InDepth InterView: Cheyenne Jackson Talks New Singles, New EP, MOCKINGBIRD LANE, Liberace Biopic, 30 ROCK, LUCKY STIFF & More
Today we are talking to one of Broadway's most recent stars to make a big impression in Hollywood with his many recent TV and film appearances - from GLEE, 30 ROCK and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM to the forthcoming HBO Liberace biopic BEHIND THE CANDELABRA as well as the new NBC series MOCKINGBIRD LANE - following his stints on the Great White Way in the lead roles of musicals such as ALL SHOOK UP, XANADU and FINIAN'S RAINBOW - the convivial and exceedingly talented triple-threat Cheyenne Jackson. He gives us an all-access pass to his new role as songwriter and pop star, crafting two pop gems - "Drive" and "Before You" - and creating accompanying music videos for them as a preview of his forthcoming EP, which will also include collaborations with Sia and more, and lets us in on this new phase of his showbiz ascent. In addition to his recording career and songwriting responsibilities, Jackson also has a number of high profile film and TV projects coming up and he gives us the 411 on his role opposite Michael Douglas in the new Steven Soderbergh HBO film BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, as well as shares his experiences filming the new Bryan Fuller-created NBC reboot of THE MUNSTERS titlEd MockINGBIRD LANE. Also, will he be returning to 30 ROCK for its final season? What about a GLEE reprise? Plus, Jackson fills us in on the newest member of his family, Brillo, as well as recollections of working on Dustin Lance Black's remarkable landmark PROP 8 live multi-media presentation, his involvement with Neil LaBute's THE HEART OF THE MATTER, his new film MUTUAL FRIENDS, participating in BARACK ON BROADWAY by duetting with SMASH star Megan Hilty and what we can expect from his appearance in the new Christopher Ashley-directed movie musical adaptation of Ahrens & Flaherty's LUCKY STIFF. All of that and much, much more!
For more information on Cheyenne Jackson - as well as the singles "Drive" and "Before You" - visit his official site here.
So New And Bright
PC: How are you juggling all of your many, many commitments since then? You are doing it all.
CJ: Oh, man. I mean, I don't know?! [Laughs.] I guess that in life you have no choice but to just move forward constantly. You know, as soon as I decided to focus solely on the music, that was when all these acting things came my way. So, it has definitely been a challenge - I won't say struggle, though.
PC: The last time we spoke was when you were about to open at Carnegie Hall and you were just starting to work in earnest with Sia on your new EP. Tell me about Sia.
CJ: Oh, well, Sia is blowing up right now and no one deserves it more.
PC: Her song with Flo Rida is currently in the Top Ten.
CJ: I know! I am so happy for her. I can't tell you who, but I can tell you that she is about to work with some of the biggest people in the world - and nobody deserves it more. No one deserves it more.
PC: Where does the song "Drive" derive from?
CJ: I wrote "Drive" with my buddy Steve Aiello.
PC: And "Before You"?
CJ: Actually, that was also written with Stevie.
PC: They have much different sounds, to say the least.
CJ: They do - probably the third one is going to be a Sia joint, though; I have a great one that she and I did together that I hope will be next.
PC: Do you have the songs finalized yet for the EP? Are you considering expanding the release to a full album?
CJ: See, that's the thing - it changes on a day-to-day basis. You know, I got signed to a developmental publishing deal with Sony, so, not only am I writing for myself but the goal is also for me to write for other artists, as well. So, we are working towards that right now, which is really exciting. Also, I have a developmental artist deal, promoting these singles and these videos, too. So, the goal was to have it done by the end of August originally, but now there are rumblings of bigger, better things on the horizon. So, I am not married to a certain set date of when everything is going to happen or everything is going to be released yet. As far as picking songs? It's like they are all your little babies, you know? It's really hard to pick what songs will make the album - it's like, "I want that one; that's my favorite!" But, you can't be like that because you want the album to be linear and make sense as an experience.
PC: A cohesiveness.
CJ: Yeah. I really think that an album should take you on a journey from beginning to end. I have had a really good time so far - Michelle, my music manager, is guiding me so wonderfully. I have lots of confidence that once we decide what songs are going to be on what that it will all make a lot of sense and really work out.
