Metro Weekly

Cheyenne Jackson on ‘Equal,’ the election, and embracing his inner (musical) villain

From his powerful role as an LGBTQ pioneer on HBO's Equal to stealing souls on Netflix's Julie & the Phantoms, Cheyenne Jackson has all sides covered

cheyenne jackson

Cheyenne Jackson — Photo: Vince Trupsin

Cheyenne Jackson enters the video chat a minute early, as handsome as ever, a California Republic ball cap tipped over his brow. “Reppin’ my state,” he says, flashing a smile. Beaming in from the comfortable confines of his 4-year old twins’ playroom, Jackson is at home with his husband, actor Jason Landau, as well as “two kids, and a dog, 20 fish, and a grandma that lives with us.” Of their bubble life, he says, “It’s a day-by-day thing. Just trying to keep it together, keep it positive.”

Adding to the positivity, the actor and singer is grateful, at this precarious moment for working people everywhere, to have a busy schedule of filming on his plate. Currently, the Jackson-Landau family’s tight bubble extends to the strictly regulated set of Call Me Kat, the upcoming FOX series Jackson is shooting opposite Mayim Bialik. “It’s honestly my dream,” he says of the sitcom. Having ventured from starring on Broadway to starring in American Horror Story, with dozens of film, TV and stage roles, albums, and live concerts under his belt, Jackson is embracing the upbeat turn. “It’s what I’ve been wanting to do, a multi-cam, something light. After doing American Horror Story, I wanted to shift gears for a bit. And this is the sweetest, most delicious project.”

Jackson’s definitely found a sweet spot of late on TV, essaying a diverse run of roles on Will & GraceWatchmen, and even as himself on an episode of The Morning Show. And the triple threat has really been able to flex his talents as a singing villain in musical family fare like Disney’s Descendants 3 and Netflix’s Julie and the Phantoms, both led by legendary director-choreographer Kenny Ortega. Adapted from a Brazilian series, Julie and the Phantoms conjures a teen drama-meets-High School Musical fantasy out of a high schooler fronting a band with a trio of dead twink rocker ghosts. Newcomer lead Madison Reyes is a huge find, the show features a cute gay romance, and Jackson’s otherworldly bad guy Caleb Covington gets, hands-down, the series’ best song and production number, “The Other Side of Hollywood.”

Jackson’s Broadway chops also played a significant part in the actor being considered for a non-singing role, as LGBTQ pioneer Dale Jennings in HBO’s new docuseries Equal. “Cheyenne was top of the list to play Dale Jennings,” says director Stephen Kijak of casting Jackson as the oft-unsung Mattachine Society co-founder. “He’s such a classic guy, a very 1950s type, a fabulous vintage. And he fit right into the slightly theatrical and stylized vibe of the show.”

Narrated by Billy Porter, the series casts LGBTQ-identified actors in pithy historical bios of LGTBQ trailblazers like Jennings and Harry Hay (Anthony Rapp), and Del Martin (Shannon Purser) and Phyllis Lyon (Heather Matarazzo), co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis.

“[The show’s style] is kind of like a dream,” says Jackson. “Everything is very non-linear. There’s definitely projections. And what that allowed us to do is to really focus on certain images that the director thought was important. One was us climbing those stairs to where the Mattachine Society used to have their meetings. Those were the actual stairs, and we were by the actual house in Silver Lake, where they used to have their meetings. It was really cool, and it was really powerful.”

METRO WEEKLY: Starting with Julie and the Phantoms. I don’t usually watch family programming. But I watched it and I loved the songs. The kids are all super-talented. I really could talk to you just about “The Other Side of Hollywood” this whole time, because that’s a great song. Why do bad guys always have the best songs?

CHEYENNE JACKSON: I think because it’s just more fun. In the past couple years — especially in the family-centered entertainment world with Disney and Descendants, and now Julie and the Phantoms — I’ve kind of found this sweet spot of playing these villains, and I get to use a lot of my Broadway stuff and my theatricality. In normal dramas, you can’t really go that big. So it’s just more fun to be bad. And I never think that the bad guys I play are bad. I understand why they’re making the decisions they make.

MW: I was just reading Julie director Kenny Ortega choreographed “Material Girl.” I knew about a lot that he’s done, but I didn’t know that.

JACKSON: Exactly. I’m glad I didn’t know his whole IMDB list prior to me working with him because I would’ve been too starstruck. He’s just done everything. And he has a story for everybody. He’s been in this business forever, and he’s worked with everyone, he’s not jaded.

