Whether he’s on stage, television or film, Cheyenne Jackson is hard to ignore. Maybe it’s his tall, classically handsome looks or the fact that he’s just so damn comfortable in his own skin. Regardless, there’s an irresistible appeal to the man that has served him (and us) very well.
While his work in 30 Rock and Glee and films like Behind The Candelabra and United 93 brought him attention for his acting skills, his heart is and always will be with music. This weekend he brings his “Music Of The Mad Men Era” show with the LA Philharmonic to downtown LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. He’ll be joined by Jane Lynch, Rebecca Romijn and musical director Ben Toth for the one-night-only performance.
Earlier this week, TheBacklot sat down with Jackson at The Abbey in West Hollywood to talk about his career, being out, tattoos, how he weathered his divorce and what makes his relationship with fiancé Jason Landau click. We also grabbed some exclusive photos of the dashing, versatile performer.
TheBacklot: You did the Mad Men concert in New York a year or so ago. Is this a similar here in LA or a different show?
Cheyenne Jackson: I’ve done this show twice before. I did it at Carnegie Hall two years ago, and then I did it at the Kennedy Center last year. And yeah, it’s the same structure, the same genre, most of the same songs, but I would say about 25 percent of it is new. But yeah, since I moved out here nine months ago, I haven’t really done a concert, and so many of my friends and people at my talent agency are like, ‘If you ever have a concert, let me know.’
Why are you drawn to that era of music?
CJ: It’s kind of an intangible thing. My whole life, my music teachers, my voice teachers always said ‘you were just born in the wrong time, Cheyenne. You were born in the wrong era because your voice doesn’t fit [and] it’s old fashioned.’ I would try to jam it into certain styles, and I must have tried out for Rent 15 times – no exaggeration – I would go out beforehand, and I would try to rough up my voice and scream, and then go in and be like, ‘ I can’t do it.’ So I finally realized, ‘you know what? That’s not what I do. I’m just going to do what I do my best.’
Then, a few years ago, once I started doing more concerts and such, I thought, ‘well, I’ll just put together something that is totally within that world,’ and then Mad Men is such a phenomenon, so I thought ‘Music of the Mad Men Era. You can go from the late ‘50s to really the mid-to-late 60’s. It gives you a huge range of music to choose from and the songs don’t need a lot of embellishment. That’s why they’re classics. That’s why it’s part of the American songbook, because they just hold up.
What do you make of singers like Michael Bublé or Harry Connick, Jr., who both have that old fashioned sound but audiences obviously love them?
CJ: Harry Connick, Jr. was my biggest influence growing up. I mean, it started with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and all of that, but then Harry Connick was somebody that was current but then sounded like a throwback. I thought it was somebody I could get behind… and then when you get the huge success of somebody like Adele or the late Amy Winehouse…I actually do an Amy Winehouse song in the show because even though the songs weren’t written then, it could be from then.
How did your career begin? Did it all start with singing and then a move into acting?
CJ: Music’s definitely the core. I’m from a little town in Idaho, a teeny, teeny town. You know, no running water, outhouse, like really, really rural. Music is where it all started because there wasn’t really a children’s theater. There wasn’t really any kind of outlet for acting necessarily, but my mom… I was always, always a hambone and did accents and silly voices, but no, it definitely started with music, and then, when I was 15 and in high school, we did our first play, and then the stereotypical ‘get your first laugh’ and then it just kind of just started from there.
And what was the jump taking you out of Idaho to really dive into this professionally?
CJ: It took me a long time to actually have the cojones to do it full-time professionally. Up until I was almost 27, I lived in Seattle, and I worked at a magazine, and I was in sales. I did theater on the side. I didn’t go to school, but I mean, I was getting ready to turn 27, and I thought ‘why aren’t I doing something with this?’ And then, 9/11 happened, and then we had an unrelated death in our family and it just changed everything. I just thought ‘you know what? Life is so short, and I need to see what this is.’
I knew I had something, and I knew it was raw, but I knew it was something special. I believed in myself, so I moved to New York. I knew one person in New York, Mark Kudisch, who is still a dear friend, and he hooked me up with his agent. I auditioned for them. They signed me that day, and then the next day, I got an audition for Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway, and I booked it.
It was meant to be.
