Interview: Christopher Jackson Talks Auditioning, Pre-Show Rituals & the New Broadway Musical, ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’
Odds are that while you’re taking a break or sitting down after a long day, Christopher Jackson is still hard at work on one of his many projects.
He’s an Emmy Award-winning composer for Sesame Street and The Electric Company, he’s hard at work on his second album and he’s currently starring in the new Broadway musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me.
Christopher told me that he had a mentor once say that “if you create, you’ll never be out of work.” So, “quite literally, that’s the sort of the thing I try to live by.” And it shows.
Holler If Ya Hear Me, which opens on Broadway on June 19th, is a totally original show based on the words and music of Tupac Shakur. It’s about two guys, John (Saul Williams) and Vertus (Christopher) who “are trying to figure out what the right path of their life is going to be.”
Last seen The Bronx Bombers as Derek Jeter and In The Heights (Benny) before that, he’s an incredibly talented guy who’s got some great advice and stories to tell. In the interview, we talk about how he got the role of Vertus and getting into a show from the ground floor, pre-show rituals, auditioning and more!
For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes.
Follow Christopher on Twitter: @ChrisisSingin
For tickets and more info on Holler If Ya Hear Me, click here.
Tell me about the show because it’s not a biographical show, right?
Christopher Jackson: No, not at all. Not at all. Todd has taken inspiration from just a catalogue of Tupac’s work and crafted a story, a beautiful story, about two guys who are trying to figure out what the right path of their life is going to be, the trajectory of their life is, and we meet them at a crossroads and drama ensues. [laughs]
It spins a pretty short amount of time where John, played by Saul Williams, comes home from being away in jail for avenging the death of his father, a crime against his father, I should say. And Vertus, the character I play, his best friend who has kind of assumed his life after John went away and so now both of them are at a crossroads of what they’re going to do individually with their lives and how their relationship is going to move forward.
Tell me about your audition. For something like this, did they give you a couple of songs to sing? Or do you go in first singing a song and then they ask you to come back with the songs?
Christopher Jackson: I will say that this was the longest audition of my life. I didn’t actually audition for the show. At the time when they contacted me I was doing In the Heights on Broadway. And they had just called me to come in and do a reading, just a couple of days where we’d basically just sit around. I knew the music already because I’m familiar with all of Pac’s and have been a lifelong fan from the first minute I heard him. And so I was already very familiar with all of his music. And so we basically just sat around music stands for a couple of days just to kind of read through the script and sing through the songs and allow Todd and Kenny to see if there was actually a story.
Which is pretty standard for musicals that are in development and as an actor whether you’re in a show or not, you always want to get in on the ground floor of those kinds of things because you never know, you might just come up on a future Broadway show, is what happened here.
And so we did that and then several months later they called me again and I was fortunate enough to be asked to come back and do a slightly longer reading for a couple of weeks where we basically did the same thing. Todd made changes and Kenny was able to kind of dig in a little bit more. We all were. And we just kind of developed it from there.
The next phase was a month long workshop that we did last year around this time where we started putting things up. Where we staged in a rehearsal studio the whole show. And it was sort of at that point that I kind of felt like everybody really knew that we had something really special and they began to do the work that brought us to where we are now.
So at what point in that process did they say, “Hey, you got the part.”
Christopher Jackson: At a certain point in the process it was… it just sort of felt… I think we all kind of felt at the same time that it was working. What I was bringing to the character worked and I was obviously very enthusiastic about doing it. But I don’t really… I don’t ever really recall anyone saying “thanks for it and we’ll let you know if we want you to do it.” It just sort of… it feels like as the show grew and the character grew, I was just a part of it.
Kenny definitely reminded all of us that it was a work in progress and that our work was not gonna go unrewarded. But we’re contributing to it and at a certain point then you’ll know whether or not you’re a part of it. But all through that time there was never sort of this sense that I wasn’t gonna do it. But that was just because it was a real collaborative effort and they were gracious enough to let me kind of make my mark and to influence the role as we were going along.
So when you say influence the role, is a lot of the stuff, the input that you gave throughout this whole process, in the show?
Christopher Jackson: I think it would be more accurate to say that as an actor, once the words become life and once you start putting things on your feet and start moving and breathing inside of this character it gives you a perspective that the director and the writer both need and value and also it becomes more of a collaborative effort and more of a dance. What I do informs them and they inform me what we can do together to craft it.
Todd created these characters and I’m just a mouthpiece for it. I’m certainly not the writer of this character by any stretch. But they just allowed me to inform it as well as live in it for a while.
I’m an actor too and I would think starting out on the ground floor and to where it is now, you doing this part for so long and how it sort of morphed into what it is now, it’s gotta be so ingrained in you that it’s gotta be…not easy, but it’s gotta flow out from you now so perfectly. Does that make any sense?
Christopher Jackson: Yeah, it does. And to a large extent, absolutely. The one thing that I really enjoy about playing this part though is that I’m learning… I still am learning so much about who he is. And there are times where I feel like I know exactly what Vertus is going through and there’s times where I’m at a complete loss.
Because the thing about theatre is that every day is completely different whereas in film it’s crystallized and done and for the most part you’re not going back to that moment again. But with theatre you have to find a way back into it every single day, every single show. And that’s the challenge of it. But I see a lot of myself in Vertus and I think that Kenny and Todd obviously do as well otherwise I wouldn’t be a part of it. But it’s been… it’s still an exhilarating process because, again, you say something slightly different and it can completely change the meaning for so many different things and affect so many sort of things down the road in the course of telling the story.
What is more difficult? Rehearsing the show or once you finally put it up, doing 8 shows a week?
