Cheyenne Jackson - Not just another pretty face

Asking Cheyenne Jackson to pause and reflect on the year that has just passed is like asking a whirling dervish to calculate the number and speed of his rotations—it’s an impossible equation.

“Oh God,” he says in the 10-minute interview we’ve managed to squeeze in between back-to-back performances of Finian’s Rainbow. “The fact that I’m still standing upright, and I’m still moving. Because it’s been the busiest year of my life.”

The hunky darling of Broadway is currently starring as Woody in the acclaimed revival of Finian’s Rainbow at the St. James Theater, and just this past month joined the cast of the Emmy award-winning series 30 Rock in a multi-episode arc. He also recently released a new CD with Michael Feinstein called The Power of Two. And on January 15, Jackson and Feinstein will be appearing together at the McCallum Theatre in a reprisal of last summer’s popular show at Feinstein’s at the Regency Hotel in New York City—with some other fun stuff thrown in.

“It’s kind of insane,” Cheyenne admits about his hectic schedule. “My partner helped me get through and my family, but it’s taken all of my energy and my focus. So I’d say looking back, it’s the fact that I’m still here,” he adds with a laugh.

But you’d think the Washington state native would be accustomed to this crazy kind of pace. In the past few years, Cheyenne has appeared in a slew of productions, both on and off Broadway. Prior to Finian’s Rainbow, he starred as Sonny Malone in the smash hit Xanadu, for which he received Drama League and Drama Desk nominations. He was also in Damn Yankees, The Agony & the Agony, All Shook Up (Theater World Award, Drama League, Outer Critics Circle nomination), the premier cast of Altar Boyz, Aida, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Cartells, On the 20th Century and The 24 Hour Plays. He also made his solo club debut with “Back to the Start,” which sold out for two performances at Feinstein’s.

On the big screen Cheyenne was in the Oscar-nominated United 93, Curiosity and Hysteria. Television credits include Life on Mars, Lipstick Jungle, Ugly Betty, The Mentalist, Family Practice and now 30 Rock, where he will be ‘poppin’ up throughout the season” as Danny Baker. Danny’s a new cast member from Canada who’s seen as a threat to the current regulars—most particularly Jenna Maroney (flawlessly played by the talented Jane Krakowski).
In a recent episode, Danny was guilted into singing off-key during a ‘live’ duet with Jenna in order to keep her happy in her position as the show-within-a-show’s resident diva.

“It’s actually harder than you might think,” Cheyenne says of his off-pitch performance. “I worked on it a lot to make it sound real and to make it sound believable. But I got some good, funny feedback from it, so I’m glad it worked out.”

Cheyenne worked closely with 30 Rock creator and star Tina Fey, who wrote that particular episode, in perfecting the bit. In fact, Cheyenne notes, it was Fey who sought him out for inclusion on the series.

“Tina had this part in mind for me originally and came to my manager,” he recalls. “I went and had a meeting and it was just one of those dream things, where you’re thinking, ‘Wow! The Holy Grail of comedy, especially in New York City as far as smart, urbane writing, and they’re inviting me to sit with them as the cool kids’ table.’ It’s really, really great. Everyday that I’m on set ... it’s kind of mind-blowing. And it really makes you bring your A-game, working with Tina and Alec [Baldwin], you have to be focused.”

But being on task never seemed to be too much of a chore for Cheyenne, who within months of moving to New York City from a small town on the rural Idaho-Washington border, made his Broadway debut understudying both male leads in the Tony Award winning musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. He later served as the standby for the character of Radames in Disney’s Aida and then originated the role of Matthew in the hit off-Broadway production of Altar Boyz.

Cheyenne’s big break came in the fall of 2004 when Miramax producers asked him to leave Altar Boyz and originate his first Broadway leading role, Chad, in All Shook Up.

His performance as Chad earned him much critical praise, the Theatre World Award, as well as nominations from the Drama League and Outer Critics Circle for Outstanding Lead Actor.

Then, in 2006, he portrayed Mark Bingham in Universal Pictures United 93, which was followed by other film and television roles, causing Cheyenne to seamlessly emerge into the entertainment trifecta: stage, film and TV.

Most actors will cop to having a favorite genre when it comes to their work. David Hyde Pierce’s love of theater is absolute and Kelly McGillis enjoys the exposure film allows. But Cheyenne is equally enamored by all.

“You know, it sounds so cliché, but whatever I’m working on at the time is the one I love,” he says. “I just did a matinee of Finian’s Rainbow. It was packed to the brim, 1500 people, and there was no where else I’d have rather been than right there because it’s a beautiful revival of a beautiful old show. But then when I’m on the set of 30 Rock and I’m hangin’ with everyone and we’re just zippin’ along … all cylinders going, and it’s just this great creative process, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. The same with movies. I have a movie coming up in about five or six months and I know I’ll feel the exact same way, when you’re there you just give yourself over completely to that process. There’s nothing like it.”

