Christopher Jackson played George Washington in “Hamilton,” which was opened up to a huge audience last summer thanks to a live recording on Disney+. The film has since been honored with a nomination at the Golden Globes for Best Comedy/Musical Film.
Jackson recently spoke with Gold Derby creative and digital director Christopher Rosen about watching “Hamilton” from his couch, the intention behind the musical and his desire to get back on stage again. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: I wanted to start talking about “Hamilton,” premiered on Disney+ last summer. You’ve been with the show from the beginning. Honestly, before the beginning. What was it like watching this show with the original cast all these years removed from when you performed it and getting to see yourself with that original cast?
Christopher Jackson: Surreal. The first time I’ve ever seen any of my work on stage in a different medium, which was exciting and nerve-racking and even years removed, I’m still pretty twitchy. The body remembers all of these different emotions and the first time we watched it, Disney had sent us the screener to sort of prep for all the press and I’m sitting there on the couch and it was kind of the same experience the first time I actually sat in the theater and watched it with my wife. She just kind of gently would grab my arm when my face started contorting a little bit and I started to sweat a little bit. It’s a very surreal kind of experience. But it was great to finally be able to see, from the audience’s perspective, the wonderful work that was going on on stage and what an amazing company and what an amazing show. Tommy [Kail] captured it so well that I really did feel like I had the best seat in the house. It was pretty incredible.
GD: I wanted to ask you a little about the performance. I was lucky enough to see “Hamilton” performed with most of the original cast on stage. I saw you do it on Broadway and then watching it again, I guess this was recorded over two performances, I think, in June of 2016 and then there was some additional footage that Tommy shot. When you knew that it was going to be recorded, did that change your performance at all? Did you think about that or how did that work as an actor? Because obviously, I think there’s a difference between a stage performance and what you would do in a movie or a TV show. So did that affect your performance at all?
CJ: I’d like to think that it didn’t, mostly because “Hamilton” is the kind of show that is so difficult to pull off eight times a week. Just hitting your marks and following that emotional through-line throughout the whole course of the thing is already difficult. It’s already a mountain that has to be climbed every single time you step on stage. I think Tommy’s approach the entire time was, “I know the show. I know where to put the cameras. I know what I’m looking for. We don’t need to change your marks. We don’t need to do anything,” because I think he appreciated just how tricky it was to pull off every day. So the emphasis was really just about maintaining what it is every day, which is maintaining the performance, which is engaging, and putting yourself in a position… the audience gives you a lot of feedback. So I think because we were able to focus just on that, for me at least, it didn’t really affect the performance as much as if we were shooting a film. Yeah, you’re going to have a couple of different stabs at it. But as Lin[-Manuel Miranda] likes to say, we were the best-rehearsed film cast in the history of moviemaking.
GD: Yeah, for sure. He did do additional shooting, it seems like, on stage and stuff. Can you talk about doing that and like you said, you get so much energy from the crowd, but doing those scenes to fill in and make it into more of an intimate production for the film version, I guess, can you talk a little about that?
CJ: Well, I know that there was some Steadicam work because of Andy [Blankenbuehler]‘s really intricate choreography and the staging of it. I think that the ability to get on stage for some of that Steadicam work was really important but as I looked at the final product, it was so seamless. What the camera did, I think, was just move closer and closer and closer and closer for the entire filming. The film experience is such that somehow they were able to draw you in even closer to the action. If you’re sitting 150 feet back from the stage, you might miss an expression up on the surround. The impact of being that close to an actor, it changes your perspective, obviously. But by doing the Steadicam stuff and the things that we did outside of the audience, again, I kind of go back to my first answer. It was so difficult to pull that off. It was so difficult to stay in the moment. It was so difficult to stay as connected as we were.
It was really just Tommy’s job, I think, and he says it, just to capture it, just to find it. I will say that the one part that really grabbed me was a lot of the work during “One Last Time.” In my mind, you could tell that Tommy, who is one of my best friends, was capturing the relationship between two best friends on stage. There was something that just pulled me even closer to what was happening between my character and Lin’s character. It was really moving to me and I feel like he was probably the only person in the world that, because he understands our relationship, could really encapsulate the relationship between Washington and Hamilton in that moment and it was just beautiful to me.
