“I Want People to Really Hear My Heart”: An Interview with Cheyenne Jackson

Cheyenne Jackson
Drive EP

Cheyenne Jackson is one charming fella.

From his towering good looks to his perfect comedic timing and even more astonishing voice, he seems to be the epitome of an old fashioned style entertainer. Take into account the fact that he’s done multiple tours of Broadway, delivered numerous TV appearances, and is just barely released a collaborative album with legendary singer Michael Feinstein called The Power of Two. Thus, to celebrate the release of his Jackson’s first-ever pop EP (simply called Drive), PopMatters sat down with the multi-talented actor to talk with him about pop music, Broadway, and — of course — his role on the hit comedy 30 Rock.  

But just before the “official interview” I asked him something I’ve always been curious about, which is what his dream musical role is. “I’ve done almost every part that I’ve ever wanted to do” he said, before confessing he’d like to play Billy Bigelow from Carousel again. “I did it when I was 19, so I’d love another crack at that, cause now I’m a man, I have more to say and I could do it better now.” He certainly had much more to say during the rest of our spirited conversation …

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In what way would you say that The Power of Two prepared you for your upcoming EP?

Any chance you can be in the studio and be in front of a microphone in a booth is going to help prepare you for recording. To learn from Michael Feinstein — who is so wonderful at that close range recording — was a great experience. But it’s much different to record your own music, stuff that you wrote, so it’s pretty exciting to have an idea come to fruition and actually record it.

You’ve listed Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Elton John as some of your major influences; who else influenced you for this EP?

I have a lot of influences, I would say George Michael — he’s my fave, greatest vocalist ever — Sting, Adele, Sia, Coldplay … I would say a little bit of all of those people, I’ve gotten inspiration from all of those folks.

The song “Drive”, from your EP, reminds me of something you might listen to on the radio, but at the same time it has a very theatrical feel to it. It reminded me of the song “Left Behind” from Spring Awakening (written by Duncan Sheik). With the advent of rock themed musicals do you feel that the divide between stage music and pop music might be growing smaller?

Yeah, that’s a pretty good assessment. I mean, musical theater and art it’s an ebb and flow, on Broadway what was popular 20, 30 years ago is not so much anymore, except for the occasional revival. There’s constantly new artists, there’s constantly new writers doing new styles, so yeah, it’s a great comparison. I love the soundtrack to Spring Awakening and Duncan Sheik is great, so yeah I was very proud of “Drive”, it’s a good song.

Do you feel that you have to tone down your voice for the pop world, in any way?

Yeah, the general answer would be yes, but I feel more than toning down it’s more about control. On Broadway your whole thing is you have to make your voice sing to the back of the house and make sure everyone can hear you. When you’re recording you’re just so close to the mic and it’s such an intimate thing, it’s because in recording you’re not looking at the person, you’re hearing them and — since I’m writing the words — I want people to really hear my heart, to hear what I’m trying to say.  

Would you say that recording pop songs at this point in your career is a case where you want to try everything — or does pop music intrigue you now, more than theatre?

I’m intrigued by art and I’m intrigued by music, so whether that is through a Broadway show — which I love and will always do, it was my dream as a little boy — but I’ve always been a songwriter. It’s kind of been my secret I guess that I have written for so long, it was just a matter of me sharing that with folks. So now I’m more focused on my music and writing this album and it’s exciting that people are embracing it and they’re liking it but that really is not the entire point. The point is that I had to let it out, it’s a very personal thing, because it’s your heart, your soul, it’s your baby and you’re basically saying “here you go” and you’re putting it out.

Do you ever worry about losing your theater edge by making pop music?

No, I don’t think about that. I feel like I want to do it all and I feel like I can do it all. I can do movies and television and if I want to do an old fashioned Broadway musical — like Finian’s Rainbow a couple of years ago — or if I wanna do a rock musical, or a play (which looks I’ll be doing one this fall) … I mean, I don’t ever want to put myself in a box. My mantra is “if it scares me then that means I should probably do it”. You only live one time, I’m going for it.

And, touching on those points — earlier this year theatre actress Betty Buckley took American Idol  to task for using the term “Broadway” or “theatre” to refer to over-the-top performers in unfairly derogatory way to potential contestants. Do you ever worry about not being pop enough for audiences?