One subject Cheyenne says he’d like to completely give himself over to is Rock Hudson. At 6'4'', with classic good looks, unabashed charisma, and a face the camera absolutely adores, Cheyenne would be the perfect choice to play Hudson if there was ever a biopic made on Hollywood’s ultimate leading man.

“It’s a very interesting life story he had … it’s when Hollywood was run in a different way and being gay just wasn’t an option,” Cheyenne explains. “He was really gifted and a really great thespian, but got so much notoriety for what he looked like, and he really wanted to prove to people that there were some chops there. And that’s something that I can relate to. People see you a certain way; they look at you and say, ‘Oh that’s what you do.’ They want to put you in box, and it’s up to me, and it was up to him—and it’s up to anybody who feels put in a box—to make people see you in a different way. That would be the greatest challenge. Because you think of Rock Hudson and you think, ‘Oh big, hunky, closeted’ ... but there’s so much more.”

One aspect of Rock Hudson’s life that Cheyenne does not relate to is living in the closet. He has been open about his sexuality all of his life—not necessarily riding atop the most flaming float in the Pride parade, but certainly not trying to pass.

“It was never really an option for me,” he says. “I’ve just always been really open and out. It was about seven years ago that I came out to the press. When I was doing All Shook Up on Broadway the New York Times asked me and I just said it. It wasn’t something I really thought about. Do I think I’ve lost out on parts because I’m openly gay? Probably. But there’s no proof to that. In the long run, though, this is the only way I could’ve done it. This is the only way I could live with myself and be myself. It’s how I have to be. And hopefully I’m helping to change things a little bit, but this is my path.”

Cheyenne isn’t naive enough to think that everyone is fully accepting of his queerness, but he’s okay with that too.
“I think some of my fans where surprised, or maybe they knew but they didn’t want to admit it. A lot of my fans in the Midwest—the housewives that I love so much—I think a lot of them early on were, ‘No, I don’t want to believe it about my Cheyenne!’ Believe it, lady!!” he says emphatically, laughing.

But as transparent as he may be about his own life, he’s fiercely protective of how—or if—other celebrities choose to emerge from the closet.

“Everybody has their own path. I don’t believe in outing people,” he says. “When it’s your time to come out, great. I have many friends who are famous actors and they’re in the closet, and if that works for them, great. I do understand why people want—especially in the gay community, the real hard-core, militant gays who say… ‘He needs to come out!’ Listen, it’s his choice—and by ‘his’ I mean proverbial. Everybody has their own time, and if we force people out of the closet, on blogs … it’s just the wrong way to go about it. It’s not how I roll. I don’t like it.”

One place where being openly gay might actually come in handy rather than being a hindrance is here in the desert—especially talking standards, show tunes and the American Songbook.

Cheyenne says he’s every excited about his upcoming gig the McCallum next month with Michael Feinstein.

“We’re going to put on a great show,” he promises. “It’s going to include a lot of the stuff from our show that we did in New York City in June that he and I wrote. It’s going to be a lot of the same material that’s on our CD, and probably a couple of new things. But we haven’t done that show in a few months in its entirety, so we’re just gonna be having fun.”

As any season ticket-holder to the McCallum knows, Michael Feinstein makes regular appearances at the theater. Each year he performs at least once with a guest, most recently David Hyde Pierce. Cheyenne attributes Feinstein’s expertise in the art of give-and-take as contributing to his continued success with these two-man (or one man, one woman) performances.

“He’s really classy,” Cheyenne continues. “He knows when to take control and he knows when to let you do your thing. He’s also incredible versatile. He can do a show with me and then turn around and do a show with David Hyde Pierce, which is completely different material. ... Because of his breadth of knowledge with the American Songbook and because of his musicality and because of his personality—because of all of those things—people are lining up to work with him…. It was one of the best decisions I ever made to hook up with him, because he’s the bomb, as the kids say.”

The same could easily be said about Cheyenne Jackson—his versatility and ease with diverse material clearly evident in his mastery of varied performance platforms.

As for the blue-eyed bomb’s plans for the New Year, Cheyenne just smiles and says, “More of the same. I just want to keep creating. I just want to keep inspiring. Keep challenging myself. And, you know, just keep on keeping on!”

If You Go— Michael Feinstein and Cheyenne Jackson, Friday, January 15, 2010, 8 pm, at the McCallum Theatre. Tickets $65/$75/$95/$125, call 760.340.ARTS or visit mccallumtheatre.com. The McCallum is located at 73-000 Fred Waring Dr., Palm Desert. For more information on the performers: michaelfeinstein.com, cheyennejackson.com.

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