PC: It's not unusual for songwriters to create upwards of fifty songs for an album - Jason Mraz wrote nearly eighty for his new release, apparently, to use an example. How do you approach that process?
CJ: That's how it is, man. I mean, I've probably written nearly forty songs in the last year for this - you have to really find people who are going to truly tell you the truth; I am lucky that I have my husband, Monte, because he will always tell me the truth. You know, I will say, "Oh, I love this," and, he'll say, "It's not your best." [Laughs.]
PC: That's hilarious. Will it be hard to part with any songs in particular that you have recently written?
CJ: I can't give you any titles, but I can tell you that there are definitely songs that are my personal favorites that I then show to Sony and they say, "Gosh, that would work so well for so-and-so, but I don't see it working for you." I mean, I wrote a great country song the other day, so, it's like, "Maybe we'll shop it to another artist?" The most exciting thing about all of it for me is that I am now actually writing songs and getting paid for it - it's absolutely thrilling.
PC: You have come into your own as a songwriter - and you already do so much so well.
CJ: I think it's best summed up by: when I told my parents and my family - because I did this all kind of under the radar and I wanted to do it on my own time - when I told my parents that I really wanted to focus on songwriting at this point in time and just see what happens, they really just let out a collective sigh and said, "Well, of course you are! Music has always been first and foremost for you - more than acting or Broadway or anything; music was the beginning of everything." So, it really made perfect sense to them - as it does to me.
PC: You recently performed "Drive" at the Lifeball and shared the bill with some great other acts - Scissor Sisters and Gloria Estefan included. What was that experience like for you?
CJ: Oh, that's right; the Lifeball - that was in Vienna.
PC: Your performance is on YouTube and it is spot-on, I must say.
CJ: Oh, thank you! Yeah, you know, I always say, "I never do anything small," and that was for about 80,000 people watching, so I guess that was about right! [Laughs.]
PC: The music video for "Drive" is stunning - so eye-popping and befitting of the song; the final third is particularly fantastic and emotionally applicable, I thought.
CJ: Thank you. I knew it would be risky, I knew it would be different and I purposefully didn't put myself in the video because the song is so personal. The lyrics came to me all at the same time and I always know that when that happens it is a very special, personal thing and I really wanted people to listen to the words and to feel the emotion of where the song came from. I think that by putting myself in the video that it would become, I don't know, more about me than about the song. So, I found this wonderful animator/artist/short filmmaker from Austria - I love to really foster new talent and people that haven't really been discovered. I really liked his style, so I contacted him and I showed him the song and I said, "Would you create this for me, with me?" And I am so happy that he said yes!
PC: Aren't we all!
CJ: I am so happy with it. It's been kind of a slow build, though - at first, people have been like, "I love the song, but where are you?! I want to see you!" And I'm like, "Oh, I'll be in the next one - just give me a second!"
PC: You want to let the song speak - and sing - for itself.
CJ: Exactly. So, yeah - I am really, really glad that you like it and I am really, really happy with it. The video turned out great.
PC: How have you approached singing these pop singles versus your prior vocal work onstage and elsewhere? It's a more upfront, intimate sound you achieve on these two singles, it seems - I'm sure the production factors into it all considerably, as well.
CJ: Well, I've always sung in a lot of different styles - I consider myself a singer first. So, you know, on Broadway, you have to sing to the back of the house and you have to fill the space. A sound engineer told me recently, "You know, it really is a different style and technique and you have to get used to the imperfections in your voice." I remember once another engineer said to me, "I want you to get so close to the mic that I can hear what you ate for breakfast."
PC: Invasive - but effective, no?
CJ: It is a different muscle to use - for lack of a better term - but I am really loving it; I am loving embracing the crunch or the imperfections with the sound. Sia has helped me a lot with that, too - you know, her whole thing is, "You can sing anything as long as you sing it cool." That's what she always says. It's all about the vibe.
PC: What a fascinating insight.
CJ: Yeah, because when you are listening to someone on a record, you aren't seeing them, you are listening to them - and you are feeling what they are singing about. So, I didn't worry too much about what my Broadway fans would think of this sound, but I am glad they are embracing it anyway. This is really for me, though.
