I AM UAA: Bradford Jackson, Theatre

Bradford Jackson, 23, seems born to the stage.

For one thing, he’s deftly tuned to his acting passion. Like a sponge greedily soaking up water, or a wild animal listening keenly for the sounds of danger, Jackson’s antennae are constantly up, constantly extracting the essence of some detail he can apply toward shaping himself as an actor.

Bradford Jackson in “The Language of Trees”
Hometown: Eagle River
Fun fact: Wears a kilt to work at T.G.I. Friday’s

Today, he’s a UAA junior with a declared major in Theatre and a long resume of local, professional stage and film credits. Currently, he plays the role of a language  translator, Denton Pinkerstone,  deployed to Iraq in “The Language of Trees,” running on the UAA Mainstage Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 23.

But the magnet to stage lights tugged very early, he remembers.

“It was always me and my dad, watching movies together and trading the lines back and forth.

“When I was 11 or 12, I told my parents, ‘I’m going to be an actor.’ And they’ve always supported me.” That meant performing in plenty of church plays and starring in homemade videos — whatever he could get his hands on.

His parents chose to home-school their five children because their father’s military career as an Army Airborne Ranger (“the Marines of the Army,” Bradford offers) meant plenty of family upheaval – either moving frequently or living without their dad while he was on various deployments. It seemed to his mother that she’d more clearly know the quality and depth of her children’s education if she taught them herself.

So coming to UAA in 2006 was Jackson’s first exposure to public school. And even though he’d hung on every word of celebrity actors’ interviews on how they readied for their roles (Richard Dreyfuss in “Jaws” was a big one), he confesses that he brought little but passion with him to UAA.

“I knew nothing. I knew you had to memorize lines and act out a situation. But I really knew nothing.” Like, for instance, how to “become” a character.

That transformative task fell to Laure McConnel, his Acting 1 professor at UAA.

“We were preparing these monologues,” Jackson remembers. “And I was working really hard. These were our mid-terms. And the day I was going to give mine, I was sitting there, and I started getting nervous.

“Now, Laure had told us – you’ll hear and feel all these voices, telling you to change this, change that. In fact, maybe you can’t really even do this….

“And she said, ‘Forget all that. Throw it away.’”

“And I remember sitting there and deciding, “I’m throwing that away! I’m going to get up and give this, from the heart. I’m going to give it everything I have.”

When he finished, he looked at McConnel, busy videotaping each student’s work, and the smile on her face told him he had succeeded.  “Her advice, it pushed me to a new level,” he says.

Another key moment also happened early on at UAA. His next acting venture was to portray a drunken, abusive father in a student-directed scene.  It was also the first time his parents would be in the audience to see him.

“I wondered, what would they think of me, performing a character like this?”  He wanted to know: Would they endorse his path, or find it distasteful.

Jackson remembers some important advice about playing his character. It came from a fellow student who’d lived with an abusive father. She told him to cut out all goofiness from the scene; it had no place. He followed her guidance and moved the character to a new, angrier level. Again, he gave it everything he had; the man was despicable.

Afterward, he watched his father come through the backstage door to find him. He put his hand on his son’s shoulder, stuck his finger hard into his chest, and said emphatically: “You have a gift. Use it!” His father had tears in his eyes.

Those two endorsements have meant everything to Jackson. They’ve led to more and more success, including a professional role as a young lawyer in “Christmas with a Capital C,” filmed in Seward last year.  That role meant he’s had to ante up the $1,000 fee for membership in the Screen Actors Guild. His parents, anxious to back their son’s ambitions, offered to split the cost with him.

That kind of financial help means a lot to Jackson, who works two jobs so he can navigate through UAA toward his degree without accumulating debt. He serves meals at Orso’s and at T.G.I. Friday’s, where he also wears a black, family kilt. “It’s great for the tips,” he says, grinning.

Using what he has learned at UAA, Jackson now has the confidence to move deeper into the Anchorage acting community. He’s been directed twice by Dick Reichman, a playwright and board member of Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse. Early next year, he’ll take on the role of a Russian-speaking Kiril Ivakin in another Cyrano’s production,  “Superior Donuts,” again under Reichman’s direction. “He’s like a father to me,” Jackson says.

For now, his days are packed between jobs, classes and productions. He’s just been cast as a State Trooper in a new film, “Frozen Ground,” starring John Cusack and Nicolas Cage. Shooting begins Nov. 7. And he’s promised another local filmmaker that he’ll be available for work in December.

Meantime on UAA’s Mainstage , he plays Denton, father to a seven-year-old and husband to a young, frightened wife. Denton takes a job as a language translator in Iraq. Not to carry a gun or shoot the enemy. But to live out his own personal philosophy: Enemies are friends who just haven’t learned to talk to each other yet.

Jackson draws on his family’s deep military experience to understand this role.

He was four years old, two weeks before Christmas and a week before his own birthday, when his Army Ranger dad took a phone call. Hanging up, he dropped the Christmas tree decorations and disappeared into his bedroom. When he came back out, he was packed and in military gear.  He didn’t come home again for three months. Just the predicament Jackson’s stage son, Eben, is in.

Bradford’s sister, Iris, reminds him of his young stage wife, Loretta, reluctant to let Denton go to war, even as a translator. His sister’s husband is on a second tour in Afghanistan. Just like Loretta in the play, she has a young son, plus a baby on the way.

It’s all fodder for Jackson, character nuance to help him create the unforgettable — if lost — victim of war that is Denton Pinkerstone.

You can see Bradford Jackson in “The Language of Trees” on the UAA Mainstage Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 23. For ticket information, call (907) 786-4TIX, or go to www.centertix.net.

A behind-the-scenes video of Bradford in “The Language of Trees”:

I AM UAA is a story series highlight students, staff, faculty and alumni from the University of Alaska Anchorage, posted at the UAA news service website, Green & Gold. Find more stories here.