Cheyenne Jackson :: Mad Man No More
"Smitten" is the word that comes to mind when I think of Cheyenne Jackson. With his striking baby blues, handsome face and smoldering good looks, I mean really, who wouldn’t be? Top that off with a kind heart and genuine sense of humanity and you have a complete package -- Santa, I want one.
He has had his share of ups and downs over the last few years -- a painful divorce and some demons that he has had to wrestle with, and hits to his good-boy image. But like he said, "Who is perfect, really?" The point in life is not that you fall down; it is whether or not you get back up. Jackson shared openly and honestly about his ride, challenging assumptions many have held and laughing about its absurdities.
It’s always a good idea to start at the beginning: You grew up in Washington State, correct?
I did; well, actually, it’s a little tricky. I was born in Spokane, but I lived in a little town called Newport in Washington, just an hour away. The Pend Oreille River separates the states, so I went to school in Idaho and was raised in Washington. It was a beautiful little town of 1,200 people, very rural; it looks pretty much the same now as it did then.
Man, I can relate; my home town was even smaller. So, when did you leave the area?
I left as soon as I could. [Laughs] Growing up rural is fantastic because you can pretty much roam free. But at the same time, growing up a gay kid in a small town like that can be challenging. Fortunately I did play sports, so I did somewhat fit in. But you just know that you are fundamentally different on some level. I knew when I graduated in ’93 at seventeen that I needed to get the fuck out. [Laughs]
So I moved to Spokane, which the biggest town around, and I lived there for four or five years. Then I met a boy, followed him to Seattle, and we were together there for a few years. It’s there I later met my ex-husband -- man, that is still so weird to say. We stayed there for a couple years, then in 2002 we moved to New York and lived there until our divorce.
One chapter closes... another one opens, right?
Absolutely. I’ve been in L.A. for nine months now and, man, I so love it! I’d come out here for "Glee" guest spots, things like that, and loved the weather, but it wasn’t until I actually planted roots that I understood what living here was like. I have always been an apartment dweller; now I wake up to the sun and my beautiful back yard, in my first home in 15 years. And for the first time my sister, my brother, mom and dad all live in California too. I am so digging’ it!
So, tell me a bit more about your experiences in New York. What was your first big role on Broadway?
I was actually in sales until I was about 27 or thereabouts, so I started kind of late. I was working at "For Rent Magazine," one of those free periodicals you find in grocery stores and the like. I was really good at it and loved it. In many ways it was good training ground as an actor -- you learn to "sell it," and at this point, I could probably sell ice to an Eskimo [laughs].
During that time, two unrelated things occurred that totally rocked my world. My brother’s little girl passed away at three years old, and then 9/11 happened. It changed everything for me.
It really changed the face of the United States.
Perfectly said. So many people migrated away from New York, and I remember realizing that I didn’t want to be an old man thinking, "Why the hell didn’t I move to New York to pursue my dreams?" I didn’t know anybody there and hadn’t gone to college, but I had to go. I knew I had talent and something to offer, so I moved. I managed to get an agent right away and my first audition was for "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which I was lucky enough to book!
Talk about being meant to be.
I used to have some shame around it because I "didn’t pay my dues," things like that. But I’m just living like everybody else, and the fact of the matter is that it just happened. I managed to get in right away.
So I did "Thoroughly Modern Millie" for about a year and learned the ropes, so to speak, and then I decided to leave the show while it was still open. People said I was nuts: "You never leave a Broadway show before it closes." But I was bored.
I don’t seem to be able to do the same thing for more than a year - actually, it seems to be down to around six months now [laughs].
Then I got "All Shook Up," which really changed the course for me. I had a few things in between, and after that did "Damn Yankees" with Jane Krakowski and Sean Hayes. Tina Fay saw me in it and said after, "I have a part that I’m writing for "30 Rock," and I like your big Midwestern face [laughs] and your timing. I just want to gauge your interest."
Seriously, what do you say when Tina Fay asks you something like that?
I think my exact words were, "Well my interest is kinda high!" [Laughs] It was really the catalyst for me getting involved in television. Once she put her stamp on me, it opened doors to everything. I have done probably 12 or 13 guest spots and pilots because of it. Now I’m working on an HBO pilot with Ryan Murphy. It’s my tenth so far, and if it doesn’t go, I’ll be zero for ten!
Isn’t that kind of how it generally works with most actors and pilots?
