Brandon Victor Dixon On ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ Racism, Broadway, Mike Pence, and Glittering Muscles
The Daily Beast
April 11, 2018
We met four days after Brandon Victor Dixon had last been seen dancing, singing, belting, and emoting in NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar, while wearing a tight mesh glitter top and just as tight glittering trousers.
In Broadway watering hole the Glass House Tavern, Dixon surprised me first by revealing he had only seen the first four minutes of NBC’s critically hailed live production, performed on Easter Sunday.
The Tony-nominated actor (for The Color Purple and Shuffle Along; he won a Tony as a producer of Hedwig and the Angry Inch) said he was “overwhelmed” by the response to his powerful performance as Judas Iscariot.
“I’m a very sensitive person, and I’ve spent the last few days pretty much crying seeing what people are saying,” Dixon said. “I’ve made it through texts and emails and Instagram. Now I’m moving on to Facebook and Twitter because each message means something to me, so I’m taking my time taking it all in, and taking in the actual show as well.”
Admirers raved not only about the 36-year-old actor’s intense portrayal of Jesus’ betrayer, but also his sexiness and the Paul Tazewell-designed body-contoured outfits he wore: the plunging V-neck sleeveless shirt, the sleeveless leather jacket, and then those glittering trousers and sleeveless tee he wore while singing “Superstar.”
Four days later he was dressed subtler rather than down, wearing a beautiful colorful check coat (chosen by his cousin, his stylist), red hat, and light pink sweatshirt; his speaking voice is a precise offstage echo of his strong, warm singing voice. He is eloquent, thoughtful, and passionate.
His friends have joked that this is Dixon’s star-making moment. Sure, he said, the phone is ringing, and there are already auditions for movie roles, an imminent song and video release, the fifth series of Starz’s Power, in which Dixon now has a series regular role, and an app he has created that is about to debut.
And, he reveals to me, he would love to do another TV musical, signaling a desire to appear in the forthcoming Fox production of Rent, Dixon having once starred in the much-loved Jonathan Larsen musical off-Broadway.
“‘You’re going places,’ people keep saying after Jesus Christ Superstar,” Dixon said. “Yes, the phone is ringing, life has changed. But, for me, the gift I’ve been given is working for six weeks with 100 people dynamically engaged in a wonderful project.”
Dixon based his vocal on Carl Anderson, who played Judas in the 1973 movie of Jesus Christ Superstar, intending it to be a “soulful, old-town black singer yelling about his love, just going in there.” Dixon grinned. I thought, ‘It’s not perfect, but man you went for it and that’s fucking cool.’
“At the end John [Legend, who played Jesus] and I grabbed each other. John is the most chilled, understated person you have ever met, and I’m a chill person too. He gave me a big hug and said, ‘We did it.’ There was that sense of joyful accomplishment. We got through this thing together. We all pushed ourselves differently. It wasn’t perfect, but it felt honest.”
As well as a supreme entertainer, Dixon, who read the famous statement from the Hamilton cast to then-Vice President Elect Mike Pence in November 2016, is also proudly political, particularly around issues of racial injustice and racism on Broadway and in Hollywood, and keen that his work “has something to say.”
“I am politically active and active in the community,” Dixon said. “I’m an activist and advocate. I have empathy. It is hard to ignore causes. I try to ensure I do speak to the issues at hand because otherwise, what are we doing? The time for frivolous entertainment has passed. You can be entertained while at the same time learning from and growing with the people around you.”
Dixon recalled how a woman on the train had turned to him and said, “‘I think I know you. Oh, that’s right. Sunday night. Thank you.’”
His eyes welled up.
If Legend as Jesus was all languid restraint that high-octane Easter Sunday night, Dixon’s Judas was ferociously conflicted.
“It’s going to take me a while to watch it,” Dixon said of Jesus Christ Superstar. “I’m going to be critical of myself: ‘You could have done this, you could have done that.’ Overall I know what was not perfect, but I know it was honest and it seems to have connected with the audience. I feel very full. I feel wonderful. I struggle with things like self-doubt and self-esteem because I don’t actually know how good I can be.
