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January 14, 2021
Online Originals

Saying Yes to Everything

Multi-talented Cheyenne Jackson moves between genres and media with the greatest of ease.

Tom Knapp

He's been associated with some pretty grim roles, but Cheyenne Jackson says his heart is full of laughter and music.

Jackson, best known in recent years for parts such as Hooded Justice in The Watchmen and a variety of personas in American Horror Story, is now appearing as Max, a singing bartender and secret crush, in Call Me Kat, a light-hearted romp that premiered Jan. 3 on Fox. The show stars Mayim Bialik, who recently ended a long stint as brainy Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, as the titular Kat, who at age 39 gave up everything to open a cat cafe in Louisville, Kentucky.

Jackson says he needed a little time to adjust his mindset to a sitcom.

"It took a second," he says. "I've been pretty serious for the past five years - and not by design. I never saw myself on American Horror Story, to be honest and I've been craving to do some comedy again. Something lighthearted. This opportunity came, the script was wonderful, so I went for it. It's nice to be in something my kids can watch, something that my mom can watch."

Besides, he adds, "It's fun to laugh, and it's fun to make people laugh. But I still want to do the dark stuff as well, exercise that part of myself as well."

The new series is adapted from the British comedy Miranda, which ran four seasons on the BBC starring Miranda Hart in the title role and Tom Ellis as Gary, aka Miranda's Max.

"I didn't know about the show before I was cast," Jackson says. "Now I love it. I love so many of the BBC comedies, but this was so fresh. ... Miranda is such a force of nature, and I love the way she uses physical comedy. I thought it was wonderful."

He says Bialik is perfect for the role in the U.S. adaptation.

"You need someone who is energetic, someone to root for," he says. "Mayim is a unicorn. She has all the colors in her crayon box."

It remains to be seen if audiences will accept her as anyone other than Amy Fowler, Jackson admits. "Mayim has a really wide audience, and people really, really love her," he says. "We love her on set, and I see how the fans react to her. She's so generous with people.

"I think people will embrace her in this part, more so than Big Bang, because this is closer to who she is. She gets to show all her sides - the slapstick side, the musical side, the sexy side. I absolutely think people will get on board."

He sees some of himself in Max, too.

"Max is not jaded. He sees people for who they really are, and he looks on the bright side of things. I tend to be like that in my life, even though for the last five years I have been cast in very cynical roles. It's been my lane - playing the bad guy, people who are naturally cynical or jaded.

"So it's fun to play somebody who walks into a situation and sees the positiveness. When he looks at somebody, he sees what's inside of them. He doesn't see surface beauty. I like to think I'm the same."

Besides Bialik and Jackson, the show features Swoosie Kurtz, Leslie Jordan, Kyla Pratt and Julian Gant among its cast.

Jackson keeps mum about upcoming plot developments, although he did say fans of the BBC comedy will see parallels in the series.

"It's taking its template from Miranda. The writers have done a great job mapping it out," Jackson says. "The trajectory of the characters is very similar, although we're obviously going to bend and twist to what our own special offerings are. For instance, we have a musical component, because I work in a piano bar. That was a fun surprise."

Miranda Hart is also one of the new show's producers, he notes. "I think it was wise to stick with what works."

In the series, Bialik often breaks the fourth wall to chat with the audience. That took some getting used to, Jackson says.

"It was, to be honest. You have to think, 'This is her inner monologue,'" he explains. "They're still figuring out how often to use that. Sometimes it works better than others. But Mayim is so committed to that."

Sometimes it happens several times in a scene, and "that can be tricky," Jackson says, because he has to look natural while remaining unaware of what she's doing.

"You're not frozen, but you're not aware that she's looking past you," he says. Also, he adds, "this is my first multi-cam series, and it's taken me a hot second to get used to having five cameras on us."

Jackson, 45, was most recently seen starring in HBO Max's four-part LGBTQ+ docuseries Equal, a Saved by the Bell reboot and Kenny Ortega's Netflix series Julie & the Phantoms. Previously he was in popular series including 30 Rock, Glee, American Woman and Full Circle.

He also is a Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter who cut his teeth on New York's theater scene. A veteran of musical theater, he has put out multiple albums and often gives concerts around the country.

His last stage performance was A Secret Garden at the Lincoln Center, about four years ago, he says. "I'm itching to do something in New York," he admits.

A multi-cam sitcom is very different from stage work - and from single-camera series he's done in the past.

"There is nothing like live theater - in the sense that this is a special one-night-only event in the theater that can never be replicated. The audience is new every single time.  I can't compare anything to that, it's the ultimate for me," Jackson says.

