without realizing how important it was —if she had told me earlier, I wouldn't have been in therapy for 20 years! When I was 3 years old, in 1958, I said I wanted a bride doll for Christmas. My dad was an Army guy, man's man, sports guy. He said "Over my dead body." Christmas Eve, all I could talk about was the bride doll. And my lieutenant colonel of a daddy went out in 1958 in the hills of Tennessee and found his 3-year-old son a bride doll. He just wanted me to be happy. I'm so relieved. I wish he was around for all of this.
Q: You talk very candidly about your beliefs when it comes to faith and religion. You don't prescribe to a dogmatic view of religion, but you do seem to have strong faith. Can you sum up your thoughts on faith and spirituality when it comes to your life?
A: A state rep in Oklahoma gave a horrific speech where she felt the homosexual agenda was a greater threat to America than terrorism. People like this — there's not hate in their hearts. They believe what they believe because of the book that they prescribe to. You can't argue with these people. I honor the sanctity of all religions — I'm not here to put them down. But the only religion that I personally embrace is the religion of kindness. There are many paths to God. What really bothers me — and what I think is the height of arrogance and stupidity — is when one group believes their way is the only way. That really gets my dander up.
Q: You say that you think we are in the throes of a culture war, the likes of which we haven't seen since the civil rights movement, when it comes to gay rights. Where do you see gay rights today? Are you encouraged?
A: I'm very encouraged. This is progress. There are two or three ways to combat homophobia — one is through humor. The second is to put a face on it. People are becoming much more enlightened. People are realizing that being gay is just as defining as the color of our skin and it's not a choice. I'm really encouraged. I think in my lifetime we will achieve equality. I'm honored to be a part of it.
Q: What else are you doing right now other than your book tour? What's next?
A: I have a series that premieres on the LOGO channel, which is an all-gay channel. [It's with] me, Olivia Newton-John, Caroline Rhea; called "Sordid Lives." I play a man in a mental hospital who thinks he's Tammy Wynette — full drag!
Q: Do you still keep in touch with the "Will & Grace" crew?
A: I do. I was in New York recently and I got a lovely e-mail from Megan Mullally [who played Karen Walker on the show] and went to see her on Broadway in "Young Frankenstein." There is more talent in her tiny little body! I invited them all to my book party and got a lovely e-mail from Debra Messing saying she was out of town. I was only in maybe three episodes a year, whereas they were there every day. They got rich and famous together. So I wasn't as close to them as they were with each other, but we do keep in touch.