“I’m artistically critical of my own work. I felt like it had the potential to be really great, and not everything feels that way. A lot of us had the feeling this was special. Everybody in the ensemble and production was working their hardest and best. To be part of something where everyone wants to give that much is a gift. The musical is a hard medium to translate to television, and I think NBC has learned from each one it’s done to make it better.”
Judas was “a gift of a role,” Dixon said. “Heaven on Their Minds,” the TV spectacular’s opening number, was the only song he knew, providing an immediate frame for the audience at home of the story “and the mental and emotional landscape of Judas himself, who everybody has already assigned as villain and betrayer. I grew up as a Christian, and one of the many things in Christian mythology that did not dovetail with real life is that human beings are not monochromatic in their being.”
Dixon pondered and interrogated Judas’ character while sitting in his bathtub. “I wasn’t motivated by doing anything different. I wanted to tell the story of how this person ends up destroying himself and the person he loves. I wanted to change the way people maybe felt about the character of Judas they thought they knew, maybe showing how they can feel differently about people they know in their own lives, including themselves.”
One friend sent him a message saying his performance had changed the way she viewed the world, “and that’s what I hoped for. I wept when I read that.”
Recalling that, Dixon’s voice cracked and tears came into his eyes again.
“While we were rehearsing this, there was the news about Stephon Clark [the unarmed black man shot dead by Sacramento police officers last month], and then about the Alton Sterling officers not being charged. And I thought about Philando Castile, Sean Bell, Michael Brown, Eric Garner—all these unarmed black men and boys gunned down or killed.”
Dixon paused. “I wanting my role of Judas to change how people felt about the person or people they think they know. The police are gunning these men down because they are afraid of them. They are not lying about that, they are genuinely scared. We as a society do not hold a process of accountability in these circumstances up to as stringent a standard as we should.
“I’m not saying all these officers are in dereliction of their duties, but we have to thoroughly investigate these processes independently and openly for the safety of officers and the public.
“We as a society don’t force the police to be accountable because we as a society are afraid of unarmed black boys. That’s not a white thing: It exists across nationalities and genders. I recognize it even in myself. I grew up in a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood. I went to private schools my whole life. I remember one summer having to take a math class at the public school and being scared because every image pumped into my living room was of violent black people.
“I was afraid based on no interaction with these people, but because we as a society have stigmatized the black male.”
How have we come to “police officers in body armor and with guns shooting a 12-year-old kid when he is holding a toy?” Dixon asked, referring to the killing of Tamir Rice in 2014. “We must begin to think differently about the things we think we know. We must confront our own thoughts about the person next to us and ourselves.”
Humans silo themselves, and label and define others to all our detriment, said Dixon. With Judas, he wanted to ground this allegorical figure as a recognizable human being. “We often feel we can’t ask questions of ourselves for fear of offense or disrupting each other’s truth in the world.”
The lack of transparency in the investigations of police killings helps neither the officers nor the community, said Dixon. The police come to believe they can behave with impunity, while the members of the community are less inclined to listen to the authorities given what has happened in the past, and the sense they will not receive justice.
When Stephon Clark was shot, said Dixon, it made him think that “sometimes I get annoyed with myself. I thought, ‘You know how these things happen. This is the state of America and the world. It’s so sad. In his grandmother’s yard. Why did the police feel they needed to approach this with such a level of force? What’s procedurally happening right now? Why is everything more difficult for people who look different? It’s heartbreaking. It’s happening over and over again. There’s no trial. Officers are not even indicted.”
The attention that Jesus Christ Superstar has brought is not Dixon’s first brush with headlines, having delivered that ‘Hamilton‘ speech to Pence in November 2016.
“We, sir—we—are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us,” Dixon told Pence, who stopped to listen as he exited the theater.
Donald Trump claimed the cast had “harassed” Pence (no matter that Pence has made disenfranchising LGBT people a cornerstone of holding public office). The statement was, in fact, read out extremely politely, and was a simple, crystallizing moment of speaking truth to power. It was a request for respect, a plea for respecting diversity.
Subsequently, the Trump administration’s attacks on LGBT people, particularly notable in the attempted trans military ban, have caused considerable alarm and outrage.
