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Cheyenne Jackson on 30 Rock, American Horror Story, and how musical theater prepared him for Watchmen

From left: Cheyenne Jackson in Watchmen (Photo: Mark Hill/HBO), at an American Horror Story event in 2018 (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images), and in Julie And The Phantoms (Photo: Netflix)
From left: Cheyenne Jackson in Watchmen (Photo: Mark Hill/HBO), at an American Horror Story event in 2018 (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images), and in Julie And The Phantoms (Photo: Netflix)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

In 2009, 30 Rock’s show-within-a-show TGS welcomed Danny Baker to its cast, a Canadian performer literally picked off the street—Danny was a robot impersonator that Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy took a liking to because he was unafraid to shake Jack’s bedbug-infested hand. Not unlike Danny, the actor Cheyenne Jackson was green to the world of television when he joined Tina Fey’s hit comedy (though, unlike Danny, Jackson was not Canadian, nor was he a robot street artist). “There was no acting,” Jackson says, “I was petrified, terrified, and did not know what I was doing.” Of course, Jackson’s selling himself a bit short—though 30 Rock was his first recurring TV role, he was already a proven Broadway star. Within his first year of moving to New York City, Jackson was selected as an understudy for the Tony Award-winning Thoroughly Modern Millie; within a few years, he booked his first lead Broadway role in All Shook Up, the Elvis Presley jukebox musical. Eventually, Jackson would work alongside his future 30 Rock co-star Jane Krakowski in workshops for Xanadu, and then again in an Encores! production of Damn Yankees, which brought him to the attention of Fey.

Though the beginning and end of Danny Baker’s showbiz career may have been TGS (in his last 30 Rock appearance, it was joked that Danny was in danger of being deported back to Canada), Cheyenne Jackson has since become a mainstay in television, theater, and film, his experience as a stage performer and undeniable vocal talents proving useful on more than one occasion. His stint on Glee as rival choir director Dustin Goolsby introduced him to the Ryan Murphy-verse, a world which he’d return to for multiple chapters of American Horror Story. And that work is likely what brought Jackson to the world of Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen, as the Hooded Justice of another show-within-a-show, American Hero Story. When the HBO limited series needed him to put on his best superhero drag for an action scene, Jackson was nervous, but it turns out that stage choreography and fight choreography aren’t quite so different. These are just a few of the things The A.V. Club learned when speaking with Jackson for the following Random Roles interview, which also touched on his harrowing film debut in United 93; his frequent visits to RuPaul’s Drag Race; and his brand new sitcom opposite Mayim Bialik, Call Me Kat, which premiered earlier this month on Fox. The full interview is below, as well as some video highlights from our Zoom call with the actor.

Call Me Kat (2021)—“Max”

Cheyenne Jackson on Leslie Jordan, and how Call Me Kat made his multicam dreams come true
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The A.V. Club: Call Me Kat is set partly in a cat cafe, so, as a hard hitting journalist, I have to ask: How are the cats? How often are you on set and working with them?

Cheyenne Jackson: Listen, I didn’t know how it would be working with cats! They always say: Don’t work with cats—or don’t work with animals and kids—and we have both, sometimes, on set. I didn’t know you could train a cat! Sometimes there’s up to six on set, but there’s this little tower in the back—like a cat tower—and there’s three trainers there. If the cat gets out of the way or moves, they come up and they go like, [Mimics quick, short hissing noises.] and that makes them sit. I try to do that to my husband [Hisses.], and it doesn’t work. But no, it’s pretty cool! It adds a real sense of what we’re trying to make. And Mayim [Bialik] is such a cat person, she’s like the cat whisperer. She knows all their names and she knows which one would be best for a specific scene. We have a deaf cat, so if we have to shout or something, it doesn’t bother him.

AVC: So, are there times where, say, a background actor might actually be a cat wrangler in disguise?

CJ: No, but they’re right off frame and they’re like giving signals and doing all that. But we’ve had many cats ruin takes. Like, Leslie Jordan, they give him these wonderful, big chunks of really funny dialogue, and he’s nailing it, but then at the very end, you hear like, [Meows.], and we’re like, “Ugh! Back to one!” But it’s really fun. The show is so sweet, so I can’t wait for people to see it.