"What I like about television is the pace. I love to memorize lines, make a deadline for myself, make an acting choice. It's a scary, tightrope-y way to work," he continues. "I definitely had a learning curve. It was harder than I imagined - there are a lot of technical aspects."

With single-camera work, "you might shoot one scene for eight hours." Conversely, his new series "is a fun, really fast-paced way to work, and I'm really liking it. We're always trying to make it fresh, to find a new approach."

Fortunately, he says, "Mayim has so much energy from the moment she gets there to the moment we leave, and she has much more to do than me, so if I'm going to be in a scene with her, I need to know my shit and be ready to volley back."

He adds: "I'm blessed to be a part of this show. Mayim is just such a bright light, and she's become a dear friend."

Much of Call Me Kat is set in Kat's cat cafe, and Jackson says he's comfortable with his feline co-stars.

"I grew up with dogs and cats, although I haven't had cats for years - I have two dogs," he says.

"I wondered how that would be. You can't train cats - they're autonomous," he says. "Sometimes they ruin takes by meowing or getting off mark." Fortunately, he says, they have "cat wranglers" on set to keep them in line.

Other scenes are set in the piano bar where Max works, and Jackson says karaoke night there may become a regular feature of the show. "This cast is very musical," he explains.

Otherwise, he won't say much about what's coming in future episodes -- like, for instance, will Brigitte (Schuyler Helford), Kat's fantasy version of Max's Parisian ex-girlfriend, ever make an actual appearance where others can see her - but says viewers are going to see relationships between characters "deepen and grow."

Each main character is, in their own way, lonely, he says. "They've all come together in a motley crew, makeshift family. All of them are looking for that connection."

The show, he adds, "is completely uncynical. It's unabashedly joyful. Working on a show like this, especially in these times, is exactly what I need for my soul."

That helps, particularly during the ongoing pandemic, which has changed so many aspects of his life. Even on set, Jackson says, they wear masks right up to the moment the cameras begin to roll, then rip them off to do their scenes.

At home, where he and his husband, Jason Landau, are raising 4-year-old twins, Jackson says he's "taking it day by day."

"We're homeschooling our kids. Grandma lives with us, so she's helping," he says. "I have a daughter and a son. My husband and I are just trying to get through this pandemic with our sanity, with our family stronger than ever."

Jackson says he's a "natural isolator," and notes that, after some personal problems, he's been sober for eight years.

"I'm in the program, and I know this to be true: I isolate," he says. "I can be a hermit if I don't have something going on. When this all started, I thought great, this is a perfect fit for me, I don't have to leave my house.

"But we need each other. I've learned to reach out and reconnect with my friends. I need to reach out, I need to generate that just to feel a connection. That's been a big, big step for me."

Surprisingly, acting only became a career for Jackson in his late 20s.

"Prior to that I was in Seattle, and I worked a bunch of different jobs," he says - from a bank to a health club to selling magazine ads. He did some theater, but he didn't take the plunge to go professional until he was 27.

"I wanted to go to New York and work on Broadway, but I thought I missed my window," he says. It took a couple of tragedies - the 9/11 terror attacks and, closer to home, a niece's death - to change his perspective.

"Both of those life experiences woke me up, and shook me up. The reminded me that life is finite," he says. "Maybe I didn't have the experience, maybe I didn't have the degree, but I had the talent and the drive." So he moved to New York and auditioned for a stage production of Thoroughly Modern Millie - and got it.

"I was on Broadway three weeks after moving to New York City. It was where I was supposed to be," he says. "I think if I had gone earlier, it wouldn't have happened, and I don't think I've had an audition that good ever since."

He never looked back.

"I want to be an artist and tell stories, make people think, make people laugh," Jackson says. "I look at so many friends who want to know what to do with their lives. I feel terrible for them. This is the only thing I've ever known to be sure."

Besides his work on the stage and small screen, Jackson has appeared in films including United 93, Behind the Candelabra, The Green and Love is Strange, and he's in the upcoming video-game adaptation, Werewolves Within.

"Right now, I'm focusing on the present," he says. "That's hard for me. I'm a dreamer, I like to see what's next and plan."

That includes looking ahead to future jobs. If he could land his dream job, he says, "I'd love to play a superhero."

He got a taste of it in The Watchmen where, as Hooded Justice, "I got to throw my very first punch on camera."

"I'm in my mid-40s so it would have to be a different take on it," Jackson adds with a chuckle. "A middle-aged superhero."

To date, Jackson's roles have been varied - and he likes it that way.

"I get bored otherwise," he says. "I think it started when I was doing theater and Broadway - I moved from show to show, always trying to do a lot of different things."

Whenever possible, he will "say yes to everything," he says.

"I want to try mixing it up as much as possible. It's fun."

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