Nick Jonas is Mr. Nice Guy
Nick Jonas loves cigars, can often be found lurking on putting greens and took method acting to bruising extremes while shooting the new Jumanji film. And that is about as close as the former Jonas brother gets to child-star syndrome. How does he do it?
Nick Jonas is 25 going on 60. He golfs. He just wrote a play. He wears a gold watch. This afternoon, at an upscale-casual Italian restaurant in Downtown Manhattan, a block from his New York City apartment, Jonas is sharing his enthusiasm for cigars. “I love the smell,” he says. “I constantly get asked, ‘Do you really enjoy them?’” (He does.) In conversation, Jonas is worldly but grounded, ambitious yet pragmatic. He’s 25 in the way American men were after the war—if that war was a near-constant siege of tween-girl hysterics and CIA-level surveillance.
It wasn’t so long ago that New Jersey-raised Nick and his two older siblings, Kevin and Joe, were among the most zealously adored young men on the planet. As the Jonas Brothers, a pop band Disney catapulted to a global teen craze, the trio sold millions of records, commanded countless sold-out arenas and starred in two Disney Channel musicals, a sitcom and a theatrically released 3D concert film. Girls loved them because they were cute boys who sang about first kisses and instant-messenger disses. Parents loved them because they didn’t use bad language and wore “purity rings” that signalled their commitment to abstinence. In the late aughts, the Jonas Brothers were such a safe rallying point the siblings performed at the White House for both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. One time, they were a literal prize at the end of a scavenger hunt for Sasha and Malia.
“Those were some of the most memorable experiences of my life,” says Jonas fondly. He’s come to the restaurant straight from the airport, dressed in a style that might be described as SoHo-millennial James Dean: black slim jeans, black sneakers, a black leather jacket he doesn’t remove, a shirt bearing the legend FASHION GANG.
The transition from teen icon to evolved artist is an easy one to flub. But ever since “the Brothers,” as Nick calls his former band, dissolved in late 2013, the youngest Jonas has been steadily building a solo career as a pop star and actor on his own decidedly adult terms. He just finished working on next year’s dystopian thriller Chaos Walking. He’s also in the new action romp Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. It’s not a huge role, but Jonas seems to have thrown himself into it—co-star Jack Black remarked in Billboard that while on location in Hawaii, Jonas would vanish into the bush for days, returning “with bumps and scrapes and bruises.”
If this suggests a fairly high level of determination, there’s a reason: Perhaps more than Jonas’s solo musical career, acting represents the culmination of his efforts to remold himself—to make audiences forget that this Nick Jonas is the same Nick Jonas who rocked out on a teddy bear float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Last year, he starred alongside Ben Schnetzer and James Franco in the bleak frathouse movie, Goat, and had a longstanding role as a closeted mixed-martial-arts fighter on the DirecTV drama Kingdom. As cool and edgy as these roles may have been, they didn’t quite tick all of the boxes for Jonas. “When I took my first couple steps on the acting side,” he says, “the hope was to land a big studio movie.” Jumanji is that movie.
The film isn’t simply a reboot of the 1995 version, which starred Robin Williams and grossed $262 million worldwide, but a 21st-century extension of the original’s darkly magical universe. This time, the sinister pastime is a dusty role-playing videogame that sucks four unsuspecting teenagers into its tropical world and spits them out as the game’s avatars—action-explorer archetypes embodied by Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan. The premise may sound convoluted—Freaky Friday meets Jurassic World meets Scott Pilgrim vs. the World—but its execution is both very fun and very funny.
Jonas plays a handsome aviator avatar, but he sees the character as more than a mere action hero. “He really takes on some of the emotional grounding of the story,” he says, adding that he fell in love with acting after starring in a London stage production of Les Misérables in 2010. “It was a new thing to be in an action-comedy movie, so to be able to use some of my drama training was nice.”
A hostess appears to deliver complimentary Bellinis, a subtle acknowledgement of the star in our midst. “I find that L.A. as a whole is more fascinated with public life and celebrity than in New York,” Jonas says, after toasting. He gets recognized a lot, and is often surprised by people’s reactions to him. “If I’m at a bar or having a drink somewhere like this, people look at me and they’re so confused: ‘You’re so normal!’ I want to know what their expectation was—that I walk in with a posse of, like, 50 people?”
