Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: Christopher Jackson, Star Of ‘Bull’ And ‘Hamilton’, On The “Routine” Challenges Of Raising An Autistic Son In A Time Of Upheaval

Veronica, CJ, Christopher & Jadelyn Jackson Jim MacLean/Scarsdale Living Magazine

Christopher Jackson originated the role of President George Washington for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash Hamilton – a role he’ll reprise in the film version, set to debut on Disney+ July 3 –  and plays Chunk Palmer, the fashion-minded ex-football player who readies clients for trial on CBS’s Bull and, when the COVID-19 pandemic relents enough to allow actors back on sets, will perform in his old pal Miranda’s upcoming film version of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…Boom! musical.

Today, though, Jackson spends much of his time establishing and following the new routines of this stay-at-home pandemic – a morning walk, a detailed updating on the two erasable whiteboards that outline each day’s activity, sometimes each moment, for Jackson’s two children with wife Veronica: 10-year-old Jadelyn and 15-year-old CJ. The boards are especially important for CJ, whose autism demands an adherence to structure that a 44-year-old actor on hiatus mightn’t otherwise follow.

In their Scarsdale-area home, Jackson and his family have, like so many others across the world, found new ways of living – living together, living in isolation, living with precious me-time carved into existences that seem at once removed from the real world and enmeshed with it.

Michael Weatherly, Christopher Jackson ‘Bull’ CBS

In this wide-ranging conversation, Jackson discusses the impact the pandemic shutdown has had on his life, how he finds way to continue the artistic impulses that have brought him a remarkable level of success over the past 10 years (including a Daytime Emmy Award for co-composing the Sesame Street song “What I Am”), and how he and Veronica are building – rebuilding, actually – a new family life that suits the needs of a 15-year-old autistic son who relies on routine for comfort and assurance, and a 10-year-old girl who, like so many of us, just misses her friends.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Jackson Jenny Anderson

DEADLINE: Were you taping  Bull when news of the shutdown came?

CHRISTOPHER JACKSON: I had the day off so I was home. I knew that we were nearing the last day of shooting and I was expecting to go to work the next day to start a new episode when the email came saying we were shut down. Then the next day or so was just full of calls, trying to reach out to my cast members and my makeup artist and people that I work with closely every day, just to make sure they were okay.

DEADLINE: You had other projects that were coming up, too. 

JACKSON: I was slated to begin shooting with Lin – he’s directing Tick, Tick…Boom! and we were supposed to start shooting that next week. I was going to be doing both Bull and Tick, Tick…Boom!, and that takes a certain amount of coordination with the productions, but also with my family. We have to make sure all our bases are covered, and so we’d put those things in place. And then it all stopped.

DEADLINE: Your 15-year-old son CJ is autistic. How does the pandemic and the shutdown affect you and your family in ways that some of us might not grasp? 

JACKSON: Our daily routine is the thing that really helps our family and especially our son –  the getting up and going to school and knowing what to expect of the day. Everything is compartmentalized for CJ When the pandemic really took hold, we were in, I don’t want to say crisis mode, but we were in super get-prepared mode. For us, it wasn’t about making a run to the store for toilet paper and paper towels, it was, How do we modulate so that CJ is informed and comfortable? For him, school work is done at school and home is where you chill, and there are separate routines involved with both of those things. Like, one of the things my son loves to do is go to Target. And not just going through the toy section. He’ll find someone in a store vest, and will approach them to talk to them because he loves going to Target so much.

And that wasn’t something that we could do anymore. The social aspect for him is very important. He’s not an extremely outgoing kid, and so being able to have that touchstone for him two or three times a week, that is a trip that we make. Not having that was really difficult for him to process.

And we are trying to be as informed as possible when the news is on, and of course the news is pitched to get your attention and hold your attention, with the chyrons and the dramatic music and all of that. So CJ became very aware of the current situation, and helping him process this idea of a new normal was a challenge. What he has done is surprise us by how conscientious he’s become. He’s aware of of the world outside of our home and outside of his school in a completely new and exciting way. He’s chosen to engage in a way that he really wasn’t comfortable with before, which has become a real bright spot in our home.

DEADLINE: Does he have a sense – as much as any of us do – of what’s happening on a day to day basis? Is there a different perspective that he brings to this new normal?

JACKSON: It’s an open dialogue, an open conversation. Early on, he was like, What’s the coronavirus and why is it killing people? It took on very much like, What is this monster? If I was going to put it into some tactile way, it really was like, There’s a monster out there, it’s invisible and it’s killing people. Early on that was the way he was processing the thing, and then it was through a series of conversations, through some help with what we call social stories from his advocates and teachers at school – and they’ve been very, very active and have helped us tremendously. You take a line like I mentioned from the news, The Fight Against Coronavirus, and he’s said things like “We have to join the fight to defeat this thing.” The metaphor was something that for a time he took literally, and it was the most adorable thing because he was engaging. Our job, like every parent’s job, is we want him to be comfortable with this. We want him to not be afraid.

