From ages 13 to 21, Nick Jonas was a member of one of the early-aughts’ most beloved pop confections, the Disney-approved Jonas Brothers. His family band called it quits last year, but Jonas didn’t stay out of the recording booth for long: His R&B-infused, Parental-Advisory-sticker-bedecked solo album, Nick Jonas, was released in November. This soulful, sexy LP brought him a brand-new gang of fans who are just like Jonas: all grown up.
Now Jonas is making headlines by his lonesome—he’s got his first Top 10 single (“Jealous”), a recurring part as a closeted mixed martial-arts fighter on DirecTV’s Kingdom, and he’s (gasp!) admitted to taking off his purity ring and becoming, well, unpure. He can barely sip a latte without being stalked by the paparazzi, and his on-screen sex scenes are gleefully GIF-ed within hours of hitting the airwaves. In short, it’s Nick Jonas’ world: we just look at his abs in it.
Jonas chatted with EW about his image re-haul, posing shirtless, and inciting a scandal.
EW: Are you completely ground down by interviews at this point?
Nick Jonas: No, no I’m doing okay. It’s an exciting time. I mean, I’m getting kind of tired of talking about myself.
Is that even possible?
Congrats on “Jealous” hitting the Top 10—it seems like it’s being really well-received, critically.
Yeah, I was saying the other day, for me it feels like you’ve worked so hard making a record, and a song, and then promoting it, and then once it’s out, it’s kind of for the world to take it, and see what happens. It’s just been such an incredible reception to the music, especially with the music and kind of building from there.
This was a really pivotal year for you—it was the year you “grew up” in our eyes. Although I’m sure you feel like you grew up a long time ago…
No, it really does feel like a pretty defining year for me. It’s crazy—it feels like all the steps that were taken were kind of planned over a couple months, and then each one started to hit. It’s just incredible to watch the rollout, and more than anything to see some opinions change and a better idea of who I am come to the surface. I think, when you transition into a new phase of your career, there’s always sort of an education that has to happen for the public, to be aware of who you are now and what’s important to you. That was the mission, going about this next phase.
Did you think consciously about revealing this new sexy adult side of yourself, or did it come naturally?
I feel like it came pretty naturally over the course of three or four years. Over those years, I wasn’t as predominantly in the public eye as I am at this moment, which was by choice in a lot of ways. Just taking time for me to grow and figure out who I am as an artist and a performer and a writer. Taking time and coming to a place where I’m comfortable, and ready for this next step. It’s been pretty insane to be bold like that and try to push myself, but I feel really good about it all.
What’s been the best part of your 2014?
I think the best part of this whole year has been two things: Kingdom, and being a part of that project and all that is. Then, the reception to “Jealous.” I think it’s a real defining song for me, and my first Top 10, which feels pretty incredible. I’ve been blown away by that. And surprising people, because I think it caught a lot of people off-guard.
What’s been the most difficult part of your year?
The most difficult part for me was just being patient. Even at the start of this year, I knew that all this was going to come out, and all these projects were going to hit around the time I wanted them to. But you just have to be patient and not get overwhelmed with the fact that you’re gearing up for a big run, and just be confident in that. And that’s tough sometimes.
Now people are seeing you in a way they’ve never seen you before, and seeing parts of you they’ve never seen before. What’s been the question you’ve been most uncomfortable about being asked?
I mean, I think for anybody, being asked about your growth as a person, specifically as it relates to sex, is always gonna be strange. That’s not a conversation piece that’s totally comfortable to talk about. There’s a desensitization that happens with people because they are so familiar with you, and you’ve been in the public eye. And I’m not complaining about it—I mean, I get that side of it. But it is strange to be asked about things that are so personal.
Have you ever Googled the phrase “Nick Jonas shirtless“?
I’ve never Googled that before. I mean, I’ve Googled myself before—I don’t shy away from telling people that. I like to just be aware of what’s out there. But no, never the specific search for “Nick Jonas shirtless.”
Well, FYI, there are 1.2 million hits.
This is your first album with a Parental Advisory label—what was it like making the choice to do that?
I think it was about remaining true to the art. Songwriting’s a big part of my life, and a way for me to express myself. I think it would’ve been dishonest to the art to censor it. I wanted to just lay the stories out in the best way I could. And that meant putting that Parental Advisory on it. The thing that I learned is that it’s important to be transparent, because it’s what people connect to the most—the feelings that come out. And sometimes that requires saying certain words.
And they’re pretty normal words for a 22 year-old man to be using.