PC: Have you gotten receptive reactions to the singles so far?
CJ: Oh, yeah - absolutely. People have been very, very supportive. Remember, I did this all kind of under-the-radar and all kind of on my own because I really didn't want the pressure of, you know, "When's it coming out? What's it going to sound like? What's your sound?" I just wanted it to happen in the way that it was supposed to happen.
PC: And, now, here we are with the second single.
CJ: Yeah, people have been really supportive and some surprising people have been picking up on it, too. It's been a really slow, great build. Obviously, "Before You" is a more commercial single and that's going to be the one to get radio play hopefully. The video has me and Rachel Dratch in it and it is really funny and fun, so I bet that that will be the one to get the most attention of the two. But, to me, every single song is its own entity - and that's what's exciting about it all.
PC: Stevie Nicks has said that you have to love your material if you plan to introduce it to the world and have them love it so that you can continue to perform it for an audience forever. Do you want to have a song catalog you can continue to sing and enjoy like that?
CJ: Oh, yeah! I want to be able to sing my songs forever. I was lucky enough to sing at the recent BMI Songwriter's Hall Of Fame induction ceremony - joining all these great songwriters together - and Stevie Nicks was there, actually.
CJ: All the people there, their whole careers had led up to this moment - of being inducted. So, yes, I absolutely want to be known as a great songwriter and not just a great singer or great actor or whatever people know me for. I know I have it in me and every time I write it just lights a fire in me and inspires me to be better and better.
PC: Who are some of your major songwriting influences? When we spoke last time we discussed Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and some others. On these two singles, I can hear some Elton John, some Bee Gees even.
CJ: Totally. It really runs the gamut - I guess those are some of my older references, but that's because my voice is more old fashioned; you know, some people liken it to Chet Baker or Harry Connick, Jr. or whoever. I think that George Michael and Freddy Mercury are probably tied as my favorite male vocalists, though - I really love them both a lot. I love Sting; I love Chris Martin from Coldplay; Elton John, of course, too. And, KD Lang has, I think, the most beautiful tone of any person ever.
PC: You embrace it all.
CJ: I do. I can't help but feel that, as artists, we are influenced by everything around us, so I try to listen to everything that's new and everything old, too. That's why I particularly love "Before You" - because it sounds retro, I think, but still fun and fresh and current.
PC: Unquestionably. In viewing the video, I detect a bit of a ROCKY HORROR vibe - a musical you once did way back when, actually. Was that reference intentional?
CJ: Somebody else said that to me, too! I never thought of that. Nick, the director, and I both have this affinity for movies from the 40s and 50s, and, also, the kitschy ADDAMS FAMILY/MUNSTERS kind of thing - which is ironic because I just did this Munsters reboot pilot called MOCKINGBIRD LANE.
PC: I was going to ask: is the "Before You" video a tie-in to that or is it a sheer coincidence that they tread similar territory?
CJ: I know! This was filmed months ago - way before MOCKINGBIRD LANE; which is hilarious!
PC: It really is.
CJ: What's really funny is that, while I was filming MOCKINGBIRD LANE, I showed the creator, Bryan Fuller, a cut of the "Before You" video and I said, "You are not going to believe this, but watch this music video that is going to come out next week." And when he saw it his mouth was just agape!
PC: I bet.
CJ: We filmed it at the same place where the new Tim Burton DARK SHADOWS was filmed - it is similar in tone to that, I think.
CJ: You know, we wanted it to be fun and kind of kitschy and also kind of an homage to PSYCHO and that whole genre. I am so happy that Christina Cole is in it with me - a beautiful British leading lady who I was lucky enough to do a movie with last year; and, also, Rachel Dratch, who is such a bud and always, always helps me out. Rachel actually had food poisoning the day that we shot it.
PC: No way! What effect did that have on the shoot?
CJ: None at all, really! She would hit her mark and totally kill it and be great and then she would go and puke in a bucket. [Pause.] See kids? That's showbiz! [Laughs.]
PC: She's so hilarious - another 30 ROCK alum.
CJ: That's right. I adore her and she totally came through for me - again.
PC: These singles are a refreshing diversion from the content of most current pop music. How do you compare your music to the current top acts that feature heavy European dance and hip-hop sounds and often nursery rhyme-level lyrics?
