'It Might Be Uncomfortable For My Family to See'

·10 min read
Photo credit: Raul Romo
Photo credit: Raul Romo
Photo credit: Raul Romo
Photo credit: Raul Romo

Can a 26-year-old already be a man of contradictions? Jackson White, who’s been playing older than he is since he booked his first acting job at 18, is both a goofy kid and a grizzled veteran, a devoted musician who switched over to acting because he…liked the structure and stability? “My motto was always ‘house, truck, dog.’ That's what I wanted, that was the dream. House, truck, dog, since I was 12.” (For the record he currently has a “tiny” house, a “car, not a truck,” and a small terrier named Freddy who is “more like a roommate—we fight and sometimes, we have to take space from each other, it’s a whole thing—but he’s a very good boy.”)

In Hulu’s new coming-of-age thriller Tell Me Lies, White plays Steven, the ultimate cool guy who’s anything but chill, opposite Grace Van Patten’s self-assured college freshman Lucy, who can’t help but fall for the elusive upperclassman. Spoiler alert: it goes badly. Though White is a newcomer with less than a dozen credits under his belt, he has the perspective of someone who’s been around the business for decades—which he has, as the son of actress Katey Sagal (Sons of Anarchy) and tour drummer Jack White.

When White walks into Pasadena’s classic Pie ‘n Burger diner for a post-workout bite, the lifetime Angeleno is at once right at home yet admittedly inexperienced at being interviewed, which makes him a refreshingly open dining companion. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Esquire: Would a younger you be surprised you're being interviewed about acting instead of music?

Jackson White: Yeah, I still feel like a smelly drummer! This is all really weird. Music is what I was always going to do and then somehow it just naturally went this way instead. But yeah, it's definitely still weird making the shift.

Is it funny for your family to see?

I was always the musician and my sister (actress Sarah Grace White) was the actor, because Mom's the actor, Dad's the drummer. But my mom was a musician long before she was an actor, and it was a really musical house. I grew up going back and forth between LA and Nashville where my dad lived in this house with a recording studio, three sets of drums, some old B3 organs, keyboards and guitars. You’d wake up to blasting music. And that was the lifestyle that I fell in love with. My dad was born in Detroit and when he was 17, he hitchhiked to LA and got a job with Ike and Tina Turner and Sam the Sham, and all these amazing artists, just by word of mouth. I have all these stories of him going on these crazy tours in Japan and Europe and...they were great as fantasies but it wasn't really my path. I knew as I got older that I needed more of a structure and a discipline.

Photo credit: Raul Romo
Photo credit: Raul Romo

When did you figure out that acting would give you that?

I was really shit in high school. I was bad. Not good grades, and just a punk. But I promised my mom I would give college a try. The only way I could really get into college was auditioning through my instrument. I ended up going to this pretty small music program at USC and I was in class with all these jazz majors and composition majors and I was like, "Oh fuck, I'm just in school again, but now it's music-based." And I just couldn't focus. So I did what I did in high school when I got distracted, which is I would do a play, because then I could skip class and go to play rehearsal. I started auditioning for musicals and then at a certain point I was like, all right, I'm going to switch over and just do this. So I dropped out of school and did two years of really intense Meisner study.

It seems like they threw you fucked-up-beyond-their-years parts right away, like 2019’s Mrs. Fletcher, where you played a decidedly mature high school senior. Why do you think that is?

Definitely. It’s always gnarlier, slice-of-life projects. I've heard from so many casting people and producers, "Yeah, he was great, but he was way too intense." And I've never known what that means. I’m like, I can't really tone that down. I didn't yell at anybody. I think I just have a vibe? I don't know. In real life, I'm a really mushy emotional person.

I hope this doesn't disappoint you, but you don't have an intense energy today.

[Laughs] No, no it doesn't disappoint me at all! I feel really dorky and all over the place but...I think sometimes when I go into [auditions], my face can just scream antagonist. When you're young in your career, you do so many things because you think you have to, like "Should I have cut my hair? Did they not like the beard? Is it the tattoos? What do I do? What do I fix? I can take the earring out. I'm sorry, you guys!"

Photo credit: Raul Romo
Photo credit: Raul Romo

Were you reading for several parts on Tell Me Lies?

