Brandon Victor Dixon recently received his first Emmy nomination this year for his role as the conflicted Judas Iscariot in “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.” Nominated for Best Movie/Limited Series Supporting Actor, he and co-stars John Legend and Sara Bareilles became the first actors to earn Emmy nominations among this current surge of live TV musicals.
Dixon recently chatted with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about the 13 Emmy nominations for “Jesus Christ Superstar,” how he took on the role of Judas and his involvement with the Mike Pence-“Hamilton” incident. Watch the exclusive web chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Brandon Victor Dixon, you co-starred in “Jesus Christ Superstar” as Judas and now you’re nominated for an Emmy along with 12 other nominations for the show at the Emmys this year. A lot of us thought it would do well at the Emmys but I think even then we were probably a lot of us underestimating it. What was your reaction not just to your nomination but to all the support the cast and crew got?
Brandon Victor Dixon: I was extremely excited. The project was so fun for us. We put so much into it and to have such an overwhelming positive reaction to the show was a wonderful thing for us, to be recognized for all that hard work. And really, 13 means that every department, everybody who was working on it really put their heart and soul into it, and that the quality of the work and the love that was put into the work came across, so we were excited. We were sending group texts and emails, making jokes. It was really, really fun.
GD: 13 nominations, that’s a lot of people on that group text, then.
BVD: It was, it absolutely was.
GD: Is your phone still pinging from that now with so many people?
BVD: Then we veered off and we were making fun of Sir Tim Rice and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber about how England lost in the World Cup and it became a whole thing.
GD: You’re a musical theater veteran so what was your familiarity with this particular show, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” before the opportunity came for you to play this role?
BVD: I was actually only familiar with the opening number, the song that I first sing, “Heaven on Their Minds.” I had heard its years ago and always loved the song but I had never seen the show and I had never heard the rest of the album.
GD: So what was the process of learning it, discovering it? Did you research a lot of past productions or stagings of it?
BVD: No, Andrew gives Judas a fair bit of leeway in terms of interpreting the songs and the melody so I listened to a couple versions and it’s set along the Carl Anderson Judas from the original motion picture and really used him as my inspiration for what I did with the character vocally but I really tried to focus on the words, the relationship between the characters, between Jesus and Judas to help inform the kind of vocal choices and acting choices I was gonna make with the text.
GD: You’ve done performances on stage, you’ve done performances on television, but this production was kind of a hybrid of both. You’re performing for a live audience but at the same time you’re being followed by TV cameras that are covering it for TV audiences at home. How did that experience differ compared to work you’ve done in theater vs. TV?
BVD: They designed the process to operate and be built like a Broadway show, but the amount of technical elements involved that needed to happen on such a specific timescale just ratcheted up the stacking of our days. It increased the density of the time that we were spending with one another. Considering all the elements it’s an extraordinary technological achievement that everybody was able to make everything hit at the right time on that final live moment. But in general it felt very much like a theater production in how we built it. The execution of it very much like a television show.
GD: Was the rehearsing and preparation for it much different than you would go through for a Broadway show?
BVD: No, not at all. The same kind of time and the way it was structured. The majority of the performers in the room had done a number of Broadway shows. We had Sara, we had the ensemble, we had all done shows or a version of the show, so it all felt very familiar, the process, to us. When we started the technical elements, the more televised version began to come to life.
GD: And what was it like working with John Legend, who hasn’t had as much experience with live theater but of course has plenty of experience with live music performances and music in general?
BVD: It was great. It’s very clear from all John does how dedicated he is to his work and how much he puts his passion into his work. To see him do that in a medium that was not specifically his, that’s not his music, that’s not his vocal styling and so to see him adapt that to Tim and Andrew’s work was really fantastic and inspiring to watch how he gave as much of himself to someone else’s work as he does to his own and I think both him being one of the producers of the project as well, this helped lay the foundation for the kind of project that we were gonna be engaged in, that he gave himself so fully to the process like that.
GD: One of the biggest differences between this and a Broadway show is that when you’re on Broadway you’re doing eight shows a week but in this case it’s literally one and done. You gotta sink or swim. What was it like on the day? Did it feel like a lot more pressure than a normal production?
