Friday, April 2, 2010

Cheyenne Jackson Talks About Coming Out

Broadway, film and television star Cheyenne Jackson talks with Matt Thomas of Canada's Fab Magazine about making it big in New York without keeping it straight.

“The way I came to know about theatre was through yard sales. I was always going to them and buying cast albums for shows like Annie. I wanted to be the first boy to play Annie, that was my dream,” recalls 34-year-old triple threat Cheyenne Jackson, flashing a dashing smile. Since moving to New York eight years ago, Jackson has carved out a career that rivals those of the show business icons he grew up admiring. His classic good looks, crooner’s baritone and leading-man screen presence have made him a casting agent’s wet dream — an achievement he never dreamed possible as a choirboy in northern Idaho.

“I’m not really a bondage, tie-up kind of guy, but every time that Valentine’s Day Popeye cartoon would come on, the one where he ties Bluto up, it would make me feel weird in my stomach,” says Jackson. Growing up different in a conservative religious household in a town of fewer than 1,200 people, Jackson remembers his rustic childhood well. He describes it as “very Little House on the Prairie,” complete with well and outhouse. “I wasn’t privy to a lot of things other kids my own age who had money were, but what we did have was music,” says Jackson. He jumped at any opportunity to perform. “The first time I said a line and everyone laughed, it was the biggest cliché in the book, but I knew I was home.”

“When I was 13 and in eighth grade, I was obsessed with my best friend. I was in love with him. He had blond curly hair and he was a Mormon,” says Jackson of his first crush. “I just thought I wanted to kiss him all the time, so I thought ‘Hey, I’m totally gay.’” Jackson waited until he was 19 to come out to his religious family, including his brother, a preacher once featured on the 700 Club. He describes the process as “terrible” and notes it included a suggestion he enroll in an ex-gay program.

“The idea of the ex-gay movement as a philosophy is one thing, but the comedic side of me thinks 20 guys staying in cabins in the woods, all trying not to be gay…. That’s a Sean Cody movie,” jokes Jackson, who promptly said “No fucking way” to the idea. “I realized they were grasping. You have to let your parents mourn the idea of what they think your life is going to be. It’s them that has to deal with it. We’ve been dealing with it our whole lives.” His family eventually came around, and he gleefully mentions that he brought his parents with him when he sang on the Rosie O’Donnell Gay Family Cruise last year.

Fresh out of high school, Jackson moved away from home. He eventually landed in Seattle where he met his longterm boyfriend Monte (“a handsome physicist”) and tried his hand at regional theatre while working at a local magazine. After a death in the family and the polarizing events of 9/11, Jackson decided to move to New York, with Monte in tow, to pursue his Broadway aspirations.

“I don’t like to tell actors this story, but when I moved to New York City, I was literally on Broadway in three weeks,” says Jackson bashfully. Connected with an agent through an actor friend from Seattle, Jackson was signed immediately and, after his first audition, scored his debut gig as an understudy in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Jackson would go on to understudy Broadway heavyweights like Gavin Creel and Adam Pascal before getting his big break — by chance.

“Having a $12-million musical on your shoulders is exhausting,” says Jackson of his starring role as a lady-killing ’50s heartthrob in All Shook Up, a period jukebox musical full of Elvis songs. Originally cast as the understudy, Jackson got the role after the original lead’s contract fell through. Suddenly he found himself front and centre. “There was a billboard four storeys high of my face in Times Square. It was surreal; you can’t really wrap your head around it,” remembers Jackson.

Jackson casually confirmed he was gay during an interview with the New York Times, while doing press for All Shook Up. “I have friends who are in the closet and I’ve seen it go either way. But I thought, if someone has the balls to ask me flat out in an interview, then I’ll say ‘yes,’” explains Jackson.

“My people at the time were flipping out, saying, ‘You’re playing this womanizing great character and you do so many things, and now people are only seeing you as a gay dude,’” says Jackson, who later fired his PR team, eventually replacing them with Monte. “If audiences just see me that way, then first of all, I’m not doing a good enough job convincing them otherwise, and secondly, then fuck ’em if that’s the case.”

Jackson’s public admission didn’t affect his career in any way he feels was substantial. His newfound gay fan base helped ticket sales for his next musical endeavour: as the lead in Xanadu: The Musical, a stage version of the campy 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John. The show ran for more than 500 performances, was nominated for two Tony Awards in 2008, including Best Musical, and featured Jackson singing and dancing on roller blades, sporting a tiny pair of denim hot pants.