AVC: Speaking of Leslie, this is a really fun, eclectic cast—is that what drew you to the project?

CJ: Yeah, honestly, this is the most fun I have ever had on a project—and I’ve had some really fun projects. There’s something happening between us and with this material, and also it’s just a big challenge to be shooting during this time just because we have, you know, two masks and a shield on up until action! And then we then we see each other’s faces, and comedy’s all about connection. But what attracted me to this to this role first was just Mayim. I’ve been a fan of hers for so long. I just love her as a person, but as an actress and a comedian, she’s just got all the stuff, all the colors: the pratfalls, but also the serious stuff.

I’ve been wanting to do a situation comedy for a long time, a multi-cam, because it’s the closest to theater, in terms of television. I’ve tried for nine years to get on a show that would run! And when this came, I saw the breakdown and it said “cats” and “Mayim Bialik’s love interest.” I was like, “I mean, I’d love to do that, but I don’t think they’re going to cast me in that,” so I was like, “Eh!” But my manager was like, “Read it and get into it because it’s so funny, and it’s based on this BBC show.” I watched Miranda Hart’s show, and then I read the script and I was like, “Okay, I have to make this happen.” So after a few tests and a few reads with Mayim, it was really clear that we had something special between us.

And Leslie I’ve known for 10 years? I mean, we worked on American Horror Story together a couple of years, but also we’re both sober people, so we know each other in that world. And it’s just—he’s the only person that 2020 was the best year for [Laughs.], so he’s crushing it. And it’s so fun to watch him at 65—everybody wants a piece of him. It’s so sweet to be witness, and he’s so beautiful and wonderful. And Swoosie Kurtz—four-time Tony-nominated, two-time Tony-winning Swoosie Kurtz. I’m reading her book right now, and it’s a little weird because I’m doing scenes with her too. [Laughs.] And then there’s Kyla Pratt and Julian [Gant]—I mean, I’m telling you! I hope people like it as much as we like doing it because it feels it feels like something special.

AVC: That’s interesting what you said about multi-cam being the closest thing to theater. So this felt easy to transition into since you’ve performed live so much in the past?

CJ: Yeah, I wanted to do multi-cam for so long. I just thought this was a medium I could really get into. It’s tough right now where there’s no audience, so we have to hold for laughs where there aren’t any laughs and just like kind of feeling it out. But it’s incredible and it moves very quickly—we’re doing an episode a week and there’s always five cameras going. So I’ve had to really learn technically, like, “Oh, wow, if I lean this way, I’m blocking her shot. If I move this way, I’m blocking this!” And [Max is] a bartender, so I’m having to learn a lot of technical stuff and look like I know what I’m doing, and try to keep up with Mayim because her brain is a computer, basically. She’s a unicorn person!

30 Rock (2009-2012)—“Danny Baker”

Cheyenne Jackson on his similarities to 30 Rock's former street robot, Danny Baker
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AVC: Prior to 30 Rock, you had done some musical theater with Jane Krakowski—

CJ: You know, my first TV was 30 Rock! I was doing Damn Yankees in New York with Jane Krakowski and Sean Hayes, and Tina Fey came to support Jane and then saw me in that, then afterwards basically offered me a part on 30 Rock. And I hadn’t done TV, so I was like, [Mimes mind-blowing.] “Oh, my gosh!,” but I learned so much.

We always make a joke: Jane and I had done done like five readings of shows together. They always kept pairing us together in New York. We did all the readings of Xanadu together, and then she couldn’t do it because 30 Rock got picked up. We just had a special, symbiotic thing, and then Damn Yankees happened, and then here we were together on 30 Rock.

AVC: And for this to be your first TV role, it’s kind of funny to think of the parallels to your character, Danny Baker. TGS was his first gig!

