The Call Me Kat gang is saying goodbye to one of their own.
This week, the Fox comedy — starring Mayim Bialik as the quirky owner of a cat café in Louisville, KY — will address the absence of Phil, the café's vivacious baker played by Leslie Jordan. The Emmy-winning actor, author, and expert Instagrammer passed away in October after a car accident, and his final episode of Call Me Kat aired last month. When the show returns from its holiday hiatus on Jan. 5, viewers will finally learn how Phil moves on from his old Kentucky home. The episode, appropriately titled "Philliam," also features guest star Vicki Lawrence — who co-starred with Jordan in the 2018 Fox comedy The Cool Kids — as Phil's much-discussed mama, Lurlene Crumpler. Watch an exclusive clip above.
"We're still grieving," says Bialik, adding that she and the cast wanted a send-off for Jordan "that would both celebrate him and honor him in a way that we hope is respectful." The Call Me Kat star and exec producer spoke to EW about the challenges of returning to work after Jordan's death, why Lawrence was the right person to play Phil's mama, and how they crafted a fitting goodbye for a "fabulous, fabulous" man.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Thanks for making the time to talk with me, and I'm sorry for the loss of your friend and costar. When he passed, there was such an outpouring of love for him. What was that like to see?
MAYIM BIALIK: In many ways it was very heartwarming for us to see the tremendous impact that he had. And it was obviously also really bittersweet because of our grief and how much we missed him. What I think that many of us felt was that Leslie was a person who really, truly did understand how loved he was when he was alive, and we definitely took comfort in that. I don't think I understood the impact of how many people he touched, in particular during Covid, and during those early days quarantine, when he was a welcome comfort to people.
Call Me Kat took a pause in production after his death. Once you went back, what was your main priority as you and the writers started discussing how to address Phil's absence?
It was obviously a tragic and devastating personal loss for all of us, and he and Cheyenne [Jackson] had a much longer relationship than this show, so it was especially devastating for Cheyenne. But the fact is, we were mid-season, we have a lot more to go. We were also right in the middle of filming an episode that needed to be rewritten and restructured and emotionally rebuilt so that we could figure out how to handle it. We did have to work quickly, and I really do credit Kelly-Anne Lee, our online producer. She and her team, our whole production team — it was a group effort. There were so many moving parts. Our main interest as a cast — and I really was thinking more as a cast member rather than an executive producer — was how do we honor our friend while also honoring a grieving process that doesn't end with two weeks off production?
We were off for two weeks, and we were on somewhat of a deadline because the episode we were filming when he passed was our holiday episode — and there are only so many days that that can air, given Fox's December schedule. It was just nice to know we were coming back to something fun that could distract us a little bit. But it was a hard week, a very hard episode to film without him.
So, Phil had been part of that episode, and you had to rewrite it?
Oh yeah. We had started filming that episode. We were on a Monday of two days of taping that episode when he passed. We had to restructure some scenes, just some of the blocking and stuff so that it felt a little bit different — so we weren't literally walking the same steps and expecting Leslie to come out when we knew his entrances were. Muscle memory is a strong thing, so it helped a lot to be able to do that.
When it came to the episode that is essentially his tribute, the cast felt very strongly and completely unanimously that the thought of doing a funeral episode while we are actively grieving our friend — it felt like a hurdle we weren't sure we all wanted to jump together. I think Leslie Jordan was known so much for being Leslie, and while we also love him and know him as Phil, he's such a beloved personality, truly larger than life. To try to encapsulate that felt challenging in ways that I don't know would've been healthy for us as a cast or a production. So, we found a way for him to live forever. His character will live forever, and he can have whatever adventures we all imagine. And because we break the fourth wall anyway, we were able to use that convention to say simply, we gave this character a happy ending, but there's a lot more going on here.
The episode also features a lovely celebrity tribute at the end. Give us a little preview of what fans can expect.
It's someone that Leslie has already both a professional and personal relationship with. It's someone who he admired and considered a mentor of his, and it's someone who has the personality that Leslie always said he would like to be remembered as having.
On Nov. 17 it was announced that Vicki Lawrence, Leslie's costar in the Fox comedy The Cool Kids, had signed on to play his mom, Lurline. How did that come about?
We've talked about who Phil's mom would be for quite some time, it's just been something we kind of talk about anyway. She's an extended part of our family is what it feels like, and it really felt like such an act of love to [pay tribute to Leslie] together. She's an icon in her own right, and it's really gracious of her to play Phil's mama, who we've heard so much about, and really flesh that character out.
Call Me Kat exec producers Maria Ferrari and Jim Patterson teased in a recent interview that the show will give Phil a happy send-off. Would you tell us a little more about why that felt like the right decision?
I think that it's very rare that actors get the opportunity to be able to speak to showrunners and say, "We're going through an emotional experience that may not be able to be surpassed by our ability to play pretend." Jim Patterson and Maria Ferrari were incredibly sensitive. In one of our early conversations with the whole cast about this, I think it was Jim who said, "There's no good solution." We can talk about which way is better, more meaningful, more gentle, but he said we just have to pick it, go with it, and do it with the most heart that we can. For us, we're still grieving. Grief is a full process, and I think there's a level of authenticity that we feel we want to have as actors. And I'm grateful that Warner Brothers and Fox and Jim and Maria were able to let us have that. We're humans and we lost our friend. We lost our little buddy.
What was it like to film the scenes where the gang is talking about how much they'll miss Phil, and how it won't be the same without him at the café?
Our hope was to get it done in one take so that we wouldn't emotionally go through it several times. [laughs] But it took a couple takes. We didn't over rehearse those scenes just because we didn't want it to feel rehearsed. And I think that's why we also chose to keep it so brief. The notion of people thinking, "Oh, they wrote a script," it just felt so unnatural to us. I try not to say, "He would've wanted this," but we're all pretty certain that he knew he was incredible. He knew he was beloved. He was a fabulous, fabulous person. And the ability to both celebrate him and honor him in a way that we hope is respectful was really our goal.
The characters quote several Philisms in the episode, like "family ain't who you're born to, it's who'll lie to the cops for you." Are any of those actually Leslie-isms?
We gave Phil the ability to say all sorts of crazy and funny things. Most of those are in the vein of Phil. Cheyenne does a spot-on impression of Leslie Jordan, which I find very comforting. We'll just think of things all the time. Like, "Oh, Leslie would've said this." There are plenty of Leslie-isms — many involved curse words, though, so we couldn't use those on camera. [laughs]
Have there been any conversations about having Lurlene stick around the café after Thursday's episode?
If there are, I haven't yet been looped in. Obviously, we loved having Vicky and I think there's so many more stories to tell with her. We also have some other casting surprises coming up. We've got something really, really fun coming up in the new year. There's no capturing Leslie's spirit, but we miss him, we miss his humor, and we miss what he brought to the show. So I think there will be other ways we try and bring that [energy].
We have a photo of Leslie's chair from the set, and there's a sequined jacked draped over the back. Was that his favorite jacket?
He wore it in the very first episode that we ever filmed, in season 1. And then we had him wear it a couple other times. He always felt and looked so snazzy in it. And that is his chair. No one is in his dressing room. His dressing room is a protected property right now. There's a beautiful portrait of him outside of his dressing room now, so we all see him when we walk down that hallway to stage. But yeah, it's very lonely not having him in this world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Call Me Kat airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.
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Mayim Bialik stars as a quirky cat owner in this Fox comedy.