I asked Dixon what he would say to Pence now. He smiled tightly. “It’s a hard question. I believe ultimately you have to find way to have conversations to invite dialogue, because otherwise you have conflict, but it’s also important to recognize what people are willing to do, going to do, and what they are presenting to you.
“The administration has made it very clear that they are about their own self-interests. I’m not making this Republican or Democrat. The Trump administration is just a group of people who don’t know or trust each other. I would probably simply express frustration and moral judgment and distaste for the very painful and intentional steps they have taken to not save and help people, but to limit people instead.”
Did Pence hear you that day? I asked Dixon.
“I’m sure he heard me, but I don’t think he desired to listen.”
All the cast was doing, he said, was asking Pence to acknowledge the spectrum of people who had just performed a show about the founding of the country. Pence now represented that spectrum.
“The message was so innocuous and nonpartisan that you can’t have a problem with it unless you’re trying to win,” said Dixon. “And that is where we are: American society is a capitalist one, based on winning or losing. It’s not merit-based. First is best, whether you are the destroyer, or the tallest. We’ve stopped looking for truths, or having debates. We just have arguments. One side has to tear down the other.”
Dixon smiled. Pence campaigned as a politician to represent people, and yet actually addressing him and reminding him of the scope of his civic responsibilities was seen as a trespass of etiquette on the part of the Hamilton cast.
Dixon is not apologizing. “When you see these individuals you must speak to them, particularly when these individuals are behaving in ways that affect the lives of the people they represent. I’m not standing on ceremony. ‘Etiquette’ can only go so far. We have to hold each other accountable.”
That day, Dixon felt supported by his colleagues and the audience, and Pence did stop to listen as he was leaving the theater. “He was very gracious the next day on television. There’s something to be said for that, and there are many people who agree with him. But Pence and Trump aren’t gods, or great men. They are individuals in the positions that they hold. They come from communities that feel a lot of the things they represent.”
America is so big, it is easy to stigmatize those who are not in your circle, Dixon said, particularly if you are, and they are not, from major urban centers. “We should work very hard seeking to see how a person came to this destructive place without labeling them a villain or demon.”
Faith ideologies shouldn’t be used to “chain ourselves” to any system of thinking, Dixon added. “We shouldn’t be in a place doing things we did centuries ago. We should try to change.”
What would Dixon say to Pence today?
Dixon paused. “I don’t know what I could say. I just want to give the brother a hug. A lot of times people are doing things based on the pain inside them. I want to say to Mike Pence, ‘You don’t have to do this, brother.’ Our actions are about alleviating pain in one way or another. It doesn’t mean we’re doing the right thing. I would ask him, ‘Do you wholly believe in the way you’re behaving? Are you so afraid of feeling unloved that you’ve graduated into another personality and system of activity, which is causing way more damage than good?’”
Dixon’s speech to Pence noted that Hamilton was “told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations,” and that Trump and Pence should govern for “all of us.”
“We are in an age,” Dixon told me, “where if you are not advocating for yourself and others, what are you doing? That’s one thing I love about the new youth movement led by those Parkland teens. They recognize their power, and also their privilege, and are fighting to make sure that their understanding of intersectionality is being communicated to the media. They’re saying, ‘This voice that we’ve been given has not been given to young black boys and girls for years.’ They’re making sure their platform is spread to others.”
Dixon himself has not received “many overt racist overtures” in his life, apart from the parents of some of the non-black women he has dated. Talking to young people of color entering the arts, he has said race is one of many obstacles they may face. “You are simply going to have to figure out the obstacles. It won’t do any good to always think about those things in a macro perspective.
“I operate in a fluid way in the world. I am a defuser, and I’m sure that’s affected how I am received or perceived as an individual and intrinsically wrapped up in that, as a black man. I am very approachable. People sit next to me on the train or bus when there are lots of other seats. That does annoy me.” He laughed. “I see things happen to others, and the empathy I have means the things that do happen to me I don’t feel as acutely as the things that happen to others.”
As he has “moved through the doors” on Broadway, Dixon hopes he has made room for other people of color coming behind him, he said. “If someone is being a racist, they are saying more about themselves than they are about you.”
