Actor Christopher Jackson talks about his new role on CBS's "Bull"
Jackson also plays George Washington in 'Hamilton"
Over the next few months, there will be no shortage of new TV shows vying for viewers’ attention. Hopefully not lost in the chaos of dozens of series premieres? The great batch of fresh new talent poised to have breakout years.
CNN’s Fresh Faces interview series aims to introduce some of those talented newcomers.
Name: Christopher Jackson, 40
Hometown: Cairo, Illinois
Where you might know him from: George Washington in “Hamilton”
Now starring in: “Bull,” CBS’s drama inspired by the early career of Dr. Phil McGraw (premieres Sept. 20)
He plays: Chunk Palmer, a stylist who uses his expertise to make sure clients’ fashion choices give them a leg up during trial
Acting hero: Richard Schiff and Denzel Washington
Favorite TV show: “West Wing”
Last show he binge watched: “Breaking Bad”
I start off all of these interviews by asking people about their first job in the industry. So what was your first paying acting gig?
I was an extra on “New York Undercover.” I played a person at a homeless shelter. It was my first time on any kind of set at all and, of course, I brought in this duffle bag full of stuff to try to wear and ended up wearing the thing I came dressed in. [laughs] I was a college kid. I didn’t know anything about being on set. I didn’t know they fed you, I didn’t know there were breaks, I didn’t know how long the day was. I remember it fondly because that was like the dopest show on TV. And to be on the set and to see Lauren Velez and Malik Yoba, I was beyond ecstatic. I knew it was all going to happen for me after that. [Laughs]
So you were a college kid then? How did you get into the acting thing at that point in your life?
Well, I went to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy – I went to the conservatory – for acting. I knew that this was clearly what I wanted to do, but my thrust was in theater. So to be on a TV set was just kind of an extension of that. I think I may have been out of school maybe a couple of weeks. I got [the job] by going to an audition that was listed in Backstage thinking it was for a role, and it was just for background work. It didn’t matter. I was just very excited about the opportunity.
You have done a lot of TV. I feel like that’s something people who know you best through your theater work might not know about you. What about TV work has continued to be appealing to you as you’ve experienced all this success in theater?
Well, theater is kind of my life blood. Not kind of – it is my life blood. It’s informative in a way I think no other medium is because you’re having a very real and immediate connection with an audience and with the material in front of you and you get response in real time. I’m coming to terms with the idea of shooting [a TV show]. We’re about to start our sixth episode and very few people have seen it because we haven’t premiered yet. And so I’m curious as to what my response is going to be watching it. [In theater] you’re an ensemble working in real time, but you’re going to know at the end of the night how it went by the audience’s response.
What makes TV work something you still seek out as a supplement to your theater “life blood,” as you call it?
I never really got into the business thinking that I just wanted to do one thing. You know, I never said, “I want to be a moviestar and that’s it.” I came into the business where Will Smith was pretty much taking over the world – or defending it, if you will. [Laughs] He was showing success on so many different fronts – television, recording, movies. So that was really my prototype in terms of looking at the business and seeing where you fit in. And I’ve studied people like Gordon Parks, a true renaissance men. That’s always been my ideal. To be in a situation where I am in a Broadway show, I am shooting a TV show, I am writing a new album – those are things that are exciting to me.
How are you finding that balance between being on the show and being on “Hamilton” at the same time?
Scheduling is tricky. But fortunately my producers at “Hamilton” and my producers at “Bull” have been very patient and very understanding. CBS saw what we were doing at “Hamilton” and how important it was not only for the world at large, but for me personally. They they were interested in letting me continue that as long as I felt it was possible. “Hamilton” is something I’ve done for quite a while. When I walk through the door, I know what the process requires, and it requires a lot. It’s just one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. So while I’m not going to do it forever, it certainly is a very satisfying and fulfilling thing to be able to try to do good work on television and then go to Richard Rodgers [Theater] and try to climb that mountain again.
Are you still feeling good there? We saw some pretty big departures over the summer…
It’s really, at this point, just about being able to do justice to the role with what I have in the tank. Right now my tank is pretty full, and when I feel like I’m not really able to perform at the level that has been established, then I’ll move out of the way and let another fantastic artist come in and tell the story. That’s the beautiful part about “Hamilton”: It’s not going anywhere and the enthusiasm that [people] have showed for it has kept us going quite a while. Right now, I’m just taking everything day by day.
How are you finding life on “Bull”? Tell me about this role and what appealed to you about the project.
The character definitely appeals to me. I’m pushing to be the best dressed man on television. I play the role of a stylist. Chunk is a stylist and he’s very well dressed. [laughs] He focuses on nonverbal communication, the things we all sort of perhaps take for granted when we walk out the door every day. “But why are you wearing those glasses?” And “why did you wear that color of sweater?” “What do those shoes do to the way you walk?” And how do those things then affect the way other people perceive you and how you move through the world. And that’s something that is infinitely fascinating to me. It’s something I paid a great deal of attention to prior to joining this show and so it’s a constant learning process for me. But it’s as intellectually stimulating to me as anything that I’ve ever done. [Jokingly] And it’s a shame that [series star] Michael Weatherly isn’t fun to be around.
Yeah, I know!
He’s really obnoxious and really hard to deal with. No, I’ve said it before: We have I feel like one of the best ensembles that TV has put together in recent memory. We’re all really enthusiastic about each other’s performance and each other’s work. So in that respect, it feels very much like a theater experience. You get the sense that without each person doing their job, it just wouldn’t work. There hasn’t been a single day I’ve walked on set and I wasn’t smiling about it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.