01/29/2014 08:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Leslie Jordan: Confessions of a Modern-Day 'Fruit Fly'


Leslie Jordan's voracious comedic appetite is on vivid display in his one-man show Fruit Fly, but the Emmy winner, who recently had a stint on American Horror Story: Coven, is hungry for an answer to a very pressing question. Specifically: Do gay men become their mothers?

Oh, dear.

Jordan's 75-minute romp, one of many in his comedic playbook, hits San Francisco this week. Think of it as a kind of tribute to motherhood -- the Will & Grace and Sordid Lives alum travels back in time, sharing a gaggle of stories about growing up as "a flamboyant, doll-loving boy in the South." There's plenty of show-and-tell involved, too. But it's the stories that may stand out the most. One of those tales illuminates the day when a teenage Jordan sat down with his "caring but clueless" mother and confessed that he was going to skip college and become a female impersonator. Other tales showcase his mother's surprising shift in perspective.

Any way you spin it, it's hard to deny Jordan's appeal. He has become one of the most provocative comedic talents to hit the stage and screen in the last 15 years.

I caught up with the busy man to learn more about his show, his crush on James Franco, and oh-so-much more.

Leslie Jordan: This will be the first time Fruit Fly is performed in San Francisco, and I am so excited.

Greg Archer: No longer will we be Fruit Fly virgins. But tell me: Were you always such a fun-loving guy? Did you always have a sense of humor?

Leslie Jordan: I look back with fondness at my youth, but I had to be funny so that the bullies would leave me alone. So it was almost like this inward homophobia and this fear of the ax falling. As I look back, was I beat up? Never. Was a teased? Some. "Pussy" was the first word I heard. And the word "sissy." And I hated that word. But I was always funny.

Greg Archer: And acting: How did that come along for you?

Leslie Jordan: You know, I didn't start acting until I was 27. I was going to be a journalist, just like what you do, because I had always written. And I was at the University of Tennessee, and I had been riding race horses for about nine years, since I was about 18 -- I had wanted to be a jockey -- and I went back to school and thought, "What am I going to do?" At 27, I didn't know what I wanted to be.

Greg Archer: Oh, dear, I may be going through that again.

Leslie Jordan: Oh, please! Well, somebody said to take theater as an elective, and I walked into this class, and I had only been in small parts in plays in high school. We did improv the first day, and it hit me like a drug. People were laughing. All the attention was on me. And I remember going to the head of the theater department and saying, "I want this!" He said, "First off, Mr. Jordan, you need to learn that's 'theater,' not 'thee-at-er.'" [Laughs.] I want to be in thee-at-er.

Greg Archer: You got the degree, though, and went to New York?

Leslie Jordan: And I still had the accent after all that diction and classes, and had done Shakespeare. Can you imagine a theater department in Tennessee doing Shakespeare? It would be like that movie -- oh, what was it?

Greg Archer: Waiting for Guffman?

Leslie Jordan: Yes!

Greg Archer: Can you talk about your biggest influences?

Leslie Jordan: Lily Tomlin! We were going to play brother and sister in this HBO pilot that never went anywhere. The first day I worked with Lily, she walked up to me and said, "How has this not happened before?" We were just so good together. I went home and wrote her a love letter. I had never written a love letter my entire life! I was just so smitten with her. I said, "Ms. Tomlin, in my 53 years on the planet, I had never met one person that I thought, 'This is who I would like to mentor me; this is the way I want to live my life, and this is the version of me that I want to be!'" We know her for her work, but what most people don't know is what kind of an amazing human she is. She's just on her own path. You know, I read once about the three things that make up a good human being -- curiosity, generosity and kindness -- and I thought, "Lily makes up all that!"

Greg Archer: So what do you love most about being on stage?

Leslie Jordan: I used to think I liked to get up there because I knew what was going to happen. When you are doing a play, you know for the next two hours what is going to happen. There are no surprises. But it's not that at all. It's something about the feedback that you get, because I missed it so desperately when I did something like American Horror Story: Coven. It's a film crew, and I just love laughter, and the director would come up to me and say, "Quit pouring water during [Frances Conroy's] monologue!" And I said, "OK. I feel like I am just sitting here!" And he said, "Well, just sit there. It's Frances' monologue!" And then it was, "Quit smoking that cigarette during Frannie's monologue!" Oh, I am just not the kind of actor that can just sit there. And he kept saying, "Just sit there! Sit there!" So I think, with something like that, it's that I do not have an audience. I just don't laugh on a film set. When we did Will & Grace we had an audience every week -- screaming, hollering, clapping upon our entrances. So I thought maybe it's that. Maybe it's that immediate feedback.