But this has been a really trying time because there are moments where he’s like, “I don’t want to hear about coronavirus anymore.” My wife and I were discussing Governor Cuomo’s latest news conference, and from the other room, CJ said, “Are you guys talking about coronavirus?”

DEADLINE: I think lots of us are having that same feeling. Let’s go back to the disruption of schedule – how do you as parents help CJ deal with disruption?

JACKSON: We’ve done our best to implement routine, just like most parents have to implement some new routine. The first thing we did was got a whiteboard out. Two whiteboards, actually. And we write out our daily schedule. Normally, when he goes to school, there’s a very set schedule, and breaks are built-in, and it can be a “This is the day” kind of presentation, or it can be in five-minute increments depending on what he needs to complete a task and know what the next thing coming up is. So that’s what we continue to do with both of our children. My daughter is in fifth grade, and she’s got a pretty extensive daily school schedule. Her teachers have done a tremendous job of keeping the students engaged. It’s been challenging, as we know it has for every kid and for every parent, but writing the schedule down has been really, really good for CJ And for us, too, because we went from being parents a few hours a day to 24/7. We’re teaching now, too, and it’s been a challenge.

But if there’s a bright spot in all of this, in terms of the home experience, it’s been that we have grown in our understanding of what our kids are like and we’ve gotten to know them much better. That is truly a bright spot. Justin Timberlake said early on, like, “I’m not meant to do this 24/7, this is not what I signed up for,” and I get that, I agree, and I don’t know any parent who hasn’t said that lately, but we’ve always been keenly aware of the little things when it comes to CJ, and after the initial shock of “Oh, my God, this is our new normal,” it was “How do we get good at this? How can we help them feel as normal as possible when we don’t feel normal either?”

Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Christopher Jackson
‘Hamilton’ 2016

As far CJ is concerned, we have daily check-ins with any number of his teachers, and they’re constantly giving input, not just with assignments, but with different tactics. The beautiful part about special education teachers and therapists is their ability to pivot when the child is confronted with something that’s difficult. There is just a myriad of things that your child presents them with on a daily basis, and they just know how to pivot. Learning to do that forces you to get away from the more rigid constraints of typical parenting where you’re going, “You have to do this because I say you have to do this,” to “Alright, let’s try something else, let’s try a different way.” That requires a lot more patience, to constantly be looking for a new strategy. You have to constantly strategize about how you’re going to confront a difficult moment, and then pivot when necessary.

DEADLINE: Can you think of an example of that sort of pivot that’s happened recently?

JACKSON: CJ has a hard time with homework because, again, schoolwork is what happens at school and at home we chill, we go places, we interact in a different way. Every day CJ went to school, he’d take a walk in the morning. His school has a really large campus, and he takes a really long walk either through the building or outside. But at home, he was like, “No, I don’t want to take a morning walk, this isn’t school.” It took a month to get him to do that. Now we’re taking really long walks, and we’re getting our exercise. He did that at school because he knew he would work for an hour and then he had to move, sensorially he had to be in motion, he had to just move. And he doesn’t have that same kind of get-up-and-go at home. He’ll move around the house, but walking around the neighborhood is not something he equates to in the same way. And so we finally got him to add that to his daily routine, and now there’s always at least one walk a day for a good 45 minutes. And it’s been great. He’ll throw his headphones on like he does at school and he just goes. We’ll have to tap him on his shoulder to remind him that we’re trying to keep up with him.

But it’s a really great thing to see, because my son doesn’t play with other kids like neurotypical kids do, and that’s difficult on a level that’s really hard to describe. It is at the heart of his autism. So being able to get him to move around outdoors and see the same neighbors every day, we’ve been able to use this as an opportunity to make him aware of other people around him. The social distancing thing for him actually is what he’s been doing for a very long time. He’s not comfortable getting close, so this works for him. And that’s a really cool thing.

DEADLINE: In establishing these new routines, is there anything you and your wife do that makes the transitions easier, or is it more a matter of repetition? 

JACKSON: It’s a little of both. Or a lot of both, actually. For our son, the challenge is twofold: It is about establishing new expectations and then repeating until they become expectations for him. You know you’ve made headway when he comes to you at 11:35 in the morning and says, “It’s time to go for my walk,” or “I just did my chores and I just checked them all off.” That’s something that we’ve been working on for five years, right? But because we’re all home and we’re paying attention in a different way, we notice the changes more readily than we did before.

Having a special needs child already peaks the parenting thing, right? We’re already at a 10 all the time. The things that most of us take for granted, like brushing our teeth or making our bed or putting your dish in the sink, those are things that have been particularly challenging for CJ, historically. So there’s been a more concerted and concentrated effort on our part in assigning these things and following through with him, and then watching him adapt. I think characterizes the experience of having a special needs kid: you’re always adapting. Or I should say, he’s alway adapting.

If you talk to any parent who has special needs kids, it’s about adapting. If your child has sensory expectations where he or she has to wear noise-canceling headphones, then you know not to make the house loud – that becomes your new norm, your new normal, and you adapt everything around it.