I point out that there’s a well-documented lineage of former teen idols who’ve turned out, well … “crazy,” Jonas says, finishing the thought. We both snicker. He then seems to realize that, as someone uniquely positioned to have fraternized with a generation of child stars, he’s just inadvertently confirmed that his peers are nuts. Spooning a bowl of artichoke soup, he casually changes the subject. “The soup’s good, right?”
Jonas has always seemed older than his age. The third of four sons born to a Christian pastor and a sign-language teacher, Nicholas Jerry Jonas arrived in September 1992, five years after eldest Kevin and three after Joe. (Fourth son Frankie—later nicknamed by fans “Bonus Jonas”—came in 2000.)
As a child growing up in New Jersey, Nick was the precocious one, the boy who sang into a turkey baster at three, who performed for the mirrors at the hair salon his mother went to so often that a customer said he needed a manager. Although his older siblings would follow suit, Nick was the first Jonas to secure a Broadway musical role (at seven), the first to write a song (with their musician dad at age 11) and the first to sign with a major label (Columbia Records, at age 12). He was also the first Jonas to have an album flop (Nicholas Jonas, issued just before his 13th birthday). After this, Columbia had a rethink, forming Nick and his two siblings into a group called the Jonas Brothers—which allowed them to release a flop (the 2006 debut It’s About Time) together. Columbia had another rethink, and the boys were 86-ed.
Where Columbia saw failure, Disney saw opportunity. They were three boys with good looks and charisma, who also happened to write their own songs. They held prayer circles before live shows—and they all had really great hair. “The hair might seem like not a big deal,” says Jonas, whose signature “Baby Jonas” style was an eruption of thick poodle-curls. “But in some ways, our hair as the Brothers defined us—it walked into rooms before we did.”
In August 2007, Disney’s Hollywood Records released a new Jonas Brothers album and introduced the kids behind it with a special guest appearance on the Miley Cyrus juggernaut Hannah Montana. That October, the boys were booked to headline the State Fair of Texas and a squealing horde of some 40,000 descended on the grounds, breaking attendance records and backing up traffic so solidly that the band had to be flown to the main stage in a helicopter.
The next two years were a chaperoned blur of No. 1 albums, Disney productions like 2008’s Camp Rock and 2009’s Camp Rock 2 and arenas full of hysterical teens. “There was a moment when we put a tour on sale and it sold out in a couple minutes,” recalls Jonas, who emerged as the band’s creative engine, chief songwriter and spokesman. “I thought, ‘This is beyond the point of no return.’ It was like, ‘Alright, cool, my life’s different now. For the rest of it.’”
But, gradually, the fever broke. The Brothers still had rabid fans, but there were fewer of them. In 2009, their 3D concert film fizzled at the box office and their sitcom, Jonas, didn’t score the runaway ratings Disney expected. “In my mind, at the time, it was that people had lost interest in the whole thing,” says Jonas. “But I think it was more that there was such a familiarity, that we became like a piece of furniture in people’s homes.”
In November 2010, after releasing their fourth studio album and wrapping up a world tour, the Jonas Brothers announced an indefinite hiatus. The official word was that members wanted to pursue personal projects: Nick landed the lead role in the Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 2012. But behind the scenes, the boys’ working relationship was deteriorating. “We weren’t progressing creatively,” says Nick. “It was clearly time to finish that chapter.”
The teen heartthrob persona can be a stubborn thing to shake. Jonas had just turned 21 when, in October 2013, the Jonas Brothers formally announced their breakup, and he wasn’t quite sure how to go about redefining himself. “The challenge was, ‘How do we educate people on who I am as a 21-year-old guy, as opposed to the 16-year-old kid they are familiar with?’”
First, he took a few months to enjoy the gauzy bliss of a new relationship with Olivia Culpo, Miss USA 2012. “It was lots of traveling, being out of communication and not focusing on work,” he says, squeezing lemon into his tea and getting a dreamy look. “A lot of great meals, good wine.” (They’ve since broken up.) In February 2014, four months after the Jonas Brothers ended, he went back to work. “I put my head down and was like, ‘I’m going to work and focus in the way someone should to achieve certain goals.’”
