Christopher Jackson: Handpicked as One of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton Founding Fathers
How a lasting friendship led Mr. Jackson straight to Washington.
Christopher Jackson's big Broadway break came in 2008, when he originated the role of Benny in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning musical In the Heights. Since then, one of the through lines of Jackson's varied and successful career (he won an Emmy for the music he writes for Sesame Street) has been his continued collaboration with Miranda and Heights director Thomas Kail. For years Jackson has performed as a member of Freestyle Love Supreme, a hip-hop improv group cocreated by Miranda and Kail. Now Jackson is starring as George Washington in the Public Theater's Hamilton, a new musical written by Miranda and directed by Kail.
Like In the Heights, Hamilton has a hip-hop sensibility. With Miranda himself in the title role, the musical explores Hamilton's life from his childhood as an orphan in the British West Indies to one of the founding fathers of the United States of America. As Washington, Jackson plays the role of a man he describes as "completely aware of" the young nation's promise — an eye for potential that the actor clearly shares with his character.
When did you first hear Lin talk about Hamilton?
We were still doing Heights on Broadway. We were about to go onstage. [Lin had] picked up this book, and he says to me, "I think I found my next play." And I was like, "Oh, do tell." And he said, "About Alexander Hamilton." And being a bit of a history buff, I was like, "Tha-a-at sounds awesome." And that was all it was. He just had that look in his eye, and I knew that it was gonna be something. It turned out to be quite a lot more than just something.
How would you describe what it is now?
I think it's probably the most important thing, the most fun project, the most challenging project, that I've ever worked on. It's something that keeps you up every night. I don't think I go to bed till two or three in the morning just because it's, you know, you get home and you sort of ask yourself, "What just happened?" I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.
How early did you know that you would be a part of it?
Somewhere around the time I called Lin, and he said, "Hi, Mr. Washington." "…Hello!" It was pretty much that. And Tommy Kail addressing me as Mr. President. I'd say, "Oh hey, yep. Hello."
How has this collaboration compared to In the Heights?
When we were working on Heights, it was quite a while ago. I think all of us in our own way were still trying to figure out how we wanted to tell stories. And one thing was very clear, that Lin was always someone who was trying to push things. He's obviously brilliant…and with Heights, as the first time out for all of us in a lot of respects, it was learning how to tell a story in a way that the audience can relate to. I think that's something that we got really good at.
What is it like to play George Washington?
One of the beautiful parts about Hamilton is it takes these figures that we've always revered as figures of antiquity and there's real blood flowing through their veins. There's real conflict. There's real life. And I think that just changes how we perceive Alexander Hamilton and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It's not like a museum tour. These are real characters dealing with real issues at the height of one of the most exciting human dramas in modern history.
What is your George Washington like?
He, like most of the people in the story, are at a point in time where every single decision affects the lives of countless people. They're ever aware of their place in history and posterity and every decision that they make is with a singular goal except that every single one of them has a different version of how they think events should unfold. And the weight of each decision is something that Washington feels with every breath that he takes. I mean, he's the commander of the American army. The benefit of having history to check back in with and the fact that we're telling the story from that historical perspective informs a lot of what I'm doing.
What aspect of Hamilton are you most excited about?
I guess the thing that I'm most excited about is knowing that people are coming and knowing that people are going to be experiencing it and what it means for the American theater. Because every time Lin puts a show out, especially with, like, a Heights, it shifts the paradigm as to what we can expect to see and what writers then think about writing, what performers desire to perform in. It changes all of that. I think that that's the most exciting thing, and it kind of makes me think about what the theater could be like in another ten years. Because for every Lin Miranda performance, there's some young person out there saying, "Oh, I can write something like this." Or, "I didn't think that this was possible." It opens a world of possibilities.