CJ: It was meant to be, and I used to be really kind of embarrassed about that story, like, ‘oh, you know, people are going to be mad or like I didn’t pay my dues.’ I was 27. I had lived. I had paid my dues in life, and everybody’s path is different, and that was mine.
Talk to me about 30 Rock. Did that change things for you in your career?
CJ: Oh, definitely. It’s funny. You can do seven, eight Broadway shows and you have a great solid career, working, and you’re well-known on two blocks and it’s just a wonderful life. But you get on one TV show and it’s just a whole new world.
Tina [Fey, 30 Rock creator] came to Damn Yankees. I was doing that with Jane Krakowski and Sean Hayes and she came afterwards and here’s what she said. ‘I love your big, Midwestern face and your great comic timing.’ I said ‘thank you.’ She said ‘I have a part on 30 Rock I’m writing. I just want to gauge your interest.’ I was like, ‘Oh, high! I think my interest is fairly high!’
So yeah, when somebody like her gave their stamp of approval, it changed everything. I was on that show for four years, and I learned not just technical stuff, but just how to be a pro and how to sell it because 30 Rock was so…it’s television but it’s definitely presentational. It was very theatrical, so it was a really good kind of stepping stone into serious film and lots of things I’m doing now.
I’ve always been curious about your name? Did you always like it? Or did you think of changing it when you first got into the business?
There might be some other Cheyennes out there…
CJ: There are a few and most of them are girls. Even to this day, I’ll get a thing in the mail that says we are such big fans of yours, and we would be so happy, Ms. Jackson, if you would come to our…oh, really? You’re a big fan, and you don’t know who I am?
I had a love-hate with it growing up, for sure, because it was so different and seemed kind of feminine and I already felt different. I already knew I was different and feminine and whatever, so as a kid, feeling different and then having a name that’s so different was a little bit of a challenge.
Sometimes I told people…I told my parents this the other day. They were so sad. Sometimes I would tell people my name was David because that’s my middle name, and it’s my dad’s name, just because…like Cheyenne. What? Chenie? Chena? But yeah, and then, so everyone thinks it’s fake anyway. I got to New York, and they’re like ‘Cheyenne Jackson?’ It’s like, ‘I’ll show you my driver’s license.’ No, I love it now.
And as far as your career goes, you’ve always been out, right?
CJ: [nods] The last two years may attest, I’m open to a fault. I just am. It’s just I am an open book…as an artist and as a person, I’m just really who I am, and I’m open. As far as being out, because I typically get cast as the guy that gets the girl, mainly on stage up until that point before I came out. I don’t know, I just never had like a big, deep conversation about it with my team. I just thought if I just get this out of the way now, then I don’t ever have to worry about hiding and using non-specific pronouns and ‘I don’t speak about my private life.’
No offense to people who do that, but that ain’t for me, so yeah, I came out right during All Shook Up. I was doing the Elvis show on Broadway. I did that in the New York Times and you can’t go back, but then it was done. I’ve been out for 20 years.
It doesn’t seem like it’s held you back. You haven’t just had gay roles.
CJ: No, it’s about split 50-50, I think. Everybody asks me if they think it’s held me back in some ways or if I’ve lost out things. I have no idea. Probably a couple things, maybe, but if that’s the case, then it’s not something I would have wanted to have been a part of anyway, if you’re basing your decision solely on that, not on who brings the character to life…so I could give two shits.
Talk to me about the film, Love Is Strange.
CJ: Yeah, it got picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and right now, it’s in Tribeca [Film Festival] and it’s getting great reviews. We opened in Sundance, and it’s amazing.
You’re a gay cop in it, which I love.
CJ: Gay cop, yeah. My dad was a cop. Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play a long-term couple who get married, and one of them loses his job, and so temporarily, they kind of have to separate. John Lithgow ends up moving in with his niece, Marissa Tomei, and her husband, Dan Burrows, and then Alfred Molina moves in across the hallway with me, and then my partner, Manny, who is my partner in crime and my partner in life.
These are based on real people. I met the guy that I played, so it was pretty fun, but it’s a love story. It’s a story about just aging and how relationships change over the years and what does it mean? Love is strange…it examines all the different types of relationships, and the performances those two men give. I’m a supporting part and super happy to be in it, but just to be in their company and watch them? Incredible. It hasn’t been released yet, but I hope it really gets released a little later in the year.
