Cheyenne Jackson is the full package, a fabulous singer and energetic dancer with gorgeous baby blues and a physique to match.
His acting isn’t bad either, as anyone who has caught him in one of a number of Broadway musicals knows (All Shook Up, Xanadu). He even gets to show his chops in NBC’s hit sit-com, “30 Rock,” the biggest comedy on television.
These days, he’s promoting his first collaborative album with Michael Feinstein, performs in Broadway’s Finian’s Rainbow eight times a week, and simultaneously runs back and forth for some filming with Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin.
It seems there is nothing he can’t do. Jackson recently took a breather recently to speak with TheImproper about his multifaceted career.
The Improper: How did you get your fantastic name?
Jackson: There was a TV show in the sixties starring Clint Walker. It was a western called Cheyenne. It was at the time when many of the shows on TV were westerns, “Bonanza,” “The Rifleman,” and all that. It was my dad’s favorite show. He wanted to name his first son Cheyenne, and my mom said, ‘No.’ And then with the next son she said no, and then she finally said, ‘If the third one’s a boy, we can do it.’ So…here I am! Many people think it’s fake. When I first moved here everyone thought it was a stage name.
IM: How does someone go from Washington to a starring role on Broadway?
Jackson: I always saw myself doing this at some point when I was a little kid. I didn’t know how the pieces would fall into place, but I did theatre all the way up until I was 26. Basically up until I was 26 I worked in Seattle, just professionally. I worked in a bank and then I worked for a magazine. It wasn’t until 9/11 happened and we also had a death in our family that I had to change my priorities. If I was ever going to try to make this Broadway and TV and film thing happen, I was going to have to be proactive. I quit my job and I moved to New York City.
IM: You have the ultimate success story!
Jackson: Definitely. I know I’ve been really, really blessed and lucky, but with that comes a lot of hard work.
IM: What is your earliest memory of yourself as a performer?
Jackson: We were having a family reunion when I was 7, and we were at my uncle’s in Michigan. He was a psychologist, and they were opening this brand new hospital. They were giving a tour of this place, and somehow I had kind of Bogarted one whole room. I was standing on top of these big, giant blocks, and I just remember having about fifty really rich people in suits standing around, and I was holding them hostage and singing them all the songs I knew at the top of my lungs. My mom couldn’t find me, and she said she went around the corner and there I was, standing on top of this pile, and forcing everyone to listen to me.
IM: Every ounce of you seems to be built for performing. Your physique, your voice, your look, your smile, everything is just thrilling to hear and watch! Who has inspired you in such a way that you have become the artist you are today?
Jackson: I think my parents, my DNA gave me what I have, I look exactly like a perfect hybrid of my parents, imagine that? (laughs) I get all my talent and my musicality from my mom, and my dad is very artistic, a wonderful writer, a wonderful ear for poetry and such. So I definitely get it from both of them. I get inspired on a daily basis from the tiniest little thing to an overheard conversation between six year-olds in the laundry room. I look for inspiration all around me. I’m just fascinated with people and stories and communication. Kids don’t lie, so listening to kids talk about their day, and what they’re eating, and how they’re feeling, that’s much more interesting to me than listening to an actor on a talk show. I love to eavesdrop; I love to listen on the subway to, like, two teenage girls talking. I’m definitely an observer.
IM: On “The Power of Two,” it seems like you and Michael Feinstein are having the time of your lives!
Jackson: It’s pretty amazing.
IM: How did that collaboration start?
Jackson: We had known each other socially, and we had been fans of each other’s work for about a year. One year ago we were both booked on the CBS Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Bryant Park. There were some technical snafus, like the tree didn’t light, and there was all this funny stuff, and he and I were in the warming tent. It was really cold that night, and we just bonded. We just realized how much we had in common musically, and personality wise he’s really a hoot! I didn’t realize that about him. It just kind of grew from there. I just thought, ‘Let’s do a show, I think that would be a really great challenge for both of us, to stretch each other musically, and share each other’s style and also expand out each of our fan bases.’ And it just kind of happened.
During rehearsals for “The Power of Two” [at Feinstein’s nightclub] we would sing something and it was just right. We just looked at each other like, ‘Wow.’ It just doesn’t happen all the time like that, where the synergy was pretty great. We were both not taking it for granted. And then, because the show was so well-received, I said, ‘We should record this!’ I’ve been dragging my feet on my solo album. I think the reason is because I was supposed to have my first album be with Michael. I brought the idea to him, and he was like, ‘Absolutely! Let’s do it!’
IM: So what exactly is the power of two, as opposed to the power of one?
Jackson: Obviously the name comes from the Indigo Girls song that I brought to him, but it just really shows in the album. There’s nothing like doing your own show, I did my own show at Feinstein’s, and it was a great learning experience, and it was exhilarating and all of that. But when you’re sharing the stage with someone else, the pressure is relieved a little bit in that if you’re not feeling exceptionally chatty or witty, if your voice is tired, whatever, you have the other person to rely on. The other person can inspire you and spark something in you. There’s really nothing like it. I know my devoted fans are waiting for me to put out a solo album, but if I did collaboration albums the rest of my life, I would be happy. It’s really, really fantastic.
IM: And then if somehow the album or show doesn’t work out, you can blame it on him!
Jackson: That’s right, that’s right. Blame it on the five-time Grammy nominee!
IM: The creation of The Power of Two was obviously such a labor of love. How many of the songs are covers?
Jackson: They’re all covers! Some of them are pretty obscure; you’re not the first person to ask that. Michael is such a savant when it comes to the American songbook, and he really has such a breadth of knowledge, so although I knew a lot of the songs that he brought to the table, there were several that were brand new to me.
