This past May, actor and singer Jonthan Kirkland, who played the role of George Washington in the Chicago Company’s production of Hamilton, came to the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus to speak with students young and old about his experiences and lessons learned from time spent on Broadway and the silver screen. While he was in town, Kirkland was kind enough to sit down with SRQ to talk about his career, advice he has for young actors and why it’s so important for him to give back to the community.

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan

Tell me about your visit to USF?  JONATHAN KIRKLAND: I'm working with the PAInT Center with Dr. Denise Davis-Cotton, the director of the center at USF. We met recently at a conference out in Los Angeles, at an education conference in LA, where I was doing an artistic residency. We’re both from Detroit and she started the heralded Detroit School of the Arts, so we connected on those familiar roots. Yesterday, I was fortunate to work with some kids, who were amazing and today I'm speaking with some staff and faculty about holistic art, inclusive art and things like that. 

What makes you want to teach and connect with others outside of acting? KIRKLAND: I have a history as an educator. My entire family, my mother, my father, my aunts, my wife, every single person I'm attached to has been passionate about education. My mother was also an opera singer, so that's where I got my gift for singing, if you will. 

Education is so vital to me because none of us are where we are without someone teaching us something. On top of that, art education is so important because I know that for kids like me, there are probably at least three subjects that we couldn't care less about. In high school and college you have to take your prerequisites. You’ve got to do this and that. I didn’t care about that. What I loved was music. Or it could be journalism or drama or science. To me, it’s so important to give back because if I didn't have the phenomenal teachers that I did I wouldn't be pursuing this. It took those educators to say, "Listen man, you have a gift, and you have a talent, and you can go very far in this if you want to." I also just enjoy being around people. I'm a hyper-extrovert. I’ve got two kids and one on the way, so I'm always looking to help and give back. 

Lastly, I think it's a responsibility. I was fortunate to have a mother in the house who found success as an entertainer. Everyone doesn't have that. And even for me, even having that in my household, it was so vital to see people who looked like me doing the things I wanted to do. My mother showed me a DVD of a group called the Three Mo' Tenors. It was three Black men singing opera, jazz, R&B and neo soul. I was like, “Yo, we could do all that? I thought I just had to sing opera. I don't want to be an opera singer. I want to do it all." And my mom told me, "Yes, son, you can do it all. You can do it." Those examples are so important, so whenever I can get in front of some kids and be that example for them I will, for any demographic not just the Black community. One young lady yesterday said, "I want to be an actor, but so many people discourage me. How do I deal with that?" And I told her, "You tell them to shut up because I dealt with the same thing." 

Were there any moments from high school or middle school that a teacher pulled you aside and imparted some words of wisdom to you? KIRKLAND: I'm going to give you two. The first time was in middle school, when I was given a solo in the middle school choir by my teacher Ms. Dove. She told me, "Jonathan, you can sing this. You can do this. Just have fun.” To which I responded "Okay, I'm nervous, but I'm going to do it." And I did it, and it was great. 

Another really important instance happened in high school, with this man named Mr. Braugh, who was a piano player for the choral program. At the time, we had one of the best choirs in the state of Michigan. However, like any other high school kid, I was prideful, arrogant and full of myself. One day, I was getting on his nerves because I wasn't living up to my leadership potential within our group. He pulled me aside and said, "Man, listen, you can be really, really good at this. But in life you have to make decisions. So, either you're going to choose to do this, and you can be great, you can be a star, or you're not going to choose to do it, and you'll probably regret it. Once you turn 33, 34, 35, you'll regret that you didn't pursue this thing. And this is the last time I'm going to tell you. I'm not telling you to shut your mouth anymore. I'm not telling you to pay attention anymore. I'm telling you right now, either do this and be great or don't and properly regret it. And that's all I'm going to say." That was a huge moment for me.

Can you tell us about your career path? KIRKLAND: I started singing in high school and the big moment was when I got the church solo at church. Everybody starts at church. I'd been telling my family for years that I could sing, but when they’d ask me I’d get shy and clam up. However, I joined the choir and stood out to the point where they gave me a solo–it was this big put up or shut up moment for me. Fortunately, I knocked it out of the park and my mother told me that this was something we needed to leverage for my future. After that, I started winning a lot of high school choral and vocalist competitions, which drew a lot of attention from colleges in the midwest. Ultimately, I went to Michigan State University, where I studied Opera and then got my master's degree in vocal pedagogy and performance from the University of Houston. For those first seven or eight years after high school I was focused on building a career as an opera singer. 