He has this force. He’s almost like a child, and I say that in the most respectful way. He’s unafraid to be emotional, and to create a fun set where everybody feels safe, and everybody feels like you can’t fail, and you feel free to create. Because he works with a lot of younger performers, I really watch how that works with their energy, and what they’re bringing to the set. It’s pretty amazing. I watch him bring these performances out of these young people that I think otherwise, if they were working with somebody who was a little more task-mastery or heady, they would be more in their heads.

A year ago, maybe a year and a half, he said, “Listen, I got this new show on Netflix, and I got this great juicy part. You’d be playing a 1930s movie star magician ghost who flies and kind of is the impresario of the afterlife.” And I was like, “Hold up, you had me at flies.” And he’s like, “Oh, and you’re going to sing. You’re going to sing great, big songs.” I said, “Send me the music.” And then the first song they sent was “Other Side of Hollywood,” by Doug Rockwell and Tova Litvin. And it was so strong. I just said, “No. Nobody else can sing this song but me. I don’t want to let anybody else sing this.”

That was the first reason I said yes. And then secondly, because I want to be able to do things that my kids can watch. And they watch The Descendants. They don’t watch “TV” TV yet. But they watch movies and things. And they love The Descendants, they love that their daddy is Hades with blue hair, and dancing and singing. And now there’s another character that they can see. And it’s just fun. It’s fun to be able to share that with them, and have them know when I go to work, and when I go on an airplane and I’m doing something, this is what I’ve created, and now we all share it together.

MW: Tell me a little bit about shooting the show. First of all, did you ever even meet Madison Reyes? Because you two have no screen time together.

JACKSON: Yeah, we did meet. So, the kids had a — Kids. They’re young adults. But to me, they’re kids. They had like a six-week kind of bootcamp thing, where they were here in Los Angeles, and they were at these studios actually playing the instruments, actually singing. And Madison was there, and her dad. So we met. And then when I went out to Vancouver, I was there for maybe two weeks shooting my stuff, and she was up there. We were all staying at the same place, and I got to see a lot of their stuff. It’s so fun. You never know how things like that are going to land. But Netflix is a juggernaut, and it’s great to be on something like that.

Cheyenne Jackson — Photo: Vince Trupsin

MW: Could you see yourself performing those songs in another context? Like in your own concerts, or something?

JACKSON: Oh, I never thought about that. That’s a good idea. “Other Side of Hollywood” is so bombastic that I would never want to try to recreate what we did, just because there were 100 dancers and I was flying on a green screen. But it could be cool to do it in a different direction, or have kind of a different spin on it.

MW: Well, the song is open to many interpretations, I think. “The Other Side of Hollywood,” lots of other sides to think about.

JACKSON: That’s right, that’s right. And we all know all the different sides. I’ve been on both sides of it.

MW: Even for a family show, Julie and the Phantoms is pretty chaste. I don’t think there was even any kissing. But it does really commit to the gay romance between Owen Joyner’s Alex and Booboo Stewart’s Willie, which surprised me. What did you think of that?

JACKSON: I thought it was super cool. I thought it was actually pretty progressive that it was just part of the script, it was just part of the story. And the way that the queer characters were portrayed was very matter-of-fact. Just a cute boy on skates and just a cute blonde drummer who liked each other. That is progressive because it’s not commenting on it. It’s not making their relationship a part of the plot that’s like, “Oh. I hope their families accept them.” And it’s not fraught in pain. It’s just the normal adolescence, and the normal young love. I thought it was really cool.

If I, as a queer kid growing up in northern Idaho, had seen something like that on TV, it would have made a huge difference for me to be able to see myself represented in that way, and just such a sense of normalcy and sameness. And that’s all any of us really want to do: just see ourselves in others so we feel like we’re okay. I’m hoping if season two happens, that they get some kind of duet, because I think queer kids across the world need that. And also, Booboo is a great singer. So, it would be cool to do.

MW: Thinking about a young person who might be watching the show and seeing that romance, what was something like that for you, where you first remember seeing an experience that you knew connected with you, even if you didn’t have the words for it?

JACKSON: I remember liking certain shows and not understanding why. Dukes of Hazzard. I loved The Dukes of Hazzard, and I loved Bo and Luke equally. My brother loved Magnum P.I., and so, I would just watch it with him, and then I just really loved Magnum P.I. [Laughs.] So, I think a lot of my early viewing was just that I was realizing, “Oh, wait. I really like these men. There’s something about this that makes me feel something.” And this is as a young, maybe, 10, 11-year-old.

