Cheyenne Jackson: Cover Story

Gentle Strength
Cheyenne Jackson Soars On Stage, On Screen, And On Radio, But His Most Ambitious Work Is Through Philanthropy
by Dann Dulin


Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Adam Bouska

That’s pretty fuckin’ cool!” says Cheyenne Jackson enthusiastically over lunch at a West Hollywood eatery. He’s speaking of Dr. Mathilde Krim, co-founder of amfAR, who made her mark on the world after she was sixty-five.

Krim is an inspiration for this actor-singer, who has served as the International Ambassador of amfAR for the past seven years. “It’s pretty amazing because we’re in this society of youth, youth, youth. Mathilde really got cookin’ when she was considered a senior citizen. I mean, she had been married and had already raised her children. Her husband ran a studio [Chairman of Orion Pictures] and they had notable friends like Marilyn Monroe. She had this whole life and yet, she wanted to make a change in the world,” Cheyenne, who’s comfortably dressed in a light grey T-shirt, an ocean-blue hoodie, dark jeans, and an “Ellen” baseball cap, notes. He sports a days-old beard and a moustache for an upcoming film role. “I often reference Mathilde. I talk about her with my parents, who are now retired. They’re only in their sixties, which isn’t the end—it’s the beginning.”

Cheyenne was raised in a born-again Christian family in Newport, a town that sits on the stateline of Washington and Idaho, along with two older brothers and a younger sister. He first heard about AIDS at the age of ten. The media was then glutted with the story of Ryan White, a teenager who became infected with HIV through a transfusion. Ryan put a national face to AIDS, broadening the spotlight on the epidemic and reflecting it away from gay men. Cheyenne learned more about Ryan White in high school health class when he was taught about HIV prevention.

In high school, Cheyenne was often teased because he was taller than any other student (he’s 6’4”). “I was always gentle and people would call me the ‘Gentle Giant,’ which I always hated,” he recounts. “To me it meant weak, gay, sissy, whatever. So I’ve always had the love-hate relationship with the word ‘gentle.’” Over the past year, Cheyenne relates, he’s had some major changes in his life and he’s learned to embrace the word. “My strength comes from who I am; it comes from my gentleness.” He points to his forearm that proudly displays his newest tatt, ‘Only the gentle are ever really strong,’ a quote by James Dean.

Cheyenne attended a Christian school through the eighth grade and later Bible College, traveling on three missionary trips. His brother is now a pastor, and wholeheartedly supported Cheyenne when he came out to his parents. “Once I came out, it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies but we definitely have learned, and through time, my family and I have become very close,” he says. “I can tell you all the books of the Bible—in order!” laughs Cheyenne then counters, “Seriously.” There’s a reverent silence. He means it.

In 2001, Cheyenne moved to The Big Apple, spurred on by 9/11 and a (unrelated) death in his family. “I realized the fleeting precious nature of life and decided to take fate into my own hands and get my ass to New York City!” His first audition landed him a Broadway show. Yes, his first. He was understudy to both male leads in Thoroughly Modern Millie. “I had no idea how to tap dance, but I took tap [lessons] day and night at the Broadway Dance Center, alongside six-year-old girls. My giant football player feet were bloody, but you better believe I learned how,” he says with modest intensity. Cheyenne won the lead in his next show, All Shook Up, garnering him the Theatre World Award for “Outstanding Broadway Debut.” The song-and-dance man then scored other Broadway credits in Xanadu and Finian’s Rainbow. Following his film debut in a 2005 indie short, he was cast in the Academy-award nominated film, United 93, portraying the 9/11 hero Mark Bingham, who perished on that doomed flight. On the small screen, he’s appeared in Ugly Betty, Glee, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Law & Order.

An accomplished singer-songwriter, he’s vocalized and dazzled the audience before the footlights of Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Cheyenne’s unique, alluring pop voice has a pleasant Country-Western melodic lilt and listening to his powerful pipes can bring quivers down the back of the neck—the same affect one usually associates with the greats like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, or even k.d. lang.

On Cheyenne’s first solo album, I’m Blue, Skies, one of the tracks is a catchy moving tune, “Don’t Wanna Know,” about the loss of love. The music video contains highly charged choreographed dance numbers reminiscent of a classic Hollywood musical. Ironically, Cheyenne and his husband, Monte Lapka, of thirteen years, who were legally married in 2011, separated late last summer. (Cheyenne and I converse a day before he made the public announcement, and currently, Cheyenne has a new beau.) Seated in a corner booth of the restaurant, Cheyenne looks dapper and seemingly relaxed, though he reveals later that he had a “good cry in his car” before we met. His plate is laden with mixed veggies, salad, and roasted potatoes. Coffee with four mini-creamers sit nearby.