Somewhere along that time in graduate school, however, it became clear to me that I didn't want to pursue opera solely—that I loved the stage and I loved performing more than I loved the operatic genre. So in 2013, I got married to my beautiful wife, moved to New York and started to pursue a career in theater, television and film. I had to take a lot of voice lessons to become a crossover singer, because I was so opera-heavy that I had to work on my voice to sing musical theater music and other types of music. I started acting as well and landed my first agent around 2014. I started with small TV work and then regional theater stuff, eventually progressing to off-Broadway shows which ultimately led to me booking the Chicago production of Hamilton, which at the time was the biggest show in world history. From 2016 to 2018, I did well over 500 shows, before leaving for New York to start really pursuing TV and film work.

After the pandemic, my wife and I moved our family to LA, which is where we are now. Once I do something, I’m ready for the next thing. I’ve been an opera singer. I’ve done perhaps the biggest show ever in musical theater. Now, I want TV and film and I’ve been fortunate enough to do some solid TV work–I’ve worked with Sylvester Stallone, Jennifer Lopez, Wayne Brady, John Krasinski, all kinds of people. I’m continuing to do a lot of producing, writing and creating my own work as well.

Are there any lessons that you took with you from your time in Hamilton? KIRKLAND: I think the greatest lesson that performing in Hamilton taught me is that once you get to the highest level, you have to work even harder. The work doesn’t end, it literally is just beginning. As a former athlete, I've always known that, but I hadn't experienced it yet in my career like that. The schedule was demanding–with eight shows a week, six days a week, I had to work even harder on my body to stay in shape and had to be more focused on my vocal health than ever before. It also taught me that whatever your dreams are, whatever life you imagine for yourself, you can literally live that out loud. 

What is the difference between working in New York and what you're chasing in LA? KIRKLAND: The ecosystems are starkly different. The running joke is that most New York actors move to LA and it's cool for six months, you’ve got the beach and the amazing weather, but after all the glitz and glam wears off, most New York actors are begging to get back to New York. That’s because in New York, I have so many friends and colleagues that if I ever needed a job, I could make one phone call and land a singing engagement or ensemble role in a Broadway show. But in LA, it is not like that. It’s very much about who you know. The cool kids have to deem you cool enough to play in their sandbox. 

In LA you have two options. You can either wait your turn or you can kick the door down and build your own table. With the industry becoming more DIY than ever, a lot of us are writing and producing our own content, building our own table to serve society with whatever’s in our heart to give. Fortunately for me, I have my family that I can escape to and get away from the nonsense of it all.

What made you want to really say, "Hey, I don't want to be on stage as much anymore.  I want to be in front of the camera?"  KIRKLAND:  I don't know if it was any one thing. It’s funny, because I’m by no means retired from Broadway or the stage. If the right opportunity comes, I still audition now. I think it's more so that it's just the heart's desire. I want to do what I moved to LA to do. And to be honest, I like what the life of television and film can offer my family. I like the stability that it can offer if you get to a certain level. Because if you don't get to that level in the arts, in general, if it's not Broadway or you're not a series regular, you are not making any real money. So, that's just what it is. So, we're all fighting to get to that one-tenth of 1%. But I like what it can provide for my family. It’s an artistic difference, but also a lifestyle difference. The challenge about New York is not the art. It’s the city itself. Can you deal with taking this train to that bus to a different train in the middle of a snow storm while running late to an audition? Can you, as a young and upcoming actor, balance your day job with auditioning and the foot hustle of the city? My wife and I are also huge on not living with regret. We knew that this was a move we wanted to make, that this was the direction I wanted to pursue in my career and just went for it. We don’t see life as what could go wrong. We see it as what could go right.

Is that an attitude you think you have to be successful in this industry? KIRKLAND: You don't have to, but I think it helps. I think keeping a positive outlook, a glass-half full mindset is just so important. For instance, when I booked Hamilton, I wasn't even going to go to the audition, because I had auditioned for them six months prior and they didn't even look my way. In my mind, not only was I not the type of person they were looking for, I wasn't the level of performer-I figured that it's Hamilton, that they're only looking for Emmy winners and Grammy winners and Tony winners. They're not looking for guys building their career. But at my wife's urging, I went and and booked the part. You just never what could happen if you try. If you're passionate about it and that's what you feel your purpose is in life, you can figure it out.