"I don't know if it's the low brow or the dark features, but people tend to want to cast me as that brooding, kind of asshole-y dark character," Jeremy Jordan told BuzzFeed News in a suite at Beverly Hills' Four Seasons Hotel, alluding to his much maligned role as tortured composer Jimmy Collins on the infamous musical drama Smash. "And that's not who I am, by any means."
His latest role in the new movie musical The Last Five Years, however, hits much closer to home. "Jamie is definitely much closer to me than Jimmy is," Jordan said of his latest character, who masks much of his narcissism with undeniable charm.
Jamie is one-half of the couple at the center of the indie film adaptation of Jason Robert Brown's beloved off-Broadway musical, opposite Anna Kendrick's Cathy. She begins the film at the end of their failed relationship and works backward, while Jamie's narrative proceeds chronologically.
The Last Five Years' complicated structure — starting at opposite ends of the timeline, Jamie and Cathy sing each song individually except for when they meet in the middle — is almost destined to confuse audiences lacking familiarity with the source material. But the thrill of The Last Five Years is that, because it's a movie musical for people who love musicals, it doesn't have to be easy.
"We didn't have big Hollywood executives in our ears telling us we have to do this and we have to follow these guidelines. We followed the script. We followed the music and lyrics that Jason put down for us, and we created the world out of what we were given, and that's all we wanted to do," Jordan said. "We don't pretend to be anything that we're not. We made this movie with the lovers of the show, and with theater lovers in mind, because that's who we are. We wanted to make a movie that those people would love, because often those people are the most vocally critical of movie musical adaptations."
And if anyone would know, it's Jordan. While The Last Five Years is his first major movie musical, he's already experienced his fair share of backlash over NBC's Smash, a show that both thrilled and horrified die-hard Broadway fans. It was a series that managed to fluctuate between surprising authenticity and disaster — and Jordan's Jimmy, a second (and final) season addition, was one of the biggest points of contention.
"I've learned the consequences in the modern age of social media of playing a character that people don't like," Jordan said. "They forget that it's not you. It's not me! I think that did help drive me a little more toward making Jamie more likable and understanding, although I would have done that anyway. It gave me a greater understanding of how to do that." And while The Last Five Years ultimately seems to fall on Cathy's side, Jordan is still likable enough to eschew the kind of online vitriol that tainted his experience on Smash.
The series's problems began before he joined — original showrunner Theresa Rebeck was fired after a troubled first season — but Jordan didn't hesitate to acknowledge Season 2's many shortcomings, and how Jimmy played into that.
"He was angry all the time," the actor said with a laugh. "It might have been a little bit meta for some of the writers, kind of infusing their own personal anger toward the whole process and debacle that was the backstage goings-on of Smash into one character."
Beyond Jimmy, one of Smash's biggest flaws was trying to be a show for everyone — a niche backstage drama about musical theater that awkwardly infused Top 40 hits and a soap opera sensibility to broaden its otherwise limited appeal. The result was, to put it mildly, a mixed bag.
"How do you make a show with completely original material that nobody knows work and really have an impact? I do believe there's a great way of doing that, and they couldn't find it," Jordan admitted. "And it's because everybody had different ideas of how to go about it. I think a show like that needed to have a singular vision, and it had about 14."
If Smash were to work, Jordan posited, it would have had to embrace its limited audience, something his latest film clearly did. In contrast to the Steven Spielberg-produced series, those behind The Last Five Years knew it was never going to be a mainstream hit, and accepting and even playing into that was ultimately more important to the cast and creative team than making the film more accessible.
"You can't go in expecting it to be just another musical that you're gonna have a lighthearted time and watch people sing and you're gonna roll your eyes here and there. It's not that. It's a real story about people that you're gonna connect with that's going to leave you talking and questioning, and it just happens to be sung through," Jordan said. "We didn't make Last Five Years to be a blockbuster hit, and we don't expect it to be. We know that a lot of people aren't going to run and sit down and want to be taken through this journey, because of whatever expectations they might have. But we know the people that do want to do it, and that are going to, and we want to give that to them."
And even with Smash a couple years behind him, recognizing his own failings on the series helped Jordan bring new levels of depth and pathos to Jamie in The Last Five Years. He's quick to acknowledge that Jimmy was not his best role and he candidly admitted that, at times, rewatching himself on Smash was a "cringeworthy" experience. But without Jimmy, Jordan's well-rounded portrayal of Jamie might never have happened.
"I was finally understanding how what I felt on set [on Smash] began to translate through the camera and as a viewer," Jordan said. "Every time I see myself, I find something that I can improve upon … It helped me to make Jamie more [relatable], and I think I will continue to [grow]."