With a smash Broadway revival, a hit CD, and now a little show called ‘30 Rock,’ hoofer and heartthrob Cheyenne Jackson is having quite a year.
by Steven Foster • Photo by Karl Simone
With his superhero good looks—thick head of hair, lantern jaw, cobalt eyes—and enviable talent—singer, dancer, actor, he’s a triple threat—Cheyenne Jackson is one of those people who, if he weren’t so nice, you’d want to hate him. But everyone loves him. Loves him. Loves all 6’ 4”, 220 broad-shouldered pounds of him. More importantly, they’re clamoring to work with him.
Jackson began his career honing his stage skills in Seattle and, just a scant seven years ago, set out for New York. It didn’t take long for Jackson to leap from unknown/unseen understudy in Thoroughly Modern Millie to breakout roles in Altar Boyz and All Shook Up. Film came next, with a role in a small independent film, Curiosity, quickly followed by playing the heroic, gay, doomed rugby-playing passenger Mark Bingham in the Oscar-nominated 911 film United 93. Then Jackson went back to the boards, rolling over audiences in the surprisingly effective Broadway version of the camp classic Xanadu. Of course, TV nabbed him: an aborted Lifetime pilot, the occasional role in shows like Ugly Betty and Lipstick Jungle. Out magazine named him Entertainer of the Year. They should have waited.
Because in 2009, Jackson exploded.
After a critically adored one-man show, Jackson teamed up to record a jazzy CD with crooner Michael Feinstein. That CD, The Power of Two, crackles and fizzes with pure Broadway-meets-Rat-Pack vocal dazzle. Finian’s Rainbow hardly seems like a sure-fire suggestion for a revival on the Great White Way, but Jackson’s portrayal of Woody Mahoney helped send audiences and reviewers over the rainbow in appreciation. And then came the star turn on the Emmy-winning hit comedy 30 Rock. Jackson plays new cast member named Jack, whom Alec Baldwin’s character rechristens “Danny” since there can’t be two Jacks running around 30 Rock. And Jackson plays Danny with such winning, wide-eyed sincerity and perfectly pitched comedic timing, it’s easy to see why creator Tina Fey pursued Jackson for the pivotal role after co-star Jane Krakowski suggested him to producers.
OutSmart caught up with Jackson when he had a precious few minutes between taping Rock and performing Rainbow.
Steven Foster: Let’s cut right to the chase.
Cheyenne Jackson: Okay!
You must be feelin’ pretty good.
I am. I’m flyin’ high, but I’m so exhausted. I’m trying to keep on keepin’ on.
What do you wanna hit first? Finian’s, 30, or the album?
All of the above. Finian’s has just been such a great job. A great experience because so many of those shows with rumors to go to Broadway never actually come to fruition. So to actually have it happen and then be received as warmly with the reviews and audiences, it’s just been best-case scenario really.
Yeah. I mean, I never planned for it to come out the same time as all this other stuff. One of my friends at work said I should go to an astrologer and get my chart read because everything’s in line. It’s an interesting idea.
Yeah, you’ve pretty much arranged the astral furniture in your favor. Your career’s really being feng shui’d like crazy right now.
Yeah. But I’m just enjoying it. Hal Holbrook said it best. “I’ve been up and I’ve been down. Up is better.” [Both laugh] So I’m just enjoying it while it’s here.
It’s been crazy, the response for the revival has been amazing.
A lot of the buzz on paper was like, Finian’s Rainbow . . . what!?
But everyone just went crazy for it. And they so singled you out for praise. Do you just love doing the show?
I do. It’s really just a love letter to the old-fashioned musicals where everybody runs in to the middle of town square. I mean, it definitely had its challenges in the onset. But I do love it. I love singing the music. I love doing scenes with Kate [Baldwin]. Yeah, it’s a treat. I absolutely love it.
How did the CD come about? Have you known Michael long?
I’ve only known Michael a year. I’ve known of him and been a fan for a long, long time. But we met about a year ago, and we were both performers in a television show on CBS—the Christmas tree lighting ceremony—and we bonded that evening and became fast friends. Soon after that, we did [The Power of Two at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency] together that was well-received, and shows were added, and weeks were added, and then after it was done, I thought, You know what? Let’s record this. So many people didn’t get to go because of time or because it’s expensive at Feinstein’s, and so he was up for it. We did it in a few days in a studio with all of the same musicians we used in the act, and it’s become this great thing. It’s selling really well, and it’s been bizarre, but great.
You must love that genre of music. It’s so rat pack-y. It’s a suit that fits you very well. What do you attribute that to?