Broadway is booming, it’s never been as successful as it is now. If you have a new show and you’re trying to find a theater, it’s nearly impossible. So, fiscally the state of Broadway is in great shape. Your question about Betty and people taking offense by them going “oh, you’re too Broadway” — I understand where she’s coming from because putting everybody on Broadway in one box is so limiting and silly. What also bugs me about those reality shows is that the kids sometimes will say “oh well, if I don’t become a pop star I can always do Broadway”, as if it’s a backup plan. People work their whole lives and go to schools and audition hundreds and hundreds of times to get spots, so the idea that it’s a consolation prize I’m like just no, no, no.

You have a history with Jane Krakowski. Does working with a fellow stage performer on 30 Rock make you enjoy your guest bits more?

Yeah, nearly everyone on 30 Rock has stage experience, whether it be stand-up or improv; Alec Baldwin has done a lot on stage, Jane of course is a Tony Award-winning actress. That show is in my opinion the holy grail of comedy. The writing is always top notch and it’s fun to work with people who are on the same mindset and Tina Fey — everyone knows she’s a genius — but she also really loves musical theater and if you read her book she talks about her summer theater experience and [how] her husband is a composer, so musical theater definitely slips into 30 Rock a lot. And they cast a lot of theater people which is always lovely. There’s only 12 episodes in the last season and I’m hoping that Tina lets Danny have one swan song, just walk across and just say “Hey!” Tina wrote that role for me and it’s opened so many doors, so I’m forever grateful.

If you could headline a show on Broadway opposite Jane what would it be?

Gosh. Let me think. Maybe it might be fun to do one of those old … no, you know it might be fun to do something new cause I’m kind of tired of reviving things, I like to foster new talent and such. But we have such great chemistry that I like the idea of doing something like a Doris Day/Rock Hudson thing, to have that dynamic, because that’s the way that our relationship is like in real life. She’s such a dame, so old school and va-va-voom and I got the Rock Hudson thing, so that would be kind of fun.

So what other acting parts do you have lined up in the near future?

I’ve done a few movies this year: a movie called Price Check with Parker Posey (we went to Sundance together). I did a movie called Mutual Friends which hasn’t come out yet, which is a very New York centric ensemble piece. Right now I’m in the middle of shooting Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon: a great cast! I also starred in a pilot called Mockingbird Lane for NBC which is The Munsters reboot with Portia de Rossi and Eddie Izzard, so yeah, it seems as soon as I start to really focus on the music, all these great parts came my way. But I’m not complaining, I’m trying to do all of this one day at a time and just try to be as present as I can in whatever I’m doing.

Since you brought up The Munsters, the video for “Before You” has some subtle and not so subtle nods at horror movie tropes. You’ve done The Rocky Horror Show so would a horror movie be something you’d like to tackle?

Yeah. I love getting scared and love the adrenaline that you get, so that would be really fun. I hadn’t really thought about the Rocky Horror thing but 4 or 5 people have pointed it out already, so I don’t know why I didn’t think of that. I prefer more psychological horror films, the ones that really get into your mind, rather than slashy slashy. I love to create and I love to challenge myself so if a part comes up and it’s something I can connect to, I’m down.

You’re a fan of Wonder Woman. What superhero would you play if you had the chance? What ongoing superhero franchise would you crash?  

Probably Superman. I actually auditioned for the new one coming out, I had some callbacks which was pretty cool. I think Superman’s the best of all, cause he can fly and he has all those cool powers … or maybe I can play Wonder Woman [laughs]. Of the current franchises, the new Batman’s pretty cool. I’m probably the only person in the whole world who hasn’t seen The Avengers so I can’t use that as a reference.

I think they’re making a new League of Justice movie too…

… maybe I can still get a shot at being Superman then!

Do you find it somewhat reductive that because of your openly gay status the adjective “openly gay” Cheyenne Jackson precedes him wherever he goes? Has it become a non-issue as you’ve become older?

I guess, but I’ve moved on from that. I’ve been out my whole career, since I got my first big lead on Broadway, so it doesn’t really affect me anymore. I think I finally got the point where I’m comfortable letting my work and my reputation speak for itself. If other people want to put that moniker on me it’s fine, the best advice I ever got was “your opinion of me is none of my business”, so I’m busy doing my own thing and working and if somebody else is hung up on the fact that I’m gay and they don’t wanna hire me because of it, I can’t do anything about that. I just wanna work and I’m working. I think it’s helping that many actors like Neil Patrick Harris and Jim Parsons are out, I think it helps to have more visibility, because it means it’s less of an issue for people. In the end I like to think it’s about who’s the best for the part, I might not be right for all parts but the parts I’m right for, I get!

But yeah, as long as I live, if you Google my name it’ll say “gay Cheyenne Jackson” and that’s OK, cause I am but I’m also a million other things, so whatever.