Last year, Cheyenne was cast in a film that again brought AIDS to the forefront of the public consciousness, the (eleven) Emmy-winning HBO hit, Behind The Candelabra, which dramatizes the last years of the late showman, Liberace. “Halfway through filming BTC, I thought, this could go either way—a great, cool, edgy biopic or it could go Mommy Dearest—because these characters are so much bigger than life,” offers Cheyenne. “But with Steven Soderbergh helming the film and [with actors] Michael Douglas and Matt Damon—Matt and I worked together on 30 Rock—I knew it was going to be pretty great.”

A member of the restaurant staff interrupts us and delivers Cheyenne’s chicken, which wasn’t ready when he ordered his food at the cashier, in this upscale fast-food place. Cheyenne nods graciously, and continues.

“This Liberace movie opened up the whole conversation about AIDS. So many people just remember his flamboyance and his over-the-top wardrobe, but what a prolific musician! He was amazing.” Scott Bakula [A&U, June 2013] was a fellow cast member. “I told Scott, ‘You’re one of the reasons I knew I was gay, by watching you on Quantum Leap when I was in high school.’ He replied [Cheyenne uses a masculine voice with a sing-song jovial inflection], ‘Thank you for that!’ He is so hot and so lovely and has a beautiful singing voice. We sang duets when we were getting our makeup done.” Cheyenne’s latest film, Love Is Strange, is premiering at Sundance this month, co-staring Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, and John Lithgow. Another film, which was shot in Budapest, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, co-starring Gena Rowlands and Rita Moreno [A&U, October 2013], will be released later this year. In all, Mr. Jackson completed work on six films in 2013.

Despite the challenges of a show business life, Cheyenne is immersed in many ongoing projects, including his significant work for amfAR. (After considering other organizations, he gravitated toward amfAR because it is research-oriented.) Cheyenne, who was named after the popular fifties Western television series, began working with the organization after he suffered a mind-boggling blow. In the mid-nineties he was living in Seattle and palling around with his best buddy. “We were like two peas in a pod. They would call us ‘Salt & Pepper’ because I had dark hair and he had blonde hair. We tore up the town! And, you know, really made poor decisions,” admits Cheyenne, taking a bite of cauliflower. “It’s a miracle that I’m HIV-negative considering all of the things I put into my body and all the situations I put myself in and all the bad decisions I’ve made over the years.” But, after Cheyenne moved to New York, he received a fretful letter.

“He said he had gotten into crystal meth,” bemoans Cheyenne, softly biting his sensuous Mick Jagger-lips with a shake of his head. “And as we know, almost immediately—I think it took four months—BOOM!, everything fell apart and he became HIV-positive. My reaction surprised me,” Cheyenne concedes. “Of course I felt empathy, but I…was…pissed! I thought that we had made it through. Of all the horrible things we had done to ourselves—we made it out!” He ponders a moment, still overcome with emotion. “We knew the deal. This wasn’t 1987. This was 2006! We knew how to protect ourselves. I was so confused. I was so hurt. I was surprised how angry I was. I now know that this was a natural reaction,” he shrugs. “He’s well now, and he maintains himself. But I realized that so easily”—he snaps his fingers—there! it could have been me. It’s just a matter of rolling the dice.” (In the summer of 2012, Cheyenne began his own recovery after twenty years of alcohol abuse, and, paradoxically, at the time of this writing, Cheyenne was tapped to star in Ryan Murphy’s series pilot for HBO called, Open, playing an individual addicted to meth.)

When I inquire about his work as amfAR International Ambassador, Cheyenne playfully deadpans, “I’m their bitch.” He asked them to use him in any way they wished. They decided to attach his name to a host benefit committee to sell more tickets. Still, he wanted to be more proactive. He spoke to Kevin Frost, the CEO, and Kenneth Cole, the Chairman of the Board, and said, “I don’t want to come to events and just sit at a table. I want to contribute in a better way.” They suggested he approach the board and explain why they should consider him for a spokesperson. “Once you are a spokesperson,” Cheyenne explains, “you need to speak with some authority and passion and not be too crazy-pants, which we’ve seen with some other organizations…,” he rolls off several short chuckles, “where you go, ‘That’s your spokesperson?!’”

Cheyenne became amfAR’s traveling spokesperson. His duties range from procuring items for auction events to singing. “AmfAR is really all about fundraising all around the world,” he points out. “Sometimes I’ll do the cash call, which I’m not good at: ‘We’re just forty thousand dollars away. Who can make it $5,000? Raise your hand for $5,000.’ I grew up so poor, so this amount of money that people have…,” he doesn’t finish his thought then quips, “I mean, that’s more than my mom and dad made in a year! But you have to look at it in relative terms.”