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks with Gena Rowlands. Was there a starstruck-ness that you had to get past with her?
CJ: Damn right. She is, in my opinion, our greatest living actress, and if you ask a lot of actors, you mention her name, everybody says, ‘oh…’ Sean Hayes was cast in this part, and then about a week before filming, something happened with his TV show, and I’m not sure of the details, but I got a call that said can you go to Budapest for two months tomorrow. But first my manager said ‘can you sit down? I think you should be sitting down, Cheyenne.’ She knows me really well. She’s known me for eight years, and then she told me what the project was and that it was Gena Rowlands, and I just…I couldn’t!
I was so in awe of her and worship of her, and of course, the night before, I had stupidly just watched tons of things over and over, like Opening Night and A Woman Under The Influence. Gloria...
I just said, ‘okay, listen, I have to just get over my worship of you quick because, in a minute, I’m going to have to scream at you and call you horrible names,’ and she could not have been more lovely. And it was, artistically, the most fulfilling experience ever because it’s a master class, sitting there with her. I learned stillness from her. She says, ‘you know, if you think it, the camera will see it,’ and in theory, you think, ‘oh, that’s great,’ but it’s absolutely true. There’s never a false moment with her, so it was pretty amazing. I’m really excited to see it.
Did you talk career with her?
CJ: [nodding] Are you kidding me? She is just the coolest, coolest, classiest lady, and I just wanted to know everything about all of her costars and working with, obviously, her husband, John Cassavetes, and who, coincidentally, I’m filming a move with right now their daughter, Zoe Cassavetes…but I wanted to know about Rock Hudson. I wanted to know about just what that whole career was like and how they broke the mold. They were like the first indie movies that were mainstream successes.
Next page… Cheyenne on divorce, tattoos, fiancé Jason and getting older.
With divorce and everything you went through in the last couple years, did it change your opinion of love and relationships? You’re obviously still a believer.
CJ: No, that’s true. I just fully believe in marriage and forever and soul mates and all that. I think sometimes relationships run their course and it’s part of life, but yeah, it definitely has not soured me. It’s opened my eyes, and I’m tougher than I was for better or for worse.
What do you think makes you and Jason click?
CJ: We just found each other at a time in life where it just…I can’t even really put it into words. It just is. Sometimes things just are and he’s an amazing person. I’m so happy I know him, but yeah….
I’ve seen your Instagram pics of you guys driving and singing.
CJ: [smiles] We’re always singing.
Tell me about the tattoos on your arm.
CJ: [points to upper arm] This was for my dad. It’s lyrics to a song that he used to sing to me when I was little. It’s an Elvis song. It’s very, very obscure. It’s called ‘Daddy Big Boots.’ My dad is tone deaf and so it’s so special when he would sing it to me. And honestly, in my concerts, I often would talk about my mom, and in life, just innately, I think, as a gay kid…my dad was always around and an amazing father, but I was always just kind of closer to my mom. And I mentioned my mom one too many times, I guess, one day, and somebody said ‘is your dad still living?’ I was thinking ‘what?! Yes, yes, of course!’ and I thought I needed to foster that relationship more. So last year, on my dad’s birthday, that was my gift to him. This was just between he and I and just something that only he and I have. He’s a Native American, Vietnam vet, body builder man, and this got him good.
You’re about to turn 39, so how do you feel about getting older?
CJ: Surprisingly good. I’m in the best place of my life mentally, and it’s no secret I got sober a couple years ago and got divorced and am engaged to a wonderful man. I feel like I’m just starting. That isn’t to negate the amazing life that I’ve had but my aging…for one thing, it’s different for men in Hollywood, so in terms of like physicality, I actually kind of like aging. Yesterday, I was with my dad, and he was like ‘you have a lot of gray in your beard.’ ‘Dad, I’m going to be 39.’
But it’s a wisdom. I’m sure when I’m 49, I’m going to say, ‘oh, God, what the fuck did I know at 39?’ but I don’t mind it. I mean, I am getting hurt a little more in terms of like physically. I broke my toe a couple days ago, a crick and a crack here, but my work is getting more rich.
Cheyenne Jackson photographed by Clinton Gaughran for TheBacklot