To watch Jeremy Jordan perform is to witness confidence and swagger personified, whether leading the newsboys’ strike in Newsies, exploring childhood imagination in Finding Neverland, or charming his way through a string of heists in Bonnie & Clyde. So you might be surprised to learn that this 32-year-old actor is actually someone who prefers to shy away from the spotlight when he is away from the stage. I recently spoke to Jordan about such topics as his accidental foray into theater, the evolution of his acting, how playing Jack Kelly in Newsies pushed him towards being a leader, and standing up for LGBT rights and against mental health stigma.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
Probably a little bit later than most. I was always a singer, though reluctantly at first when my mom and my teachers forced me into choir. I did a couple of small shows when I was a kid because my grandma used to run the community theater youth program. I was really just goofy, making faces, I wasn’t really acting. When I was in high school, we did our choir concert at the local community theater. I had a solo and someone from the community theater asked me to join because they needed more boys in our summer program. I said, “Sure, I got nothing else to do.” Gradually I started hanging out there more and more, doing ensemble parts in some of the shows. My junior year I auditioned for The Fantasticks and I got cast as The Mute, which is a non-singing role, he orchestrates the play without words. I was a little bit confused because I usually sang, I didn’t understand what I needed to do. That role taught me how to listen. From then on, I had the bug. As soon as I started listening and reacting and stopped just making faces and acting at other people, I realized the magic of it.
So getting into acting was accidental.
Totally accidental! I had always liked theater but it was never anything I had considered pursuing.
What do you think you would be doing for a career if you weren’t an actor?
I was really interested in computer science for a long time. I did this huge, invitation-only, national technology summit summer camp that was a big deal to get invited to the summer before my junior year. And I kind of hated it. Not because I don’t like computer science but because I didn’t feel that they were my people. I didn’t feel like I belonged there.
So in theater, you found your people?
Yes, and for the first time I found something I was really good at it, better than most. Even though I was a talent in a small town, I just had a feeling about it. A couple of people who knew more than me about acting told me that I should explore it further. I said, “Okay, if you say so!”
You continued down that path and made your Broadway debut in Rock of Ages. How did you feel the night of your first bow?
I was a swing, so when the show opened, I hadn’t actually stepped onstage. I made my debut a couple of months later with a day or two notice. We hadn’t finished all our understudy rehearsals so I was just tossed into the fire as the lead in that show, which was pretty incredible.
Did you feel nervous, thrilled, or a combination of both?
It was all of the above. We had two scripts, one stage left and one stage right, so every time I came off stage I would just ruffle through the script, glancing over the next couple of scenes. I’m sure I flubbed here and there but I felt like I did a pretty great job. I was playing opposite Amy Spanger and she was the sweetest. After the show she told me, “None of us had any idea that you were capable of doing this.” Nobody had seen what I could do, they hadn’t even heard what my voice sounded like. Suddenly I was thrust into the lead role and these actors I had been working with for the past several months were like, “Wait, what?!”
Tony in West Side Story is one of the great roles in musical theater. Can you talk about the experience of playing that tragic character in the 2009 revival? How did you contain the emotional intensity of playing him so that you felt it fully on the stage but were not bringing it home with you at the end of the night?
Tony was a big step for me in terms of learning to be an emotional actor. Up until that time, I had played more character roles, he was really my first leading man type role. It took me probably my entire run with that show to reach a level of performance I was happy with. I knew I had great moments but overall I was still searching throughout the 8 or 9 months I did the part. But I feel like that is good. I think that, especially on the stage, once you become content with what you are doing and you don’t think there is room for improvement, you stop growing.
I kind of had to teach myself how to cry because I don’t ever cry in real life. It was an interesting experience to find out how I reach that point. I did throw out my back once doing the part because I was getting a little too hard-core into it. You have to find places where you draw a line in terms of letting your body go, especially when you are doing it multiple times. It’s different than when you just have to get that perfect take in television and film. In theater, you really have to strike a balance with yourself.
And you have to do it in a way that projects to 1,500 to 3,000 people.
Tony had a lot of screaming and that was pretty difficult. I grew up slouchy and closed off, introverted. That was the first time I felt like I had a role where I had to be more outwardly expressive. I grew a lot doing that role.
And you created that personal and professional growth in front of an audience. Did that make you feel vulnerable?
For me, that was never the hard part. I step out of my own skin when I’m doing a character. I feel oddly comfortable onstage, sometimes more comfortable than when I am being myself, especially when I have to be emotional in real life. It feels experimental to me. When I have rehearsed something and I know the material, it feels like a challenge. I’m a bit of a gamer so I tend to rise to challenges and work better under pressure. I have never had stage fright in that aspect. I’ve been nervous that I might forget something but in terms of stage fright, it’s never been a problem for me.
Can you talk about your experience creating the role of J.M. Barrie in the ART production of Finding Neverland?
That was definitely the hardest role that I ever got to create. He had a sense of depth and a sense of wonder to him and at the same time this weird, child-like quality, growing into a man all in the course of a couple of hours. I did a lot of research and I knew so much about him. There was a lot of off-stage battling because we were creating the show for the first time. It was difficult in certain aspects because I would try to creatively fight for him [the character of J.M. Barrie] and mostly have to settle for what I was given. It’s weird to try to project a real-life person’s story within the constraints of show that you don’t have a whole lot of control over. I had to really find what was between the lines and try to bring out aspects of him intrinsically that weren’t necessarily on the page. I felt that I had to raise myself up to meet the challenge of the character but also find ways to elevate the material at the same time. Usually it’s one or the other. Usually the material is “meh” and you have to make it something better or the material is so good that you have to step up your game. It was kind of a little bit of both for me in this one.
It was also just incredibly emotional from the very beginning. The day we opened the show my agent called me saying that they had heard that Matthew Morrison would be playing the role on Broadway. The whole time I had been looking over my shoulder thinking that I had to earn the part. It made for some heavy, emotional performances but it also added a lot of unneeded stress to the whole situation.
This may be a bit of an overstatement but it sounds like it was a bit of a roller coaster of an experience for you.
That is definitely not an overstatement. It was one of the more emotional times of my life, for sure, if not only for the backstage drama. It was a very involved creative process, the lines, the quirks, etc. were my creation that we put into the show. I just knew that so many of those were going to stay but I wasn’t going to stay. I felt a sense of something being taken away from me, it wasn’t a great feeling. It wasn’t mine to own contractually, I wasn’t bound to it, but from the very beginning I had gotten so much praise from my castmates and from people seeing the show. I fell into the trap of assuming that I was going to win it or that I deserved it. In many ways I still feel that way but I’ve learned not to assume.
Newsies has an avid fandom. Why do you think the show has resonated so much with audiences?
The movie in the 90’s was this total flop but became this cult classic. The music is one part of it in that it’s very anthemic and uplifting and gets your blood pumping. It’s a bunch of strong boys dancing which is not something that you see often. For me it was empowering as a kid seeing that. As a “dude” I always loved doing that kind of stuff but never felt like that was cool but they made it look cool. On top of that, there’s a great underdog message. I think the show gives people hope. I receive a lot of messages from folks saying that they listen to the song “Santa Fe” when they need to feel inspiration. I think it is one of the examples of theater and art taking you out of whatever is hurting you or upsetting you in real life and transporting you to another place where you can feel better about yourself. Sometimes that can translate into making change in your own life. People talk about theater as an escape. I think that’s great but I think when it’s truly powerful it provides an escape that feels so right that it inspires actual change in the real world. I feel like that is happening a lot more lately, too.
You perform songs in the show, such as “The World Will Know” and “Seize the Day” with such fervor and passion. Can you talk about finding the intensity within Jack Kelly?
Totally. Jack is a fictional character but he is inspired by a couple of real life newsies and the story is inspired by real life events. For me, it’s the energy of the piece and the energy of the kids around me. I’ve never really been in a situation in life where I had to be a leader and the second I stepped into Newsies, everyone suddenly was looking to me because I was one of the older kids in the cast and had already been in a few shows on Broadway. I was thrust into this leadership role, figuratively and realistically. I just had to step up.
That moment that you are talking about in “The World Will Know” is a moment that is not really for himself. Jack, of all of the newsboys, is probably doing the best. He is most concerned for everybody else at this point. He feels like a lot of these kids cannot stand up for themselves and they need somebody to look up to. He has to put his other stuff aside and turn it on and jump in full force. Seeing all of the kids around me, imagining their pain and their actual circumstances really gave me that feeling.
There is a lightness there but also a darkness, in a similar way as there is in Annie.
I think that’s another reason why it’s so effective. You are taking these characters who generally are pushed aside in society and are now given a voice. I think a lot of people can relate to that today, feeling insignificant within the greater world and a need to be empowered. Feeling like they could take a stand at something that is important to them.
It sounds like in becoming a leader of the cast, life really imitated art.
I never was that person, I was always a little bit more of a follower. I definitely went the beat of my own drum and did my own thing. At the same time, I always felt like I wasn’t really doing much, that there’s got to be more. That was the first instance that I ever felt that I can do something with my voice, I can do something with my credibility, with my status, with what I have been given. Whether it is leading a group of newsboys, a group of young actors or being some kind of voice on social media. It all started there.
You are a vocal advocate for LGBT rights. Why is that an important issue to you?
I grew up in south Texas where nobody was really out of the closet and I didn’t know a whole lot about it until I moved to college. So many of my friends are part of the LGBT community. Seeing how their lives have been impacted in so many negative ways. I have always gravitated towards social issues and equality and justice.