CJ: Oh, there was no acting. I was petrified, terrified, and did not know what I was doing. They wrote me to be somebody who did not know what was happening. I didn’t know camera right from camera left. My very first scene was the scene where I meet the cast, and I was actually meeting 90% of them. And I had to do this walk, hit a mark, say a line—I didn’t know anything about marks! On stage it’s like, “You know, find your way to 12!,” but it’s not so, so, so set. And this is like a pin spot. My very first take I was so nervous I could see my heart in my chest. I walk in and I look at everybody staring at me, I go to say my line, and I was just a little bit off my mark so that I was covering Alec Baldwin. He put his hand on my shoulder and he goes, “You’re in my light,” and he moved me over. [Laughs.] And I learned so much from him. He’s a wonderful actor and a wonderful person, and so skilled and so proficient. He just taught me a lot about timing and a lot about waiting for it. So that was such a fun learning experience.

AVC: One of my—very few—gripes with 30 Rock is that Danny never gets much of a resolution, or even a proper goodbye. It’s joked that he maybe gets deported back to Canada.

CJ: I know! I think that was part of it, part of the construct. Well, first of all, I was also doing theater at the same time. So at some point I was doing 30 Rock, and then I was doing Finian’s Rainbow at night, and they were trying to make it work for me. But then there was Josh [Lonny Ross], who was this kind of Danny character before me, would also disappear for long chunks of time. So when Tina would say, “Hey, can you come back and do something?,” it was always like, “Oh, hi, I have been in Botswana,” and nobody even remembers that I was gone! So I thought it worked. [Laughs.]

Julie And The Phantoms (2020)—“Caleb Covington”

Descendants 3 (2019)—“Hades”

Cheyenne Jackson on dialing up the villainy for Julie And The Phantoms, Descendants 3
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AVC: You had a villainous turn in Julia And The Phantoms, which was not your first time working with director—and famed choreographer—Kenny Ortega.

CJ: Kenny is magic. If you’ve ever interviewed him, or if you’ve ever been around him, you know what I mean He’s not cynical, and that is such a rarity for someone who’s been around as long as he has and has worked with Madonna and Michael Jackson and anybody you can name. I mean, I didn’t even realize how much that he’d done: He choreographed Dirty Dancing, and the movie Xanadu—I didn’t even know we had that connection! But he’s like a child in the best way possible; he is so excited by creation and the wonder of a play. And I love how he fosters young talent and watches them have their moment.

Descendants was really—I thought, “Oh, this will be fun to do something that my kids will eventually be able to watch,” because, you know, being disemboweled by Kathy Bates is not something they’ll be able see for a long time. [Laughs.] But I just clicked with Kenny and it was a really, really, really fun thing. And then, yes, eventually Julie And The Phantoms came. He called me and said, “Listen, I have this part where you’d be a 1930s ghost/movie star/magician and you get to sing and also fly!” You had me at “fly”—I’ll never get to be Elphaba, but this is the closest. So that would end up being a really fun experience, and I like the songs I got to do, but really it’s just all about Kenny. I mean, there are certain people that, when they call, you just know it’s going to be a great experience. Also, being a villain—what’s more fun? There’s no rules, you can be as small or as big as possible as long as it’s grounded in something.

Glee (2010-2011)—“Dustin Goolsby”

AVC: Ryan Murphy’s another you’ve worked with a handful of times over the years. Did you two first meet when you did Glee?

CJ: Yeah, so Ryan came to Xanadu and and we met afterwards briefly. And then they were auditioning for Glee—I auditioned for Mr. Schue, but Matt Morrison got it. We had always been up against each other for so many things in New York, so I was like, “Okay, I get it, no problem.” And then [Murphy] said, “We’ll find something for you.” So then, over the next season, he wrote something for me, and it was supposed to be something a little bit more—I was going to have a thing with Idina Menzel, but stories change and people come and go. So, my Glee experience wasn’t what I had hoped it would be, but it was pretty amazing to be a part of. It was such a juggernaut at the time; it was season two and all the kids were immediately super famous and it was—I’ve got stories. I’ll put them in my book one day.