GD: I would agree. Like I said, I saw it on Broadway, listened to the soundtrack a million times, and then watching it, I still got something new out of that even watching it in the film. I think the Washington and Hamilton relationship and that performance, it is a real showstopper. It’s quite good. You mentioned that. Was there other things getting to revisit the show now, years after you stopped performing in it, was there something else or anything that you looked at differently or maybe were like, “Oh, this part, I did not expect that to hit like that now watching it having so much time passed”?
CJ: Yeah, and it’s a little personal, I guess. Washington’s life was filled with a lot of sadness and a lot of urgency and a lot of desperation, as was I. Unfortunately, I lost my father the second week of previews and we had a very difficult relationship. You could probably call it that. Having to leave the show to go home and bury him and come back gave me a really interesting and unexpected perspective on the life of the man that I was portraying and that most of his life was defined by loss and it drew me into what the process of what lifelong grief can be, what it was prior to the event, during and then after, and then how that inflects and informs everything that you do from that moment on, so it added an unexpected layer. Life in the theater is constantly a calibration about how you navigate all of the life things that are happening and then all of the life in the theater and then the role and then the audience.
It’s just sort of a gradation of how you encounter and then react to all of these different sorts of forces that are all working in different directions, all at the same time in life and as I watched it, I was taken back to a place that was, I guess, more powerful and profound in my own personal journey than at the time I was aware of, and just how much of a release performing a role like that gives you on a daily basis. We have ho-hum days but everything in that environment is so heightened. You go on this complete lifelong journey, all in the course of 2:45 and then you have the stage that turns into a green room and then you’re meeting your personal heroes and you’re meeting people that you have admired your entire lives, whether they be athletes or politicians or fellow artists and everyone is so wide open and the conversations that you have seemed so unlikely and yet so normal, which was, I guess an answer to a larger question just about the experience of that phenomenon but it was a daily thing and it just profoundly reshaped my imagination and my understanding of how powerful theater is.
GD: I wanted to ask you that, too, about the power of the theater and the show, obviously. It premiered during the Obama years and it kind of peaked towards the end of his administration and now this movie comes out here in this tremendously traumatic summer where we have protests around the country for social justice against police brutality and then obviously leading into the election, I found that watching it now you get a different perspective, obviously, from a political standpoint. And I was wondering, did you feel how the movie hit maybe differently than the show even did at the time, not just because so many more people are able to see it, but just the message of the show and what it’s kind of espousing?
CJ: I think great pieces of art say different things about us, depending on what area you’re in, right? The interesting thing is that because of the existence of the architecture of how we communicate is so much more immediate now, it’s interesting that most people met the show through the soundtrack, through the recording. It’s interesting that this show is sung through. Pretty much what you hear on the record is what you hear in the theater, but that it lived in people’s imaginations in a much more relevant way than if you’d actually come to see the show. In the time that the original company was on stage, only about a half a million people had seen it, which is a huge number, but, if you compare that to the number of people that had listened to the soundtrack on repeat and then you see a glimpse on the Grammys or see this appearance here or this appearance there, it’s still something that lived in our imagination.
So if you think about what Hamilton was really about, Hamilton was about the written word, he himself. Everyone then was truly influenced by the ideas and the thoughts and the movements were sprung up from a genuine sort of wellspring of ideas, good, bad and in-between. But it inspired people to move, to then act, have a thought and then act. Not just an emotional one, but a considered one, and the way that Hamilton’s hold on the zeitgeist for so long really played with people’s imaginations. Nothing that Lin introduced in this piece is new. It’s just a different collection of thought and a different way of hearing hip hop again in the medium that, outside of the other work that Lin had done, hadn’t really given a home to hip hop and the idea that all of these different things can come together and actually make a compelling story. So, regardless of what time you’re viewing “Hamilton” in, it’s still a monumental testament to the idea of ideas and the way that they work with us, in the way that we then share them.