BVD: It felt like a little bit more pressure but not entirely, particularly because we had done a version Saturday night with a full audience that was recorded, so you kinda felt like, “All right, I’m halfway there.” But we felt ready. The way the team prepped us, we felt ready to go. The first moment I was like, “All right.” It was really right before I walked out for “Superstar,” and at that point I was like, “You done now!” (Laughs.)
GD: And the character of Judas does run such an emotional gamut. It’s such a dark, emotional character in many places but then he does have the joyous final number. What was it like preparing for those different tones, those different levels of emotion that you’re portraying as this character?
BVD: You walk the path, following emotions and allowing myself to stick with the love for Jesus, so that everything that pushed me in the other direction was able to ratchet me up in a way that I think gave us colors and showed the challenges of loving somebody and wanting things to work out positively for everybody but who’s in control of the situation and of yourself? I think that’s something we can all relate to and connect with.
GD: One of the most emotional moments in the show is Judas’ eventual death and he has that one final number and you’re climbing up the scaffolding until he takes his own life. What was that like in rehearsals, in the moment? Was that the most challenging part of the show for you to really dig into?
BVD: In certain respects, yes. It provided challenges both in terms of, it’s vocally and physically challenging, but you also know that you’ve gotta come back and you’ve gotta sing and perform “Superstar.” So you can’t blow yourself out on that number and I think you also recognize that what’s most engaging about that number is the process that Judas is going through. Going from a process of hearing God’s will and doing Jesus’s will and understands what he’s doing to being shocked at the horror. He’s witnessing the acts that he’s committed. “My God! I saw him. He looked three-quarters dead.” He did this but look at him now, and having to look through it takes him to another place of what he had to do to his friend, this person that he loves. He recognizes that they’re both being condemned but, “I’m gonna be damned. He’ll be celebrated and I’ll be damned.” Damned for all time, which is the thing that he had prayed about from the beginning. “I’ll do this, but please don’t say I’m damned for all time.” It always raises interesting questions for me about why we do the things we do and whether or not we’re walking the right path and the things we believe and pray about, how we need to focus on our ideologies and focus on whether they truly lift us and the people around them or whether they struggles that make it harder to make us come through sometimes. Those are the questions that I would ask about myself throughout the process.
GD: After the end of the show it’s very emotional with Judas’ death and Jesus’ crucifixion and then to come out for that final “Superstar” number feels very much like a catharsis for the audience in a way. Did it feel that way for you to bring the show to this kind of celebratory place after all that intensity?
BVD: Just the nature of it, it absolutely does feel like a catharsis. It’s a real release, I think, after some of the focus of the numbers that come before. It’s technically supposed to operate as a fever dream within the piece. Judas dies and in Jesus’s distress he is kind of seeing Judas and this message from Judas. “Every time I look at you I don’t understand, why you let the things you did get so out of hand.” It’s interesting in how it’s constructed but it definitely was a release for me as a performer, to have gotten through the suicide, which is a challenging thing to be able to come through and studded in silver, bedazzled glory. To sing the song with the whole ensemble was a real celebration.
GD: That costume in the end, all the costumes in the show are really memorable but especially that one in the end that you’re wearing for “Superstar” is so bold. There aren’t many people in many shows that could pull that off. What was your feeling? Did you feel really empowered in that costume?
BVD: I felt like, “Yes, baby!” That’s why I threw up my gauntlets. “I’m wearing gauntlets, I gotta give it to ‘em.”
GD: What was it like when you originally seeing the costumes for the show and fittings? What were you thinking about them initially?
BVD: I’ve worked with Paul Tazewell for over 10 years now. I know how genius he is and so I was excited about them. I loved the mockups. I thought they were really cool. I thought they were inventive. I trusted that even though I was like, “I wouldn’t wear this on the street necessarily, I trust Paul Tazewell. He gonna put fabric on my body and we gonna hit the stage.”
GD: Now that you’ve done “Jesus Christ Superstar” and it was of course successful given these Emmy nominations, certainly, would you be interested in doing more live TV? Are there any dream roles you might like to play?