Musically, Jonas recorded a solo album that abandoned peppy guitar rock for soulful, sensual pop. He wrote lyrics with swear words and innuendo. As an actor, he landed roles that were radically against type. As well as starring in the gritty dramas Kingdom and Goat, he played a gay frat boy on Fox’s horror satire Scream Queens. “Those first steps were about finding great stories, great characters,” he says, “things that would help me grow.”
And, famously, Jonas took off his clothes. “I started getting into fitness, which was less at first about making a clear distinction between youth and adulthood,” he says. “But you know, I got really into it.” Indeed, he did. In the fall of 2014, he appeared bare-chested and in his underwear for a Flaunt magazine spread that paid homage to Mark Wahlberg’s 1992 Calvin Klein ad. The New York Times subsequently dubbed him “The Beefcake Little Brother.”
His three-season role in Kingdom also included rampant shirtlessness and a number of very un-Disney-like romantic scenes. Jonas is often asked if all this jars with his religion. “As far as someone judging my faith because I swear in a song or talk about sex,” he says, “I think that is ridiculous.” Neither does he see any conflict between playing gay characters and his Christian upbringing. “I believe in God, but I’ve changed my worldview so that love and acceptance are the core.”
His parents are unquestionably supportive, he says. “I’m sure they watch Kingdom and maybe it’s a little uncomfortable, but I think they have the confidence and trust in me that [the adult content] serves the story.”
It’s starting to get late, and Jonas needs to run to his apartment (“to throw on a suit and brush my teeth”) before heading to Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year Awards, where he’ll present an award to trailblazing astronaut Peggy Whitson. Right after the ceremony, he’ll fly to San Francisco for a morning meeting, then to Las Vegas to perform at the Latin Grammys. From there, it’s a zigzag of shows in Florida, the American Music Awards in Los Angeles, plus a snowboarding break in Mammoth Lakes, California, where he and Joe own a place. December belongs to Jumanji’s rigorous promotion.
Jonas couldn’t be more excited about Jumanji. For one, he loved the original as a kid. “It was probably a once-a-month watch,” he says. And the fanboy in him approves of the update: “When I read the script, I was very, very happy with the story they were telling.” He does, however, harbor higher ambitions. “I would love to get to a point where the things I’m doing merit respect from my peers on an awards level. That is another goal.”
There is also a new album slated for an early 2018 release. Its first single, the woozy tropical pop “Find You,” has been out since September. Three days ago, Jonas finished shooting Chaos Walking in Montreal. In it, he plays a callous, murderous heir to a sociopathic mayor. “He’s full of rage and jealousy and those are fun roles to play,” he says. “You get to go to some really weird dark places.”
Just before Jonas gets up to leave, talk returns to the weird dark places visited by many of his teen-idol peers, and the fact that he seems to have avoided joining them. “I’ve had my moments,” he says with a laugh. “I have a really close family. My mother is a strong woman who wouldn’t let me fall off like that.” He has also factored stability into his career plan. “I just want to be a force in this business, someone who creates great art and remains sane. If I can.”
Nick Jonas on…
I feel like the older I get, the less I know, whereas when I was young I thought I knew everything. Who you are at 15, 16, is a very different person from who you become at 21. Now, at 25, I look back and go, “Ha ha, I was so stupid.”
Even on my worst days—maybe there’s family trouble, or other things are getting me down—but if I have an interaction with someone, I try to make sure it’s positive. Maybe there’s someone working on a film set who could really use a “Hello” and a “How are you today?” Those things go a long way.
I’m not afraid that all this will go away, but I think that it’s better to live with the reality that it could. I constantly think about what more I could be doing, or if I should be doing less. I wrestle with these questions at night. And I don’t have all the answers. I’m just trying to keep up.
I am an avid snowboarder and my brother Joe’s an avid skier, so we have a place in Mammoth Lakes. I went to Venice, Florence and Tuscany this year, and it was just the best trip of my life. I went to Bali a few years back, which was amazing. France as well.