“The extraordinary thing about Hamilton,” said Dixon, “is that it’s an incredibly, deftly used weapon. It’s an insurgent. It’s so dynamic and wonderfully encoded that it uploads into the matrix and the matrix doesn’t even know it. You’re taken in by the beats, clever rhymes, and spectacle, but the messages coming through about intersectionality are changing you, creating empathy in you without you even knowing it.”
Off-stage Hamilton’s impact has also been huge, he added. “Everyone who comes into contact with it, their life expands. It’s made movie and TV stars of some people, and it’s given well-written roles to people—black and LGBT actors—who often don’t get well-written roles. That creates a new kind of generational wealth, that’s a tectonic shift, and has changed a generation.”
I asked if Hamilton had helped Broadway deal with its own race issues.
“Broadway’s race issues are in relatively the same place as before, which is not a terrible place but it is not a place that we can celebrate as much as we choose to,” said Dixon. “It’s not just about diversity in the cast, it’s about diversity in real positions of power in your production teams: directors, writers, musical directors, stage crew, the entire thing.
“Entertainment in general has made surface changes. But just because something looks more diverse it doesn’t mean that it is more diverse. You can’t conflate the change for the good happening ‘here’ with what hasn’t happened ‘over there.’
“We should celebrate Black Panther. What it has done for representation is incalculable. But remember that no person of color owns it. It’s earned billions of dollars for the studio. Those people aren’t people of color. Let’s celebrate, but recognize that the beat goes on and the work goes on.”
Dixon runs a production company, WalkRunFly, with choreographer Warren Adams. He recalled that Adams had once remonstrated in a meeting with executives when they were casting roles for a cruise ship production of Toy Story. The better black female dancer under consideration was given the role of the monkey toy; the less-good white female dancer was given the lead, said Dixon.
Adams told the executives that the black dancer should be the lead and suggested executives call John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar.
When Adams returned to the room a few moments later, he discovered Lasseter had given the green light for the black dancer to be given the lead role.
Adams’ speaking up shows why people must make a stand at such moments that present themselves, said Dixon. One executive thanked Adams for his intervention afterward. “The second you think what you might lose is the moment you know you should do something,” said Dixon.
Dixon was raised, the youngest of three brothers, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. It was a disciplined upbringing – he went to chapel every morning and church most Sundays – but it was not strictly religious.
His mother left the Episcopalian church to attend the Unitarian. “She has always looked for connection and growth. We meditate together,” he said. Photographers have captured her alongside Dixon on opening nights on red carpets in outfits she has designed herself.
His father owned an electrical contracting company, his mother ran the business. The young Dixon was academic, mischievous, and sporty: He wrestled and played soccer. He attended the exclusive St. Albans school, alma mater of Gore Vidal, and later Columbia University in New York, so he could be in “the right place” to audition for productions.
He and his brothers, now all successful in their respective fields, help to support their parents financially, “which makes me very happy. It’s the way it should be, after all they have done for us.” His father was wary about him entering an acting life, but Dixon’s middle brother spoke to him; then later, sweetly, his father spoke to him and repeated his brother’s positive words.
Dixon said he outgrew his Christian teachings early, “the more I asked of faith and the practice of faith, and history at large.” How could it be that, as a Christian, as long as he repented, then “I’m all good,” whereas someone who lives according to Christian principles but doesn’t believe in Jesus is damned. “It doesn’t make sense.”
If any of it were true, how would it justify the amount of death, destruction, and discord conducted in Christianity and God’s name, he asked. His doubts didn’t mean he thought Christianity had no value, he emphasized; more that it wasn’t the only thing of value. “I realized what it taught me at 6, it couldn’t teach me at 25, or 37.”
At school Dixon attended a music class every day, and appeared in musicals every year. In another world, he may have been an archeologist or marine biologist—he liked math until he got to calculus—but performance was his passion.
He first played one of the ensemble, aged around 6, in a production of Kiss Me Kate in which his middle brother was playing Fred Graham/Petruchio. Next came productions of Oliver!, The Pirates of Penzance, and Mary Poppins.
