September 22, 2020

Former ‘Hamilton’ star shares hard-won wisdom

By Michael Battista
Staff Writer

Unlike the real George Washington, Christopher Jackson did not need to cross the Delaware River to enter a fortified Trenton, N.J. Jackson’s troops  — in this case, students  — gathered outside of Kendall Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 28, to await the former “Hamilton” star for the College Union Board’s Spring Lecture.

Most recognized for his performances as Washington in “Hamilton” and Benny in “In The Heights,” the multi-faceted star told students he wasn’t going to let anything stop him from speaking at the College.

“I was stranded at a hotel in Beverly Hills the day before yesterday, watching my friend get nominated for an Oscar,” Jackson said, to which the crowd erupted in cheers. “But I came all the way across the country so that I could be with you guys.”

Jackson started off the night by telling the audience a little about himself: what it has been like to be an actor, singer and writer since 1995 and how he is currently working on a CBS television show called “Bull,” in which he plays a hairstylist named Chunk Palmer.

“I’m still coming to terms with that,” Jackson said.

Jackson said he got where he is today by taking life one step at a time, and it’s incredible how his experiences continue to shape his life.

He wasn’t there just to lecture students — that was something they get enough on a daily basis, he said. Jackson was more excited to turn the house lights up and start a dialogue with the audience.

Talking about his time in “Hamilton” as Washington, Jackson told the crowd just how much time went into preparing for the performance, which included reading biographer Ron Chernow’s work “Washington: A Life.”

Jackson discusses playing George Washington in ‘Hamilton.’ (Kim Iannarone / Staff Photographer)

Jackson has read the book four times to date.

In an interview with The Signal, Jackson said he had one mission in mind when getting into character as America’s first commander in chief.

“My aim was to just portray him as truthful as I could,” Jackson said. “As far as my approach from an acting standpoint… I researched Washington himself for about three and a half years.

“And everyday that I was in the role, I was constantly researching,” he added. “Constantly trying to draw as much from his real life experience as I could. To have had any other kind of approach to it wouldn’t have served the piece very well.”

Walking the same grounds and seeing the same sights as Washington himself helped Jackson believe he could play the character. To walk around Valley Forge and other historical sites helped him understand the character just as much as reading about them, he said.

“I just try to stand up, say the words and believe them,” he told the audience.

Jackson brought up how he felt both connected and disconnected to Washington. From an emotional standpoint, he said his character’s anger and distance affected him in real life, but he’s become a happier person since leaving the show.

He also felt disconnected with Washington, as he owned slaves. Jackson said he wasn’t asked to reconcile that fact, but as an actor, “You have to make sense of the things that don’t make sense.”

The actor mentioned his co-worker and friend Lin-Manuel Miranda throughout the night, referring to him as his brother. Jackson noted how the lyricist, composer and fellow actor helped him land roles in other projects, such as Disney’s 2016 animated film “Moana,” in which he was the singing voice of Chief Tui, Moana’s father.

Jackson told The Signal that relationships like this are one of the most important things in his industry.

“(Relationships are) more valuable than the work itself,” Jackson said. “The power of the team that assembled around ‘In The Heights’ — and it assembled in layers and levels over time — really created the piece itself. I don’t think Lin gets to write for me unless he understands who I am. … Unless we form a friendship that is as close to a brother as anything that most of us will ever experience.”

Jackson said his relationship with people like director Tommy Kail and music composer Alex Lacamoire have also helped bring projects to life.

“It is a moment in time that happens when you are connected with people that you share such kindred spirits with,” he said. “And I think that is reflected in the work that Lin wrote, and what I have been able to bring to life. … There’s an implicit level of trust that exists. Lin and I have literally done thousands of shows together. I’ve spent more time onstage with him than a lot of the people that I’ve known for years.”

Jackson also acknowledged the impact his work has had throughout the world, for example, how he saw inspired high schoolers take part in programs to see how “Hamilton” was created.

When a student asked about “Hamilton’s” biggest impact on others, instead of mentioning this, he said, “We’ve yet to see it.”

Jackson discusses the importance of relationships in show business. (Kim Iannarone / Staff Photographer)

He also saw how his work has touched on important issues like race and immigration. Jackson made light of growing up in Illinois and being proud of Barack Obama for becoming the first black president in 2008.

He said he had the honor of singing “One Last Time” of then-President Obama under Washington’s portrait before he left office — an experience no parent could ever envision for their child.

As the evening came to an end, Jackson announced he had time for one more question. The student related to Alexander Hamilton’s desire to create a legacy and asked Jackson how the idea of leaving behind a legacy influenced his actions. 

Jackson took a moment, as he was happy that this seemed like the perfect way to end the show, and said how Hamilton and so many of the Founding Fathers were constantly worried about their legacies. So much so, he said, that these men impeded their work as they were more worried about what others would think than the possible impact of their actions.

Jackson told the audience he used to be that way, working on his legacy everyday in the form of keeping the lights on and feeding his family. Now, he works on sharing rich experiences with others and not worrying about what will be written in his obituary.

“Your personal legacy is what you do when you get up in the morning,” Jackson said. “You gotta live. You gotta live for yourself. You gotta live for your neighbor. You gotta live for the person around you. You gotta live for your parents.

“Meet their expectations, confound their expectations,” he said. “Confound your own expectations. Wake up and go further than you thought you could possible go when you went to bed last night.”

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