Jeffrey [Seller] didn’t have to spend a ton of money advertising our show. People talked about it. Good, bad or indifferent, people were discussing it. People were interested in having conversations about it so it became sort of this rallying point for ideas and then other ideas and other things sprung out from that. I can’t help but think that in one way or the other, it influenced a young person who normally would be sitting around their house playing Xbox to say, “You know what, there’s injustice in our country and if our country is going to be better, I have to get outside and get on the streets.” And that’s what they did. I have to believe that there were many, many people out there who were inspired by the things that we were talking about in “Hamilton” and then were then inspired to go out and involve themselves in a different kind of way.
GD: Yeah, for sure. I think one of the things I found so heartening this summer when it came out was, like we said, many, many more people were able to see it this summer than had seen it on stage, and even listening to the soundtrack. But I found the debate and the discourse around it was really very smart, about how we should consider the Founding Fathers and the juxtaposition of them fighting for liberty, but also being slaveholders and all these different things. I found that conversation was really good. It wasn’t like a hot take economy or anything. It was like this is considered debate. I think that speaks to the power of the show and how great the show is that it’s not being kind of cast aside. It’s like this is really conversing and stuff. I found that really fascinating. I imagine you guys also talked about a lot of these things too as performers, playing these characters, playing George Washington, who had, like you said, a lot of loss in his life and obviously had a lot of good things about his life and some obviously bad things about his life, too. I would imagine you guys debated that as well backstage or throughout this process?
CJ: Absolutely. I mean, there’s no question about it. But the cool thing is that for me, most of Washington’s journey through the show isn’t on stage. We see Washington and Hamilton at an inflection point. But if you don’t know what’s happening before you arrive in that scene, then it doesn’t really give you any kind of fuel to play that scene. We call them the Founders, but they had done something that had never been done before. No one ever thought to write down the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Clearly, it was an idea that they had considered but didn’t really understand it in its vastness. This idea was lofty, but they were clearly not up to the task of living up to those words, and they didn’t honestly see the hypocrisy in their own lives because there were other systems that were wholly supported by the institution of slavery.
So we look at a show like “Hamilton” and I think people miss the point when they think that it’s celebrating our Founding Fathers. I think what they’re seeing is the hypocrisy that was innate in these men, so rather than hide that under a bushel, take that thing out, examine it, and then allow it to spark the conversation that it needs to spark, because we need to see the Founders in the light that they truly lived in and that they themselves chose to live in and we need to step away from the mythologizing of who these people were. I believe we understand these people in their fullness. We can appreciate the good and we can criticize the bad and then we can not make the same mistakes that they made in various forms.
GD: And then the last thing before we wrap up here, you must be in production on “Bull” now, right?
GD: And you’re working during the pandemic. You’re so tied to Broadway. What do you hope happens over the next year as we slowly get people vaccinated and things start to reopen and productions begin? What is your sense there as someone in New York and who has such a strong tie to the theater community?
CJ: Well, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that first and foremost, people can be safe again, going about their lives. I know that Broadway does a tremendous job of giving people something to look forward to. It’s a trip to get on a plane, to get in the hotel, to come to New York, to sit in a room full of 1,000 other people and have an experience. There’s a reason why Broadway exists and it has existed for so long, and that is that people want to come together and experience something in a safe way. Obviously, so many of our brothers and sisters are hurting, if for no other reason than there is a whole community of folks that have made it their life’s work to give to the theater and by giving, I mean they’ve lived their life in the theater. They’re working when the rest of the world is playing for the purpose of creating a better place, creating a better world.
Theater in general does a tremendous job in helping people appreciate the things that they have and aspire to more and I can’t wait to get back on the stage. I’ve been very fortunate and blessed to be on a long-running Broadway show and then a long-running television show. I’m really grateful and very fortunate but as soon as it’s safe to do so, you know Broadway is going to be the first one to open its doors because people need it. If they didn’t, they’d find other things to do but the reality is that they do. For a lot of people, and I say this often, theater is like church because there are very few institutions in our society where a group of people will come together, they will touch and they will agree that we’re going to focus our energy and we’re going to find a deeper level of expression and we’re going to share it through someone else. But we’re then going to learn something about ourselves and that’s what Broadway does and it’s what theater does. I cannot wait. I want to be in the front row the second that it opens back up and God willing, I might be up on the stage. I can’t wait to get back to work.