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One Last Time. The Room Where It Happened. Right Hand Man. Words that immediately make millions of people in the know smile and nod their heads, because the words belong to the brilliant Broadway sensation “Hamilton.” For Christopher Jackson, they are words he sang for years as he originated the role of George Washington in the musical, earning a Tony Award nomination and legions of fans around the world. Jackson began performing at a young age, cultivating his craft at the The American Musical and Dramatic Academy. His first big break came with the long-running hit musical “The Lion King,” and he hasn’t slowed down since. Meanwhile, as if conquering Broadway wasn’t enough, Jackson has also been a long-time composer for Sesame Street, and can currently be seen on CBS’s hit TV show “Bull.” The Overhead Compartment was not going to throw away its shot at an interview with this talented, versatile artist whose resume includes singing for President Obama and singing with Elmo. Does it get any better than that?
THE OVERHEAD COMPARTMENT with Christopher Jackson starts now….
Note: With Hamilton premiering on Disney+, we’re revisiting this interview which was originally published in 2017.
OC: You played George Washington in the award winning, Broadway phenomenon “Hamilton,” how do people react when they recognize you from the show?
CJ: Hamilton seemed to have such a wide appeal and the recognition seemed to come wave after wave after wave. It’s quite a thing to have very well known celebrities, public figures, theater fans embrace it and us. I’d say “Enthusiastic” would be the best description.
OC: How did you prepare to play the first President of the United States?
CJ: I prepared for Washington by reading just about every book I could get my hands on. Of course it didn’t hurt that Mr. Chernow wrote what many consider to be the definitive biography of Washington, (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize). He was an invaluable asset when I had questions about a particular situation, to offer insight and context. I also traveled to Mt. Vernon and with the help of the staff and curators there, I was able to get the behind-the-scenes experience of being in his home. Because Washington was the most well known American of his age, there was more than enough written by and about him. Most of his writings have survived and it gave me plenty of info to work with.
OC: What was it like playing George Washington at the White House with President Obama in attendance?
CJ: First of all, the White House is a magical place! We were there for an entire day and not only did we spend time with the First Family, we had the opportunity to host high schoolers from the DC area that had participated in the Curriculum being built around the Show. I led a performance workshop in the Grand Foyer with about 15 students and they were AMAZING! That was before the performance we gave in the East Room. I performed “One Last Time” standing directly in front of The President and it was a moment I’ll NEVER forget.
OC: What do you hope the legacy of “Hamilton” is, to Broadway and beyond?
CJ: My hope is that it inspires the folks that listen to the soundtrack or come to see it. My hope is that it encourages writers to write! To think outside of the expectations we sometimes limit ourselves to. And I think Most Importantly, I hope it pushes Producers to take more chances with the kinds of stories they choose to produce. I think Hamilton proves that audiences are ready for different kinds of storytelling by actors that don’t necessarily reflect what has been the norm for hit Broadway shows.
OC: You made your Broadway debut in The Lion King as Simba, what was that like the first time you stepped on stage?
CJ: I was initially hired to be the understudy for the role of Simba. So while I was in the performing ensemble from the beginning, I had the chance to be on stage for months before I went on in the role. Once that day finally came, I was so full of adrenaline that I don’t remember much. It was an utterly nerve-wracking experience. But once I had a taste of it, I never wanted to do anything else. It was an emotionally draining and extremely physical part. It took quite a lot of work to perform it 8 shows a week. But it prepared me for the rest of my career on stage. Doing Simba taught me how to work. To embrace the kind of discipline it takes to be a Leading Man on Broadway.
OC: Having recently left Hamilton and now on CBS’s hit tv show “Bull,” what’s it like going from the stage to the small screen?
CJ: I am having a ball working on BULL! Michael Weatherly has a gift. And our ensemble are some of the smartest and most talented actors I’ve ever worked with. TV provides a different kind of rush. It often presents more intellectual challenges because we’re telling a different story from week to week. But there are many perks and having weekends off ain’t bad either!
OC: Your character, Chuck Palmer, on Bull is a football player who is gay and left the world of sports for fashion. Which do you know more about, football or fashion?
CJ: Definitely Football. Theater schedules often run in opposition to being able to keep up with the NFL Season, but like I said, I get Sundays to catch a game or two!
OC: If you were not an actor, what would you be doing?
CJ: I get that question a lot. And Most likely, I’d be in the music biz full time. I am an artist at my core. I’ve been blessed to have always known that. My family encouraged me to pursue that path and I’m so grateful for that. My grandparents owned a successful funeral business back in Illinois but I knew that wasn’t for me! I still wish I’d stuck with my piano lessons though.
OC: You were a composer and songwriter for Sesame Street for many years. We need one great story about working with a Muppet.
CJ: I’ve actually never stopped writing for Sesame. It continues to be one of the jobs I’m most proud of! The coolest Muppet related story is probably the video I shot with Elmo for the Ham4Ham performance we did last year. I’ve written several songs for Elmo, but we’d never shot anything together. That moment was pretty darn special!
OC: You have two children, CJ and Jadelyn, what do they think when they see their father on TV or on the stage?
CJ: While I’d like for them to see me on TV and think I’m the “Coolest Dad in the World”, they both usually look at something I’ve done, then continue with whatever they were doing. And to tell the truth, I’m just fine with that. I hear horror stories about how the children of performers become intimidated by their parent’s life in the spotlight. I’d just as soon them NOT have that experience.
OC: What was the most interesting city your work has ever taken you to?
CJ: Melbourne, Australia. I’m a part of the improv comedy group, Freestyle Love Supreme and about 10 years ago, we went over there to perform in the Melbourne Comedy Festival! I was there with Lin and Tommy Kail and the rest of the Crew and we had a BLAST!
OC: What do you do during your downtime?
CJ: I’m still fresh off my run in Hamilton, which seemed to consume my life for the past 2 1/2 years. So these days, I’m just trying to catch up to all the family stuff I missed out on. Getting back in touch with family and friends and reading and writing as much as I can when I’m not on set.
OC: What is the first thing you do when arriving in a hotel room?
CJ: I set my bags down, lay on the bed in the quiet for a few minutes, then find out where the pool is! I swear, I’m still 10 sometimes! Oh, and the place HAS to have decent WI-fi. Without that, it’s a no-go.
OC: Complete the following sentence: I never leave home without:
CJ: I never leave home without my phone and my BAG. In it… the Essentials. Spare underwear, cologne, iPad and wallet. A man Has to be prepared for ALL Eventualities.
Christopher Jackson, please use care upon departure as items may have shifted in The Overhead Compartment during our journey. Thanks for choosing us for your travel tips! Have a wonderful day!
Photo credit: Jenny Anderson.