Yeah, I think so. And that’s what’s been great—seeing that, little by little, that growth has been apparent to people in a really organic way.
How did you narrow in on your sound for this album?
In that three-year gap I was mentioning before, I took the time to do a lot of writing and producing with other people. And collaborating with some people who opened my mind up creatively, and pushed me in a little bit of a different direction. That was really helpful, because I think it helped me settle into my sound and what came to me most naturally, vocally, which is that sort of R&B, pop, soul thing. It’s definitely very different from things I’ve released in the past, and for me probably happened over the course of a couple years. For the public, it all changed at once. But it’s been a really natural transition.
When did you finish filming Kingdom, the DirecTV series where you play a mixed martial-arts fighter?
I finished the first week of August. It was about a three and a half, four-month shoot.
You had to train constantly—how did you feel about working out that often?
I’m not the biggest fan of working out. As I’m doing it, it sucks, but after it’s done, I feel great. And that’s the thing—I like the process of having a goal and pushing myself physically. But actually, the work of it is not that exciting to me. My first big fight scene and shirtless stuff was in the first episode, so I was able to be a little more lenient after that. But it was still very intense. I was trying to be kind of a monster, physically.
I’m sure people worried that you were going to permanently injure yourself.
I wasn’t so worried about hurting myself. I actually thought that hurting myself would’ve been a cool rite of passage. Some of my castmates got injured, and we were all kind of jealous, I think. But thankfully, I didn’t, which in the long run I think is best. We were all really concerned about getting cauliflower ear. That’s when cartilage breaks down in your ear, and they swell up, and you have to drain them.
It’s very intense.
It was just revealed that your character on Kingdom is gay. How has it been for you to take that on?
My first reaction was genuine excitement at the opportunity to push myself as an actor and play a character with stakes as high as Nate’s, and questions about himself and his sexuality. I think one of the sexiest things in a person is their acceptance of all people, so I’m thrilled to play him.
I had not thought about that. Well, the Mark Wahlberg one was about 20 years ago, so I think every 20 years, maybe, someone has to do that. In 20 years’ time, they’ll be doing the Mark Wahlberg and me.
It’ll just be a tradition we pass down through the ages.
Yeah, I think it has to be. At this point, it’s gotta live on. I had fun doing the shoot, and obviously paying tribute to that that iconic shoot was a really good time. The reaction to it kind of shocked me.
What was the aftermath like?
It was really surprising. As we were doing the shoot, I didn’t think that much about it, and then it kind of just evolved from there and became a moment. But at the end of the day, I really viewed it just as a fun tribute, and it wasn’t a real goal in mind to have this big reaction or anything.
Of course, it’s only natural that people would be surprised. I mean, you wore a purity ring until 2010, and I think people have trouble wrapping their minds around this new Nick.
Yeah, and obviously I’m aware of that. Like I said before, when there’s emphasis put on things in the personal life, it totally makes sense that people take interest. But I feel like, for me, it’s all about my next steps. And if these are little things that I’ve done to show people me in a new light, get the overall goal to setting up adulthood, then I think it’s all good.
Were your old-school, long-time fans scandalized?
I’m not entirely sure. I think I went into the next phase of my life with the idea that I had to set these goals and push myself creatively in every way. And if not everyone from my past came on that journey with me, then that was okay. Because I think there’s a whole new set of fans who’ve received this all with open arms, and it’s been really interesting to see who a fan is now. And I’m thrilled with the fans, and the journey they’ve gone on with me.
I’m sure there are a lot more mature lady fans.
[Laughs] Yeah, there is. A different variety of fans than there were back in the day. And more guys at the shows as well, and I think people who’ve been really surprised, musically, at where I’ve gone. People come and say “I didn’t expect to like this, but I really do.”
That definitely seems to be the reaction on Twitter.
Yeah, the Twitter reactions are interesting. I’ve taken screen shots of some of the funnier ones that’ve rolled in. It’s a bizarre world where you can have that instant sort of reaction to your projects.
What have been your favorite tweet responses?
I think the backhanded compliments that you have to take as positive are always really funny. People are like, “I’ve never been a fan, and actually would go so far as to say I didn’t like your music. But this is actually kind of hot.” And it’s like, [laughs] “Thank you, I think?”
Is this the year that you became a newly minted sex symbol?
If I accept that yeah, I view myself as a sex symbol, I think it would be immediately unsexy. I don’t think of myself that way. If people think that, that’s fine. But in my mind, I’m just Nick.
A version of this article appears in Entertainment Weekly‘s Dec. 26-Jan. 2 issue.