Mrs. Worth, his music teacher, saw Dixon’s aptitude and marked him out for solos, and started picking plays for him too, like Neil Simon’s Fools and then The Music Man. “I love music, the connective aspect of it. It has a unique ability to open us up,” Dixon said. “When I’m on stage singing, I am trying to open my heart and spirit to a deeper level of understanding of myself and the people, the audience, I am trying to connect to.”
His big break came in 2005 playing Simba in a touring production of The Lion King. “That was the most difficult artistic experience of my life. I was struggling for the first time in a thing that had felt so natural to do. I was leading a multimillion-dollar production, and I didn’t have the confidence. It took a large emotional and physical toll. For the first time in my life, I thought, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to make it through this.’”
The register of the songs was adapted to better fit Dixon’s voice, and the production became a “growth experience.” He started meditating, and still does it. “I learned that your voice shows up. There’s no reason why that wouldn’t happen now. I always say, ‘Don’t let yourself get into the fear of it.’”
Then came Broadway roles in The Color Purple, in which he originated the on-stage character of Harpo, The Scottsboro Boys, and he also created the role of Berry Gordy in Motown: The Musical. Off-Broadway he performed in Rent (in which he played Tom Collins).
Dixon smiled as he recalled that he thought The Scottsboro Boys would be a minstrel show, until he read the script. He recently wrote a pointed critique of the racial politics of the musical Once on This Island.
How appealing was fame? “I’m sure at a certain point those things have drawn me in, but I’m a conscious enough human being to know those things can’t drive you. They certainly won’t sustain you. I also recognize that if you do the work, people are going to know about it.”
Dixon said he had not personally experienced sexual harassment or abuse in the theater world, but is “happy for that moment of reckoning to have come. The #MeToo movement was started by a black woman [Tarana Burke], and yet black women are the most invisible, most disenfranchised. I’ve never seen a group marching for black women, but you’ll find them at the heart of all these movements.”
Color-blind casting, which is now becoming much more prevalent, is “a great thing,” Dixon said, “just from unhooking the sense of something having to be seen a certain way. We are trying to tell human stories. One thing that art teaches us is that we can all empathize with the same thing. Everyone loves The Lion King, everything is Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, and William [Shakespeare] even recycled that shit himself.”
Dixon became a producer to assert some level of control. He is hopeful for a Broadway transfer of incarceration drama Whorl Inside a Loop next season.
“Doing shows about Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Berry Gordy, you realize that all these artists talk about the importance of ownership and power,” Dixon said. “James Brown once sang, ‘I don’t want nobody / To give me nothing / Open up the door / I’ll get it myself.’ It’s self-actualization. As a producer you can develop something. The producer facilitates stories being told, and retains a piece of it.”
Proceeds from his forthcoming single and video will go to support children caught in the incarceration system.
What Dixon really hopes fame brings is an increased platform to speak on the subjects he feels most passionately about, particularly this one, increasing his determination to produce Whorl Inside a Loop on Broadway.
“Incarceration disproportionately affects people of color and women, and the mentally challenged,” he said. “Holding a child solely responsible for their actions is a sign of cowardice.”
The incarceration system is run for profit too, said Dixon. “There is a monetary and exploitative incentive to incarcerate. Prisons have quotas to fill. The system isn’t rehabilitative.”
Dixon cited the case of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old who spent nearly two years alone in a jail cell for as much as 23 hours a day at Rikers Island, after being accused of having a stolen backpack.
“That level of injustice is unconscionable,” said Dixon.
He noted how “annoying” it was that in order to engage people in conversation about such issues “you have to defuse their sensitivities.”
“The issue in this country is not white people, it is white supremacist ideology,” Dixon said. “If white people don’t attack white supremacy, or through their apathy don’t get into the frontlines to root it out, that’s when things get bad. You become complicit, maybe because you are appreciative of the privileges given to you, so why make life harder?
“The thing is, life is hard for a lot of white people. Race and racism is a tactic used to divide us, where there shouldn’t be any division and fighting—instead of looking to the people who told us to fight each other. White supremacy is a problem for all of us.”
Does Dixon think it can ever be resolved or eradicated? “Yes, because the fallacy is clear, and the ideology is clearer and clearer. It is in its final throes, and as much chaos and conflict it can cause pumped in by social media, there is also growing unity and harmony. People’s consciousness is expanding and growing. There’s far more growth and union than there is discord. In order for things to change they have to break, and that can be painful—that’s all.”
