Cheyenne Jackson: Rainbow High
Cheyenne Jackson was rocking roller skates and short-shorts in the surprise Broadway hit Xanadu when I interviewed him for The Advocate’s April 2008 cover story. Out magazine named him “Entertainer of the Year” that November, but 2009 has shaped up to be even more successful for the openly gay actor and activist. Jackson currently stars as cocky sharecropper Woody Mahoney in the Broadway revival of the 1947 classic Finian’s Rainbow at the St. James Theatre. The Power of Two, a studio recording of his critically acclaimed Manhattan cabaret show with out Grammy-nominee Michael Feinstein this past summer, is now available. Tight-lipped on his upcoming recurring role on NBC’s 30 Rock, the towering 34-year-old talent does open up to us about his foot fetishist following, his inharmonious Glee experience, and his lost beefcake photo shoot with Bruce Weber.
Advocate.com: What kind of response did you get to your Advocate cover story?
Cheyenne Jackson: It was definitely a biggie and I know it meant a lot to people. I expected it to make a splash, but I didn’t expect it to open up such a great dialogue. I got so much mail and feedback about it, and probably every other day I’ll see a copy at the stage door. I was very happy with how it came out.
One particular part of that interview got a lot of attention on the blogs, didn’t it?
The Popeye story? Yeah, I got a lot of shit about that, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I think my mom would’ve preferred that I left that part out, and a few people were like, “Ew, that’s T.M.I.” But you know what? That’s how I roll. It made me very popular in the foot fetish world, which I didn’t even really know was a thing.
Your publicists at the time tried to steer me away from focusing too much on your sexuality, so they obviously had some issues with the article. Are you still with the same representation?
No, I’m actually not.
We talked about the possibility of you earning a Tony nomination for Xanadu, but that didn’t end up happening. I hope you’re not mad at me for jinxing it.
Oh, please. I fully believe that when it does happen, it’s supposed to happen. Onward and upward.
You and I also spoke at length about your fairly conservative family, so I was surprised to read that you recently took your parents on one of Rosie’s R Family Cruises. How’d that go?
I’ve been asked every year to do the cruise, but I’ve never been able to make it work because of scheduling. When they asked me this year, I was free, and I thought it would be fun to take my mom. She’s grown and expanded her horizons enough, so I thought she could bring one of her forward-thinking friends. When I asked her, she said, “Well, what if I brought dad?” I was like, “Yeah, if you think he would go.” And they were both into it. I thought, This could be really great or a total disaster, but either way it’ll be a nice time to spend some forced family quality time. But they were great. I got a lot of attention because I was performing, so my mom liked that wherever she went people would say, “Oh, you’re Cheyenne’s mom!” But they’ve never really been around anybody gay besides me, [my boyfriend] Monte, and a few other people here and there, so to be trapped on that boat was really good for them. My dad actually had a lot in common with the really butch lesbians onboard. We went on a whale-watching excursion in Alaska and my dad got into a deep philosophical conversation with a big lesbian about fishing and other stuff that I couldn’t relate to. So the cruise showed them a little more of my world and brought us closer together.
At the time of our first interview you said that you felt a certain amount of pressure from the “militant gays” to be even more out and more vocal. Considering how much the marriage equality debate has heated up in the past year, have you felt that pressure increase?
No, I’ve actually gotten more support than ever before, which in turn makes me feel like I want to do more. I think the gay community appreciates the people who are out and making a difference just by being who they are.
But since we last spoke you’ve become more actively involved with many LGBT causes like amFAR, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Have you been inspired by the Obama era of change?
Definitely. It would be a sad story if you weren’t. Especially in the gay community, how could you not see the growth? On a day-to-day basis, it’s annoying, frustrating, and scary, but when you look at the big picture of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, it’s very encouraging. I’ve always given back and done charity work, but even more so in the last couple years for sure.
More high-profile Broadway stars like Gavin Creel and Jonathan Groff have officially come out in recent months. Creel told Advocate.com that he’d been inspired by you. Are you aware that you’ve become a role model for young gays on Broadway?
I definitely feel that when I see everybody at events and stuff. Gavin in particular has been a friend for a long time -- my first show after I moved to New York was with him — so I was very proud of him. It was a big step and I’m happy that he credits me as an inspiration, but the challenge I gave to him was, “OK, you’ve come out, but now you have to do something about it.” And he is. He’s working hard, giving back, and setting an example for the other young people coming up, which is the best thing you can do. But I still feel like everybody has their own journey and path. Yes, it’s great when a David Hyde Pierce or a Cynthia Nixon publicly comes out and puts a face to the cause, but no one should be forced to come out for the sake of politics and moving forward.
What was the impetus for The Power of Two at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency?
Michael and I met about a year ago when we were both booked on the CBS television special for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Bryant Park. It was a really cold evening and we met in a warming tent backstage. We bonded rather quickly because we had a lot in common, which I found surprising just because we’re both from such different worlds. We were both fans of each other, so we decided to do a show together. We each brought songs to the table because part of the deal was to bridge the gap not only between our generations but also between our styles of music and the art that we create. I brought some stuff I thought would rock his world and he did the same. One of the songs I brought was “The Power of Two” by the Indigo Girls, who I was pretty sure he didn’t have in his iPod. It’s very outside of what he does, but he loved it and loved the challenge. After that, the show organically fell into place.
