The actor has a lot in common with the two men he plays, aside from an exceptional capacity for hard work. If nothing else, his characters — George Washington in “Hamilton” and a fashion consultant on “Bull” — have allowed the actor to explore the power of image and appearance.
Jackson plays Chunk Palmer on “Bull,” which stars Michael Weatherly as an unconventional but in-demand trial consultant, Dr. Jason Bull. He and his team create detailed psychological profiles of jurors, opposing counsel and witnesses, and they also make sure their defendants have the right look for every situation. It’s not a trivial concern: Jurors and judges can learn a lot by observing how a defendant dresses and conducts himself or herself, and that’s where Palmer’s expertise comes in.
Palmer is a former football player with fashion connections who consults with Bull, and his wardrobe has more in common with the suits worn by Thomas Jefferson in “Hamilton” than with the sober wardrobes of most trial lawyers. That said, the topics that interest Palmer are certainly not unknown to Jackson, who has played George Washington in “Hamilton” since the hit musical stormed Broadway more than a year ago.
Washington himself was very aware of the power of first impressions and sartorial decisions. Ron Chernow, who wrote the book upon which “Hamilton” is based, also wrote an award-winning biography of our nation’s first president. That lengthy but fascinating history makes it clear that Washington instinctively understood that a man who presents a commanding, fashionable, and well-tailored appearance is very likely to garner more respect from soldiers and citizens alike.
Though Washington’s fashion choices are not one of the core elements in “Hamilton,” Jackson brought a memorable sense of command and presence to the role, which garnered him a Tony nomination. But now he’s going to “teach them how to say goodbye,” to echo one of the musical’s most famous songs. Jackson’s last “Hamilton” performance is Nov. 13, and though this interview with Variety took place before that exit date was announced, it sounded like he was already thinking about bringing that Broadway journey to a close.
“Bull,” which just got picked up for a full season, is not the only place to find Jackson this fall. He appears in the documentary “Hamilton’s America,” which debuts on PBS Friday (check local listings). And “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda confirmed that Jackson’s voice will be heard in Disney’s “Moana,” which will be released Nov. 23.
Below, Jackson talks about “Bull,” what it was like to work on “Hamilton” after several original cast members moved on, and what life might be like with only one job.
This is your first role as a series regular on TV, right? What’s that been like?
It’s theater of a different sort. I’m fortunate that I’ve been on sets enough that it’s not like foreign territory. I’m very comfortable. And if there was a moment of discomfort, it couldn’t possibly last that long because everybody on the set, from Weatherly to our directors to everyone else, has been just fantastic. It’s a team effort. And they’ve made it easy to juggle [“Bull” and “Hamilton”]. The thing is, I know the work of “Hamilton,” and it’s a bit of a touchstone for me right now, because of where I am in my life and the work that I’ve done.
What has a typical day been like?
Every day is different. I’ve only ever been happy spinning a thousand plates at once. When I was doing “In the Heights,” I was the co-music supervisor for “The Electric Company” on PBS, so I was writing songs all day, doing the show, staying up until 3 a.m. writing more songs, recording demos in the intermission in my dressing room. My heroes are the Gordon Parks of the world, the Renaissance men, the people who were constantly trying to find new ways to express themselves and find new subjects and new things to have an opinion on.
What made you want to take on both “Bull” and “Hamilton” at once?
The timing of “Bull,” when it happened, I wasn’t really finished [with “Hamilton”]. There are still things I’m discovering every night. There are things that I’m learning physically about being on stage that give me information that no other kind of venue does.
And now you’ve had the chance to work with several new cast members in “Hamilton.” What’s that been like?
It forces you to listen in a new way. It forces you to be an actor, and adjust and listen to the new ways that this person is telling the story. It breaks you out of the patterns and the beats and the rhythms and the things that obviously work. But the challenge is making it work with a different set of people, as they get used to what I’m doing and as I adjust to what they do. Everything becomes very fluid again, and the magic of creation really kind of jumps right back front and center of what we’re doing.
Does it allow you to experience “Hamilton” in a new way again?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m not going to say that it’s not a struggle at times. But it’s the right kind of struggle — it’s the kind of struggle that you want to have as an actor. It’s what theater affords you. It breaks down all of the things you think you’re really good at, that you’ve established, and it forces you to take another look at it. I get goosebumps going out on stage every night.
Can you talk about your “Bull” character?
I’m so excited about [the role] because it presented me with an opportunity to tell a story from a perspective that I myself haven’t lived. He’s a former Division 1 All American football player, he’s gay, and he found that the pursuit of his dream of being an NFL player wasn’t going to suit him. So he changed direction and he went into high fashion and he worked at Vogue. He met Bull in an unlikely place, and they formed a trust with one another. Now he’s consulting in this business and helping the clients understand how important it is, how you present yourself.
As an actor, you know how much of a story you tell from how you look, how you dress, how you stand.
Ninety-three percent of all communication is non-verbal. That’s sort of the zeitgeist version of what we’re doing. We’re taking a look at ourselves through the lens of a trial. [Bull and his team investigate people’s] biases, all the things we just wake up with, all the things we’ve learned, all the things we’ve unlearned, the things we’re aware of, the things we’re not aware of.
It’s certainly relevant to how the legal process works. I’m thinking of how “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” reminded us how the lawyers were judged by what they wore every day.
Absolutely. And to go a step further, as a person of color in this society, our vision of the judicial system is justifiably skewed. Understandably so. For me, that is another touchstone, telling stories like the ones that we’re telling. [This show isn’t just] “you tail a person, you check their phone records, then [the case is] over.”
But the services of someone like Dr. Bull and his team — they’re not cheap.
Dr. Phil McGraw [whose legal work is part of the inspiration for “Bull”] did a tremendous amount of pro bono cases and court-appointed cases. It wasn’t just the rich white guy or the rich corporation that got help. That was one of the first questions I asked.
So you’re obviously very busy now, but do you have your eye on the future? Is the ultimate goal to generate your own projects?
Yes. I’m in a space now where I can officially say, OK, this is the date where things are going to shift. I [will] go from doing a show at night and shooting this in the day. You’re talking to a guy [who] was able to crack a book for the first time in a month today. My most important jobs are to be a father and a husband, and so some things have to wait. but I’m not going nowhere. And while tomorrow’s not promised, today’s really awesome.