Power starts its fifth season in June, “the highest-rated program on cable next to Game of Thrones,” Dixon noted proudly. He will launch a culture-oriented app, Curator, this summer. The first feature film he is producing goes into pre-production next month; 88 is a political thriller about terrorism and super PACs.
Among any dream roles, Jean Valjean in Les Misérables is one Dixon would love to do. “I could sing that thing word for word right now,” he said, as well practiced as it had become during auditions. If the producers of Fox’s Rent are reading this, having played Collins, Dixon would love to play Roger, “although Collins has the best songs, the reprise is the best song, and,” he put on an arch voice, “I do a pretty fab rendition, Tim. We’ll see. I would love to do Rent. It’s a really wonderful show and highly resonant right now if you do it right.”
Dixon is single. “I’m not looking for anything right now, which is probably why that part of my life is not as fully formed as some of the other things I’m doing.”
Would he like it to be? “Yes, I would. I came through a relationship two and a half years ago that I’m still sorting through and trying to understand what it said about me. Everybody says, ‘Things happen for a reason,’ or ‘It wasn’t meant to be,’ but you can also take an honest look at your life, and ask if there are certain things I did or didn’t do to maximize the opportunity for both of us.
“You ask questions about yourself: Was it your immaturity, or your selfishness, or your lack of self-worth? Have you grown since then? If you get the shot again, will you get it right? Is there something wrong with you? Just don’t say I’m damned for all time.”
Was this relationship with a woman? Yes, Dixon said.
So, breaking the hearts of gay America, he’s straight? I asked, smiling. Dixon laughed. “Yes, if you have to label me.”
He has a lot of gay fans, especially after his flesh-celebrating outfit choices in Jesus Christ Superstar. “It’s absolutely very flattering for me,” Dixon said, “flattering just that my energy would be something people would want to have around.”
Does he want to marry and have children? “I want to have a family however that manifests itself. I don’t know if marriage is for me. I sound like Jerry Maguire: ‘I don’t know if I’m built that way.’ I definitely want a family. I definitely want to form an intimate partnership with somebody. I’m also afraid of pursuing it and ruining the person I care about the most. I don’t quite trust myself emotionally in that respect. I’m really working on that, so if I get another opportunity I really maximize it.”
Dixon had another relationship recently, hoping a long-term attachment might be possible, but he feels he failed again, being “unreliable, a disappointment. But I’m not giving up. I’m just being patient with my human growth right now.”
How did he feel becoming a lust object, in those pecs-revealing, v-shaped shirts?
Dixon laughed. “It’s odd, overwhelming, and gratifying. There are some very funny messages in my inbox, invitations for certain activities I never knew about. I’ve done sex scenes on TV. I’ve seen the response to that. I know how these things go.”
He works out regularly (swearing by running—“I have done it everywhere, and it’s everything, it clears out all the gunk and helps the voice”—and Core Rhythm Fitness). “I would go to Paul Tazewell, the costume designer, and look at the shirts and say, ‘Bring this down a bit. I haven’t eaten in weeks. I have been subsuming on lettuce leaves. Let me show something, Paul!’ He gave me the ‘v.’ He gave John [Legend] the ‘v.’ John’s shirt sure got a bit more open as the days went on. He saw my shirt! I said, ‘OK, John, I’ve got the arms too, you can’t have everything.’”
He didn’t get to keep any of these amazing outfits, sadly; NBC has archived them, Dixon said.
“I don’t know if I know anywhere where I could wear that sequin outfit,” he said, roaring with laughter. “It was amazing. Paul added those studded bracelets at the end, and I was like, ‘Absolutely yes, Princess of Power! Let’s go! I’ve never worn wore anything like that. It was awesome.
“In the clips I’ve seen I’m doing things I always thought would be electrifying if I ever saw anything like it. I mean, you dream of a sequence of 30 people dancing around you, the spotlight, singing a song like that with a 32-piece orchestra!” Dixon laughed heartily again. “That doesn’t happen on a regular basis.”
True, though 9.4 million viewers on Easter Sunday were happy that it happened at least once.