CJ: Well, I really think there is something for everybody out there. I think that the fact that Bon Iver won the Best New Artist Grammy is a great sign that there is good songwriting being done out there and good, old fashioned melodies and stuff are really coming back. You know, there will always be a place for Katy Perry and the great bubblegum stuff and also the darker stuff, too. You know, not all of my stuff is going to be funny or fun - some of my songs are super-dark and I have a lot to say. It just so happens that the first song was "Drive" and that was wide and expansive and dark and deep, and, the next one, "Before You" is light and fun and summery. But, maybe the third and the fourth will be both be super-sad. Who knows? Each one is a beginning, a middle and an end and that's what's so infinitely exciting about this process for me.
PC: Speaking of songs you have sung superbly: what can you tell me about "Giant", a song from a musical as performed on Youtube? It's quite poignant and moving.
CJ: "Giant" was years ago - I did that years ago; at least five or six years ago. I think it was an homage to Matthew Shepard - I don't know, I just loved that song and I loved the melody and the style of it.
PC: Were you involved with the musical it is from at any point, BOYS WILL BE BOYS?
CJ: No. I didn't know it even was from a musical, actually, believe it or not.
PC: What can we expect from your upcoming appearance in the film adaptation of LUCKY STIFF?
CJ: Well, I play the MC - I play the French owner of this club in Monte Carlo. It was really fun to shoot - I shot it simultaneously with MOCKINGBIRD LANE, so everyone was really cool to allow me to do both.
PC: You can say that again. So, you are looking forward to seeing the final film, then?
CJ: Definitely. It looks great and it has a great cast - Jason Alexander, Denis Farina; Nikki M. James plays the lead girl; this amazing English chap named Dominic is the lead. It was really fun to shoot - I play a kind of different character for me, who looks crazy and French. [Laughs.]
PC: That is maybe a bit of a stretch!
CJ: You'll see! It has great music, too. I mean, basically, what it's about is that I'll do anything for Chris Ashley.
PC: Your director on ALL SHOOK UP, your big Broadway debut.
CJ: That's right - and XANADU, too.
PC: Speaking of XANADU,Gene Kelly's most famous movie musical, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, was just re-released in theaters. Are you are Kelly fan?
CJ: Oh, sure - of course! Of course.
PC: What were the movie musicals that had the biggest impact on you growing up? Do you remember the first one you saw?
CJ: Of course - probably the same one everybody did, THE WIZARD OF OZ.
PC: Do you enjoy the movie musical renaissance of the 21st century?
CJ: Oh, I think it's great - just great. I mean, of course, some are better than others, but it's pretty cool that a big budget movie like LES MIZ can be made - I just saw the preview for that recently and it looks absolutely great; I had my doubts, but I was watching the Tonys and that preview came on and I saw it for the first time and just got goose-bumps everywhere.
PC: It's pretty thrilling for a trailer.
CJ: [Pause.] They did it, you know? They did it.
PC: They might have really pulled it off - they did the impossible.
CJ: Totally - that's how it looks.
PC: Speaking of a property with a lot of built-in expectations, tell me about MOCKINGBIRD LANE, the new NBC MUNSTERS reboot. Firstly, what is Bryan Fuller like one-on-one?
CJ: Oh, he's great - he's great. I don't know what goes on in his brain, but he loves dark and he also loves people, too - if that makes any sense. He loves dark and subversive, but he also likes the human condition and exploring that, so he really invests a lot into his characters and stories.
PC: What can you tell us about the show?
CJ: Well, Eddie Izzard plays Grandpa. Jerry O'Connell plays Herman Munster. PORTIA DE ROSSI plays Lily - which was fun because it meant Ellen Degeneres was always onset, and Ellen is really fun to be around. I mean, who doesn't love Ellen?
PC: Have you ever appeared on Ellen's talk-show?
CJ: No, I haven't - not yet. We had some great chats onset, though, I can tell you that.
PC: Who do you play on the show?
CJ: I play Scoutmaster Steve, who is Eddie's scoutmaster. It's a really great show - it's an hour-long and it is very dark. NBC had a lot of presence onset, so I hope that that translates to success for the show as a mid-season series.