They say that "Friends" was Jennifer Aniston’s 12th, and that for George Clooney "ER" was his 14th, so I suppose that I have a few more to go [laughs]. I am working on another one... Well, I can’t really tell you because it’s a secret, but I’ll say this much; I’m playing someone really rough and disgusting! I’m a bad guy on "CSI" and do horrible things to some very famous and beautiful women!
The "CSI" role sounds scary but very cool. I have always thought that roles like that must be the most fascinating to play as an actor. Very much opposite the roles and image you’ve had.
They really are. You know its funny, for so long I was seen as the all American blue-eyed sweet boy - that had been my image. I’m going to be 39, and up until 37 I had such a pristine reputation. And really, nobody is perfect. Because I was good at managing it so carefully, no one even knew that I had struggled with drugs and alcohol for 20 years.
Then someone leaked that I was in a 12-Step program and that I had grown a crazy mustache, shaved my head, which I had done for a role, and that I had gotten a couple of tattoos... it’s funny, I still feel the need to justify. No one had really ever said anything bad about me, and that was the hardest thing. With everything that has happened over the last year and a half, all of the stuff in the press, I kind of got raked over the coals. As much as I like to pretend that it doesn’t matter, it did. I’m just like everybody else; of course I want you to like me.
I am amazed how quickly the press can turn on you. It’s especially true of the gay press at times.
It seems we love to build people up as a culture and in the media, then tear them down.
Don’t get me wrong; the LGBT press has been incredibly supportive over the years. It’s just been a few snarky blogs that I have had to stay away from. Mostly because of how much it hurt my family; they have been really affected by it at times. I guess it’s like RuPaul shared with me: "Your opinion of me is none of my business."
Great words to hear, difficult at times to remember, though I do think it matters when people in the public eye share their frailties and struggles - it normalized being human.
Some have suggested that I shouldn’t be so open about my recovery. I have always been drawn to the brooding-in-the-corner, James Dean kind of guy and I have often tried to emulate that. Which lasts about three minutes... [Laughs] Then I start doing my high kicks, being goofy and telling my life story, it’s just who I am.
Sharing the struggles that I have had, all the difficulties that we all face, for me even a really painful break up, is what I do - it’s even in my shows. I can’t tell you how many men come up to me after and say thank you. It’s really been such a blessing. I am proud of my recovery; it’s making me better in every way.
So let’s talk about your tour and the show.
It all kind of started with my friendship with Sia (singer/songwriter Sia Furler), she has been my champion and my muse. She was the first person, besides my mom, that told me I was a good songwriter. I had written songs and had a connection at Sony who loved them, so now not only am I writing for myself, we are writing for other people. I get to pepper my own shows with the music and travel around sharing them. There are three different shows: One is a movie/musical sort of thing called "Shaken Not Stirred," one called "The American Songbook," and another called "Hello Gorgeous," which has a little more of a gay slant! [Laughs]
So tell me a bit more about "Music of the Mad Men Era" you’re doing with the LA Phil.
Ben Toth, my music director, who I often say is my heterosexual life partner [laughs], along with my teachers, have all said I was born in the wrong era because I love that style of music so much. While recording from the American Songbook with Michael Feinstein, I realized that it was something that I needed to explore. We put the show together, did it at Carnegie Hall and it was one of the most amazing nights ever. My parents came in from Idaho, it was just ridiculous. It’s a mix of everything from Chet Baker to Frank Sinatra and Hoagy Carmichael -- we even throw in some stuff from Amy Winehouse, things that are still within that vein.
I really enjoyed your album "I’m Blue Skies," by the way, especially "Driving."
Thank you. It’s been amazing, the album is still charting and has sold really well. I barely did any press for it, and in spite of that it’s really had sort of a life of its own. I’ve been really lucky in that regard.
I love all the work and I’ve been blessed to be able to do so much - it’s just great.
Catch Cheyenne Jackson and "Music of the Mad Men Era" with special guest stars Jane Lynch and Rebecca Romijn on Saturday, April 26 at 8 p.m. at The Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles.
Before the concert at 6:30 p.m. enjoy a Mad Men-inspired cocktail party; bring on your fedoras, skinny ties, party dresses, pumps and fancy pearls. Take advantage of a special offer for The Rage Monthly readers and get 20 percent off select sections when you use the code MADMEN. To purchase tickets or for more information go to laphil.com/madmen