Well, there was definitely a big portion of my teenage years where I was obsessed with that era of music and the American songbook. Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole. So I knew a lot of those songs going into it and knew it would be a fun ride. The whole idea would be for us to stretch each other musically and share the music that we’re most known for, share that with the other person. So that’s why it’s so fun to kind of bounce back and forth. And there’s a couple of little surprises in there like the title song, “The Power of Two.” He’d never heard the Indigo Girls, ever. Ever. [Laughs] I know for a fact, ever.
And 30 Rock?
I guess about three months ago I was doing a short film for some friends, and I got a call from my manager that said Tina Fey had called and there was a possible part on 30 Rock that they were developing, and she thought I would be a good fit for it. And I just couldn’t, I mean . . . come on. [Laughs]
Yeah, you’d kinda have to pick me up off the floor after that one.
Yeah, exactly. I couldn’t really believe it. In this business, I do maintain a lot of open-mindedness, and I do trust, but I’m definitely getting, um, more savvy. So when someone says something like that, “Oh yeah, so-and-so wants a meeting,” I don’t get too excited, just because oftentimes it doesn’t really materialize. But the fact that she was interested, I thought, Wow, this could be something. So I had a meeting with her and Robert Carlock, the executive producers, and it kind of went from there. We talked about it and, of course, I had to audition for everybody, and it just ended up happening. That’s where I’m at right now. That’s where I’ve been pretty much for the last three or four weeks now.
Everyone says it’s a great set.
It’s a great set. I mean, everybody’s so smart. Everybody knows what their strengths are, everybody knows what they bring to the table, so I’ve just decided to go into this full bore. No reason to be tentative. Obviously, they cast me because they like what I do, so I just decided to do what I do and go with it. It’s like playing tennis with a great tennis player—they’re either gonna pulverize you or you’re gonna rise to their level. Every day was a master class in acting. Doing scenes with Alec—he’s so subtle and so great, I just dig him so much.
I have to say I think you did rise to their level. I think you were equal. That’s a tough group to walk in to and match ’em.
Indeed. Indeed. Thank you. I just love it. You have to be confident, or it’s just not going to work. I was a little worried, to be honest, about that one scene at the end [of his first episode] where I finally blow up at Kenneth [the NBC page played by Jack McBrayer]. When I was filming it, I felt really big, and I thought this was gonna be too big. And then watching it back, I thought, Wow. I guess because 30 Rock is 30 Rock and they have their own world, you can be that big and still be real. So I learned a lot watching it back. Because everybody’s style is different. Tracy [Morgan] and Jane and, of course, Alec. You just gotta bring it.
And you were keeping a tight lip on what the part was. It was a big industry secret for awhile.
Can you tell us how long you’re going to be on?
I don’t know. I’ve been told I’m going to pop up throughout the year. I just know I get texts from my AD that says, “We’re going to use you for this next one.” I’m on a need-to-know basis, and that’s just fine with me.
What’s the short film you were doing with your friends?
It’s called Photo Op. I play a really sleazeball paparazzi guy who’ll do anything for the right shot, for that ultimate shot. And it’s pretty twisted and fun. Shawn Nacol is the director—he’s an up and coming filmmaker. I expect great things from him.
You were in an earlier independent, Curiosity. The bigger you get, you still keep doing these things. I think that’s fantastic.
Oh, I love it. If the story’s interesting to me, and the character is something, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care where it is. Doesn’t matter if I have a dressing room, I just love the whole process of telling a story. I hope it always stays that way.
So how’s your personal life? Do you have one?
Yeah. I would not be able to do anything without my partner. He keeps everything organized. I’m not very tidy. And he is extremely so, so that’s a nice yin and yang. But as far as everything, emotional support, he’s been awesome.
Is he in the business?
No, no, he’s a physicist.
That helps out a lot.
It does. And we have a big dog, so home life, staying home, this is my little cave, our house here in New York. The only time I can just totally relax.
So what’s next?
More of the same. I just have to stay focused, stay healthy, because now everybody’s read the reviews of Finian’s, and everybody knows it’s this big, beautiful hit. Now we have to just deliver this story night after night. It’s a pleasure to do so. And more 30 Rock and hopefully more of everything else.
When do you sleep?
Not enough. I need about nine hours of sleep to sing my best and perform my best. These days I’m getting out of the show [late at night], getting home [even later], and getting to sleep at midnight, and then if I have a call at 6 a.m., it gives you about 4 ½ or 5 hours of sleep, and it’s not enough. But you just do your best with what you have. It’s all you can do.
Well, you look good. You owe your makeup artist a case of vodka.
Oh, indeed, yeah. In the morning, it’s not so cute.
Steven Foster also profiles Sam Phillips in this issue of OutSmart magazine.