PC: Is the look of the show potentially as striking as PUSHING DAISIES? More? Less?
CJ: More! It's mind-blowing! Mind-blowing. The set is truly insane.
PC: So, it will not be subdued or realism-based, as some reports have suggested?
CJ: Oh, no! Not at all. [Laughs.]
PC: What great news! It will be pretty much all-out insanity then.
CJ: Oh, yeah - every frame is just eye candy in every way. It's going to be great.
PC: Wow. Fuller is doing HANNIBAL for NBC this season, too. Did you discuss that new series with him at all?
CJ: Yes. He is going to be doing HANNIBAL with Hugh Dancy at the same time as MOCKINGBIRD LANE - Bryan has his fingers in many pies.
PC: And so do you. What can you reveal about BEHIND THE CANDELABRA?
CJ: Speaking of eye candy, right? [Laughs.]
PC: Exactly! Have you seen Soderbergh's MAGIC MIKE yet?
CJ: I have not yet because I have been working, but I am so happy for them - Matt Bomer is a buddy of mine; it's so great. I am so happy that that movie that cost like $5 million bucks could be that successful. But, yeah, I start this week on the Liberace movie - and, yes, right now it is called BEHIND THE CANDELABRA. It has such a great cast, too - Debbie Reynolds, Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd, Matt Damon; just an amazing cast.
PC: That's star-studded.
CJ: I know! I am so psyched - and, I have just heard such great stuff about Steven Soderbergh, so I am so excited to get the chance to work with him on something like this.
PC: Had you auditioned for him before - for MAGIC MIKE, perhaps?
CJ: No, no - I actually am not sure how it all happened, but all I know is that I came on his radar and he asked to see some tape and then I put myself on tape for Liberace and then right after that they cast me as the guy.
PC: Who is your character?
CJ: I play Jerry O'Rourke, who is Liberace's first boyfriend. It's going to be pretty amazing - I couldn't be more excited. We are going to film in Vegas and Palm Springs and LA - it's going to be a real adventure.
PC: It is going to be a roughly 2-hour film for HBO, correct?
CJ: Yeah - at this point.
PC: Do you know if it will be expanded to a 4-hour series? It's been rumored that is being considered, ala MILDREd Pierce.
CJ: No clue. It's a big story to tell, though - but, no, I don't know the answer to that.
PC: Do you feel privileged to be a part of such a starry ensemble and in such an audacious and unique film?
CJ: Hey, listen, I would play the busboy in a Steven Soderbergh film! [Laughs.]
PC: As a kid growing up, did you have any particular affection for Liberace? There were not a lot of out entertainers during his heyday, yet he really wasn't out either. Do you have any memories of him?
CJ: I have to say that, honestly, I don't. Of course, he wasn't out until the end of his career - even when he was at his most flamboyant and making $200,000 a week in Vegas, the ladies in the audience would just say, you know, "Oh, he loves his mom." People would actually believe that kind of thing then.
PC: A much different time.
CJ: Really. I have been doing a lot of research and I have definitely been getting into that time period and his whole world. It's fascinating.
PC: Will you be sharing the screen a lot with Michael Douglas, then, given your role?
CJ: Yes - we have a lot of scenes together and I am really looking forward to working with him.
PC: You have another new movie coming out as well, MUTUAL FRIENDS. What can you tell us about that project?
CJ: We shot MUTUAL FRIENDS last fall. It has some great New York actors in it - including Christina Cole, who plays my leading lady in the "Before You" video. It was an ultra-low-budget SAG movie - the kind that you do in a few weeks and everybody just pitches in.
PC: A grassroots affair.
CJ: Totally. You know, your costume is your own clothes and you are eating Subway for lunch, but you know what? It's a great script and we all had a lot of fun. With those kinds of movies you never know what kind of life they are going to have, but I really look forward to doing those kinds of things - especially when you only do one or two takes and that kind of shooting; I enjoy doing that kind of acting and stretching myself like that.
PC: Do you have any other film or TV appearances coming up?
