With his piercing eyes, striking features, beautiful complexion, and imposing 6'4” frame, the part-Native American Cheyenne Jackson is the gorgeous young actor of everyone's dreams — as those who saw him on Broadway in All Shook Up or on film in United 93 will attest. The fact that he happens to be gay only adds to his fascination quotient. Now he's starring as Sonny in Xanadu, the new Broadway musical based on what's generally acknowledged to be one of the worst movies of all time.
Though he had been involved in workshops of the show (with Jane Krakowski), he initially chose not to sign on for the Broadway run, but then fate intervened: James Carpinello, the new Sonny, was injured during rehearsals, and Cheyenne was brought in at the 11th hour to save the day. So here he is, playing opposite the adorable Kerry Butler in a camp-fest that also stars Tony Roberts, Jackie Hoffman, and Mary Testa. AfterElton.com caught up with Jackson at Angus McIndoe on West 44 th Street, just a few doors down from the Helen Hayes Theatre, where Xanadu opens on July 10.
AfterElton: Let's start with a possibly awkward question and get it out of the way: Can you say why you didn't continue with Xanadu after the workshops?
Cheyenne Jackson: Yeah, it was just that I couldn't commit to a year in the show at that point. I had finished a film called Hysteria, and I knew I had to go back to L.A. to do some more scenes for it. It's a psychological thriller and it's my first lead in a movie, which is very exciting. It's supposed to come out in the fall.
AE: At one point in Xanadu, Jackie Hoffman's character refers to the show as “children's theater for gay 40-year-olds.” Why do the movie and the show have such a strong appeal for gay men?
CJ: I think the poster says it all: “Xanadu on Broadway. Seriously.” It's the kitsch factor. The movie is so bad. I remember being at gay bars in Seattle and, at the end of the night, they would show the video of the roller skating number. I thought, “Are they serious?”
Our show is total camp, and people are absolutely digging it. Nathan Lane was there a couple of nights ago, and he said, “This is really good!” Everyone is so well cast, and [director] Chris Ashley knows what world to keep it in.
AE: I've never seen the movie. Is it truly terrible?
CJ: It's wretched. It's not even good in a “so bad it's good” way. There's an animated sequence half way through for no reason — just because. It was an incredibly expensive movie, but you look at it and you think, “Where did all the money go?”
AE: After seeing your show, James Wolcott of Vanity Fair wrote in his blog, “It was like taking Ecstasy in Broadway ticket form.” But he quoted another critic who said, “It might just prove too gay for Broadway.” Any thoughts on that?
CJ: Well, my parents came this weekend, and they loved it. They didn't get a lot of the gay references, but they responded to the love story. My mom said, “You and Kerry have great chemistry, I love the songs, and it was fun to see you skate!”
AE: It's interesting that the creators of the film are allowing the show to be done as a total spoof.
CJ: They must have a sense of humor about it. Olivia Newton-John is coming on opening night!
AE: Michael Beck played Sonny in the movie. Is he still around?
CJ: I don't know, but I would love him to come; I definitely tip my hat to him in my performance.
AE: How is James Carpinello taking all of this?
CJ: His heart's broken – and his leg's broken, in two places. It's such a bummer for him and his family. He worked really hard on the show, everyone loves him, and he really wants to come back as soon as he can.
AE: I hear that you wear this already legendary pair of short-shorts in the show. How are they working for you?
CJ: They're literally these little, '80s style, satin skating shorts. I have huge legs, and I never show them — not because of false modesty, I'm just not comfortable. So I had to work up to wearing the shorts. Last weekend was the first time I put them on, and I rocked 'em. I figure if I'm doing this, I'd better go for it all the way, so I invited all my friends to come the first night I wore the shorts. They gave me some catcalls, and I felt okay.
AE: Do you think that being openly gay has been a detriment to your acting career, or has it helped, or has it had no net effect at all?
