Four-time Emmy award-winner Jonathan Jackson, star of General Hospital and Tuck Everlasting, talks with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick about his journey into Orthodox Christianity, his family, how he lives his faith as a Hollywood actor, music and writing, on this special episode of Roads From Emmaus.
Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick: This is Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, and this is kind of a different episode of Roads From Emmaus. You’re used to hearing me talk in front of a microphone to a bunch of people listening in at a lecture, but today actually we’re doing a conversation. I’m doing an interview with someone. Why would I do that? The reason is that I’m very dedicated to questions of communion and place and what is local and what is connected directly. So once I had heard that my guest for today was out on the East Coast, we worked out a way to connect in person. We’re currently sitting in the parking lot of Newark Liberty International Airport, where he is getting ready to get on his plane to head back to the West Coast.
My guest today is Mr. Jonathan Jackson, who is an actor and a musician perhaps best known for his guest role as Lucky Spencer on General Hospital, which has played for the last couple of years—well, they think you’re taking a break now—but also you’re in a film, Tuck Everlasting, from about ten years ago. He’s won four Emmys, and he also had a recurring role on the Fox series The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which is a spin-off from the Terminator movies, and he has his own band, which is called Enation, and that is why he was here on the East Coast.
Why, you may ask, am I interviewing a man who is a soap opera star? Well, the reason is that right now, he and his family are catechumens in the Orthodox Church. So, thank you very much for meeting with me. I am very honored to be with you, truly.
Mr. Jonathan Jackson: Thank you, Father. I am honored as well. I appreciate it. Glad to be here.
Fr. Andrew: My first question is: how did you get here? What is your religious background?
Mr. Jackson: Both of my parents were raised Seventh-Day Adventists, about probably four generations on each side, Seventh-Day Adventists. So I grew up with that as part of my Christian upbringing until probably about the age of nine or ten. My parents started moving away from that particular denomination. And we moved to Los Angeles when I was ten, just turning 11, started working as an actor pretty quickly. I started on General Hospital when I was 11, so I started really…
Fr. Andrew: Right, and just for those of my listeners who are a little bit older, you may remember from the late 1970s and the early ‘80s, the super-couple Luke and Laura on General Hospital, and Jonathan played their son, Lucky. So that puts you within the soap opera pantheon.
Mr. Jackson: When I moved to L.A., we didn’t have a church that we went to at all. And my brother and I, Richard Lee Jackson—he’s an actor, and he’s in Enation as well—we would listen to tapes of sermons from a couple different speakers, almost every night throughout the week. And that was sort of our church; that was our spiritual life.
For about five years in Los Angeles, from the age of 11 to 16, I pretty much didn’t go to any churches. I just listened to these tapes at night and started reading apologetic spiritual Christian-focused books, probably when I was 12 or 13. A couple of the sermons really cut me, cut me deep, when I was 12 or 13, and that was really when my life started getting directed towards my relationship with God in a very serious way. I started reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and The Great Divorce and all of those great books.
Fr. Andrew: Excellent stuff.
Mr. Jackson: Excellent stuff. And that really put me on a path, around 12 or 13 years old.
So, still wasn’t going to church. I did not see the purpose in it. It made no sense to me. I loved God, loved Jesus, but church was just an absolutely confusing concept. It was almost… to me, it seemed pointless. I thought if I can read books, if I can listen to tapes, why do I need to go?
Fr. Andrew: Right. Just me-and-Jesus, right?
Mr. Jackson: Right, yeah, exactly. Well, and at the same time, there was this cosmic sense, too. I always felt that I wanted to be… I didn’t want to belong to a denomination. I wanted to belong to the whole worldwide Christian movement. I had no concept of what that might mean as a universal Church, but I felt connected to C.S. Lewis who was from a prior generation, who was from England, and I thought—
Fr. Andrew: And an Anglican.
Mr. Jackson: —and an Anglican, right. But for me, I was like: that’s someone that I feel connected to. Denominations just seemed completely strange to me, to be honest.
And then around 17 years old, we actually did start to find some church groups, and that was more in the charismatic, non-denominational world, Protestant world.
Fr. Andrew: So how old are you now?
Mr. Jackson: 29.
Fr. Andrew: 29. How did you get from that point in your late teens to now? You’re a catechumen in the Orthodox Church.
Mr. Jackson: I wouldn’t have even known what the word was a few years ago.
Fr. Andrew: Yeah, it’s an Orthodox shibboleth. You throw it out, and, yeah, he’s in. He’s in.
Mr. Jackson: Well, you know, once we got connected with more of the charismatic movement of things, we actually did a home church in Burbank for two and a half years that my brother and I sort of led for the most part with my parents. They would come in and out of town, and a pastor that we were connected with would sort of oversee things. But we did that for about two and a half years with me and anywhere from about 15 to 20 actors and actresses and people in the industry that would come pretty much every weekend.
Fr. Andrew: So your family sort of formed the nucleus of this group, but then there were other people associated with it.
Mr. Jackson: Yes, which was great. It was a very powerful time, and it was an amazing experience. I moved back up to Washington state after I got married. I got married—it’ll be ten years in June.
Fr. Andrew: You got married at 19?
Mr. Jackson: 20. I had just turned 20.
Fr. Andrew: Good for you, man. Good for you. I’m very much in favor of young marriage. Everyone take note.
Mr. Jackson: Yes, it was. Young marriage, and I already have three kids. I have an eight-year-old and a six-year-old and a 17-month-old.
Fr. Andrew: Thank God.
Mr. Jackson: Yeah, it’s wonderful.
Anyway, charismatic movement for ten years, really. And there were some beautiful, amazing experiences. There was something that I think many people in the charismatic movement would be drawn towards Orthodoxy, because a lot of the more rationalistic elements in some other Protestant denominations really shy away from the Holy Spirit. They shy away from anything sort of mystical and supernatural. I think that at the heart of this yearning that Protestant charismatic people have is a yearning to encounter God, to experience him, the mystery of who he is.
Fr. Andrew: Those are great words to use for that.
Mr. Jackson: And they don’t have the tradition of the Church. They just don’t, so they are creating new traditions, but I think that for the most part, people’s hearts are absolutely in the right place. They’re searching for God. They’re searching for that encounter. And I think that many of them would find a lot of answers in the ancient faith, and would find a home. It certainly has been like that for me.
Fr. Andrew: And in terms of how it all started, how did that transition happen? What was the discovery, the catalyst that got you there?
Mr. Jackson: You know, I was sent to Romania to work on a film. I was there for about three and a half months in Bucharest.
Fr. Andrew: What film was this?
Mr. Jackson: It’s a funny story. It’s a movie that ended up being called The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. It’s interesting because I had a great, great role, co-starring role, but very important to the film. It was based on a book, and I was there for three and a half months, shot everything, and when they were editing the movie, the studio ended up wanting to cut my entire character out of the film.
Fr. Andrew: Nice.
Mr. Jackson: So it happens, so I’m not in the movie. But I think I was sent there for another reason.
Fr. Andrew: Yeah. Providence.
Mr. Jackson: Yes. And I went with my wife, and I had two kids at the time, Caleb and Adora. We were there for three and half months in Romania, and it was really intense. We were in Bucharest, so it was a very intense environment. Interestingly enough, that’s not where I learned about Orthodoxy.
Fr. Andrew: Oh, wow. There’s Orthodox churches on every corner there!
Mr. Jackson: It should have been, but I tell you, where I was in my head-space was: anything ancient was just oppressive and religious. That was just an assumption. That’s all I knew.
I went into a few Orthodox churches, super-small, lots of gold and completely foreign to me. And I didn’t really think anything of it. I thought Orthodox were sort of the—and my wife thought the same sort of thing; she’s Italian, so she grew up Roman Catholic—we both had the same thought about it, which was: it was kind of the awkward cousin of Roman Catholicism. That was all we thought of.
Fr. Andrew: Yes, we get that a lot!
Mr. Jackson: I didn’t even think to look [further] into it. I just thought, aw, it’s just some bizarre offshoot of Rome or something.
Fr. Andrew: Did you go to any sort of church services while you were there, or did you just visit churches?
Mr. Jackson: No, we visited churches. The first thing we did when we got there was go into an Orthodox church. And the first thing we did when we exited was we got mugged by gypsies. No joke. So it wasn’t quite “Welcome to Romania.”
Romania was great, but what happened was, I had a week off of filming, and my wife’s Italian. We thought, “Hey, let’s go to Rome.”
Fr. Andrew: Yeah, it’s not that far away.
Mr. Jackson: It’s not that far away, so… We’d already been in Bucharest for two months, I think, at that time. So we go to Rome and that was where I first encountered, for me, this sense of “Wait a second. There’s a lot more to this faith, to Christianity, than I ever thought. And it doesn’t just go back to the founding fathers of America.”
Fr. Andrew: Now, was your wife a practicing Roman Catholic when you got married?
Mr. Jackson: No. No, the way she came back to Christ… She drifted away from her faith in her 20s, had a very dark period. That’s a whole ‘nother thing, very powerful story, of how we got together. She came back to Christ at the home churches that we were having.
Fr. Andrew: Okay. Now, is that how you met her, through the church?
Mr. Jackson: Well, she was an actress on General Hospital, so we crossed paths, and it was actually at the Emmys that we really connected, because I thanked Christ when I received one of the awards, and that did something in her. She was away from the Lord at that time.
Fr. Andrew: Wonderful.
Mr. Jackson: She felt scandalized and also really intrigued by it. It was like: “You don’t say that!”
Fr. Andrew: Yeah, “Wait a minute here. Jesus is up there now!” suddenly.
Mr. Jackson: So anyway, no, she was not Roman Catholic. She was in the same place I was, which was non-denominational. And I expected, in my sort of, I guess you could say, religious bigotry almost, I expected to go to Rome and feel like “This is such an oppressive religious place. It has to be.” Well, it was the exact opposite.
I got there. It was Palm Sunday, and it was just incredible. Palm branches were lined up on the streets, and Pope Benedict was speaking. We were three blocks away from St. Peter’s, and it was magical. It was really, really profound, but I didn’t really know why. In the Colisseum, there’s this big cross that’s there, and it just hit my wife and [me] so powerfully that, to be in the presence of Christian martyrs… It’s one thing to read about it in a book; it’s another thing to be there, physically, and to realize.
That was the trip that awakened something in me. I thought, “I have to learn more about my faith, more about Christian history.” We went back to Romania. I ordered a book by Justo L. Gonzalez. He’s a really great historian. He did a book called The Story of Christianity, two volumes. I read the first book, and he’s a Protestant individual, but it really opened my eyes at Christian history.
That was the rabbit-hole, because once you open that door and you go, “Well, wait a second! Where did this all come from?”
Fr. Andrew: That’s like the old quote—you’ve probably heard this—from John Henry Newman, who converted from the Anglican Church to Roman Catholicism. He said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”
Mr. Jackson: Yeah. Yeah, you know there it’s funny, because I read him. What actually happened was, because I’d gone to Rome, and the history books I started reading, they were all either Catholic or Protestant. There was almost no mention of Orthodoxy or of the Eastern Church.
Fr. Andrew: Yeah, we’re invisible.
Mr. Jackson: I spent three years reading, intentionally reading history, Christian history, and encountered almost nothing about the Eastern Church, because they’re all written by Western historians.
I was in this place where I started to discover what I considered to be the historic Church, the only option. I thought that it led back to Rome. I read G.K. Chesterton. I read probably 15 of Pope Benedict’s books. I read John Paul II, Henry Nouwen. “Now-en”: is that how you say his name?
Fr. Andrew: “New-in.”
Mr. Jackson: “New-in.” Beautiful books, like Life of the Beloved and the one on the Prodigal Son. Powerful, powerful stuff. But there were some things about Roman Catholicism that I couldn’t quite reconcile, things like papal infallibility, especially how late that became an official doctrine, like around 1870 or something. That was kind of interesting to me, because I was looking for the continuity, the history of the faith.
I finally, after three years, came to this turning point where I thought, “Okay…” Because my wife and I started going to some Catholic Masses, and I went to probably 12 over the course of that journey. And it was interesting because I went there and I was very moved by the Holy Spirit, just moved, and I thought, “Wow. I’m in the presence of… This is a historic faith.” But I felt like I was almost in the history of the Middle Ages. It wasn’t until I went to an Orthodox church for the first time that I felt that I was in the presence of the ancient Church, the original, ancient Church—but I skipped ahead.
Anyway, I came to this point where I realized, “Am I going to become Catholic?” And there were just a few things, very big things in my heart, that I couldn’t quite wrap my soul around, so I was literally praying for a third door. I asked God; I said, “I no longer understand Protestantism,” because, to me, a house divided against itself can’t stand. There’s over 23,000 denominations in America alone.
Fr. Andrew: Depending on how you count.
Mr. Jackson: Yeah, well, whether it’s nine or 20, there are thousands and thousands of denominations in America alone. How does that square with the first thousand years of the faith being one? Obviously, there’s many heresies, but the universal Church is one, and even after Rome split away, they obviously still consider themselves the one Church.
Fr. Andrew: The story’s still about unity.
Mr. Jackson: Yes, that’s the core. And even Martin Luther was… They weren’t all of a sudden saying, “Everything is everything,” and “You can be whatever you can be.” It was still trying to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
I was praying, and I had many nights that were bordering on a sort of almost dark night of the soul, a tormenting search for truth, because I so desperately wanted the unity of the ancient faith. And yet, there was just something about the Roman Catholic faith that was not fully resonating with me. But all I knew was that the other option was to remain Protestant.
I came to the end of that search after about three years, and I finally was praying and just said, “I guess at this point, because I can’t fully embrace Roman Catholicism, I guess I’m going to have to be a sort of disenfranchised Protestant.” And this thought came into my head. I don’t know how it happened. I thought, “Before I completely throw in the towel on this whole thing and just become a resigned Protestant, I’ve never studied the Great Schism, really.” I thought, “That’s one thing I should probably… All the Christian history I’ve been reading. I should look at this.”
As soon as I looked that up, it was like lightning. All of these things started to click. I don’t even know how it happened. It was like a blur. I think the first book I read was by Fr. John Anthony McGuckin, and it had just been released. It was a new book, and I got it on my iPhone, and it’s The Orthodox Church.
Fr. Andrew: It’s just come out in paperback, by the way.
Mr. Jackson: I would recommend that to anybody who is interested in learning about the Orthodox Church. And I couldn’t put it down. I mean, I would just stay up, late into the night, reading it. From there on, it just was… It was the culmination of that [which] at that point had become a four-year journey of learning and searching.
I continued to read The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware, For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann (a phenomenal book), Becoming Orthodox by Gillquist, The Mountain of Silence... I can never remember the author’s name. I hope an Antiochian priest can help me out with it…
Fr. Andrew: Kyriacos Markides.
Mr. Jackson: That book was phenomenal, very transformative.
Anyway, it goes on. There’s a huge list of books that I’ve been reading since then, and all of them have been just incredible and profound. I started to Google churches, Orthodox churches, and I found there was a couple Greek churches that I went to. The first time I entered an Orthodox church, it was on a day when no one was there. There was this older lady in the church; the doors were locked, I knocked on there, and she was kind of like, “What are you doing here?” She let me in; she was really sweet.
I said, “I’m just sort of looking at these churches. I don’t really know much about it yet.”
She said, “Come on in! Go ahead, it’s empty. Just walk on in. Feel free to look around.” I entered the church all by myself, completely silent, surrounded by ginormous icons, completely foreign to my background, and I look up and the Pantocrator is there. The first thing that came out of my mouth was an expletive, which probably wasn’t the right thing…
Fr. Andrew: Well, but what do you say when you’re looking at the Lord, God Almighty?
Mr. Jackson: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I was like… “Holy…! Wow, I probably shouldn’t have said that.” But I was so dumb-founded at what I felt. And that was the moment when I realized what I felt at a Roman Catholic service was like I had been transported almost to the Middle Ages. What I felt here was: This was the original Church. And I felt that just being in the presence of the icons.
But another interesting thing was: I’d had a dream about being in an Orthodox church, before I ever actually went to one. When I went to that church which was a really beautiful Greek church… And I went to another one which was also a beautiful Greek church called St. Nicholas around the Ventura area, I believe. What was interesting is that I had a very, very vivid dream about what it felt like to be in this particular Orthodox church, before I’d ever been to one.
And when I went to those churches, they were just a little bit different [from] the dream, and I was really, for some reason, captivated by that. I kept searching online, and I found this particular church, the one that I go to now, called Holy Virgin Mary Cathedral in Silverlake, and the photo on the website was exactly the experience that I’d had. There were no pews, and that was very specific in the dream that I’d had: there were no pews there. The light was streaming through the windows with incense, and it was just very mystical, people were moving about. And as soon as I saw that, I thought, “That’s, that was it! That was what I experienced!”
Fr. Andrew: Oh, wow!
Mr. Jackson: I called up and the rector of the church, Fr. John Strickland, answered the phone. He had just been sent down two days prior from Seattle. He answered the phone, and I could tell immediately this was the right place, because he was a convert himself, both from Washington state, and we just hit it off.
I got some meetings with him, and then I brought my wife, Elisa, and we started connecting with him. The first service—feel free to cut me off if you have more questions—
Fr. Andrew: No, no, this is a good story!
Mr. Jackson: All right. The first service I actually went to there was… I was all by myself, because I was still scouting this out. It was interesting because the first reaction I had when I entered into the church… I got this very, very strong impression that said, “Leave. Run. Just get out. Just go. Don’t. You shouldn’t be here.” And I thought it was so strange, because I had already read quite a few books, I knew in my heart that this was where God was sending me, and I thought, “Wow.” I almost started sweating. It was like this really intense thing.
I was very uncomfortable. I didn’t know anybody. It was very foreign. I didn’t know what to do and all of that, but, after that, I felt like the Holy Spirit said, “No, stay for the whole thing, and then you’ll know how you feel about it.” [Sigh.] I said, “Okay, I can do this. I can do this.” So the first 45 minutes was just absolute discomfort, just absolute.
Fr. Andrew: You know, you’re not the first person I’ve heard that from. There’s been a lot of people that, when they encounter Orthodoxy, that there is this strong sense of discomfort, and I think, to sort of put it into an interpretive matrix, I think it’s because you really are standing in the presence of God. And just as your reaction to seeing the Pantocrator was to throw out some four-letter words, what does one say in the presence of God? What does one feel or do?
I actually saw one guy who was an atheist who came to an Orthodox church because he was interested in a girl who was attending, and he was present for about 20 minutes, and then he ran out the front door and threw up on the front lawn and literally ran away. That’s a little bit more extreme than your reaction, but yeah.
Mr. Jackson: I was sweating. I was on my way there. But it was like a vivid thought. It was not my own thought. It was like: “Run. Leave. Get out of here. Now.” And I thought, “What on earth? That’s not… I don’t think that’s from God, but what is going on here?” The incredible thing was: “Stay for the whole thing and then you’ll know how you feel.”
45 minutes into it, something happened. The whole room transformed, and it went from utter discomfort to—and I’ll tell you when it was for the Orthodox listeners who would know in the Divine Liturgy—it was right after the homily, after the prayers for the catechumens. Whatever hymn is sung—I’m sure there are many, but there’s a specific hymn that is sung after “Catechumens depart.” And the whole place visually transformed.
Fr. Andrew: It’s probably the Cherubic Hymn.
Mr. Jackson: I think that’s probably what it is.
Fr. Andrew: It’s about that we represent the angels.
Mr. Jackson: Yes.
Fr. Andrew: And we’re worshiping at the very throne and the altar of God.
Mr. Jackson: So that’s what happened, because heaven… opened up. And I was just standing there. From one extreme of just “Get out of here. This is just really foreign and bizarre and uncomfortable.” to tears streaming down my face, completely captivated. And the first service I went to, which, in my chronological memory now, I visited those Greek churches after; I think I actually went to this one first, and then checked out a few other ones to see which ones were a better connection for me personally, but the whole room [transformed]—but the first service was on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, which we just had a few weeks ago.
And what captivated me in that moment was I had never seen a corporate body of people praying to God with such humility. I just had never seen it. It took my breath away, to see people crossing themselves, “Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” And it wasn’t the self-flagellation, I’m-a-worm kind of repentance. It wasn’t. It was not. It was a repentance that was somehow connected to joy. It was somehow connected to the Resurrection. It was somehow… It was like a romantic connection with God.
I had never seen that before, and as tears were streaming down my face, I just found myself praying, “All I want to do is be here, in the presence. I don’t care about anything else in the world. All I want to do is just be here in this presence with this body of people.” Not just the local body of people, but the Body.
Fr. Andrew: The Body.
Mr. Jackson: The Body of Christ.
At that point… It wasn’t easy from that point.
Fr. Andrew: No, it’s never easy. It’s never easy.
Mr. Jackson: But that was certainly a pivotal moment.
Fr. Andrew: You don’t have to go into this in detail if you don’t want to: your wife, was she with you at that experience?
Mr. Jackson: She was not with me at that first experience, no.
Fr. Andrew: So you brought her after having had that.
Mr. Jackson: Yes, and I brought her to meet with Fr. John before she ever went to a service. And he was just amazing. We got together and talked about a lot of stuff. He walked us through the temple before he ever went to a service. And it was intimidating for her. She looked at the icons, and she felt kind of scared. I mean, as they say, we don’t judge the icons; they judge us. And it’s true. It’s true. It’s scary; it’s intimidating. And especially because people have to understand that if you’ve grown up in the West, either in Roman Catholicism or most Protestant denominations, the exterior of Orthodoxy, you are looking at it through a lens of whatever experiences or encounters you’ve had with Roman Catholicism.
Now, and I don’t want to bag on the Roman Catholics too much. I have a lot of respect for them. I have a great relationship with many Roman Catholics, so I don’t want to be too polemic in my dialogue about that, but there are differences in the traditions. Some of the more legalistic views of salvation… So that was what my wife was experiencing. When she was in the Orthodox church, she was seeing it through the lens of what she had experienced in Catholicism.
Fr. Andrew: As an ex-Catholic.
Mr. Jackson: As an ex-Catholic, yeah. And, not only that, but being sort of influenced very heavily by ten years in the Protestant world, which is extremely anti-Catholic. It’s Rome-o-phobia, is one of the terms I know.
Fr. Andrew: Especially what we might think of as “low church Protestantism.”
Mr. Jackson: Yes, absolutely. So there was no sacramental background for me. The sacraments were… It took me a long time, and I’m still growing in my understanding, and, God willing, I’ll continue to grow and not become stagnant.
But anyway, she was a little more hesitant about things. But I would share with her all the time, every book I was reading. I’d read stuff to her; I’d talk to her about it. Even while I was looking into Catholicism, that opened up looking at the Virgin Mary from a different perspective, which, growing up in the Protestant world, that was the most bizarre, foreign thing you could possibly think of. And, ex-Catholic, my wife, she had pushed Mary to the side, she’s completely irrelevant, except maybe on Christmas. She’s cool during Christmas; other than that…
Fr. Andrew: “You get to hold the baby Jesus.”
Mr. Jackson: Yeah, exactly. But she started to come along and warm up. We came into it, entering into Lent, and I have one of those personalities that I go for things. So I went for it. I’m fasting; I’m going to experience this. She was nursing at the time with our youngest son, so she wasn’t able to fast as much. And we actually had a kind of not-the-most-wonderful Pascha experience because of the tension that was there. And that’s okay. That’s part of the journey.
But now, she’s just… Her heart is completely immersed. She was supposed to go to Forgiveness Vespers last night, and there was a miscommunication, and she had to miss it because of the baby. She called me on the phone, just crying, because she wanted to be there. That’s where her heart is.
Fr. Andrew: We know motherhood and being an Orthodox Christian is—we don’t have time to go into all that—but I’ve noticed it with my own wife. It is a constant… It is an ascetical struggle, too. It’s a huge thing.
Well, I wanted to shift gears a little bit and ask you about something people who are fans of yours would have a question about which is: How does your faith, especially now as someone who’s becoming an Orthodox Christian, inform and shape your acting and also your music?
Mr. Jackson: Yeah, those are great questions. I started acting, like I said, when I was around 11.
Fr. Andrew: That was on General Hospital.
Mr. Jackson: Yeah, and pretty early on, my brother and I realized that we were going to have to do some serious thinking about how this profession connects to our faith.
Fr. Andrew: Is that… I would presume part of that is because, as an actor, the characters that you’re called upon to play are often doing things that you as a Christian would not remotely think about doing.
Mr. Jackson: Absolutely. That’s acting. You’re acting other people.
Fr. Andrew: You’re somebody else.
Mr. Jackson: Yeah, it’s a really interesting medium, very, very interesting. One of the things that gives me comfort is that Christ taught through parables, through stories. I approach the craft of acting from the place of story-telling, from the place of looking for ways to portray life honestly, that can hopefully draw people into almost like a mirror, being able to see themselves go through an experience.
For instance, if a story portrays vengeance, sometimes that can be a very devastating, ugly thing to see if you take it to its full extent, what vengeance can look like. And it’s very Shakespearean, very Biblical.
Fr. Andrew: I think Shakespeare uses this image of a mirror, holding the mirror up to life.
Mr. Jackson: Does he? Well, there you go. But the beautiful thing about that is, let’s say that in your heart, you have this seed of anger or bitterness towards someone, and you have an instinct towards some sort of vengeance—not in any grandiose way—but you see a film that shows it in a grandiose way, and all of a sudden, you realize: “Wow. Look at what that does.”
Fr. Andrew: “Look at how evil that really is.”
Mr. Jackson: Yeah. It allows you to see yourself in an exaggerated, expanded form that can, I think, change people’s lives. Or maybe if it’s drug addiction. Let’s say there’s somebody who’s just messing around with pot, and they would never consider doing heroin or crack or something. But they go and see a film about a drug addict, and they see the devastation of it… Maybe it’ll make them think twice about messing around with that. Maybe they’ll remember that image of this suffering character—which was fiction; there’s an actor doing it—but maybe it’ll have an impact on them, to say, “I don’t ever want to end up like that.”
Fr. Andrew: I think often stories can teach far more effectively, at least for a lot of people, than simply giving a sermon or teaching, “This is what our morality is.” Yes, I think we need to do that, but at the same time, if we don’t see an image in our minds of what evil looks like, what holiness looks like, then often we don’t have any sense of how to do it, or whether we should.
Mr. Jackson: It remains abstract. It remains theoretical. In Orthodoxy, that’s a huge thing, is encountering God. One of the other books I read, by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, was Encountering the Mystery, which was really beautiful.
Acting is a kind of encounter, and some of the people that I look to as sort of inspiration are C.S. Lewis—he wrote stories. I think at some point in his life [he] realized, because he was one of the best Christian apologists in the last few hundred years, I think, but he still wrote stories. He wrote Narnia. He realized that “I need to present this in a way that people can encounter it in a visceral, instinctual, emotional way.”
Like getting married, for instance. You don’t fall in love theoretically. You don’t fall in love rationally. You fall in love by encountering that other person, and if someone asks you, you can name a few things, but really you can’t put your finger on what it is. It’s just ... a mystery.
Fr. Andrew: It’s that one.
Mr. Jackson: So stories, I think, they do that for people. And the other one was Dostoyevsky, who was a huge influence, because I got into him when I was a teenager, and he wrote about really, really dark things. And yet, he wrote about it from a place of the light. So, as an actor, I was playing serial killers, suicidal people, heroin addicts. For whatever reason, the majority of the roles I played were very dark, very disturbed roles, and yet I had to search for a way to portray that, not enter into the darkness myself to portray it, but actually enter [further] into the light so that I would be able to portray the darkness, but from a place of prayer and intercession, it would actually, God willing, be some form of deliverance or enlightenment for people.
Fr. Andrew: Well, here’s a kind of a more personal question: Humility is the key Orthodox virtue. It’s the way that we… It’s the path that we’re walking as Orthodox Christians. I mention that because some people might think, “Well, why is he interviewing this guy who’s a TV and film star and a musician and so forth?” But that’s not the point of the interview. It’s not that you have fame.
On the other hand, I wanted to point out, at least for some of our Orthodox listeners that, yes, there are some famous people who are Orthodox, not just people raised in the faith like Tina Fey from Saturday Night Live or Jennifer Aniston from Friends or Jim and John Belushi who were all raised Orthodox, but also some people who have come to it as adults, like Pittsburg Steelers football player Troy Polamalu who’s kind of a hero to the Pennsylvania Orthodox, actor Tom Hanks who married himself a Greek girl, and Sound Garden lead singer Chris Cornell, and now you.
How does that work for you? Obviously, our culture values fame as an almost inherent good, but learning humility is our goal as Orthodox Christians. I would say that celebrity is almost a necessary tool in your job; it’s one of the things you kind of have to have to be able to do it. So, knowing that, how do you try to pursue humility in the midst of all of these fans telling you how great you are?
Mr. Jackson: I think that’s a life-long journey and a question. The Jesus prayer is helpful. That’s a question I’ve been asking ever since I was 12 years old. One of the things is: I would get up every morning as I was having that transformation in my life with God, and I would get up every morning and one of the prayers that I would pray is that I would ask for wisdom, but I would say, “But only give me wisdom in proportion to humility, because I don’t want wisdom without that, counterbalancing.”
And then you also have C.S. Lewis, for instance, basically saying that the more humble one gets, the more they become aware of their pride. So for me, one of the biggest transformations that I had was specifically one of those sermons I listened to when I was a kid [which] was about pride, and it just cut me to the core. I’d never really understood how prideful and arrogant and inconsiderate I was in my thought life and in the things that I said to people. It became almost a running joke with the Holy Spirit. I all of a sudden started hearing myself in conversations with people and these horribly judgmental thoughts. I just thought, “Wow! I just never knew all this existed in me.” But knowing that there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ, that anchored me to be able to receive the conviction and repent without a sense of losing hope.
It’s kind of like a question about humility is sort of impossible to answer, because, maybe as C.S. Lewis said, basically the idea that writing about humility is impossible; there’s no humble way to do it. Basically, I don’t know how to do that. All I know is that “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is a part of my daily existence with God. The lives of the saints: if you think you’re spiritual or holy, just read about one of the saints, and then it’ll become pretty obvious that there’s a lifetime and an eternity left to discover the faith.
I think those are some of the main things. Fame is ridiculous, and it’s completely the opposite emphasis of the kingdom. Whoever’s last will be first; whoever’s first will be last. And you have to enter the kingdom like a child.
Fr. Andrew: I think it’s a cross, actually. I think fame is a cross. There’s some people that eat it up, and I’m sure you’ve probably met a lot of people like that. What do you do? But at the same time, I think, if you see it as a cross, whether it’s someone who just stands up in front of a group of a hundred people or someone who stands up in front of millions, it’s still a cross. It’s always a cross.
Mr. Jackson: Right. Yeah. And I will say that my journey with God has been desperately asking that question. “Lord, please help me, help me stay in your presence.” There’s no way to remain open to his grace without humility, and discovering Orthodoxy and experiencing it thus far and walking towards our coming baptism, I will say that the Orthodox tradition and the lives of the saints, the communion of saints, and the doctrines and the theology in the Orthodox faith helps one on the path of humility.
One of the things that really struck me, the first service I went to, was when the priest, who was Fr. John, in the middle of the service, they come out and he bowed and said, “Forgive me, brothers and sisters.” Now, that was mind-blowing, because in the West, all we know about the priesthood is a sort of clericalism, is a sort of being above everyone else.
Fr. Andrew: “The intermediary.”
Mr. Jackson: Yes, the intermediary between God and man. And this was totally different. This was… This was a priesthood based in humility, based in serving, and being a reflection and an icon of Christ. And it’s built into the system, into the tradition. It’s not like this individual, Fr. John, happens to be humble, but it’s in the system. It’s there. And [in] the prayers during confession that the priest prays. I mean, that just blew me away: the humility. It’s not like, “Yes, yes, you poor sinner, and I’ll absolve you.” No. It’s like, “I am in the same boat you are, and we stand before the Judge who will come again.”
I’m thankful for the Orthodox Church because it’s given me a home and a place to engage in that spiritual warfare of humility—because it’s warfare—and it’s helped to give me a home.
Fr. Andrew: You mentioned your impending baptism. Today is the first day of Lent for Orthodox Christians here in 2012. We call this “Pure Monday” or “Clean Monday,” and when is it that you’re going to be baptized?
Mr. Jackson: God willing, it will be Pascha. It should be Holy Saturday.
Fr. Andrew: So that is the day. I mean, you could be baptized any day, but that is the day. So it’ll be you and your wife and your three kids.
Mr. Jackson: Yes.
Fr. Andrew: Wow.
Mr. Jackson: And one thing I did want to mention about my family coming into the Church was the experience that my children had, because that was really fascinating, because they absolutely love it. I mean, when they first came, it was like… It was just… They were just astounded.
Fr. Andrew: It’s like a three-ring circus for kids.
Mr. Jackson: Oh, it’s incredible!
Fr. Andrew: I’ve got three kids myself.
Mr. Jackson: I think that learning, encountering the faith visually… Gilquist talks about this, and I’m sure lots of other authors do: but just all the senses are present in the Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox service: the smell of the incense, the sound of the hymns that are joining with the angels, the icons and the visual element, and then for the baptized Orthodox, Communion: tasting and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ—all the senses are there, and for a child, for a six-year-old, seven-year-old, I think hearing a sermon for an hour and twenty minutes is not going to impact them as much as just being in the midst of everything and just receiving it from that mysterious place.
Even my youngest, Titus, who is 17 months old. He wakes up every morning and wants to go to the beautiful corner, and he wants to kiss the icons. And he wakes up and says, “Jesuh?” trying to say, “Jesus.” And he taps his little head to do the sign of the cross. That young, they’re already able to encounter that Jesus is not a theoretical name. There’s an image, and why is that important? Because God made himself visible in Christ, and the connection between icons and the Incarnation of God is very profound to me, and to see my children’s response and connection to experiencing God, not just through teaching, but visually and through the encounter, is just powerful.
Fr. Andrew: I have two more questions. One is to ask about what kind of projects you have going on. One of the ones you’ve told me about, prior to this interview, is that you’re working on a book about the intersection, the connection, the shaping between Orthodoxy and what you do for a living.
Mr. Jackson: That particular book is called Acting in the Spirit, and the idea behind it was there are a lot of methods out there for actors, lots of different…
Fr. Andrew: Sure, Stanislavski.
Mr. Jackson: Stanislavski and so on. Meisner and so on.
Fr. Andrew: I read that back in college.
Mr. Jackson: I have nothing against them in concept really, but I wanted to explore a different way, a different way to approach the craft of acting, and I’ve been sort of doing that on my journey. It’s been about 20 years now of acting. I wanted to explore that: how do you approach doing dark characters, like you said? How do you approach those things?
The book is really about that. Every chapter, pretty much, is “Acting as Prayer” or “Acting as Prophecy,” “Acting as Encounter,” all of those things. It deals with the art of acting, but also, really any kind of art form. If someone’s a musician, a poet, a writer, a director—it all connects, but it’s mostly focused on acting.
One of the key things for that, in the book, is the Orthodox view, a sacramental worldview, which was really powerful for me, to realize that the whole world is a sacrament, and when the unseen God meets the physical… And acting is a physical medium: you’re dealing with other people; it’s incarnational. So in some way, the word has to become flesh, mystically, in us all who are in Christ, encountering humanity together in the art of acting. It’s an exploration, really. It’s certainly not anything that’s coming—I hope not—from a place where I think that I know a lot. It’s more just asking a lot of questions and saying, “This is my experience,” and then hopefully, maybe, it’ll inspire some people, because some of the method acting can become rather devastating to people personally, in their personal lives.
A lot of young actors, if they’re going to play a heroin addict, start experimenting with drugs, because they think they have to approach it from that place of method acting. My take on it is that that’s absolutely unnecessary. If you grow in the compassionate heart, as St. Isaac talks about, and you approach it from a cosmic place, not just as an individual, that your heart should be open to weep for those who weep, to rejoice with those who rejoice, and as an actor it becomes a very, very cosmic, spiritual experience, because you’re entering into the life of the character, but what’s not fiction about what you’re doing is the intercession that is happening for the people that you’re working with and the people that will view the story and what’s being portrayed. That’s some of the themes in the book.
Fr. Andrew: And that’s called Acting in the Spirit?
Mr. Jackson: Acting in the Spirit, yes.
Fr. Andrew: We’ll be looking for that, God willing, when it comes out. Here’s my last question, then. For those of your fans, or whoever else might be listening to this, who don’t know anything about the Orthodox Church, and this whole thing may be coming out of left field for them, what would you say to them? If you had the opportunity to sit down with them, as you have the opportunity of sitting down with me, and they said to you, “What is this?” Maybe having heard everything you’ve just said, what message would you give? What message would you give to your fans about Orthodox Christianity?
Mr. Jackson: Hmm. Wow. Well, I would have to err on the side of less words and more reliance on prayer in encountering that person I was talking to. I would just say it’s the most beautiful thing that you could ever experience and that, “for God so loved the world that he gave…” that’s what it is to me. And it’s available for the whole world, for all of creation. If someone is drawn towards Christ, then I would say that this is the perfect home, and if you come from a different background, a different tradition, then it will be, most likely, a little bit awkward at times, but there is a blessing and a transcendence on the other side of awkward that is worth it.
I know, for me, my journey has sort of been similar to that moment in the Gospel of John when Jesus started telling his followers, “He who does not eat my flesh and drink my blood is not worthy to…”
Fr. Andrew: John 6.
Mr. Jackson: Yes. I can’t remember the number—you might know—but there were 72 disciples or whatever, but the majority left.
Fr. Andrew: Yes, the majority left when he said that.
Mr. Jackson: And pretty much all that remained were the Twelve, and Jesus turned, and he looked, and he said, “Are you going to leave, too?” And Peter’s response to Christ is sort of how my heart feels toward the Orthodox Church, which is: “That’s a hard saying, what you just said. I don’t completely understand it, but you have the words of eternal life. Where else can I go?” And that’s sort of what it is. I’m captivated, and even in the midst of the awkwardness, the difficulties at times, there is a transcendent beauty and a communion with God that I honestly wouldn’t trade anything for, because this is the 2,0090-year-old, original deal right here.
And also, the mystical communion of saints is something that’s been very, very powerful: to realize that when we’re in the Divine Liturgy, we’re not just praying together. We’re praying with the global Body of Christ that’s alive, present today, but we’re praying with the Body of Christ that’s outside of time as well, and we’re joining in with heaven. Being a part of that mystical experience is something you can’t put into words, and it’s not available, really, anywhere else, because it’s just the historic Church. It’s the historic faith.
Fr. Andrew: Thank you very, very much for coming and talking with me today. Once again, I’m here with actor and musician Jonathan Jackson, and we’ll be looking forward to seeing whatever else it is you have coming down the pike, but also we wish you good strength here in your Lenten journey as you move towards, God willing, holy illumination at Pascha. Thank you very much.
Mr. Jackson: Thank you, Father.