He cites Sharon Stone as the best auctioneer ever. “Holy crap, she can raise so much money! She is so powerful. She will sit on someone’s lap and say, ‘George Clooney will make out with you for $250,000. Won’t you George?’ And what’ya gonna say?!,” he banters, clarifying, “That was just an example but it’s definitely things like that. She’ll take off her earrings and just auction them off. We were sitting at a fundraiser once and she said [to the well-heeled audience], ‘You think you can’t afford a hundred bucks tonight? Look down at your shoes then look at me.’ Then she emphasizes more forcefully, ‘We’re going to start the bidding at $20,000.’ She has no shame and she shouldn’t, because it’s too important.”

Cheyenne has high praise for Elizabeth Taylor [A&U, February 2003] as well, who helped to spearhead amfAR, and hopes that the group will find another such dynamic, charismatic activist. “Elizabeth Taylor was generous with her time and money, and many might not know how many times she was up on Capitol Hill with her violet eyes, proclaiming, ‘I will not stop. I will come back and you will hear me.’ She’s the one who got them to pass the Ryan White Act,” he notes. “I can do as much as I can, but we need a massive international movie star; somebody that the younger generation can look up to. They must understand that AIDS is not an eighties disease or cop the ‘Oh, I can just take a pill’ attitude…and I’m so glad they stopped calling it the cocktail. That has a negative connotation,” remarks the yoga and meditation enthusiast.

The noise level in the restaurant is rising and we agree to move to a sidewalk table on the patio.

Once situated, Cheyenne proceeds. “So many young people I talk to don’t know the facts,” he asserts boldly, taking a sip of coffee. He holds the cup close to his face, propped up by his elbows on the table. “They don’t realize that increasingly the statistics are going in the wrong direction and that younger and younger guys…,” his voice fades then he deduces, “… they think they’re unstoppable. I guess we all did when we were younger. It’s the ignorance of youth.” He takes a pause. “There’s so much rampant bareback sex with men-who-have-sex-with-men, especially in New York. And whether you know it or not, we have all been affected by AIDS. Many people think they don’t know anyone positive, but most likely, they do.”

Last summer, Cheyenne spoke at L.A.’s Outfest screening of the compelling documentary, The Battle of amfAR, by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. A junior high school teacher who attended the screening stood up and spoke about how sex education was being taken off the curriculum in many schools. Cheyenne was enraged. “In this day and age?! In so many places we’re going forward but with so many basic things we’re going backwards. It’s amazing…and terrifying at the same time,” he broods, his shining grin darkening to a scowl.

Momentarily, Cheyenne peers pensively, perplexed, out on Santa Monica Boulevard. He turns his gaze swiftly back at me and gripes with urgency, “It’s all about education, education, education. It’s important to know your status, even if you’re in a long-term relationship. You just never know. You can’t stick your head in the sand and pretend like you don’t know what’s going on. You have to be realistic,” he pleads, each word as precise as a lab scientist’s hand calculating the right measurements.

“People need to know the facts, and the only way to do that is to teach them early. That’s why Elizabeth Taylor was so effective. She was glamorous and she represented that perfect illusion of beauty. In the documentary she says, ‘I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my fame, mostly hate. But I finally realized what it’s for.’ That’s a pretty self-aware way to look at it,” he says, with a guru’s serene tone. Cheyenne uses his celebrity to illuminate other charities like the Elton John AIDS Foundation and Broadway Cares, and in addition, he’s passionately involved in human rights issues, serving as the national ambassador for The Hetrick-Martin Institute, an organization that empowers LGBT youth. He’s also an ardent advocate for animal rescue.

“I do every single thing that I can,” he says spiritedly, opening his arms outward as his chest expands, complimenting his parents for instilling their values in him. “If somebody asks me to show up in some basement somewhere and sing a song and if I’m well and if I have time, I do it. Why? Because I can. Several years ago I heard Bob Geldof [an Irish singer/songwriter, author, and political activist] speak. He said, ‘If you have the means—monetarily or physically—and you don’t do something about it, it’s morally reprehensible.’

“When I watch those reality shows and see these girls who have so much disposable income and they’re just so upset about their shoes or whatever—and I get it!—I just want to take these girls and boys and konk their heads together or just pick them up and plop them somewhere to show them what real problems are.”

