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09.20.10

Glee's New Villain

The Broadway star begins his Glee stint tonight. He talks about how the Newsweek writer who said gay actors can't play straight is "an asshole" and Gleeking out at Jane Lynch.

On July 27, the news broke that the creators of Glee had recruited actor Cheyenne Jackson to play a recurring role on the hit show's highly anticipated second season. Within minutes, the story went viral. For Jackson, a stage veteran whose Broadway credits would likely make Rachel Berry squeal with envy, it would be a life-changing moment. In plain Gleek, his career was about to get hit with the force of a thousand grape slushies.

The enormity of it all hasn't quite sunk in yet for Jackson. "My sister told me, 'I don't think you realize what this means or what this will do,'" he told The Daily Beast. That might change after tonight, when millions of Americans sit down to watch Glee's season premiere. "I definitely have butterflies," he admitted. "I hope people will like it."


Cheyenne Jackson on 30 Rock.

It's hard to imagine Jackson nervous about anything. At 35, the 6'4" actor looks like he just stepped out of a GQ fashion spread. He's got striking neon-blue eyes, broad shoulders, and a powerful voice. All that would be somewhat forgivable if Jackson were arrogant or just plain dumb. Sadly, he is neither.

Jackson is sworn to secrecy about his new gig, but this much he's allowed to say: His character, Dustin Goolsby, will be the new coach of rival singing group Vocal Adrenaline. (The position became available after the old coach, played by Idina Menzel, quit her job at the end of Season 1 to become a full-time mom).

"I'm the anti- Will Schuester and I'm causing some drama," he said, referring to the lovable character played by Matthew Morrison.

It's been a long journey from the small town of Newport, Washington, where Jackson grew up. His parents, devout Christians, lived in a house with no indoor plumbing. A sign on top of their TV read, "Would you watch this if Jesus was here?" After doing some regional theater in Spokane, Jackson moved to New York City in 2002, and almost immediately got his big break. He booked his first audition for understudy in the Tony-award-winning Thoroughly Modern Millie. After that, came a succession of leading roles in musicals like All Shook Up and Xanadu. His rise to the top of the theater industry was meteoric, effortless, and full of chutzpah.

When a New York Times reporter came to do a profile on Broadway's newest It Boy, Jackson came out publicly. Not that he was planning to. It just sorta happened. The reporter asked him as a matter of fact, "You're gay, right?" and Jackson simply replied "Yeah." The day after the story appeared, his phone was ringing off the hook. His manager, agent, and close friends begged him to retract his statement. But Jackson, who had been out to his family since he was 19, decided to let the chips fall where they may. Looking back, he says, it was the right thing to do, though it did come at a price. "Do I regret anything? No. Did I miss some parts because of it? Probably."

After a while, the story died down and life went back to normal. Jackson continued working on Broadway. And even booked some TV gigs. He landed a string of guest appearances in shows like Ugly Betty, Lipstick Jungle, and Life on Mars. Then, he snagged the coveted role of Danny Baker on NBC's 30 Rock, where he plays a new cast member on a show-within-the-show who has an affair with Tina Fey's character, Liz Lemon. That's when he noticed a palpable shift. People were starting to recognize him. "I've done five or six shows on Broadway, but it wasn't until I was on 30 Rock that people saw me at the airport and yelled, 'Danny!'" he said laughing.

All that could pale in comparison to life on Glee. But after 16 years of hitting the pavement, Jackson is cautiously optimistic. "This isn't my first time at the rodeo," he said. He knows just how fickle Hollywood can be: He came close to being part of the freshman class of Glee twice before, only to have his heart broken both times.

He originally tried out for the part of Mr. Schuester, one of the leads, but lost it to Morrison. Then, halfway through the season, he got a rare second chance when co-creator Ryan Murphy offered him the part of crazy choreographer Dakota Stanley in an upcoming episode. The character only had a few lines, but Jackson wasn't about to complain. By then, Glee had become a bona-fide TV phenomenon.

Excited, Jackson flew to L.A. for the shoot. But just as he was about to do his scene, he fell ill. After seeing his temperature rise to 103, the doctor on set determined Jackson had the flu and ordered him back to his hotel. The role had to be recast.

"At that point I was feeling so sorry for myself. In fact, when the episode aired I couldn't even watch it. It was too painful."

As it turns out, it was the best thing that could have happened to him. In April, Glee producers called again, this time with an even sweeter offer: a recurring role that would drive much of the new season's plot line—the new coach of Vocal Adrenaline.

"It was all I could do to stop from jumping off my chair," Jackson said. "I wanted to give them all hugs but I didn't know if that would be too weird. I think I may have hugged Ryan Murphy."

This time, the taping went without a hitch, though he was nervous when meeting the cast, especially the Emmy-winning Jane Lynch, who plays the infamous Sue Sylvester. "I had to Gleek out on her when I met her. It was like the first day of school, pardon the pun."

He has no idea exactly how many episodes he'll be on ("more than one, less than 22"), but he's already booked for a second episode in the beginning of October. Whether or not his character is queer, "remains to be seen." But considering Glee is a show about a high-school choir, chances are the new singing coach is as gay as a purse full of rainbows.

The show's gayness has, of course, been the subject of recent debate. A controversial Newsweek article used Glee (the actor Jonathan Groff in particular) as an example of why gay actors can't pull off playing straight roles. The writer claimed Groff, an out Broadway star who played Rachel Berry's love interest on the show, was "a better romantic match for Kurt than for Rachel."

Needless to say, Jackson was offended. In fact, during a Q&A he publicly lashed out at Ramin Setoodeh, the writer. "I was upset. I thought it was unfair. I called him an asshole."

He later happened to bump into Setoodeh at Barneys. "I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I'm sure he said to himself, 'Oh man, am I going to be confronted?'" But instead of giving him a piece of his mind, Jackson took the high road. "I said, 'Listen, a dialogue has been started. I know you didn't mean to cause harm.'"


Cheyenne Jackson sings "Two Lost Souls" from Damn Yankees with Jane Krakowski.

Video screenshot

At the end of the day, Jackson says he's living proof that Hollywood is moving in the right direction. "It's becoming less and less of an issue," he said. "People are finally focused more on your work, your talent, whether you're funny or handsome."

About the infamous Newsweek piece, Jackson says: “I was upset. I thought it was unfair. I called him an asshole.”

Not that he has much time to think about it. Since taping Glee, Jackson has been raking in the frequent flier miles, shuttling back and forth from New York to L.A. He's shot an episode for the next season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which he plays Larry David's personal trainer. And then there's the next season of 30 Rock. In between, he's managed to squeeze in a full-length feature movie starring Julia Ormond and Illeana Douglas called Green.

When asked whether he'll have some sort of viewing party for the season premiere, Jackson said no. He'll be home with his partner of 10 years, Monte Lapka, and their dog Zora, a mix between a Rottweiler and a Labrador. "I don't like to watch myself." he said. "I can't get into the story, I'm too critical."

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Itay Hod is a broadcast journalist with CBS where he reports on a range of topics from breaking news and politics to lifestyle and culture.