CJ: Well, I do have a couple of things that are in the works that I will possibly be doing but that I haven't signed onto yet. I will say that it is important to me to do more movies - in the last year or two I have been doing a lot more movies and I am enjoying kind of peppering my career with everything; concerts, television, movies, and, when I get the chance to fit it in again, Broadway. All of that is really taking second place to songwriting right now, though - that is my sole focus. So, I'm sure I'll do a couple more movies this year besides the one I am getting ready to do right now for HBO.
PC: Will your involvement with Neil LaBute's THE HEART OF THE MATTER go on?
CJ: That was a reading of a brand new play, so we don't know what is happening with that - that was a first reading, I think.
PC: Would you like to continue with it if given the chance?
CJ: I don't know what the deal with it is, but I can tell you that I had a great time doing it - Krysten Ritter from DON'T TRUST THE B IN APARTMENT 23 co-starred in it with me, so that was a lot of fun to work with her. So, who knows?
PC: Will there be a future for Dustin Lance Black's PROP 8, do you think - even with an all-star cast on Broadway for a limited run, perhaps?
CJ: I don't know what kind of life that piece will have on Broadway and in that respect, but there is no question that they will have lots and lots of community theaters interested in it and productions of it done all across the country. I think that it's so important - that people know what happened; that they know what is in those transcripts.
PC: It's a real part of American history.
CJ: It is. It is - and it was sealed off from the public.
PC: What was the feeling of being a part of BARACK ON BROADWAY?
CJ: Oh, wow - so fun; so fun.
PC: What did you perform?
CJ: Megan Hilty from SMASH and I performed a marriage medley.
PC: How apt. She is so talented and sweet - she recently did this column.
CJ: Oh, yeah - Megan is a dear. I know her from Broadway, of course, and we have mutual friends - she's just luscious and wonderful.
PC: What was the best moment? It was a truly momentous night, I've heard.
CJ: Well, my favorite part of the night was that they told us we would get a picture with the president afterwards. So, of course, we were all really excited - it didn't matter who you were; Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin; we were all like little kids backstage. But, the warm-up act for us - the opening act - was actually President Clinton.
PC: No way!
CJ: Yeah - he said to us, [Bill Clinton Voice.] "I've never been the opening act before!" And, so, it was really amazing because none of us knew that the picture we were going to be getting was really a twofer; we got the chance to stand in between Barack Obama and President Clinton.
CJ: Yeah - really. It was unbelievable. I showed my mom and she just couldn't believe it!
CJ:: It really was.
PC: Moving from film back to TV: will you be coming back to GLEE in Season Four?
CJ: I don't know. Ryan Murphy is the only one who knows - I am assuming not because Jonathan Groff took over as the coach of Vocal Adrenaline. But, hey, I had a great time and I really loved my little arc on that and I wish them the best on the new season.
PC: When Jane Krakowski recently did this column she told a fabulous story about how quickly you had to learn your opening number for the most recent 30 ROCK live show. Can you recount that for us?
CJ: Yeah - because it was the draft, I got my lyrics literally like twenty seconds before we went live on the West Coast.
PC: And you nailed it.
CJ: It was very nerve-wracking and I was a little tense, but, you know, you've just got to step up and do it, you know? So, I did.
PC: Will you be back for the final season?
CJ: I hope so. You know, they are only doing half a season - they are doing twelve episodes - so, it would be nice if Tina let Danny have a swan song of some kind, I think; even if he can just walk across the stage and say, "Hey!" [Laughs.]
PC: Lastly: is it true there is a new addition to your family?
CJ: Yes, we just got a new dog - his name is Brillo; because he looks like a Brillo pad. We weren't planning on getting a dog anytime soon, but Bernadette Peters sent me a picture of him - he had been abandoned a few times - and I just couldn't say no. He looks like Tramp from LADY & THE TRAMP and he's a dear.
PC: What about you and Monte having a child sometime soon now that you have mastered dog parenting and you have made your marriage official?
CJ: Well, that's actually a conversation we've had over the last six or seven years and we are definitely not done with the conversation. I think that it will probably happen - it will probably happen when the time is right, for sure.
PC: All the best luck with all of your fantastic projects, Cheyenne. We all can't wait for what's next!
CJ: Thank you so much, Pat. This was great. Bye bye.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride / Retna Ltd.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro