Photographs by YU TSAI
Styled by Alison Brooks
Grooming by Anna Bernabe
Nothing really prepares you for that surreal moment when you come face-to-face with someone you’ve seen many times on TV, but never actually met. There’s an eerie realization that despite the jolt of familiarity—those piercing blue eyes, the almost cartoonish good looks and muscular frame, the tattoos (a giant tree running up one forearm, the lyrics to an Elvis song on the same shoulder, the Z to commemorate his beloved dog, Zora, who died in his arms)—this person has never laid eyes on you before.
It’s easy to like 42-year-old Cheyenne Jackson. He seems grateful for his genetic good fortune and the breaks that have come his way—including a meaty role on Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Cult, which premiered on September 5th—and he’s still got that flash of self-deprecating humor. His Twitter and Instagram feeds show an apparently well-balanced individual with a taste for offbeat humor, like, “I hate that urinal cakes are called urinal cakes because I really love cake,” and, “I know enough to stay away from horizontal stripes.” Or my favorite, from December 2012, “Entitlement makes you look instantly unattractive. I’m looking at you, model dudes in the coffee shop.”
So despite his movie-stud looks, Jackson still personifies the small-town charm you might expect from someone raised by a poor but loving family in a mill town on the Idaho border, and whose mother taught him to sing by having him follow along to her Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez records.
Jackson has often spoken of his damascene moment in grade school when he first realized that you could put singing together with acting. After working his way up to become the star of Seattle’s musical theater scene, he decided at the age of 27 to seek his fortune in New York. (“It was 9/11 that forced me to make the leap,” he will tell me later. “It created a sense of urgency in me—a sense that time was running out.”)
So while thousands were quitting New York, Jackson headed into the city. What happened next resembles the plot of a Broadway musical: a few months of understudying and he got his big break playing the lead in All Shook Up. Since then he’s released CDs; won awards; performed at the White House for President Obama; sold out two solo musical performances at Carnegie Hall (Power of Two and Music of the Mad Men Era); and carved out a niche in TV, with supporting roles in Glee and 30 Rock.
Along the way, he spoke openly to the New York Times about his sexuality, and married his long-term partner, physicist Monte Lapka, in 2012—but then divorced in 2014. There was a brief moment when gossip rags were speculating that he’d gone into a tailspin—after all, he’d shaved his head and grown a pornstache—but it turned out that this macho-man makeover was simply required for an upcoming movie role.
Around the same time, Jackson relocated to Los Angeles where he met his current husband, branding and merchandising entrepreneur Jason Landau. The couple were married in September 2014, and last October welcomed twins, Ethan and Willow.
Meanwhile, for the last three years, he’s been putting his easy charm and charisma to good use as a series regular on FX’s American Horror Story. Last season, his character was seduced by Lady Gaga. And so it was that his first onscreen nude role arrived in his forties, in a fake rough-sex scene with a female partner.
This was promptly followed by another nude hetero sex scene in the film adaptation of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical Hello Again. In the movie, Jackson plays a narcissistic bisexual writer who gets it on with an actress, played by Tony-award-winner Audra McDonald. As Jackson dryly noted at the time, “For a gay dude, I’m getting a lot of pussy.”
Despite all his onscreen sexual slippage, it seems only a short while ago he was a notorious New York dandy, playing lead roles in Broadway shows, running around Manhattan’s hip joints, living la vida loca. And yet today he’s apparently the ultimate homebody.
You used to be the consummate New Yorker. How did you end up in L.A.?
It’s true, I thought I’d be in New York forever, but you know, my life has changed. What happened first was that I got sober a few years ago. And one day I ended up out here in L.A., shooting a pilot. So I went to an AA meeting here, on Robertson, and, well, I met a guy. He was sober, too. A week later I was working out at Equinox, and we bumped into each other again. And that was it. We fell in love. It just happened.
You guys just hit it off right away?
Absolutely. It was a very fast romance. It was beautiful, and still is beautiful. We got engaged within a year, we bought a house, and we started our family. Domestic bliss! Yeah, I guess I didn’t see that coming.
So that’s why you moved here, to be with Jason?
Yes, but it was also my family. I mean, over the years I shot eight pilots here, and my mom had moved to Laguna, my brother lives in San Bernardino, and my sister lives in Fresno. Having my family out here had always made it so much easier to come out and work here. Of course, before I moved here I was one of those people who thought LA was so boring and had no soul. But I think if you can find your tribe, you can make a way of life anywhere. And that’s what I have here: my tribe. So everything came together here at kind of the same time. And of course, Jason is a native. I mean, he was born at Cedars-Sinai—it doesn’t get more native than that.
Did you ever dream of having a family of your own? Which one of you first floated the idea of becoming parents?
I think it was me. I mean, I’d always wanted to be a dad. Even as a teenager I was the only boy babysitter on my block, because I just loved kids and the experience of looking after them. But I guess when my previous marriage ended, I just thought, “Oh, well, guess that’s not going to happen.” You know, like maybe the moment had passed. But when I got together with Jason, it was so strong, and we started to realize it was possible, so….
Was it stressful, the surrogate process, finding the surrogate mother for your babies and waiting for the birth?
Oh, yes. So stressful. Because there are so many variables that are out of your control. And I’m a person who likes control, and Jason likes to control things possibly even more than me. And when you’ve got someone who’s carrying your kids, you just have to trust them—trust that they’re eating right, getting enough rest, not stressing, living the right way. And we were so lucky, because we found absolutely the right person. Surrogacy is an amazing gift. I mean, carrying someone else’s child in your womb? Surrogates are amazing, wonderful people.
After the babies were born, I took six months off. I just wanted to spend all my time with our kids. Because I wanted to know everything about them, I wanted to know every little freckle on their bodies, to know every little aspect of their personalities, to find out who they were and what they liked and didn’t like, what they wanted and needed. And naturally, I want them to know me, to learn who I was.
How are you adjusting to the increased responsibility?
Of course, it’s totally crazy, because it means that like any new parent I’ve spent a lot of time changing diapers. A friend told me before they were born—and it’s true—you never sleep the same again once you have kids. I mean, you sleep; but never that deep sleep. Now I practically sleep with one ear open, listening for any strange noise. Even silence can disturb my sleep now. Like one night, I woke up and thought, Why is it so quiet? What’s wrong? So I had to get up and check on them. That’s where I am now.
Tell me about your new project.
Right now, I’ve been working on American Woman, a dramedy series set in 1975 with Mena Suvari and Alicia Silverstone. It’s co-executive produced by former Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Kyle Richards—based on her life story and experiences growing up in the ’70s. So it’s all about the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism.
Alicia Silverstone plays this single mother struggling to raise her two daughters after leaving her husband. She and her best friends are all trying to find their paths as independent women. I play a casting producer who has big personal crisis that creates a lot of fallout. But I don’t want to give too much away right now. It’s scheduled for early 2018, so not long to wait.
Ryan Murphy seems to be taking American Horror Story in a gayer direction—not so much frightening as deeply disturbing. That’s my theory, anyway.
That’s an interesting take, though I hadn’t really thought about it that way. What I can say is that Ryan definitely takes us to places we’d never go otherwise. That’s just how he is—he thinks outside the box. That’s his genius. I mean, the characters he writes, they stretch us and ask a lot of the actors. And so he pushes us all creatively, to take risks we probably wouldn’t take otherwise.
Sometimes you’ll see what he’s written for your character and you’ll say to yourself, “Can I even pull that off?” But then it’s like, “Well, I don’t know, but Ryan wrote that part for me, so if he thinks I can do it, then I’ll give it a shot.” And so we’ll go there, no matter how crazy it gets, because we trust him—even when he asks for things that seem outrageous.
But, yeah, I guess there is some truth to the idea that it has an unusual sensibility. It’s definitely true that American Horror Story is not just disgusting or shocking—though it can be those things as well. And I think that’s because the show is based on characters, and those characters are complex, and often conflicted.
You should be competing for big roles with people like Benedict Cumberbatch and Henry Cavill. I mean, those guys land those megabucks roles in superhero franchises. And to me, you’re absolutely in the same category. So what’s happening?
Well, if I’m honest, I haven’t put my best self out there yet. For a long time I had a lot of fear, and so I think I held myself back. You know, I’ve gone into audition rooms to read for a big part, and I was so scared of failing that I wouldn’t even prep properly; I wouldn’t go deep into the role, think about it, work on the psychology. I didn’t believe in myself. And in my job, if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else is going to believe in you either.
Why would you think that way?
Deep down, I honestly didn’t think I was good enough. I mean, looking back, it was clearly self-sabotage. But that was largely because I was an addict.
You were a proper alcoholic? Not just a bit messy?
No, the real thing. Addicted to drugs and drink. And like any addict, unable to admit it. I think it was basically a confidence thing. You know, I started late in acting. I was already 27 when I first moved to New York and started working seriously. I hadn’t been to college, I never studied drama, never had any formal training to fall back on, and I think that was a source of insecurity.
And I was still coming through that up until about year and half ago, when I was about to turn 40. And then having some sober time behind me after moving to California and meeting Jason, and having a loving and meaningful relationship and a family of my own…. And now that I’m sober and I can finally appreciate not just what I have, but also what I do. I know that I’m good. So I’m ready to step up and put a better self out there. I’m actually ready to do my best work ever.
It’s honest of you to be so open about those kinds of problems.
Actually, it feels liberating to tell the truth because I really don’t have anything to hide. In the end, who even cares what other people say? I’ve always lived by the old adage, “What you think of me is none of my business.” And I think that’s sound advice.