American Horror Story (2015 -2018)—Various characters

Cheyenne Jackson picks his favorite seasons of American Horror Story
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But Ryan really became a cheerleader of mine and a great supporter. In [Provincetown], I always do shows out there, and he has a house out there, so he would always come to my shows. We just have a connection. So he was doing American Horror Story, and they were on... I think season five? I can’t remember my first year! [Laughs.] He invited me to a spin class, which I had never really taken—this is a very LA story—so we were taking SoulCycle, and it was super loud in there so he’s shouting over the music. He’s like, “I want you to be on American Horror Story and you’re going to be married to Lady Gaga and you’re going to be a fashion designer. I was like, “What? Huh?” So that’s really how that happened. I didn’t really see myself in that world, coming from musical comedy, so it was really intimidating—Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett and—you know, these acting beasts! But it was great, [Murphy] really plays to your strengths and believes that you can do stuff that possibly you don’t think you can.

So that was my first year! I was absolutely terrified and I just got more and more comfortable in the world as the seasons went on. It felt like an old-timey acting troupe just because every year you’re like, “Oh my god, what’s Evan [Peters] going to do this year? What’s Sarah’s hair going to be like this time? What accent is Kathy going to use?” I really had to stretch myself and go to places that I never thought I would have to on screen. It’s a pretty cool fraternity to be in. If I’m in an airport or something and somebody comes up to me and recognizes me from something, I can always tell which project it’s going to be, because the Horror Story fans are a specific, fervent, passionate bunch, and that’s why we love them.

AVC: You’ve done four Horror Story seasons thus far—do you have a favorite that you’ve been a part of?

CJ: Honestly, the most fun—and I think it a great season, but it’s not everybody’s favorite—was Roanoke. I thought it was really outside the box. And also, for me—I’m usually on the show playing a little more restrained, like I have a lot of exposition, and I’m kind of the straight man to someone’s crazy—I got to play an unhinged reality TV show producer. So that was really fun to just kind of go for it and break the fourth wall and all that.

That was probably my most fun, but my favorite to watch was actually Freak Show. For some reason that one really got in my soul, and Jessica [Lange]’s Elsa Mars was just beyond. It’s my all time favorite. That was the first time I really hooked into the show, and it was so dark and creepy and beautiful and gothic. I’m excited about what they’re doing this year.

AVC: We know so little at the moment!

CJ: Yeah, I don’t even—I mean, I know a little bit from my friends that are on it, but, yeah, I can’t believe they keep finding new ways to crack it open.

Watchmen (2019)—“Hooded Justice”

How musical theater prepared Cheyenne Jackson for his role in Watchmen
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AVC: Your role on Watchmen’s show-within-a-show is particularly savvy casting because American Hero Story is this allusion to Ryan Murphy’s anthology series. Was that top of mind going it it?

CJ: So it was really super-duper top secret. Unbeknownst to me, Damon Lindelof was a fan of mine from other stuff—I think theater, some specific play or something—and he wrote this with me in mind. When he called me about it, it was so secret that I think it was called “Brooklyn”? That was the name of the project. So all I knew was that I was going to be doing this show-within-a-show, that I was going to have a fight scene, and that I was a pivotal character. But they only tell you what you need to know. But, yeah, it was a really incredible experience for a lot of reasons—you could tell something special was going on on the set. [Watchmen] was so genius, it was so out-of-this-world, hitting on political unrest, and being faithful to the graphic novel but also busting it wide open.

But my big takeaway from that is—I never had even thrown a punch on camera. On Horror Story, I was always killed, like somebody just guts me, or cuts off my head or fingers or something. But I really had to do a fight scene, and I’d been really, really wanting to do that in my career, but I didn’t know how I would look. I didn’t know how it would look, physically, on me. And, if I’m just being totally real, I wanted to look as powerful and as masculine as possible—you know, I have my own internalized homophobia—so I was like, “I just want to, be believable in this part.” I didn’t realize that fights are so completely planned out to every single [detail], so they sent me a video of what I was going to be doing—beating up these two guys in this little room. When I got to set, my stunt guy was Chris Pratt’s guy, and [the stunt performers] all had worked on the Bourne movies, and they’re just super masculine guys. So they start teaching it to me and, in my head, I was like, “Don’t look soft, be tough!” I started doing some punches and things, and then one of them goes, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, are you a dancer?” And I was like, “Oh shit, they’re on to me!” He goes, “No, I’m saying that because this is called ‘fight choreography,’ and you’re picking up on it really well.” So it was actually a good thing! And it’s funny we have that voice in our head that tells us we’re not good enough for this, or for that, but it’s like, just push that away!

