A musical theater student from Ithaca College, Jeremy Jordan has risen from a lead understudy in a Broadway production of “Rock of Ages” to a supporting actor in his first film, the gospel musical Joyful Noise. Directed by Todd Graff, who may be known to many musical theater students for his cult favorite Camp, the film features Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah as competitive gospel choir members. Jordan plays the grandson of Parton’s character, who falls for Latifah’s daughter (played by Akeelah and the Bee’s Keke Palmer).
I sat down with Jeremy Jordan in a roundtable interview (with my friend, Pat McDonald from Hollywood Chicago) to discuss how the Broadway actor found his way onto a set with Dolly and The Queen, the unique manner in which the film presents race, and more.
Joyful Noise is now playing in theaters.
Tell me your singing background, and how it brought you to the point where you’re at now.
My mom claims she discovered me when I was a boy soprano singing in the shower, riffing Mariah Carey. I was in choir in middle school and high school, and then I started doing some musicals, and that got me into theater, and acting. I went to college for theater, and had a great voice teacher. I took some acting classes, and then I moved to New York. I have been in three Broadway shows already, and on my way to my fourth.
The first time I was on stage, I was an understudy, and it was how I got a role in this movie. I was on for the lead guy on Rock of Ages, and the writer/director of this movie, Todd Graff, was in the audience. I went on stage, sang some rock music, and tried not to pee myself.
Did you love Todd Graff’s cult movie Camp before having worked with him?
I didn’t watch Camp until a few years ago. I come from south Texas, and I didn’t even know there was such a thing [camps] for theater. I enjoy his previous forays.
You’re new to this Hollywood stuff, and then you’re working with Dolly Parton, who has been married to the same person for a long time, and seems in general like a stable person inside the Hollywood scene. Does that encourage you?
Absolutely. Dolly is depicted to be so larger than life, and she can be, but when you meet her, she’s the sweetest most humble and unassuming person. She will give the time of the day to the janitor. She is funny and sassy. Working with her became very easy, very quickly. It was a joy. It didn’t feel intimidating. There were some points where I remember thinking, “Oh yeah, I got a couple of scenes with Dolly Parton, and then I have lunch,” and it’s like, “What am I doing?”
As a southern boy, the film has a more casual approach to the racial melting pot of America. Was that an intentional aim by Todd Graff, and do you think that would be possible in the real small-town America down south?
I feel very strong about this. One of the best things about this movie, I believe, is this mixing of races and cultures. In a way, I feel like the movie is ahead of its time. When that happens, it’s always an issue. In our movie, there’s never one word about, “black,” “white,” “Asian,” anything like that. It’s just simply a given, and that’s how it should be. And eventually we will get to something close to that, though I imagine that will be a long time from now. I feel this movie is ahead of its time, and I feel that is incredibly intentional. Why not make a statement like that, and make it even more of a powerful statement by not even saying anything? It’s a very subliminal message, but not the bad kind.
Talking about race, another factor that incorporates into Joyful Noise is religion. Was religion a back factor on set?
It was not. People were very open with their religion. Todd [Graff] is openly agnostic, and formerly Jewish. He’s as far from gospel as you can think. I am spiritual but I am not religious, and was not raised religious. A lot of people there were raised in gospel choirs. It was very open, and it was very accepting. When we filmed at a church for two weeks, every other day or so the pastor would come in before filming, and give us a prayer or something. People were professional, and kept to themselves – nothing was forced. It was a loving set.
The movie seemed more about “the music” than the actual gospel.
Yeah, and people will take what they will from the film. I think there are many things to take from the film that have to do with religion, and some that do.
As a person more used to the acting technique of stage, what was the most difficult factor for you in this filmmaking process?
[On a film set] you have to worry about tensions more in your body. When you’re on stage, they’re getting a general picture of you, and if you have a few isms they can be easily hidden, and on film they are not. Sometimes when I talk, my mouth starts to droop a little bit. Little annoying things that mostly I only notice. I try to overcome those isms, and try to make myself feel like I can be presentable, and not look I’m doing something that I’m not doing. It’s difficult, but it’s a process I am learning. You can do just as much with a shift of the eye, which can tell a thousand things.
Did you study a lot of film acting?
A little bit. I have a little bit in college, and in the city. Acting is acting, and it’s just the style, and how you use your body.
What advantage did the film have considering the director also wrote the script? Did it allow for more improvisation?
It depends. On terms of improvisation, it depended on how much time we had. If we were running low on time, he’s like, “I know you want to do this, but we have to do it a different way. Just say this, and go.” Sometimes we had that. He was very open. If I, or anyone had a question as to how something should work, he’d ask, “What do you want to say?” Dolly especially. She wrote half her lines. She was all about that. A writer can only do so much, bring so much to the character, before an actor completes that.
If anyone knows a southern woman, it’s Dolly Parton. Are you also a songwriter on top of being a singer?
I do it as a sort of hobby. I do it when I am inspired. People tell me, “You need to do an album.” And it’s something I definitely want to do; it’s always been a secondary thing for me. I find it difficult to write, it takes me a long time, but I love to do it. But Dolly, it will take her a couple hours. It will take me a couple weeks. And I am such a perfectionist that I have to get it right, and am always changing it. For now, it’s stressful to think that I have to do that.
Whose acting career do you want the most?
I’m trying to think of someone who has crossed over from stage to film, but in terms of [film] acting I’ll take Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon [laughs]. In terms of cross over people, I’ll take Harry Connick Jr., or Hugh Jackman. They both ride that line of theatrical and film.
Is that something you want to do, keep your feet in both pools?
Absolutely. I don’t think that I could do just one. Having always done theater, I don’t think I could never not do it. There’s nothing like a live performance, and having immediate feedback from the audience, and running through the story once.
Has this film opened the doors for you?
It would open more doors if I wasn’t so busy. I am now signed up to be in the Broadway production of Newsies in March. I’ll be wrapped up for a few months in that. I’ve had a lot of meetings with a lot of people, but nothing has come up yet because my ability doesn’t start until later in the year. That’s the thing with your first movie, most people don’t see it until it actually comes out.
What is your favorite movie musical?
Singin’ in the Rain.
What’s your favorite sequence?
The title sequence – you can’t beat that. And I grew up on Wizard of Oz.