Christopher Jackson: Well, having had many weeks full of 8 shows a week, I mean, there’s really nothing like it. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint.
But I think that this part for me is more emotionally exhausting than it is physically exhausting. I experienced the death of my brother in the show, I experienced the disappointment and guilt and regret that comes along with losing someone close to you. And so I found that aspect more exhausting than anything else. Tech rehearsal is, you know, its stand for 20 minutes while our amazing lighting designers light a spot. You know? It’s sort of that kind of thing. So in that respect, tech resembles a film set a lot. You know, while they set up a short or move cameras or whatever. Just the long hours, the abandoning of your life for several weeks while you’re inside a dark theatre is… that gets to be mentally taxing more than anything else.
But I enjoy all of it. I do enjoy the process because even standing there, there’s so much time to reflect on what you’re doing and what you’re trying to do and how you’re doing it.
Do you have any pre-show things you like to do? Or even sort of ritualistic things you have to do before you go out on stage?
Christopher Jackson: It varies from show to show. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to that because when you move into your dressing room, it’s a completely different space and so you kind of have to figure out where your comfort spots are and where you’re going to warm up where you won’t annoy every single person in the theatre. And where you’re going to stretch and getting the hot water turned on in your shower. Just doing all of those little things.
I don’t know what my pre-show ritual will be. I know that I try to… I do try to quiet myself as much as I can before I go out because the thing with theatre is that life doesn’t stop happening just because you have a show. So you come in the door and you have to put down… I’ve been blessed with 2 beautiful children and a wife and a wonderful family, but I have to put all of that down the moment that I get ready to go on stage. And so I just kind of go through a process of just making sure that my body is ready and then quieting my mind so that I can focus exactly on what I need to do.
Because anything can go wrong. Anything can happen. Someone can forget a line, someone in the audience can cough at a time where you’re not expecting them and it might distract you in a certain kind of way. And from moment to moment you just never know what can happen. So you have to be ready.
You seem to have a lot of jobs. I don’t want to call them jobs, but you seem to do a lot of other things as well. And they’re all very cool. Like The Electric Company and you’re a composer for Sesame Street and you’re also working on your second album, I think.
Christopher Jackson: Yeah.
What does your daily calendar look like? It’s gotta be blocked out like perfectly.
Christopher Jackson: [laughs] It varies from day to do. I had a mentor once that told me, “if you create, you’ll never be out of work.” And quite literally, that’s the sort of the thing I try to live by. I’ve been really fortunate.
When I came to New York for school, I didn’t know that I was going to be a songwriter, I didn’t know that I was gonna do a tenth of the things that I’ve been fortunate enough to do. I need and try to have balance in my life, but as long as I’m creating I just feel like I’m not spinning my wheels. And there’s always the aspect of needing to make a buck. It’s a hard city to live in if you’re not working. But I have a studio in my house, so on the days that I don’t have an audition or I’m not going to work or in the mornings…for instance, I had to get some mixes out to a friend of mine who’s producing a DVD and I’m scoring the music for it. And so I was busy doing that before I ran out the train and then go to the theatre. So I like being busy, I need to be busy. It occupies my brain, it keeps me… it keeps me focused.
Growing up, did you kind of know your sort of path that you wanted to take?
Christopher Jackson: Well, the path that I had initially wanted to take would’ve led me to St. Louis to play for the Cardinals.
I’d be playing for the Redskins right now.
Christopher Jackson: [laughs] There you go. I always loved… my mom teaches music and it was just, growing up in the church, it was just something that was very active and it was always an outlet for me. I had a bit of a difficult time in my childhood and that was always just a really safe outlet that gave me an opportunity to… it just made me feel better. I didn’t know that I could make a living doing it. I didn’t know that it was even a possibility for me. And then I got accepted to acting school and I haven’t looked back. I’m very fortunate.
Do you have any audition nightmares?
Christopher Jackson: Yeah. I mean, take your pick. Every audition was a nightmare for me.
I don’t audition particularly well. I haven’t, I should say, and historically it’s always been very difficult for me. It’s easy for me to get overwhelmed just preparing for an audition. So I’d say that the last 18 years have been me really trying to refine my process going into an audition and the way that I prepare.
I get distracted because as we were talking about, I have so many different things going on and sometimes it’s hard for me to be able to stop everything I’m doing and prepare for whatever it is I’m going in for. And I have had a problem, because of that I’ve had a problem with my nerves. So historically I have not auditioned very well.
But things have gotten better. I’ve gotten much better at it now that I’ve figured some things out.
I’m not exaggerating, I feared auditions for quite a while. I would let my brain run away with “what if I get this and what if I don’t get this.” Or “what if I go in and make a fool out of myself?” and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I have that same thing sometimes too. It’s just maddening, yeah.
Christopher Jackson: Yeah. And it, quite frankly, took me a long time to get out of my own way when it comes to auditions. It’s not so much about the fear of rejection so much as it’s just the fear of not presenting myself the right way and I’d like to say that I’ve overcome it but, man, it took a while. It took a long while.
What’s your advice to actors?
Christopher Jackson: Just don’t ever let anyone outwork you. There’s so many things that we really can’t control. We can’t control what a director is… what is his vision for a particular character is. And if you get a call and you get the audition, don’t be the one that doesn’t know what you’re doing. You know what I mean? Do the best that you can do because it isn’t about anything else, anyone else the moment you walk in that room.
I think that’s the one thing that took me the longest time to figure out is that as long as you do your work… getting a paycheck, getting a gig, folks recognizing… all of that stuff doesn’t really factor in unless you represent yourself the right way.
You’ve gotta be the one that has worked harder than everyone else. If you don’t have to be off book, go ahead and be off book because, why not? You know what I mean?