United 93 (2006)—“Mark Bingham”

Cheyenne Jackson on the harrowing production of United 93, his first feature film role
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CJ: It was the first film—it was the first project to be made about what happened [on September 11]. I think there was another movie about the towers being built, and it was being made around the same time, but I can’t remember. But in New York, the sense was that this is a really dicey thing to make a movie about—it was still very fresh, but it was understood that Paul Greengrass was the guy to do it because of the work that he’d done, and his sensitivity and realism.

I remember the audition, you know, they had to find [actors] that were the exact same type of person that we were playing. It was all improv—and I’d never done any improv—and they set up chairs like we were on a plane. Paul just sat back and he said, “And you’re getting on the plane,” and that’s it! Some people started opening their paper, some started opening their windows and saying, “Stewardess, can I get a [drink]?” And I just remember trying to get in the mindset of what that experience would have been like for these people, because [Paul] said, “In about 10 minutes, the plane is going to be hijacked. Show me what you would do.” Some people were very over-the-top and super demonstrative, and then some people—I just remember I started praying and doing something small. It was very holy to me, this idea of having a chance to embody somebody who gave their life.

So I got the part, and here we are with all of these other folks—we were sequestered, and we shot it at Pinewood Studios in London. They kept us, all the passengers, separate from the men who played the hijackers, which was brilliant and terrifying. Some of the takes were 30 minutes long, because we know from transcripts what happened at certain times, so it was the most harrowing, intense filming experience I’ve ever had. We were actually on a plane that was rigged to go all the way up and down and sideways and—you can’t not be affected and moved and have your heart broken a million times over to just put yourself in that situation.

So, really, that movie was was very, very tough, but very, very important. And Mark Bingham meant a lot to many people, especially his mom, Alice Hoagland, and he was a big gay rugby star in San Francisco. Yeah, it was a beautiful experience. But I can’t watch it, it just it’s too hard. And also since then, flying is a little bit trickier for me. I haven’t thought about that in a while, but I thought it was beautifully done and a great tribute.

AVC: Interestingly, you’ve previously talked about September 11 being a moment that inspired you to pursue acting in the first place.

CJ: My life is full of those kind of things, where, seemingly, something happens and causes me to make a big decision, and then there’s a reason why later on down the road. But, yeah, I was living in Seattle with my boyfriend and I was already going through a major thing—we had a death in our family, my brother’s little girl—and we were just reeling from that. And then 9/11 happened and both of those massive instances in my life, and our collective lives—I just had this feeling that time is ticking and I needed to make something happen. I didn’t go to college, and I was about to turn 27, but I had done local theater, and I was kind of like the Seattle theater star, you know, in the local musical theater scene. I always wanted to go to New York and everybody would come to town and say, “Go to New York! You should do it!” But I was too scared—I didn’t go to school, I don’t know how to tap dance. But because of 9/11, and because of because of my brother’s little girl, I just had the idea that I would miss out and regret being an old man thinking, “Why didn’t I try?” So I thought, you know, I’m going to just go for it. So I moved to New York six months after that, and it was just where I was supposed to be. In about three weeks, I was in a Broadway show.

Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002)—Understudy: “Jimmy Smith / Trevor Graydon”  

AVC: So this brings us to Thoroughly Modern Millie, your first Broadway job!

CJ: Yeah, that’s the thing—it was my first audition in New York, and it was just one of those things where I was the guy for the part. I can’t explain it, but it was pretty wild.

AVC: So, how did that time in Seattle theater prepare you for Broadway, and in what ways did you not feel prepared at all?