Do you remember Little House on the Prairie? Almanzo? He was Laura’s husband, blonde. He was another one of my crushes. I think those are the first times that I was watching something and there was definitely a palpable, “Huh.” And, “I feel like I’m supposed to be looking at Daisy in Dukes of Hazzard, but I’m looking at the brothers.” And then, I guess I was in my early 20s, late teens, I can’t remember, when Will & Grace first came on. But Will & Grace was so life-changing, to see mainstream leads on a network sitcom explore all facets of gay life. It was just so exciting. And it was so fresh and risky, and funny.

MW: And then, a couple seasons ago, you were on it.

JACKSON: Blew my mind, André. A show that you grew up watching, and that also meant so much to you, and all the cast looks the same, and the set looks the same. It was so surreal to walk on, and then there’s Karen and there’s Jack. I had done a play in New York with Sean Hayes, so we were already friends. But yeah, it was amazing. That actually happened again recently, because I’m on the reboot of Saved By The Bell that comes out in a couple months. That’s another show — just that cheesy, silly show growing up that was always on — now to be back and to be with all the same people that you watched as a kid, but then now here you are in the hallways. It was surreal, man.

MWGetting to Equal, it’s a show that offers some sort of education for anybody, whether they know the history, or think they know it. I thought the narration was accurate saying that when you think about the Mattachine Society, you generally think of Harry Hay, and not Dale Jennings. What did you know about Dale Jennings and his role in Mattachine?

JACKSON: I didn’t know anything. And I think that was one of the reasons why I thought, “Wait a minute. Here’s me, who is…” I was 44 when we shot this, and didn’t know this. And I know my fair amount of gay history, but I think what’s important, and why I think Equal is an exciting project to be a part of, is that there are so many people that we know, people of note, names that we know, in gay culture, that have all made substantial changes for us along the way.

But then there are all of these folks that people don’t know their names, that had a significant impact. That was interesting to research, to find out that. It’s still just so amazing that in 1952 and 1953 that it was just a completely different world. To be able to step into those shoes for a brief time, and say those words, and also look at the footage, and try to put yourself back in what that must have felt like, was really emotional and powerful. Everybody involved had a sense of reverence. Because it’s just important to know our pioneers. There’s a reason why, in Julie and the Phantoms, there can be this wonderful little queer romance, and people don’t bat an eye. All of that is on the backs of all the people before.

MW: The fact that all of the LGBTQ trailblazers on the show are portrayed by actors and performers who identify as LGBTQ is a good hook. But it’s also really, profoundly significant.

JACKSON: It is a hook, for sure. Just like in [the recent remake of] Boys in the Band. However, I don’t even think that could have happened five years ago. Things have really, really, really moved along in this last five years or so. It’s a cool thing. I wish that I could’ve had more time with other people on it, with Sara [Gilbert] and Jai [Rodriguez]. But it’s just the way it’s shot. We were in the middle of the night, and some were just stealing a shot here, and they did it very quickly. But how cool. How cool that the entire cast [is LGBTQ]. I don’t think it can be overstated. It’s pretty significant.

MW: Does it also occur to you that some future version of Equal might include the Cheyenne Jackson story?

JACKSON: Oh. That’s a heady thought. It’s funny you say that. As an actor, and just as a human, I try to really just stay in the moment and stay grateful, and remember who I am, where I’ve come from, and that none of it really means anything. But there are moments where you go, “Holy crap.” For instance, I did a quick little guest spot on The Morning Show this year. I don’t know if you watched that, with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. It’s a great show.

I got a call that said, “Would you like to play this singer in this party scene?” And I was kind of like, “No, not really. Thank you, I’ve done that before, and I don’t really want to just be a jazz singer in a scene.” And they said, “Well, you’d be playing yourself.” And I was like, “Wait, what?” No false modesty here, I just could not wrap my head around that fact. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s pretty amazing. So, I was like, “Uh, fuck yeah, I’ll play myself in a scene that Jennifer Aniston is doing in her apartment.” And she says, “Ladies and gentlemen — Cheyenne Jackson.”

I mean, to this queer kid in northern Idaho, in a little Republican town, right next to the Aryan Nation compound, who just wanted to get out and get away from these people and start his life, to get to a place where I’m playing myself in a scene. It’s just there are so many moments that have happened this last two years, like Will & Grace, coming on that where I have to just sit in an attitude of gratitude because I could never have imagined it, really.