Cheyenne rejects ignorance and blatant narcissism. “We cannot loosen our grip!” he robustly enforces, moving in closer, sitting ramrod straight. “So many people move on to the next thing. AIDS is a pandemic that is killing millions and millions of people. If you look at the statistics in Africa it’s staggering. We just need to remember that AIDS is still out there more so than ever. The only way to stop it is to find a cure. That takes money,” declares the guy with the pin-up looks. Cheyenne takes a breath, squints his fierce intense sky-dancing baby blues and with a subtle smile that softens his eyes, wraps up. “Working with amfAR has given me hope. I truly believe that in our lifetime we will find a cure.”

Jackson Gist

Where’s your favorite place to disappear to?
Gosh…a play, a musical, a concert. Some place where I can just turn off my brain. So… not a heavy-duty play!

What’s your favorite kind of music?
That’s like Sophie’s Choice. There’s no way I can pick one. Music is my life.

Name your favorite city.
New York City.

What happens after we die?
I think our energy and our life force goes back into the strata of the earth. I think that everything we’ve done in our life, both good and bad, goes back in the world. [It’s] a little Buddhist, but that’s kind of how I think. I live my life in terms of karma. I want to leave the world a better place than I found it. Do I believe in heaven and hell? No. Both my grandpa and my grandma died this year. If you’ve even been with someone when they’ve passed, they’re there and then just the body remains. So where does that energy go? Has to go somewhere.

How do you stay in the moment?
It’s difficult. In the past year, mediation has come into my life. I suffer with horrible insomnia because I just can’t turn off my brain. I have so much going on that it’s hard for me to stay centered. Sometimes I just need to force myself to sit still and focus on breathing. I think as a kid I was undiagnosed A.D.D. I had so much energy!

What ticks you off?

What actor did you have a hot and heavy crush on while growing up?
[He peels off a few chuckles.] There’s a few. Tony Danza. Who else? John Schneider from Dukes of Hazzard. [He looks down timidly.] This is embarrassing, but, Almanzo from Little House on the Prairie [actor Dean Butler]. Also Lyle Waggoner from Wonder Woman [also the Carol Burnett Show].

Complete this sentence: Sometimes being famous irritates me because . . .
Because [he repeats thoughtfully]…I’m naturally shy. Even though it’s always strange to think of an actor being shy. It’s that weird dance we play as actors. I wrote a song about it. “Look at me, but don’t look at me. Like, I want you to see me but, no, no, on my terms.” I don’t like it when I don’t have control of when people see me. Sometimes I’ll take my contacts out—I really have bad vision—and then I can’t see anyone.

Do you sleep in PJ’s, nightshirt, underwear, or nude?
I like to have something on. Boring, but boxers.

What’s your favorite film of all time?
Stand By Me. They [the actors] were all the same age as me and it was the first R-rated movie I ever saw. I just loved it.

Do you watch what you eat?
I watch it going into my mouth. [Cheyenne laughs.] I mean, as an actor I try. I didn’t realize I was fat until I moved to LA [which he did last year from New York]. I’m not clearly fat but out here everybody’s just . It depends on the role [what I eat]. Like the summer of 2012 I played a porn star on Broadway and I knew I had to look like a porn star. So for six months I didn’t eat any bread or any sugar and worked out six days a week. Now I’m going to shoot a film where the character has a gut and a moustache so…. It’s kinda’ fun.

Who would you like to meet that you haven’t yet?
My Dad’s mom. She died when I was a teenager. As far as people who are alive…[he thinks]…I’ve met two Presidents, now I’d like to meet Hillary Clinton.

Cheyenne Checklist
He gives a one-word reaction to these people he knows.

Matt Damon: Heaven! [He emits an evil giggle.]

Rita Moreno: Raunchy

Jane Lynch: Hilarious!

Nick Adams: Sweet.

Alicia Silverstone: Natural.

Jackie Hoffman: Uterus.

Judith Light: Oh! …Heaven.

Jason Butler Harner: Lips.

Corey Monteith: Hmm…kindness.

Larry David: [He howls] Mad genius.

Portia de Rossi: An inside joke, but—fingernails.

Michael Douglas: Warrior.

Tina Fey: Geeeen-ious.

Gena Rowlands: Truth.

Alfred Molina: Commitment.

Heidi Klum: Wicked.

Matt Bomer: Statue.

Ellen Barkin: Tough.

Nathan Lane: Heart.

Morgan Freeman: Voice.

Vanessa Williams: Beautiful.

Michael Feinstein: Friendship.

Trey Parker: [He snickers then says] Fas-a-dega-vali-high [a song in Book of Mormon which means, fuck you God and see you next Tuesday].

Liza: Liza.

When asked to give one word to describe himself, Cheyenne replies, “Only one?!

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Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.