CJ: Honestly, because I didn’t go to school, I had a chip on my shoulder that I wasn’t trained enough. So, every single production I would be a part of, I would study everybody else, the character actors. If I wasn’t on stage, I wasn’t kiki-ing in the dressing room, I was in the wings watching and learning. Also, I had a ton of confidence. I came to New York, and I just thought, “This is my time.” I walked in—I didn’t even have headshots yet, I just had a composite picture back in the day when we had our 8-by-10s—and I said, “I’m Cheyenne Jackson.” And I remember Michael Mayer, the director, said, “Cheyenne Jackson?,” because he thought my name was fake. I’m like, “Yeah, that’s my real name!” And I just manifested it—I was like, “I’m the guy,” and I believed that I was, and it was my job to convince them that I was the guy. It also helped that they needed someone who looked kind of young and kind of old—that’s always been my jam. At 16 years old, I looked 30, and I’ve just always been that guy. So all the things that I had done in life prepared me. I think, had I gone in for that part when I was 20, it wouldn’t have happened. But I had some experience and I had chutzpah.

AVC: I’m only just realizing how “stage-ready” your name is—there’s a certain Indiana Jones quality to it isn’t there?

CJ: [Laughs]. Yeah, it’s like, “Really?”

All Shook Up (2005)—“Chad”

Why Cheyenne Jackson feels like he was preparing for his Elvis-esque role in All Shook Up his whole life
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AVC: And just a few years later you took the starring role in All Shook Up. That had to feel validating, like the cross-country move and everything was worth it.

CJ: For sure. And, again, another example of something happening—like, my dad was a giant Elvis Presley fan, and I knew the entire Elvis catalogue. My whole life, as a teenager and in my twenties, people said, “You look like Elvis!” So when this thing came up, I thought, “No one can do this but me. So I’m going to go ahead and do it.” I had like maybe seven callbacks because, you know, they didn’t know who I was—this was a $12 million musical, and it was going to be a big gamble. I had to convince them that I could do it. But because of I knew exactly how to sing it, and I knew how to do the comedy, I just grabbed it by the blue suede shoes, I guess!

AVC: Let’s say you’re in a grocery store, and an Elvis song comes on—are you sick of hearing his music at this point, or does it bring back happy memories?

CJ: It makes me smile! I love that that show meant so much to so many people. And I loved meeting Priscilla and Lisa Marie [Presley]. Priscilla said Elvis would be proud, and they gave me a guitar on opening night—it was wild. I’ve had some amazing moments and, as a little queer kid from conservative Idaho living in the woods with an outhouse and no running water, like, sometimes I just can’t believe this is what I get to do for a living! Just yesterday, on set, I was dressed in a crazy French costume and doing this stuff with Mayim Bialik and Swoosie Kurtz, and I can’t believe it’s happening. But it is, and I’m grateful for every second of it.

RuPaul’s Drag Race (2017 - 2019)—Guest appearances

Cheyenne Jackson remembers flexing his improv muscles for Drag Race's LADP challenge
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AVC: As a final note, you’ve appeared on Drag Race a couple of times, but I have to ask about the most recent time, when you helped with the LADP improv challenge on season 11. Were you prepped for those scenarios at all, or did the producers just throw you into it?

CJ: Yeah, they want you to just react. I’m trying to trust myself in improv more because I’m a control person, I like to know my lines and know what I’m going to do. And Fortune [Feimster]’s like, “Whatever!,” you know? So I think they loved that dichotomy.

I love Drag Race, it is my favorite show. It is the best TV show. And I tell people—I mean, people get brought in because they like one of the queens, or they’re a fan of RuPaul—but [it’s about] getting to learn about these young, queer guys and gals across the country and their life story. I just love it so much. They have something really, really special. I’ve become good friends with a lot of the queens over the years, and yeah, new season! I’m excited. Isn’t it cool to watch them on social media, and watch how people react? To watch them use that [platform] it’s really satisfying. It kind of feels like it’s happening to you because you are so personally invested.