When CJ was young and we’d have a birthday party, any time we’d sing Happy Birthday, it would drive him into hysterics. At that time, we didn’t know he had perfect pitch, and that he couldn’t bear the sound of group singing because nobody sings Happy Birthday on key. For us it would be the equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. So we started to sing in a whisper and he seemed to do OK with that, but it took us years to know how to adapt to that. Eventually we were like, just let him stay in the other room while we sing because we don’t want him to be miserable. So it’s just adapting, you know?

DEADLINE: CJ has perfect pitch? How did you find out?

JACKSON: It was very, very strange. My wife and I both are singers, we were in the car with CJ It was drive time. This Demi Lovato song came on, and you know how DJs will sometimes pitch a song – slow it down a little bit – to smooth the transition to the next song? CJ, who was 10 at the time, said from the back seat, “Mommy, can you fix it? The song is wrong. There’s something wrong with the song. It’s different. Can you fix it?” And we were like, what is he talking about? Neither one of us has perfect pitch. I have really good relative pitch, but not perfect pitch. So my wife happened to hit the next station and the same song was playing, but it was maybe a semi-tone different – it was in its regular key. And CJ was like, “That’s better. That’s better, Daddy.”  

The level of perception is astounding. Again, my wife and I are both musicians, we’re both singers. So I sat CJ down one day and I was trying to teach him some notes on the keyboard. I said this is an A and I played it for him, and then I’d ask him to hit an A, and we did that a few times. I came back the next day and said, “CJ hit an A for me, and he hit that pitch perfectly. We talked to his audiologist and his behavioral psychologist, and they confirmed it. Suddenly it was like, Oh that makes sense. We finally understood what was going on with the Happy Birthday.

DEADLINE: You’ve talked about how your son is coping with the new reality, but how have you had to adjust and change?

JACKSON: You know, we may not know until it’s all over, to be quite honest. I’m fortunate in that I have a studio in my house and I’m able to go downstairs and still work. I have tried my best to be a good friend and family member and keep up with people. We are just waking up every day and not expecting it to be over. We’re all in this for the long haul. For my wife and I, our version of self-care is making sure that we both give each other enough individual time, and that we try to manage our kids’ expectations. When they’re feeling stress, it affects us. If they’re happy then we tend to be good.

I am an avid golfer, so I have been playing golf as much as I can, when it’s safe, and chipping balls in my front yard. So I’ve been doing that, and making plans. When this is all over with, there’s going to be a lot of fun things that are happening for me creatively, which I’m excited about. I’ve been writing, working on developing a TV show that me and my partners have been writing for three years. We’ve always met virtually, which is what we’re still doing.

DEADLINE: But how is it possible for an actor to make plans right now?

JACKSON: For me, making plans means being creative. And being an artist in a time like this is absorbing what’s happening and how people are feeling and what things are igniting us. When you wake up in the morning, what article has gotten your attention? What are you choosing to talk about?

Now, if I was on stage, I admittedly would feel, I’m sure, a lot more nervous. I’d feel the uncertainty a little bit more. But for me, being on hiatus right now, this is just the time of year when I’m not shooting a TV show. I’m in hiatus mode in that regard. I’m not feeling that uncertainty as much as I would if I were in a different gig.

When you’re creating something like, say, the pilot that we’re developing, it wasn’t going to be out immediately anyway. So I’m in build mode. I’m sketching out some ideas to do an album, and that’s something that I would have been doing anyway. So I’m empowered creatively simply because I know that there’s time, and it’s taken away the pressure of trying to have everything figured out right away. Now, I acknowledge that my circumstances are certainly different than what they were 10 years ago when I was doing strictly Broadway stuff and didn’t have resources and was worried about the rent, worried about where the next meal was coming from. And fortunately I’m in a different place with that as well. So I fully acknowledge that I’m in a different circumstance now, and I’m taking advantage of that to create more.

DEADLINE: Even with Tick, Tick…Boom!, you know that it’s going to be there when this is over.

JACKSON: I like to think of it as we just hit the pause button on everything. And there are other things that will be announced and other things that will be done and able to be presented. It’s reminded me of how exciting things can be when things are normal.

DEADLINE: We’ve talked about your son. How is your daughter doing with all this?

JACKSON: Oh, man. You know, she has been going through everything that a 10-year-old girl goes through. I was telling a friend of mine the other day that I’m noticing how important friendships are to young girls, in the formation of their own sense of self at that early age. Like how she’d run up to her girlfriends on the schoolyard and give them a hug – that is foundational. Boys will throw a ball, we don’t even have to talk, we’re just gonna pick sides and go. But for her and her little homies, it’s been a real struggle. They validate one another in a really beautiful way. We’ve been setting up Zoom calls for them, and she’s been doing as good as we could hope. Most days are good, but there’s a lot of disappointment. This is not the way she thought fifth grade was gonna go.

Plus, she’s coming to terms with her brother in a really beautiful and sometimes challenging way, because she, too, is seeing more of him than she ever did before or ever expected to. So we’re just trying to do the best we can with giving her what she needs right now. Her introduction to middle school is going to happen virtually this year, a virtual tour, which, again, is not what anybody planned. But that’s just where we are.

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