CJ: [Pauses] I think it's been a detriment, probably just a little bit. Had I not been out and open, I think I might have gotten some movies that I screen-tested for. People may have said, “The dude's gay; how are we going to market this?” But it's not an issue for me, because being out is very freeing.
AE: On the plus side, you might perhaps not have been cast as gay hero Mark Bingham in United 93 if you weren't out.
CJ: Possibly – although the director didn't know anything about me. I think one of the main reasons I got the part was that I was the biggest guy who auditioned; Mark Bingham was 6'5” and I'm almost 6'4”.
AE: If Hollywood gives us another big, gay love story like Brokeback Mountain and you were cast in one of the leads, who would you want to play opposite?
CJ: Hmm, that's a tough one. [Starts to say someone's name, then stops:] I won't say him, because I don't want it to be weird the next time I see him. [Pauses, then comes up with another name:] Ewan McGregor. I'd do a love scene with him any day. Or Hugh Jackman. I've never met him, but he said some lovely things about me in the press when I was in All Shook Up – and we have the same agent. He's an idol of mine, for sure.
AE: I'm guessing that, in terms of theater work, your being out has been a non-issue.
CJ: That's right. Here, your reputation is everything. People know if you've got the goods, if you're easy to work with, and if you can get the job done. Besides, it's New York theater. Everybody's gay!
AE: Are you in a relationship?
CJ: Yeah, for almost eight years. He's a very private person. I don't think anyone could find any pictures of him. He says he's like the Amish; he doesn't like to have his picture taken, because he feels like it's giving away part of his soul. He's a medical physicist, really brilliant and funny. He's the brains behind the operation.
AE: Do you ever feel like you're a sort of poster boy for gay actors?
CJ: Chris Sieber and I were talking about this. Every time they mention either of us in the press, it's always “openly gay Christopher Sieber” and “openly gay Cheyenne Jackson.” It's a little reductive and, after a while, it's like, “Yawn.”
AE: Yet it's understandable that people focus on it, given that so few actors are out — especially leading man types.
CJ: Sure. I liken it to the experience of a black friend of mine. When he was growing up, there were almost no black people on television; but occasionally, there would be a black family in a commercial or something, and when that happened, his whole family would run in and gather around the TV. To me, that's lovely and precious and sad at the same time.
When I was a little kid, who were the gay people on TV? Charles Nelson Reilly, Paul Lynde, maybe Liberace. So I understand why the gay community wants to embrace actors who are out. People want to be represented.
AE: Right after you open in Xanadu, you're going to leave for 10 days to do a reading of a new musical called Red Eye of Love at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut. What's up with that?
CJ: I committed to that a long time ago, so I had to keep my word. I think it will be fun. It's going to be hard to open in Xanadu and then go away three days later, but I have two great understudies, Curtis Holbrook and Andre Ward. They played the part before I came on.
AE: On your blog, you recently wrote, “I AM STRANGE AND WEIRD!” Is that true?
CJ: Well, yes. I think I have ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder], though I was never diagnosed. I have insomnia, and it's hard for me to sit still for a long time. My mind is always “tick, tick, tick.” People don't expect me to have a weird sense of humor, but I do. I'm very eccentric
AE: You recently played the title role in concert performances of It's a Bird…It's a Plane…It's Superman in L.A. and New York. If you could possess one super power, which one would you chose?
CJ: To fly, for sure. I'd also love to be able to be invisible, because I like to eavesdrop.
AE: They're reviving Terrence McNally's The Ritz on Broadway next season. Did you go in for that?
CJ: I had two appointments to audition, but I just couldn't swing it. I literally had three days to go into Xanadu, and that was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life – not only to remember my lines and songs, but to not die on my skates.
AE: Was All Shook Up a fun experience?
CJ: It was amazing, but it was so hard. I had to sing 17 songs, and I was never offstage. Once they put a billboard of your mug in Times Square, it becomes a little surreal. You've just got to focus on what you have to do.