Oh no. It was just Steven. It’s always lined up for me so that the role comes at a perfect time for where I am in my life. And I was at a point where I was really fed up. I did Mrs. Fletcher, I came home, I didn't really work for a while, and the pandemic happened. I stayed at home, feeling sorry for myself, and then I had a switch. I just got a different fire, a different motivation for it all. And it made me feel really free, like I could really just do what I want. I wasn't really afraid of how I looked in these auditions or how I was being perceived, and I think that perfectly lined up with this guy. Steven’s superpower became not caring what other people think, and that worked with this fed-up attitude I was having in my career.

How did you use that?

Long story short, I was going through a pretty dark period in my life. I was getting sober and coming to terms with a lot and getting my life together. And I realized how important work was to my psyche and how much balance I wanted in my life. I really wanted to put a new foot forward towards it all, and I was throwing my shit against the wall and screaming and trying to make sense of this business because it's insane. And I think whatever that was, mixed with a lot of self-reflection, a lot of shit that I was working on in my life lined up with this opportunity. So when they came back with, "We are interested in him," it fueled me even more to really dive into getting this role. And then it becomes an obsession. It took eight months for me to actually get the job.

Talk to me about your costar Grace Van Patten. She also has a maturity about her.

Yeah. Grace is...what's the word? Enigmatic. She’s my age, but she acts as if she's been working for 30 years. She's so professional and good at being on set. It was almost weird. You see someone her age conducting herself in this really mature way, and it just set the tone. We were all just following her lead. Or I felt I was following her lead.

Photo credit: Raul Romo
Photo credit: Raul Romo

Was it any fun played a tortured guy like Steven DeMarco?

Playing a pretty locked-up, repressed character created a lot of tension in me, a lot of physical tension, emotional tension. I felt very closed off. In real life I'm a really expressive, talkative, emotional person. I talk about everything, I'm very extroverted, and this dude is so locked up and secretive. It was hard to take off that backpack at the end of the day and be like, "Wait, I'm me. I'm cool. I'm relaxed." You get so tired being Steven DeMarco, holding all these secrets, and not moving your fucking face.

You’re also naked a lot in this. Did you live at the gym?

I was boxing and eating a lot of protein, and what else was I doing? Just lots of protein and boxing and a lot of cardio. At first I had an idea that Steven was really malnourished because he was always buzzing around trying to fix the next problem, so he didn't have time for food, kind of like Adderall vibes. But then I was like, this is not sustainable to do a six-month TV shoot. Maybe a few months for a movie, but I need carbs, man. So instead of that, I just boxed a lot and ate healthy.

Is there anything in the series you’re uncomfortable with your family seeing?

I think anyone who knows me is going to be uncomfortable with how naked I am, but I've also been showing my butt in everything I’ve done since my first job [on a Netflix movie SPF 18] and it said in the script, “He’s naked and his butt's out." And then the next job I did was, "He's naked and his butt's out." So I really always thought that acting was showing your butt. It might be shocking for my family to see some of it. But, they're artists, they're fine. Also my mom's on the show, so it's not a big deal. We were lucky enough to get her to do it and that she was available. That was a dream.

You’ve never played her kid before, not even as a baby?

No, never. We never worked together. She didn't let me work till I was 18. She didn't even let me try to work until I was 18, and I’m very grateful for that. She was very protective about that shit.

Will you watch yourself on Tell Me Lies?

I have to watch it four times. The first time I watch it, I'm like, "Oh shit. Why did I do that?" I’ve got to watch alone and then hate myself, and then I watch it one more time and I hate myself less, and then I show it to someone else, and they like it. And then I feel better about myself when I get the external validation. And then I watch it one more time alone. I sound like a fucking self-obsessed dick.

Nah. You’re just focused on the job.

But this is only when something is good. If something is bad, I will shy away and be like, "Nope. Can't see it. Sorry. Shit. Whoops." I have a very, very, very high, annoying, throbbing bullshit detector and it drives me crazy when shit’s not real, and then I gotta get out of there…The funny, ironic part about being an artist is you always have that little rebellious little kid inside who's like, "I’m going to cancel all my appointments and run off to the beach!"

Photos by Raul Romo
Styling by Tiffany Briseno
Grooming by Barbara Guillaume

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