Well, it doesn’t get much gayer than the Indigo Girls, but how did you and Michael both being openly gay inform the show otherwise?
I didn’t expect the show to be as political as it was, but it just naturally ended up being that way. One of the songs Michael wanted to do was “We Kiss in a Shadow” [from The King and I]. Everyone knows that Michael is the keeper of the Great American Songbook, and I’ve never met anyone who’s more of a savant when it comes to these songs and keeping the purity of exactly what the writer initially intended. Apparently, that song was written with gay undertones and became a gay anthem even in its day, a time when it couldn’t be talked about. So we decided to do that song but without commenting on it or singing it to each other like we were in love; we just stood on opposite sides of the stage and sang it. But that song ended up being the emotional epiphany in the show for a lot of people and the thing everyone talked about in the reviews.
Two gay men singing traditional love songs could’ve come off as very cutesy and wink-wink. How did you avoid that?
It just really wasn’t an option. We wanted to show these songs in their most raw, purest form. I’ve done a lot of cutesy, wink-wink stuff and I’m kind of over it right now.
Feinstein’s at Loews Regency caters to a wealthy, older clientele that’s probably not the most progressive crowd in town. How did the gay subtext go over?
I’m sure there were some people who were scandalized. I knew the gay guys who saw me in Xanadu were going to come to see me at Feinstein’s, but Michael’s fan base is a lot of straight, rich, Upper East Siders. I know for a fact that some of those people didn’t come because of the thematic elements, but a lot of people who had never seen Michael ended up seeing him because of it. There were times during the show I’d overhear an older couple who couldn’t hear say, “Now, who’s this guy with Michael?” “I don’t know. I think he played Elvis.” So it was definitely a chance for both of us to expand our fan bases. But Feinstein’s is really expensive. Another reason I wanted to do the CD was because hardly any of my friends could afford to come see the show.
Michael has been known to change the gender in lyrics of female-sung standards — “The Man I Love,” for example, became “The Girl I Love” — so it’s refreshing to hear him sing about his “taste in men” in the song “Old Friend” on the album.
Michael grappled with that lyric in particular. He’s always sung it as “my taste in friends,” but when we were recording it in the studio, I said, “Try one where you say ‘my taste in men.’” When he listened to it back, he decided that it was the right decision to sing the lyric with “men.” He’s awesome and has nothing to hide.
You’re starring in the Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow, a very old-fashioned 1947 musical that deals with racism. Besides the fact that the new poster looks like a gay pride flag, does this production reflect the civil rights struggles of today?
There weren’t a lot of changes that needed to be made. It’s actually incredibly current, and it’s crazy how much stuff in the show we’re still dealing with. One of the reason people have shied away from the show for so many years is the fact that a racist Southern white senator gets turned black by a leprechaun. They used to use black face or masks, but somebody had the great idea to use two different actors, which is what we do.
30 Rock writer and executive producer Robert Carlock has confirmed that you’ll appear on the series this season as the guy Liz Lemon hires as a new TGS cast member to appeal to a more mainstream audience. What else can you tell me about the role? Is he a love interest for Jenna? Does he turn out to be gay? Will you sing? How many episodes have you shot so far?
You know I would tell you everything and shout it from the rooftops if I could, but I can’t divulge too much. They really thrive on the element of surprise over there. I can tell you that I’ve already been filming and the part will pop up throughout the year. 30 Rock is really like the holy grail of comedy — the subversive, urbane humor that I respond to. That’s why I was so excited when I got a call that Tina Fey and Robert wanted to talk to me about a part on the show. I feel like I’m at the cool kids table.
You were also scheduled to appear on an episode of Glee in September. What happened?
Ryan Murphy wrote the part of the choreographer the glee club hires with me in mind. When I got off the plane, they took me right to the set for some costume fittings, but I felt totally miserable. They took me back to the hotel and the doctor came and said I had a fever of 103. I’m kind of a tank and I don’t normally get sick, but it turns out I had the flu, so I stayed in California for two days watching $14 movies in my hotel room. I didn’t even see that episode because it was too painful for me, but they went a totally different way and hired a funny character-looking guy for the part. It was pretty heartbreaking because I love the show, but hopefully I’ll be on it at some point in a different part.
None of your photo shoots in recent years have quite compared to the revealing pictures from your 2007 reFRESH magazine spread. When are you going to treat fans to more beefcake pics? You’re not going to have that body forever, you know.
That’s true. I actually did a shoot less than a year ago for Vanity Fair with Bruce Weber, and you know his stuff is always sexy and shows some skin. They had shot a bunch of theater people like Liev Schreiber and Stockard Channing, but my section was cut. Then they were going to run them in German Vanity Fair, but that went out of business. So I never even got to see those photos. They’re still floating around somewhere. I’d do another beefcake shoot, but I’m 34, so at this point there’d have to be a really good reason for me to just lie around on a bed in my underpants.