BVD: I’m not sure, exactly. I don’t know that I have anything specifically in mind, but it’s definitely a format and a medium that I enjoy and I’d definitely be open to doing it again if they chose the right one.
GD: In addition to, of course, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” as I mentioned you’re also a veteran of the Broadway stage. Not just on the stage but you’re a producer as well. You actually won a Tony for producing “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” What spurred your interest in producing? How did you get into that in general?
BVD: It’s just another extension of creating work. You go from focusing on your scenes and the lines and the lyrics and the music to thinking about the show as a whole and how everything works in concert. It’s both in terms of expanding the vision of how you create and also it’s a matter of making sure that you retain a level of ownership over what you create. iIve done projects that are about Ray Charles, Berry Gordy, Sam Cooke, and a lot of these artists, they were the first black musicians to own their own publish, to own their own record labels, to own their masters. I don’t need to be in a thing or star in a thing but I connect the pieces that can help make the story come to life and that’s something that’s very important to me.
GD: I always think it’s a smart move when actors produce because it also gives you the freedom I’m sure as you go along to make opportunities for yourself, even.
BVD: It certainly does, but even as a producer you’re still working to create the opportunity. Just as an actor you’re working to find the opportunity, as a producer you’re still working to manifest the opportunity. But you’re right, I think if anything, I was just talking with one of my writers about this, it’s about stepping from the place where you’re waiting for something into a place where you can create something. A lot of us feeling like, “I’m waiting for somebody to give me that job or to give me the check or to give me that opportunity.” It’s about stepping out of the place of waiting into the place of creating.
GD: One of your most memorable roles on Broadway, you actually spent a year as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” which, following the phenomenon of “Hamilton,” what was it like stepping into that performance and that role which is quite different from most other musical theater roles that anyone could play or sing?
BVD: It was a lot of fun. It’s different in its specifics but also it’s very, very similar to Judas. The one thing that’s very apparent in “Hamilton,” what comes through clearly is the knowledge of Lin-Manuel Miranda and you see his study of the craft. You see “Jesus Christ Superstar” in there. You see “Les Misérables” in there. You see “Rent.” He knows how to take the tools of the people who have come before him and then transform them into something new. In getting into the character of Aaron Burr, there are the specifics of Aaron Burr but still there’s how he operates as an antihero within the structure of the narrative, which is very similar to how Judas operates as an antihero in the structure of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” So it was interesting for me to go into this very layered material and discover something new for myself. I enjoyed the exploration of that. Because “Hamilton” has so many layers I was able to be so many different types of characters. I was arrogant Aaron Burr, I was broken Aaron Burr, I was emotionally restricted Aaron Burr, I was conniving Aaron Burr. Depending on the mood of the day I could shift the colors but you could still find your way through the story. It was a great joy.
GD: And there was a moment while you were playing Aaron Burr where you made headlines when Mike Pence attended a show. You and the cast addressed him directly and I think that probably got blown out of proportion to a certain degree. Looking back on that and looking back on where American history has gone now, what do you think about that moment and preparing for that moment and really standing up for people who maybe don’t have that platform?
BVD: I’m very proud of that moment. I’m very proud of our production wanting to use their power and their influence to say something unifying to every member of our country and also the people of the world ‘cause we are dealing on a microcosmic level what everybody in the globe is dealing with a macrocosmic level so I was very proud of us for doing that and it’s something I would do again. The thing that was most important about it is that it resonated throughout the world. It resonated with people who were seeking opportunities to speak out and speak for others. It resonated with people who felt like they couldn’t speak out or speak for others or themselves. So I’m hoping that it will continue to serve as a reminder that we must always step up. The more we advocate for somebody or someone else, the less we’ll have to advocate for ourselves. Also, I hope it will help people continue to recognize the mutual intersectionality. We’re all fighting for a place at the table.
GD: I wanna congratulate you again on “Jesus Christ Superstar” and your Emmy nomination and wish you the best of luck on that and with every other nomination the show has, and thank you so much for talking to me today.
BVD: Thank you, I enjoyed this. I hope it was positive and informative, and I look forward to the rest of the road. Thank you everybody who’s been supporting “Jesus Christ Superstar” and our Emmy nominations. Keep supporting us!