Growing up, a lot of people assumed I was gay because I was a musical theater actor. Honestly, I used to be a little annoyed with but now I just don’t care and in fact just embraced it. When I first moved to New York City, I worked as a waiter in Hell’s Kitchen [a neighborhood in Manhattan that has a predominant gay community] and I was the most sexually ambiguous waiter that you could imagine.
I’m sure that helped with tips!
Yep! I could get good tips from the men and the women. For me, sexuality is so fluid and it’s not black and white. So many people are being hated and persecuted because people don’t understand. I have tried to be a more empathetic person. If you ask my wife, I tend to be too trusting of a person. A lot of people in my family don’t share my social rights perspective and I try to understand their perspective and respect it while at the same time try to shift their perspective. I try to figure out and understand why they are so angry or feeling that way, sometimes to my own detriment. Sometimes you just have to pick a side. I think at times these days, especially with social media, it can be so easily taken out of context and rocked in the other direction.
It’s very helpful in exchanging ideas and discourse, even when people have very different political beliefs, to find the kernel of truth that you can relate to. It’s a powerful exercise in empathy.
I had a run-in this summer about these two characters on this television series I am on right now, Supergirl. I was at Comic-Con and made a joke about these two female characters, who were never going to get together romantically. I got destroyed on social media, called a homophobe. It kind of tore me apart, this is one of the advocacy issues I am most passionate about. There are people who are part of that group who are taking what I said out of context and reading into it. I immediately got angry because that’s not me and I couldn’t understand how people could think that about me. Part of my dealing with it was asking myself how something that I said without harm could impact someone else so negatively. I started doing research trying to see their perspective, from people who were spewing hate at me online. That was a significant growing moment for me. Now I think I have a better understanding of where that group of people were coming from. I’ve been using my social media platform and trying to dedicate myself to use it for positive change.
Which you did recently with the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) #IDONTMIND campaign. Can you talk about how you got involved with that? Why do you think it’s important to fight mental health stigma?
My buddy Chris Wood, he’s on the show Supergirl with me, it’s his campaign. He and his buddy created it as part of Mental Health Awareness week in October. It’s another platform for people to feel like they can express themselves. It’s very much akin to the LGBT platform because people don’t want to speak out, they don’t want to actually admit things about themselves. There is a negative stigma around mental health and it’s perpetuated by television and movies and media but also by people on social media who don’t understand mental health in any real kind of way.
As a kid, I definitely had moments when I made fun of people and then I had moments when I regretted it. It’s important to help teach people the difference that they can make in how they treat other people and treat themselves. I see people posting online on Instagram and on Twitter, tagging me in these self-hatred posts. I know it’s their way of reaching out for help but at the same time, I don’t think that the see themselves as worthy of help. I just want to be able to remind people as often as possible that whatever they are feeling is valid and however they need to express themselves is okay. There are people who will listen to them.
These public figure campaigns do help. People struggle to ask for help because they think that having depression is a mental defect, not a mental illness.
One of my co-workers shared publically that he had been checked into a psychiatric hospital for mental health problems, acknowledging that he may seem “normal” but that he has struggled, too. Giving people that sort of inspiration as a public figure, being vulnerable to share that personal experience that people can relate to. If I can do this, you can do this. You got this!
A lot of actors say that doing their cabaret act is scarier than being in a musical because in their cabaret act they can’t hide behind the mask of a character. Have you found that to be true for your doing your show, “Breaking Character”?
I tend to shy away from the spotlight unless I’m with my friends and family. In any sort of public situation, I’m very reserved. Showing emotion as Jeremy has never really been appealing to me but I also know that I need to do that to grow as a human. So I have used the cabaret platform as a way to do that. It happened unexpectedly because I was between jobs and I needed to work. I had been given some offers before to do that kind of work, which I had always previously turned down because I was just too nervous. I would do concerts for people, appearances where I would sing a song or two, and I just hated it because it was Jeremy Jordan doing it, not Jack or Clyde [from the musical Bonnie and Clyde] or J.M. Barrie. As a character I could turn on a switch.
I decided to go 100%. I told very personal stories. I figured that if I was going to do it, I might as well just go all the way in. I’ve done a couple of cabaret shows now, starting to think about a third one and how I can go even further.
I also enjoy provoking and surprising the audience. It kind of gives me power back because when you do this kind of show you feel that you are losing a bit of power because you are being so vulnerable. So in order to balance it out, I do something provocative. It has been incredibly beneficial to me because now I feel many times more confident than I used to. Knowing that me alone is enough to sustain an evening’s entertainment.
In both his work on stage and off, Jeremy Jordan is giving voice to the disempowered, whether as a poor newsboy leading a strike for economic justice or a reserved star of stage and screen speaking out for the maligned LGBT community and against mental health stigma. And that voice is both entertaining and inspiring.
You can find out more about fighting mental health stigma by clicking on #IDONTMIND .