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Joel Harper Jackson says ‘it’s mental’ being a role model for young queer actors

Joel Harper Jackson
Joel Harper Jackson (Image: Joseph Sinclair, Styling: James Yardley)

Joel Harper Jackson is very happy to be back on a West End stage. After a whirlwind few years that saw him take over from Taron Edgerton in COCK starring opposite Bridgerton‘s Jonathan Bailey to sell out performances in Chess and then performing Queen by Candlelight at St Paul’s Cathedral (the first rock concert to be played at the site) and then again at the legendary Carnegie Hall in New York City, Joel has come back to his roots as a musical theatre sensation.

The actor plays Harry in Standing at the Sky’s Edge, now playing at the Gillian Lynne Theatre. The musical charts three separate but concurrently played stories set in the Park Hill estate in Sheffield. With music by Pulp’s Richard Hawley, it’s a gritty and distinctly northern production that has been hailed as “the most exciting new British musical in years.”

Sitting down with Attitude to go over the musical, Stoke-on-Trent-born Joel relays how it feels to be a part of a musical like this. “I feel very lucky to be a part of something that resonates was so many.” Telling us more about Harry he shares that he starts in the 1960s as a “light and charismatic,” man and husband to Rose (Rachel Wooding). But time passes and we see Harry in the 1980s where Thatcherism takes its toll, especially as Harry is the foreman of a local steelworks. Joel relishes the range and Harry’s “fantastic arc.”

“No one wants to give [West End musical theatre actors] a break”

Standing at the Sky’s Edge‘s unapologetic approach to sensitive subjects like immigration and communities facing hard times is one of the reasons it has been so successful says Joel. It’s timely. “Musical theatre has often had this reputation as being very in your face, lacking substance, and over the top. I think this musical is very beautiful, intricate, and real. It’s unapologetically raw and ugly as well at times. That’s what people want. I think we’ve been crying out for something like this.”

Standing at the Sky's Edge's Joel Harper Jackson
Joel Harper Jackson (Image: Joseph Sinclair, Styling: James Yardley)

Picking up on this, the music, written by Hawley about Sheffield years ago and therefore never intended to be used in a musical, feels worlds away from the songs Joel has made a name of himself singing. Kinky Boots and Chess are just two productions Joel has lent his stellar class vocals. Standing at the Sky’s Edge is rough, raw, and folksy, not your typical musical fare. But it suits Joel just fine. “The way that I learned to sing was by imitating artists when I was a kid. I have always made a thing of making my voice as versatile as possible. But if I could have it my way, this would be my way. This kind of music is what I’ve listened to at home.”

Before we move on I enquire about the reported TV adaptation of the show. “There’s been hearsay,” Joel reveals but that’s all he can say. Of course, he’d like to be involved. He also hopes that it’s kept as a musical opining, “It would be a big step forward to make musical theatre even more mainstream, and take the taboo away of ‘I don’t like musicals’.” Bluntly he adds of those people: “You’ve not seen the good ones.”

“I’m going to try and make it happen. I’m going to do everything I can”

The last time we spoke to Joel it was after he took over from Edgerton in COCK. Reflecting on the experience as “scary” but “thrilling,” he concludes it served him well. Since then he’s gone up against “bigger actors for auditions.” He’s also landed his first TV role, a dream of his. Joel will soon be seen opposite Peter Capaldi in the next season of The Devil’s Hour. He can’t say much, but says working with the mainstay of TV and film was “wonderful.” He is set to resume filming shortly.

As before Joel laments the difficulty he and many other musical theatre performers have had in breaking through into TV and film. “No one wants to give them a break,” he tells Attitude. He hopes his experience is an example of the industry’s versatility. Joel echoes Hannah Waddingham, another musical legend who broke through into the mainstream with Ted Lasso, and called for musical theatre actors to be taken seriously as she collected an Emmy for her role in the Apple TV+ series. “West End musical theatre performers need to be on screen more. Please give us a chance because we won’t let you down,” she said in 2022. Back to Joel: “It is one of the things on my vision board – being someone that can do everything. I want to work in every area of the industry, to be the most rounded performer that I can be.”

Standing at the Sky's Edge's Joel Harper Jackson
Joel Harper Jackson (Image: Joseph Sinclair, Styling: James Yardley)

Lastly, we touch on the ongoing debate around straight actors playing LGBTQ+ roles. It doesn’t work in the opposite direction much, though Joel is one of those who has continually played straight roles and identified as LGBTQ+. It’s another dream of Joel’s and something he never saw himself growing up. “Subconsciously I had it in my head that that’s not going to happen. But I was like, I’m going to try and make it happen. I’m going to do everything I can.” In the face of negative attitudes about his chances of realising his dreams, Joel is an example to others.

“It’s great that we are making progress, and we’re moving forward”

It’s a testament to his commitment and drive that he is now succeeding in the areas he wants to. He shares that growing up he looked to Luke Evans as another world-famous performer who began his career in musical theatre. Now Joel has become that role model for others, with someone else in the Standing at the Sky’s Edge cast (Jamie Doncaster) looking up to Joel. Having been out since 11, Joel says he’s always been honest and proud about his sexuality.

To Joel, the experience only demonstrated further the need for authentic representation. “It’s great that we are making progress, and we’re moving forward. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that young queer actors feel like they may not be the centre of the story. And queer stories are so much more.” Change starts at the top, Joel believes, with Hollywood and the big studios believing that gay actors will sell tickets.

Standing at the Sky's Edge's Joel Harper Jackson
Joel Harper Jackson (Image: Joseph Sinclair, Styling: James Yardley)

And how odd is it for Joel to have people looking up to him? “I find it mental. For so many years I was that kid that looked up to so many actors and dreamt about having that career. To now have a few people come up to me and say these things, means an awful lot. I do not take it for granted. I’m not a doctor or a politician. But if I can help someone, in any sort of way, that would mean the world to me.”

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is booking now.

The post Joel Harper Jackson says ‘it’s mental’ being a role model for young queer actors appeared first on Attitude.