A few months ago, Leslie Jordan didn’t know he was about to hit it big. Mr. Jordan, who was known for roles in “Will & Grace” and “Murphy Brown,” was working, sure. But his name didn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Then the coronavirus swept the United States, and Mr. Jordan had some time on his hands. He started posting funny little videos of himself in isolation twice a day on Instagram. There he was, complaining about his mother and boredom, reminiscing about Hollywood stories or doing his exercises. The phone was so close to his face that you could see his pores.
Today, he has almost five million followers, a new show and a potential book deal.
“For someone 65 years old to all of a sudden be, like, an internet star?” he said. “I’ve loved attention, wanted it my whole career, and I’ve never gotten this kind of attention. I mean, even on ‘Will & Grace,’ winning an Emmy, it wasn’t anything like when you have social media. When you’ve become a success there, it’s unbelievable.”
Early in the pandemic, Mr. Jordan was with his family in Tennessee, before returning to his home in Los Angeles, where he has been “hunkered down,” as he likes to say, amid protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd and countless other acts of systemic racism in America. Sober for 22 years, Mr. Jordan, 65, decided not to protest because of his age and his mental health.
“I’m really divided whether I would go on Instagram or anything about it,” he said. “But when you have 4.7 million followers, I mean, you can’t just sit silent. I’m a gay man who went through a lot of the early gay rights movement.”
He chose instead to turn his Instagram over for one day to Deesha Dyer, a former Obama Administration Social Secretary, who now is a creative event strategy consultant.
“Look, I think it’s time for me just to listen, just to listen,” he said.
Here, Mr. Jordan answers some questions on the charming beginnings of his social media (a confusion between “post it” and “Post-it”), his early career goals (jockey) and more. This interview has been edited.
Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times
Mr. Jordan in his element.
I didn’t follow you before this all started, but I think that video where you call down the stairs to your mother, that’s where you got me. Was this whole thing intentional or were you surprised by the response?
I wasn’t even on Instagram. I was doing a television series for Fox called “The Cool Kids.” I would say something funny and the publicity girls would run over and tell me, “Post that. That’s really funny. You should post that.” I didn’t know if they meant Post-its.
So they signed me up, and all of a sudden I had 20,000 followers. And then it went to 80 and that’s where it kind of capped out, at 80,000 followers.
And then during this period, I was back home in Tennessee, very bored. I thought, “They’re going to make us stay home, and I think that I should stay here with, my mom” and I have identical twin sisters, 22 months younger than me. So I thought, “I can’t live with those three old ladies.” I love them to death, but I rented a place.
I had a little B&B, but I was in Chattanooga. There’s not a lot to do. So I started posting funny things. And that’s where that one came about.
How are you adjusting to your new fame?
It’s funny, because even with a mask and a hat people recognise me. My friend said, “Well, honey, you’re 4’11". You know what I mean? You’re 4'11". It’s not like you can go out.”
What I love though, are people that pull me aside and say: “Listen, I don’t want to bother you, but I’ve had a rough go. I’ve been locked down. I’ve got kids and I looked forward to your posts and you really, really helped me through this tough time.” When people tell you things like that, you realise comedy is important.
You mentioned you were in Chattanooga with your mom and sisters. How was that?
My dad was a career army man. I’ve said lieutenant colonel before — people said, “No, he wasn’t.” Right below that, whatever that was.
But anyway, his plane went down when I was 11. So it’s always just been Mama and the twins and me and we’re very, very, very close. The twins are real close. I’m the quiet one! My mother and I will marvel. We’ll hear them in there just yammering, just back and forth.
What was your childhood like?
My mother had me at 19. My dad was 23. It just amazes me. But they were just kids who had kids really early and we never stopped. I mean, just, we were on the go constantly.
Now, I had a secret. I was a little bit effeminate and that kind of played into all of it as I got older.
Do you think your parents knew that you were gay from an early age?
I’ve asked my mom, and she said my dad was worried. He asked her when I was about 6, “Why does Leslie only play with girls? Shouldn’t he have male friends?” Mother jumped to my defence immediately and said, “Well, there’s not that many boys in the neighbourhood, Allen.” So, they sent me to the Baylor Camp for Boys that summer.
