Can teen idol-turned-pop prince Nick Jonas achieve that (nearly) impossible dream: Hollywood superstardom? He says Yes.
There’s a truism about passing time and shifting generational pop culture that comedian Billy Crystal once pointed to when his daughter asked, “Dad, did you know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” Having emerged in recent years as a solo pop star and increasingly in-demand actor, Nick Jonas today is living his own variation on that theme. The 21st-century take might be, “Did you know Nick Jonas used to be in a band with his brothers?”
“It’s funny that that’s already happening,” laughs Jonas, who just three years ago decided, with his siblings Joe and Kevin, to end their phenomenally popular band, the Jonas Brothers, and pursue individual creative interests, leading Nick to reinvent himself as a chart-topping, critically admired musical artist in his own right. His third and latest album, Last Year Was Complicated, delivered the hit single “Close” and made his current Future Now Tour, which he co-headlines with close pal Demi Lovato, one of the summer’s hottest tickets.
Simultaneously, Jonas emerged as an actor of considerable range and charisma. He made a physically powerful impression in the mixed martial arts drama series Kingdom, deftly handled humor both subtle and broad on Fox’s horror/comedy Scream Queens, and delivers an utterly convincing turn as one of a pair of brothers caught up in a harrowing cycle of fraternity hazing in the new film Goat, out this fall.
A star is reborn: “It’s been challenging to find time on the dating front. It’s a choice I made to have this season of my life be solo, so that I can make the most of all I’m trying to accomplish,” says Nick Jonas, who blazes on the big screen in the critically acclaimed Goat. “I’ve got plenty of time, at 24.”
“The less and less I’m introduced as ‘Nick Jonas, formerly of the Jonas Brothers,’ [the more] there’s just an awareness of now,” says the 24-year-old. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of hard work and patience, but it’s exciting when people start to recognize you for what you’re doing in the moment and see you for that.”
The evolution, he admits, was daunting. “I was unsure of what was going to be next,” he says. “I knew that I had a lot of music I wanted to make and a lot of acting projects that I wanted to pursue, but nothing’s ever guaranteed. I was incredibly relieved when some things started to come together. Within two weeks of leaving the band, I wrote ‘Jealous,’ which was a song that would change my life and career, and I also booked Kingdom. So it was all happening!”
“It’s exciting when people start to recognize you for what you’re doing in the moment, and see you for that.” —Nick Jonas
Much of the brothers’ blockbuster brand, of course, was built with their on-camera roles in the Disney Channel’s Camp Rock movies and Jonas series, but Jonas’s own acting aspirations had been fueled since childhood stints on Broadway in productions like A Christmas Carol and Beauty and the Beast. “Acting has always been important to me,” he says. “It was a great foundation, and then as I got older, I found some great roles that pushed me a bit. Once I read the script for Kingdom, I realized pretty quickly that it was something I would have to fight for, but that it would be worth it if I just sunk my teeth in and really tried to challenge myself.”
Indeed, although some may have looked askance at the casting of the former teen idol as a closeted gay MMA fighter in one of the grittiest series of the moment, Jonas quickly dispelled any apprehension with his commitment to the material, both physically and emotionally. “So much of these fighters’ lives is played out in a physical sense—their job is to get in a cage and beat somebody up,” he says. “But also, at times, the reason they’re fighting is because they’re running from something. So I have a great time working with my coach and trying to find ways to really show each layer.”
Having been publicly perceived as the archetypal “Serious One” among his bandmates, Jonas surprised even his truest believers, as well, with his facility for straight-faced comedy as seen on Scream Queens. He admits that he chooses his words carefully in his own life, but on Screen Queens he loosened up in his bid to find his own comedic tone: “I have to read a line 100 different ways before I know the way I’m going to deliver it, and just see which one I think is funny and roll with that.”
With the critically acclaimed, James Franco-produced Goat, which garnered glowing nods for Jonas’s performance at Sundance, the actor shocked even himself. “When I first read for it, I thought I bombed the audition. I thought I did terrible! I was really relieved when I got it.” The film’s director, Andrew Neel, however, recognized the elusive but key quality Jonas was bringing to the performance. “For most of the film [Nick’s character, Brett] doesn’t approve of his brother, and Nick was able to do this while maintaining a strong sense of love and affection,” says Neel. “He drew a lot from his relationships with his own brothers.”
Identifiable motifs begin to emerge while discussing Jonas’s professional output: experimentation, challenging oneself, testing limits. “On the music front, I try to grow every day and expose myself to new and exciting things to be inspired by, whether it’s people I’m collaborating with or just new music that I’m getting introduced to. I think that you’ve got to keep an attitude of never wanting to stop growing,” he says. “Then on the acting side, I’m drawn to darker projects, things that are dramatic, intense, and really push me—but also mixing in some of these great opportunities for things that continue to show my comedy side as well. Having many layers to ‘all things Nick Jonas’ is kind of the key.”
He credits the success of his latest music to his commitment to documenting his emotional journey after a breakup that was even more shattering than parting ways with his siblings: his split with model/beauty queen Olivia Culpo after a two-year relationship.
“On the acting side, I’m drawn to darker projects... having many layers to ‘all things Nick Jonas’ is kind of the key.” —Nick Jonas
“Heartbreak is a theme that a lot of people relate to—the challenges of the next steps in your life, and when some doors close, and how you approach the next ones opening,” he says. “I saw pretty quickly that it was a lot of what my fans could relate to.” But it wasn’t initially easy to translate his personal pain into hooky lyrics. “It’s nerve-wracking when [the feelings] are as personal as the ones that I shared were. But I feel relieved when I use my writing as a way to process—it’s very therapeutic.”
These days, dating hasn’t been a priority—but Jonas is still putting himself out there “a little bit.” “I’ve been pretty busy!” he explains. “It’s been challenging to find any time on that front. But it’s also a choice I made to just have this season of my life be solo, so that I can make the most of all I’m trying to accomplish. I’ve got plenty of time, at 24. I mean I hope I have plenty of time!”
As for that other central personal relationship—the one with his brothers—the professional split was “the best thing that ever happened to us. It has allowed for us to just be family,” he says. “Joe and I live together in LA. We have a home there together—we’re very, very close. My brother Kevin and his wife have a baby and another one on the way. He’s now into his next step, which is in the tech world, which is really amazing. It’s all a really healthy change.”
With the reboot of Jumanji next on his slate—his entry into macro-budget, studio tent-pole filmmaking—Jonas realizes how rare his journey from what could have been a disposable stint as a teen idol into a formidable multihyphenate in the entertainment world truly is.
“I’ve been really fortunate to have what feels like a few shots at this, to be in a spot where it’s almost like I’ve gotten [a chance] to restart,” he says. “I was on a rocket ship to the moon with my brothers as part of a teen phenomenon. And to come back and solidify an adult career with real confidence in myself and pride in my work, I think I’ve now been able to see things a little bit differently. And that really does shape who you become as a person, the way you see the world... and the way you treat other human beings.”
Photography by Yu Tsai