MW: There are two great quotes in Equal. One was Barbara Gittings, who talks about trying to find your people, searching for your queer self. Did you start looking in Idaho?

JACKSON: I did start looking in Idaho, and it was really tough. I come from a very, very poor background, no running water, outhouse, super Christian, very, very bucolic way of life. And at an early age, I realized I could sing. And I had a teacher in eighth grade that really fostered that in me. “I think this is your thing.” Mr. Caldwell was my mentor, the first one to believe in me, and the first one to really single me out for my talent. And then, I did two plays in high school. Bye Bye Birdie and Li’l Abner, like everybody does.

When I graduated high school, I heard of this thing in Coeur d’Alene called the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theater, The Carousel Players. It was a professional summer stock theater that everybody went to, and it was a big giant hall — Boswell Hall — that held 2,000 people. And I went and auditioned, and I got in for the summer. I had never met gay people. I had never met people of color. My mind was so blown. It was like when Dorothy opens the door to Oz and everything is in Technicolor. I truly felt like, “Oh my god, these are my people. This is my tribe. This is what I’ve been looking for. I’ve been looking for weirdos, outcasts, people like me, who don’t feel seen, but have something to say.” And it was amazing. It was a great summer. We did Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and I think I slept with five of the seven brothers. Because I had to make sure. [Laughs.]

That was the first time I found my tribe. My tribe was theater, and all of the theater kids. That’s what set me on my path to eventually moving to New York at 27, and being on Broadway, and pursuing my dreams. But I think had I not started, gone to my first play, and been in my first play, I don’t know what my path would have been.

MW: This leads us to the other quote, saying that before Daughters of Bilitis, before these movements, “It felt like every person for themselves.” Was there any point in your career, getting to Broadway, before being out or even since, that it felt like every person for themselves. That it felt like a lonely step to be taking?

JACKSON: Yeah, for sure. I’m 45, and I came out at 19. And didn’t move to New York until I was 27, and had already had long-term relationships with men and lived with men, and was a grown-up in a sense. I had some professional success in Seattle, but nobody knew me in New York. I moved to New York and I hit right away. I got in a show and I made a name for myself within a couple of years. I was the lead in a Broadway show. So I had decisions to make about who I was going to be publicly. I was playing Elvis in All Shook Up on Broadway, and I am as out as they come. I just am open with that. I’ve never been with a woman. I just have always known who I am. I’ve always known what I liked. And it’s very black and white for me, it’s very simple. I’m not confused. I never felt like, “I don’t know.” I just always knew.

That carried over into my professional life. I made the decision during All Shook Up, because The New York Times did a big profile on me. And I knew that that was going to come up. Because the part I was playing was highly sexualized and super-studly, and there was a poster billboard of my face in Times Square, and I definitely knew this was my moment, and if I was going to come out or not, this was going to be that moment. And it was suggested to me at the time, from my older team, that, “Maybe let’s just not. Don’t say either way. Just kind of…” And I was like, “What do you mean? Use non-specific pronouns, and try to remember?” I had a long-term boyfriend, and I was like, “If I get this out of the way…” In my mind, it was just like, I want to get it out, and be myself, and then I don’t have to ever worry about slipping up, or putting on some weird façade like they had to do in the ’50s, with Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson.

So, I just came out in The New York Times in my first big show, and then I never had to talk about it again. So, to answer your question, up until that point, it definitely did feel a little dicey. There weren’t a lot of out people. Neil Patrick Harris and Jim Parsons hadn’t come out yet, and we were all kind of around the same time. I don’t know if I would categorize it as every man for himself, but it wasn’t the feeling like it is now, where there’s definitely more of an inclusivity that is more innate, and people are just more awake. And thank God for that.

[/pullquote]“[Voting] is so important. This year, it’s palpable. I feel like it’s going to be a blue fucking wave. I feel it in my bones. I hope I’m right. People are galvanized. This has been the roughest four years for all of us.”[/pullquote]

MW: This progression hasn’t changed the fact that our rights are still endangered, all the time. As recently as last week, Supreme Court Justices wrote that they don’t agree with the 2015 marriage equality decision. And so, have you voted? And how important do you think voting is?

JACKSON: It’s so important. This year, it’s palpable. I feel like it’s going to be a wave. I feel like it’s going to be a blue fucking wave. I feel it in my bones. I hope I’m right. People are galvanized, and this has been the roughest four years for all of us.