Greg Archer: What about relationships?

Leslie Jordan: Oh, my.

Greg Archer: You must have had flirtations?

Leslie Jordan: Oh, I have boys. I have boys, honey, for years! They always come after me. And I get responses on Facebook every time I bring it up. People say, "Oh, you're with these straight boys!" I don't know, it's a kind of a generational kind of thing. We always used to call it "gay for pay." I always loved that. [Laughs.] I just love straight boys. I don't know why, but I have always had "boys." Always. I shouldn't say I haven't had a gay relationship. And you know, people say, "But don't you want to cuddle?" And I say, "No! Yuck." They say, "Don't you want to get into bed with somebody?" And I say, "No, it's just not part of my makeup." I don't know.

Greg Archer: Fascinating.

Leslie Jordan: Maybe it's because -- well, do you know that I was almost 26 before I ever had sex in a bed? My generation, we went to JCPenney's restrooms, bushes at the park, a dirty bookstore!

Greg Archer: Well, I have heard that JCPenney's restrooms are very clean.

Leslie Jordan: [Laughs.] Well, it was pre-AIDS, and that's the way it was -- and then it got really serious. Really serious.

Greg Archer: Well, how about some fun questions to finish off?

Leslie Jordan: OK.

Greg Archer: Chocolate or vanilla?

Leslie Jordan: Oh, vanilla. Because I've always liked blonds. I mean, I should go to Iceland because--

Greg Archer: Hey, I'm blond, but I meant the flavors.

Leslie Jordan: Oh.

Greg Archer: Rock Hudson or James Dean?

Leslie Jordan: Oh, James Dean. Rough. Rough. Really rough.

Greg Archer: James Franco or Bradley Cooper?

Leslie Jordan: James Franco. Bradley Cooper is too pretty-ish. Well, James Franco is kind of pretty too, but he's just so odd.

Greg Archer: A quirky beast, isn't he?

Leslie Jordan: He is quirky. And I worked on The Help with his girlfriend [Ahna O'Reilly]. He was with this girl, and I was all over her: "He's gotta be gay!" And she's like, "He's really not, honey!" And I said, "Have you had sex with him?" And she said, "Yes. I've been with him for six years!" She was so adorable. I said, "You are not James Franco's girlfriend." And she said, "Yes I am!" I said, "I used to put it on pause when I watched Milk just to look at his butt when he was swimming!" She said, "It's a beautiful butt." And I said, "Just tell me the truth: You're like his beard, aren't you?" She said, "No!" So he's just quirky.

Greg Archer: OK, top or bottom?

Leslie Jordan: [Laughs.] Oh, God. I wouldn't know where to begin.

Greg Archer: I'm kidding. I'm kidding! Slippers or socks?

Leslie Jordan: Socks.

Greg Archer: Wine or martinis?

Leslie Jordan: Neither. I'm as sober as a judge.

Greg Archer: Best advice you've been given about life?

Leslie Jordan: Well, I was having some problems with my mom, and I use this in my show, so I probably shouldn't give it away, but I had a spiritual adviser who said to me once, "You know, Leslie, she's doing the best she can with the light she has to see with." And he went on to say something to the effect of, "Everybody is fighting a battle that you know nothing about!" I thought, "Wow. That's it!" You know, everybody meets somebody, and it's never-- well, it's like that book The Four Agreements that said, "Never take it personally, because it's rarely about you." I mean, even if somebody is screaming in your face, it's not about you. It's really not. And that's one of the hardest lessons I have learned, being part of the people-pleasing South. It's that what you think of me is none of my business. But for my spiritual adviser to say to me that my mother is doing the best she can with the light she has to see with, I thought, "That's so beautiful." Because we all are. We're all doing the best we can with the light we've been given. But it's been a hard lesson to learn. You know, sometimes it infuriates me that people don't get my comedy -- sometimes. I said earlier today, "You know, my tongue is planted so firmly inside my cheek it's like I am doing a Cher impersonation." I mean, really!

Leslie Jordan's Fruit Fly plays Friday evening, Jan. 31, at Feinstein's in Hotel Nikko in San Francisco. Learn more here. For more information on Leslie Jordan, visit his website.