IM: Which song holds the most meaning for you?
Jackson: They’re all so special in their own way, that’s why we picked them. But if I had to pick one, maybe “Someone to Watch Over Me.” It’s interesting, because we actually didn’t do that in the act. I had done it in a benefit for the Roundabout Theatre, and Michael said, ‘You know, we should add one more song, we’ll do like a bonus track.’ We played it one time, he picked a key, we sat in the studio, I recorded it once, and that was it. It was one take, there were no fixes. It was one of those magical things where all the pieces came together, and we listened to and it and we were like, ‘Okay, cut and print.’ That song is special to me for many reasons. I like to sing it in its initial form, that is when the pronoun is talking about a man, and that is how I always listened to the song growing up.
IM: I loved seeing you in Finian’s Rainbow, but I am curious about why you chose to go for the role of Woody. It’s not a character with many showy dancing and singing numbers, as your other roles have been.
Jackson: I had a feeling about it. I knew it wouldn’t be a huge acting challenge as far as Woody’s whole journey. He meets the girl, and he gets married to her, and that’s the end of his drama, really. But the music was so fantastic, there is great chemistry with Kate [Baldwin] and I, who I’ve known for years (we were both understudies in Thoroughly Modern Millie in my Broadway debut together), and I just had a sense about it. I also really wanted to do a revival and sing some old-fashioned stuff. With everything prior to this that I had done in New York, it was really high rock ‘n roll, belty kind of stuff, and I really wanted to just show something else I could do. I didn’t know how it would be received, but I had a six month window. I thought, ‘Screw it, let’s do it.’ I just go with my gut, that’s how I always make every decision.
IM: When you get out there you seem to be having so much fun! What could you possibly do to top that in your down time?
Jackson: Well, that’s the thing, there’s not so much down time these days with “30 Rock!” Luckily, it really works out that Finian’s Rainbow, although it’s a long show and a challenge, I only sing seven songs in it. In All Shook Up I sang seventeen songs. Because of the physical load, I think that it’s helping me have the energy to be able to film “30 Rock” simultaneously and do some press for the CD and stuff. Everything works out like it should, I truly believe that.
IM: What do you think is at the end of your own rainbow?
Jackson: That’s a good question, I don’t know. I think 30 Rock is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. Going to set and doing scenes opposite Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey every day is a pinch me moment. But I don’t think this is my pinnacle, but it is up and to this point the best thing I’ve done. To quote Gypsy, ‘What I have holding down inside of me, if I ever let it out, there wouldn’t be life big enough!’ (laughs) That’s the corniest line I’ve ever said, but that’s just kind of how I feel, like everything is timed the way it is for a reason. So yeah, I’m loving it, and I hope to be on the show as long as possible, but my best is yet to come. I kind of love when people underestimate me, because it’s my challenge to surprise them and prove them wrong.
IM: Who could possibly underestimate you!?
Jackson: A bunch of people. I don’t read blogs and messageboards anymore, but I did up until about two years ago. People just want to put you in a box and say, ‘Oh you look this way, so all you can do is this,’ and ‘I don’t think you’re capable of anything more than A, B, and C.’ It’s our job as actors to brush that off and say, ‘Well, look at this.’
IM: Woody, your character in Finian’s Rainbow, is somewhat superstitious. He creates legends. Do you ever find yourself doing the same?
Jackson: I wouldn’t say I’m superstitious…I guess I am to a point. I have routines that I do every single night, and I don’t like to veer from those. Before I do certain scenes I do the same thing every night, I like the routine of it. I like to take the same route backstage, I guess you can call that superstition. I also don’t think that if I veered from that something terrible would happen. There’s definitely a winsome quality of Woody that I relate to.
IM: If Woody and your other famous Broadway roles, Chad (All Shook Up) and Sonny (Xanadu), were to eat dinner together, what would their conversation be about?
Jackson: Oh god! Well, poor Sonny would have such a hard time keeping up with anybody, he’d probably just stare at himself in the mirror for most of dinner. They would probably talk about how amazingly alike they all look.
IM: How did it feel to join the cast of “30 Rock” and the show within the show, TGS with Tracy Jordan?
Jackson: Tina had thought of me originally for the part, and so they’ve been writing to my sensibilities. It’s going to be pretty crazy in the next several episodes, I’m really excited.
IM: You’re on the best comedy on television right now, that must be somewhat surreal!
Jackson: You’re preaching to the choir. I totally agree.
IM: Tell me more about Danny on “30 Rock.” How regularly will we see you?
Jackson: All I know is they said I’m going to be popping up throughout the year. So I just wait, and when they tell me to show up, I show up. It’s a need to know basis over there. I’ve done five so far, and have more coming up. It’s great, for every time they call me, I’m like, ‘Yes!’
IM: Does Danny have any Improper secrets that we should know about?
Jackson: Well, I can’t tell you any secrets from the set, but I can tell you that with my character, everything is not as it seems. Everything seems so laid out, this is who he is, and this is what he wants, but not everything that meets the eye is what you think….
IM: Tell me something that no one else would know about Cheyenne Jackson.
Jackson: I’m pretty open. I have insomnia. I haven’t really talked about that a lot. I get that from my mom. My mind is always clicking, and it’s hard to turn it off at night, even if I’m totally exhausted.
To purchase tickets to Finian’s Rainbow, or to purchase a copy of The Power of Two, visit CheyenneJackson. “30 Rock” airs on Thursdays on NBC.