Broadway's Jeremy Jordan on Challenging New 'American Son' Role: 'It's Humbling to See the Other Side of Things'

Peter Cunningham
Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale and Jeremy Jordan in 'American Son.'

When the curtain rises on the new Broadway play American Son, the audience is presented with a worried, pacing mother played by Kerry Washington, wide awake in the middle of the night and wondering where her only child is.

As the story proceeds, American Son evolves into a comment on both race relations and law enforcement, and mirrors the heart wrenching tales of the likes of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. Along the way, Washington’s character meets a naive young cop played by Jeremy Jordan, in a role that sees the two grappling with deep emotion and wounds both personal and communal.

For Jordan, who’s perhaps most known starring in the CW series Supergirl, the play has been a growing experience both personally and professionally. Here, Jordan talks with Billboard about his path to American Son, what he hopes audiences takes away from its layered story and what he’s learned from performing it night after night: “It’s humbling to be part of something that helps you to grow and makes you realize that we all have a long way to go.”

This is a very heavy show. It’s a punch in the gut and a slap in the face.

It’s a slap in the face to some people, in a good way though. Like, wake up. This is what a lot of people are experiencing.

Shows like this are what the theater is for, right?

I think so. It’s definitely what theater is for today. I mean, there have been moments in theater when a play feels historic and monumental. The second I read this, I felt that this is one of those plays that defines our generation and where we are right now. It felt like it was too important to pass up.

When I saw it, the audience was shaken afterwards -- and during the curtain call, many of the actors had tears in their eyes. I’m wondering how being in the show has been impacting you personally?

Well, I personally am a little luckier than some of the other characters. I do have a couple of intense moments, though. For me, it’s more what doing it every night and talking to people afterwards has done for me as a human being. I’ve always felt like I’ve been pretty progressive and open, but you find little things in how you deal with your everyday life -- especially as a straight white male.

It’s humbling to see the other side of things. It makes you think about how other people are living their lives and having to deal with certain things that I’m not even fully aware of because I have this innate privilege in this country that other people aren’t gifted with. It’s opened my eyes to a lot of things that I thought I knew, but I think that I’m still learning. It’s humbling to be part of something that teaches you every day and helps you to grow, and makes you realize that we all have a long way to go. To be a part of that is really cool.

How did American Son first come on your radar?

I came back from Vancouver after wrapping up my third season of Supergirl on the CW. My agent called me and said that he was going to send me a script, and the producers were interested in casting me. I read it and was lucky enough to get the part without having to go through a whole, crazy audition process. The second I read it I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I was laying in bed and saw the script and opened it to just browse through. A hour and a half later, I’m still reading it and unable to breathe.

Did you have a table read? How did that first one go?

We did about 14 table reads. The first thing we did was sit around and read the play, and tried to gauge each other’s energies. By the end of it, I think we all felt we were on the same page right away. Of course we had a lot of work to do, but we all got really excited about it.

Our director said something that really struck a chord with my that first day. He said, "This piece is about trust. We are here to trust one another and if any of us lose that, this play specifically falls apart." I thought that was cool and poignant, because in this kind of dog-eat-dog world, it’s every man for himself. I find it’s like that a lot of the time in the entertainment industry as well. You’re doing what’s best for you, but the process here was serving the play and the story you’re telling.

It’s also been an interesting process, because I came from three years on a television show, where you’re thrown a script the last minute and try to make it work as best as possible. Here, I’m fortunate to have something well-written and powerful, as well as a great company of actors where I have to rise to my greatest potential every night to try to do it justice.

How did you prepare to embody your character?

This role didn’t require a lot of research because I know this guy and guys like this. I only did a little of research on police officers; my character is so green and kind of a newbie that I didn’t want to get too deep into it. It’s really just about observing life around you. For this process -- just walking around New York City, there's something to see every day, and look at it through the lens of the play. It helps you to see the world in a different light. I’ll go and watch people or police officers for a few minutes and see how they react to certain things. But it’s a very natural, very organic script and the characters are very well-drawn. It’s very real.

How do you grapple with your character, who isn’t exactly portrayed as the hero of this play, and someone who is pretty naive?

He’s different than me of course, but there are similarities too -- and those are the things that are startling to realize at times. You try to grasp the heart and goodness of your character, or what they would perceive to be good. He’s trying to be helpful, and doing his job so he can feed his family. He’s the kind of guy who does everything for his wife and kids. At the same time, he’s been very easily influenced by the world around him in South Florida [where the story takes place] and the police department there.

It’s been a struggle in terms of how I grapple with him. When we first started doing the show, I tried to understand him and was okay with him. But when we started performances, and I was getting people’s reactions to him, I was like, "Oh yeah, I forgot about all of this." I was trying to be real and play it honestly and not worry about that sort of thing. It’s hard to go out on stage and be the kind of person someone looks at like that. It’s one thing to play an outright bad guy who murders people, but to play a normal guy and for him to be as unlikable as he can be in this show... It’s scary. It feels very real and very connected to real life and people sometimes have a hard time drawing a distinction between a character and actor.

One of my favorite moments is during the curtain call. I walk out and grab Kerry’s hand and we give each other a smile and a little squeeze. A lot of people have told me that just that little moment reminds them that, "Oh yeah, they’re cool." It’s been a strange sort of comfort.

As you said, the audience can be very audible, gasping many times during the course of events in the show. What do you hope for people to take away from it when they leave the theater?

The play is 90 minutes -- no intermission -- and the audience has to sit there during some awkward, incredibly difficult discussions that we often, as human beings, walk away from. Because of that, we develop these walls and defense mechanisms. Until we can really start to talk to each other about how we really feel about and everybody is okay with really being able to communicate, it’s going to be a difficult world. So we just want people to talk, be honest, open and truthful.