“I didn’t want to do it at first. I thought it would be too distracting because I have a lot going on down there. It’s a really funny and witty show, and I didn’t want it to be about my ass,” says Jackson of his costume. Uncharacteristically shy, he eventually embraced his new sex symbol status and refers to Xanadu as “the most fun from top to bottom I’ve ever had working.”

Jackson’s performance received a lot of attention. He started landing roles playing straight guys on TV shows like Ugly Betty, Lipstick Jungle, Life on Mars, Glee (he had to drop the part after getting violently ill but expects to be back) and most recently the recurring role of Danny Baker, the naïve new Canadian cast member of TGS, on 30 Rock.

Like Neil Patrick Harris, Jackson’s had no problem getting straight roles and is happy to usher in a new age for openly gay actors. “Last week I screen tested for the biggest movie of my life with Cameron Diaz. There were five other guys and me, and I was the only gay dude. We read together and she laughed, and it made me see that everyone may know my deal, but they are into what I do as an actor,” says Jackson.

But not everyone in the industry has an ambivalent attitude toward his sexuality.

“E! Online asked me, ‘In your 30 Rock co-star Alec Baldwin’s new movie, It’s Complicated, he shows his butt. Do you want to see it?’” says Jackson. “First of all, it’s a trick question. There’s no way you can answer that correctly. So I said, ‘Sure, I’d totally see that. I have a total talent crush on Alec.’ Of course the headline read: ‘Gay 30 Rock cast member wants to see Alec Baldwin nude.’” Jackson later told the anecdote to Tina Fey, who weaved the concept into an upcoming episode. “Nothing’s funnier than real life,” adds Jackson, shrugging off the scandal-hungry American press machine.

Jackson says he’s turned down his fair share of “terrible gay comedies, the ones that are so poorly written and go straight to video,” but that doesn’t mean he’s afraid to play gay roles. His first major film role was playing gay rugby player Mark Bingham in the 9/11 hijack film United 93, and he played a gay man with a secret hit out on his meth-loving husband in a recent episode of Law & Order. Jackson also just landed a major part in It Takes a Village for ABC, the biggest pilot he’s done yet. The show revolves around exes Karen, played by Leah Remini, and Howard, who’s now gay. They struggle to raise their 15-year-old son while juggling relationships with their new significant others. Jackson plays Howard’s first boyfriend and says of the role, “Being gay is a part of who I am, and hopefully I can bring some truth to it.”

He hasn’t abandoned his musical roots though, and he grins like a schoolboy as he lists previous stage partners that include Barbara Cook, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Idina Menzel and even Meryl Streep, with whom he sang “Sodomy” from Hair at a fundraiser. Jackson’s favourite collaborator is Michael Feinstein, the Grammy-winning, openly gay musical theatre legend who studied under the Gershwin brothers. The pair, united over a shared love of traditional musical art form and the American Songbook, have written shows together, toured together and recently released a CD of duets, The Power of Two. “As a gay mentor, as a musical mentor, as someone who has Nancy Reagan on speed dial, he’s full of bizarre, amazing connections. He’s really one-of-a-kind, and we’ve learned a lot from each other,” says Jackson of Feinstein.

Jackson is always busy and has a lot of upcoming projects. A Mormon-themed musical by the creators of South Park and Avenue Q is off the table for discussion due to a gag order, but it’s to be previewing this summer in New York, and Jackson previously admitted his involvement to the press. He’s also working on We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a new musical by Canadian-born playwright Adam Bock and composer Todd Almond, based on the Shirley Jackson novel. However, Jackson’s most passionate new role is as a hands-on international ambassador for amfAR, a leading organization for AIDS education and research.

“I had a very good friend from Seattle; he and I were two peas in a pod. We whored it up all through Seattle in our early 20s. We were like salt and pepper; he was blond and I had black hair. He recently became HIV positive and it really just shook me to the core. With all the risky behaviour I partook of in my early 20s, that could so easily have been me,” explains Jackson when asked about his involvement with amfAR. “My mom and dad always said to give back to your community. It’s one thing to say you will, but it’s another to get your hands dirty.”

Whether it’s the dirt thrown at him from Hollywood or the dirty costumes of Broadway, one thing is clear: Jackson is totally okay with being a little dirty if it means being honest about who he is, and that’s why gay men and the rest of the world can’t get enough.

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