It’s really just unthinkable, because once something is established in society, Roe v. Wade, or, for us, gay marriage, you just don’t think anything’s going to fuck with it. And then to even imagine that, “Wait a minute, what?” I understand being conservative, and I understand you have your view. But you want to go backwards? Like, “No, this is where we are as a society now. We’re moving forward, and we don’t all have to agree, we don’t all have to think the exact same way, but we’re not taking anything away from anybody.” It’s a scary time, and it’s a sobering time. And so, yes, Jay and I voted last week. We had our plan, and we made sure, and we checked, and we got the little email, and all of that.

Cheyenne Jackson — Photo: Vince Trupsin

MW: Do you know any gay Trump supporters?

JACKSON: Not personally.

MW: And what would you say to them?

JACKSON: Listen, I’ve had to draw some hard lines with folks. I understand. I come from a very, very Christian family. And my brother’s an Evangelical pastor. And most of my family is very conservative, and they’re Christian. So, there are things that we, as a family, just can’t discuss. It’s just too emotional, and it doesn’t help. There are just certain subjects, unfortunately, that have to be off-limits. But we love each other, and we respect each other.

There have been some friendships and some other things, other relationships that Jay and I have had with folks, folks that have been deep in QAnon, or deep into things, where we’ve had to draw some lines. I’m sorry. [Trump] is such a polarizing figure in the world. So, if I do have any gay friends that support him, they haven’t told me. Because I think if they tell me, they know how I’m going to feel about it.

MW: I actually haven’t met any person who says that they believe in QAnon. But we see that Georgia might elect somebody who says they believe that, which is nuts.

JACKSON: It’s the upside-down, man. This is the upside-down.

MW: All right. So here’s your goofy AHS question.

JACKSON: Bring it.

MW: Because Hotel is my second-favorite, after Asylum. And I’ve watched them all except for Apocalypse. Do you have a favorite?

JACKSON: Asylum was the scariest, in my opinion. My favorite, I think, actually was Freak Show. Because it was something so creepy and I loved Jessica’s Elsa Mars character so much. It was the first time I really, really dug into the show, and it was before I was on the show. So, Freak Show is my favorite.

In terms of ones that I’ve been on, Hotel because it was my first, and because I got to be married to Lady Gaga. It was just so outrageous. Everything about the set and this cast, and just the sex, and the gore, and the spectacle of it all. I just had never seen anything like it. And then there’s Sarah in the corner with crimped hair, and smoking, and crying. And then there’s Kathy Bates. And it was wild. Absolutely wild.

MW: What are you working on right now?

JACKSON: I’m doing a new show. It’s called Call Me Kat. And it’s my first lead in a network sitcom. It’s based on a BBC show called Miranda, and it’s about a 39-year-old single woman. Mayim Bialik is playing her, and Jim Parsons and Mayim are producing. And it’s so fucking sweet, and so funny. The writing is incredible. Leslie Jordan is on it. Swoosie Kurtz, Julian Gant, Kyla Pratt. Really, really funny, diverse, good comedians.

I am opposite Mayim. I play her college crush. And so, we are opposite. We are “Will they or won’t they?” We have 13 episodes, and I think it’s going to be a mid-season show. And Mayim, she’s got all the colors in the crayon box. This is a great role for her. People are going to just fall right in love with her, like I did.

MW: Is there a studio audience?

JACKSON: No, not the first season. Just because of COVID and such. It’s a full-on lockdown, masks up until action, then we take our masks off and we do the scene, and then we put them on. There’s testing every single day. It’s the new normal.

MW: When did you resume production? Was there a point where you started and stopped, or how did it go?

JACKSON: No. We were getting ready to start, and then COVID came, and we stopped. We’ve been back for two weeks. And before that, I did some Saved By The Bell. So, I’ve been working for about a month, back on lot, on set. And it’s just a whole new world.

MW: What’s your perspective, then, on something like what happened at SNL with the musical guest having to be cut because you can’t just go running around the night before.

JACKSON: Yeah, listen, we’re all in this together. And our director, Beth McCarthy-Miller, she’s like, “Well, at the end of the day, you guys, what you do out in the world affects all of us, what we’re doing here. We all have to take care of each other.” We all just want to work and provide for our families, and create some art and bring some much needed joy into the world right now. So, if you can’t follow basic COVID guidelines right now, that’s ridiculous to me. This is the deal. And we are lucky and privileged enough to be working right now when so many people are struggling. And that is not lost on me. So, I take it very seriously. We all should.

Julie and the Phantoms is available for streaming on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.

Equal is available for streaming on HBO Max. Visit www.hbomax.com.

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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at ahereford@metroweekly.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.

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