Building Character: Leslie Jordan and Varla Jean Merman
The two stars camp it up in the new musical “Lucky Guy”
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages’ ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
It takes a lot of work to be so trashy. Leslie Jordan and Varla Jean Merman (a.k.a. Jeffery Roberson) play the villains in Lucky Guy, a campy new musical about big hair and big dreams in the world of country music. But while their performances are deliciously over the top, they’re not just goofing around. In a recent conversation at the Little Shubert Theater, the actors explained what it takes to be playful on stage… and what Jordan’s sisters have known all along.
TDF: This is a gleefully campy show. Leslie, you play Big Al Wright, a used car dealer who lies and says that country superstars owned everything on your lot, and Jeffery, you play Jeannie Jeannine, the queen of country music, who plots with Big Al to dupe a young songwriter into giving you his best material. That leads to trailer park love scenes, scheming in a record booth, and unexpected Hawaiian dancing.
But you always seem like you’re playing people. Flashy people, sure, but not caricatures. As performers, how do you go big without going too big?
Jeffery Roberson:You kind of figure out the tone of the show as you do it. There is some realism in it, especially with the other characters.
Leslie Jordan: You’ve got the young lovers who are serious and real, so you can’t go too crazy. I think both of us have this innate, built-in sense that there’s always what Normal Lear used to call “the golden moment.” You have to have a little “oomph” to it, a little something besides just being out there being silly.
JR: And believe me, when we’ve done stuff that was too big, we were told.
LJ: I’ve dealt with that my whole career. There was an old commercial director years ago who put me in commercials all the time, and he’d come in and go, “Can you do it with a little less brain damage?”
TDF: Jeffery, your fans know you as your drag character, Varla Jean Merman, and Leslie, you’ve done outré comedy on TV shows like Will & Grace and in movies like Sordid Lives. Do you think that creates an expectation for how you’ll perform in this show?
LJ: It’s tricky for him, because he’s not a drag queen. It’s not like Priscilla, where you say, “Oh God, they’re drag queens.” He’s playing a woman.
JR: My drag character that I do is supposed to be a real woman. In fact, it’s hard for me to play the Priscilla part. I don’t really relate to that.
TDF: How do you impact each others’ performances?
LJ: I love that he’s very giving. I feel safe out there. He has a really big laugh, and I somehow jumped it one night, and a lesser actor would’ve murdered me.
JR: No one in the cast is like that. I’ve definitely done shows where someone wants every second. It’s like playing tennis. You have your moment and serve it and wait it for it to come back to you. It’s never about trying to cover and keep the ball.
TDF: You’ve been performing in front of audiences for a few weeks. What has that taught you about the show that you didn’t know in rehearsal?
JR: There are definitely some lines that you thought you were gonna deliver big, but now the smaller you deliver them, the bigger laugh it gets. My whole speech after my opening number, I was trying to do that big and have a lot in it that would be insincere, but it actually works better if I just let it be insincere one time. So in the next scene, it works better when I’m a bitch. It’s like two different people: The person who’s in front of the audience, and the person who’s behind the scenes. I learned that on stage. At first I was playing the cracks in that [sincerity], and now I don’t do that.
TDF: Leslie mentioned that you both have a lot of experience doing solo shows, and neither of you has spent a lot of time in traditional productions like this one, with lots of cast members and collaborators. How has that been different for you?
JR: What I didn’t really realize is that any slight change can mess something up. If you drop that line, then it messes up the timing.
LJ: All of a sudden, we’re these team players. And plus this arduous rehearsal process. Who fu**ing knew? We’re still rehearsing! We’re not used to that. We’re used to, “Throw it up, and get it up there, and do it.” None of this rehearsal. I called my sister. I have identical twin sisters who have worked in the restaurant business for thirty years. They’re such hard workers; they were dippin’ ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins when they were sixteen. I called her and I said, “We were in that rehearsal hall from ten to six, Monday through Saturday.”
And there was this pause, and my sister said, “Oh, like a job?”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor