A chat with Jay Jackson -- as seen on 'Parks,' 'Revenge,' 'Scandal'...
Buried within Sunday’s crazypants Revenge finale was a glorious Easter egg for devoted TV watchers: a newscast delivered by none other than Perd Hapley, a.k.a. Pawnee, Indiana’s most beloved TV personality.
Well, sort of. Perd, of course, isn’t real — he’s played by Jay Jackson, who’s delivered fictional news reports on series including Scandal, Dexter, The Mentalist, The Closer, and Body of Proof, not to mention movies like Battleship and Fast Five. Look at Jackson’s IMDB page, in fact, and you’ll find that he’s played a reporter nearly every single time he’s appeared onscreen.
Why is that? Simple: Jay Jackson actually was a professional reporter for many years, with an impressive broadcast resume that includes stops at various local stations in Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as two prestigious Golden Mike awards. (He hasn’t, however, won an individual Emmy, despite what the Internet may have you believe: “I was part of a newscast that won a Best Newscast Emmy in 1997. Some reporters claim that as an Emmy win, but I don’t,” he explains to EW. “I think a promoter put that on a flyer some time ago and it’s just been going around.”)
How did Jackson go from real-life Ron Burgundy to fake newsman extraordinaire? EW called him to find out.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First of all, let’s talk about your journalism career.
JAY JACKSON: I semi-retired in 2005 from CBS2/KCAL9 Los Angeles, but I still do some freelance work. I started in newspapers in San Diego, at a little newspaper called the Voice & Viewpoint. I eventually ended up at the ABC station in San Diego. It’s called KGTV. [I] worked there for a little while, and then was a reporter at another San Diego station, called KUSI. That’s an independent station. And then in ’97, I wrote a novel. So I dropped out of the business for a little while, then went up to L.A. and got a job there.
Why did you retire in 2005?
I’m a jazz singer. That’s my real passion. And I wanted to pursue performing jazz music around Los Angeles. At the same time, I have a company called the Los Angeles Reporter’s Clinic. What I do is, I help people become TV news reporters by helping them make their demo reel. And that company was taking off quite a bit; I decided to run the company, and it’s been great ever since. It allows me the time to do the little bit of acting I do.
How did you first start acting?
I was helping a client make a demo reel to get on this Fox show. It lasted maybe six episodes. And her manager saw the reel I completed for her, and wondered where she got it made. She asked me to come in and see if I’d go out for an audition for a reporter role. It was a show called Dexter, and I got that role. So the bug kind of bit me. I told her, “I’ll sign on as a client, but I only want you to send me on reporter roles, because that’s all I know how to do, really.” And it turned into this whole thing.
So it’s no accident that you keep popping up as a news anchor.
Oh no, yeah. That’s the only thing I go for. The funny thing is, as a reporter, you hate to see in the movies and TV shows some of these actors who are trying to be TV reporters — it just looks ridiculous if you’re a professional at it.
What are some of the pet peeves you have about actors who play reporters?
Oh, the words they use — of course, that’s the script — but how they say their words, inflection and intonation. What are you accenting in a sentence; a reporter wouldn’t do this or do that. How they hold their microphone, or how they stand, or how they move their head. All of these things — they see a reporter doing and copying it, but they don’t know the reason it’s being done, so it just looks like an imitation. And for me, that can throw off an entire film.
Do any TV or film reporters stick out as particularly egregious?
I love the movie Up Close and Personal. I thought the story was great, but my God — it looked like they could have used a bit more consulting work on how you perform as a broadcaster. I think there was a scene where she [Michelle Pfeiffer] was walking around in a prison underground, and it was a live report. Which at that time was completely impossible; the technology wasn’t there. Gimme a break!
Most of the roles you’ve had have been pretty straight reporter roles, but Parks and Rec is a different case — there, you’re parodying a newscaster rather than playing one. Tell me about transitioning into comedy.
Parks and Rec was funny — I was only supposed to do one [episode]. And that was cool, because I never really considered myself an actor as far as Hollywood. I mean, I did stage work, and musical theater in high school, but I never considered myself an actor. But I think a couple of the bigwigs on the set were impressed by just the sound of my voice, and the humor that was there was kind of a shock. Because I’m not a funny guy at all. It’s the writers who make Perd funny.
Oh, I find that hard to believe. You have to be funny to be that funny onscreen.
You would think that! But I don’t think I’m funny onscreen. The words, I think, are funny. It’s the writers. You know, they ask us to improv on set. When they do that, everything I do just kind of falls flat. [Laughs] And that’s fine, because I’m not a comedian. I work with a bunch of comic geniuses on that set. Between Amy Poehler, and Mo Collins [who plays Joan Callamezzo], and Aziz, and Chris Pratt — those guys are geniuses.
Is it intimidating to try to improvise around Amy Poehler?
Oh, yeah! Absolutely. [Laughs] Amy is a very nice person, but keep in mind, she’s at that genius level. When you try a bit of comedy and you’re not used to being a comic actor, it can really fall flat. And she kind of gives you a look of, “Nice try,” you know, being polite. And that’s fine.
You’ve done so many other shows since being cast on Parks. Do you know if the casting directors on those series chose you because they’re fans of Perd?
Well, Perd Hapley, turned into a little bit of a cult figure. You know, I’ll tool around online, and I’ll Google “Perd Hapley” like any other actor would. It’s so funny — the people who follow Perd and quote all the lines, and Tumblr pages, and people around the world who make these paintings and artworks of Perd. I was a little surprised when Scandal picked me up, because I auditioned for Scandal just like any other role. Maybe they just didn’t know who Perd Hapley was. So I was doing all these Scandal reports, and then all these tweets started coming: “Why is Perd Hapley on Scandal?” And all of a sudden, I stopped getting those calls from Scandal. I think they figured out that [when] you’ve got this guy who’s known as this quirky idiot on one show, you can’t have him on this serious drama. It was really a surprise that Revenge called, because I knew they know who Perd Hapley was. But maybe it’s part of the trick, I don’t know.
Do you ever think that maybe all these other reporters you’re playing, besides Perd, are the same guy — that maybe these shows take place in the same universe? And this newscaster is just traveling from Washington to the Hamptons to Miami?
[Laughs] Right. That’s something I have been thinking about, just based on some readings of Twitter. When you hear what the audience is saying through Twitter or Facebook or any of these other social media platforms, you start to get a sense that, “Okay, people think I’m one guy.” [Laughs] Or at least they like to joke that that’s the case. Which has created this new kind of actor niche, I think. I’ll probably say that I’m the guy who created it. It’s like if Newman, who played the mailman on Seinfeld, if he played a mailman on every different show he was on — that would kind of trip everybody out.
Your character on Parks has such a strong, identifiable personality. Do you worry about that getting in the way of people being able to see you just as a reporter, or even in other sorts of acting roles?
Well, two things. Number one, I don’t even consider myself an actor. I’m a reporter who’s playing an actor, and I’m a jazz singer. That’s my passion. That’s my love. So I could spend the rest of my life getting these little reporter roles, and I’ll be happy. I’m not trying to be a big star actor, because at this point, I don’t have the skill, and I’m not that invested in it. So I’m not worried about that, as far as being typecast. And number two, there’s this movie coming out [where] I’m not a reporter at all. I play a conservative, anti-gay preacher.
It’s called Daddy, right?
Yeah. So I can’t wait to see what the reaction will be. That’ll give me a sense of whether I have any future as an actor. Either the world’s going to say, “Hey, Jay Jackson’s a good actor,” or they’re going to say, “Wow, Perd Hapley does a great job as a preacher!” And if it’s “Perd Hapley does a great job as a preacher,” then that’s it. I’m Perd Hapley for the rest of my life.
Would you be okay with that?
Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, Leonard Nimoy talks about that as far as being Spock — he says Spock put his kids through college and bought his house and that sort of thing. I’ll be perfectly fine with that.
And I guess the jazz audience and the Parks and Rec audience don’t necessarily overlap.
Oh no, yeah. You know what’s funny — when I do jazz shows, it’s the bartenders and the waiters who will see me as Perd Hapley. But the audience, they don’t see Perd Hapley at all.