It was day camp, but they had a parents’ day. They were giving out ribbons. So here’s one for the best archer, here’s for the best horseback rider, here’s for the best swim person and I didn’t win anything. And my mother said my dad was just sinking lower and lower and said, “I have scarred this child for life.”
Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times
And then they came out with the trophy and said, “This is for the best all-around camper. We have this kid who wasn’t actually the best at anything, but boy, he sure did make us laugh.” And I won best all-around camper. That’s kind of the way it was. They would worry, but I was a very gregarious, outgoing kid.
I’ve wondered, had my dad not died when I was 11, would it have been a different sort of coming out process? Because in high school, I tried at one point to tell people, and they were like, “Duh.” It’s like I had this huge secret. “Listen, I’m gay.” They’re like, “Yeah.” So there was no real reveal.
And then I moved to Atlanta. And in the ’70s, oh my gosh, that was like the San Francisco of the East Coast. I had a good time, way too good of a time.
What were you doing in Atlanta?
I’m a really good horseback rider. I grew up riding and I started exercising race horses, toying with the idea that maybe I could be a jockey. I did that from the time I left Atlanta, when I was about 22, until I was almost 27.
And then when I was about 27 or 28, I didn’t see that continuing and I thought, “I’m going to go back to school.” I went back to school for journalism and the first day everybody said, “Take that Intro to Theater class. It’ll get your arts elective out of the way.”
I’ve always been funny, mainly to keep the bullies at bay, but it just hit me like a drug. I was funny. I got that degree and got on a bus, honey. I had $1,200 that mother pinned into my underpants and I had decided New York or L.A. And if I was going to starve, I wanted to starve with a tan.
So, I got on a bus to Hollywood in 1982, with my degree in theater, a little suitcase and a dream. When I look back, I think, “Were you nuts?” But I did really well, really well, right off the bat. Commercials mainly, in the beginning.
Tell me a little bit more about your early career.
There was an actress out of Chicago named Clara Peller. She was an old character actor for Wendy’s. She said, “Where’s the beef?” All of a sudden, they just wanted characters, the funnier looking the better.
I started taking a commercial class, and I got a commercial agent. And within nine months, I had something like eight national television commercials. I mean, I was like Flo. People would recognise me. I was the PIP Printing guy. I was the elevator operator to Hamburger Hell for Taco Bell, where you went if you didn’t eat tacos.
And then I got “Murphy Brown.” I think that was probably my kind of break. After that aired, my agent called me. He said, “I’ve never had this happen. I’ve been in this business for 30 years.” He goes, “Burt Reynolds wants to see you, can you do a sitcom with his wife, Loni Anderson? Mr. Spielberg’s people want to meet you for this project. Peewee Herman wants to put you on his kids show.” I mean, it was all like one day. I had a break, a true break. I’ve just been working ever since.
What have you been working on for the last couple years?
Well, “Will & Grace” came back, and so I started doing a few of those. Ryan Murphy sporadically writes me into “American Horror Story.”
And then I have a one-man show that I do about 44 venues a year. Smaller venues, usually gay bars or something like that, but 200, 300 seat theaters. I’m always working, always. I got to keep the ship afloat.
Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times
He loves a selfie video.
So how are you spending your days now? I know you have a new show, “Call Me Kat,” coming up.
I do. That’s kind of the wonderful thing about this little period right here, because I have a job lined up. I would be kind of worried, like, “What if the entertainment industry. …” The minute it starts up, I have 13 episodes for Fox on “Call Me Kat.” The pilot script is so delightful. We’ve got such a great cast.
I’m writing. I have a book deal pending. I’ve got three companies that are kind of vying, so it’s a wonderful time to be Leslie.
I can’t help but notice your apartment. Did you decorate it yourself?
I sure did.
People say, “Well, did you have a decorator?” I’m gay. We don’t need decorators. Who would I hire? My friend? And then we’d fight over it? No.
I’ve done film. I’ve done lots of television. So, it’s kind of like gravy from here on out. Do I have any big plans for this or that? It’ll happen. And that’s a wonderful place to be, at 65, that I’ve done what I set out to do. So now let’s just have some fun.
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