Hulu recently released its new original feature Vacation Friends, a comedy that centers on Emily (Yvonne Orji) and Marcus (Lil Rel Howery), a couple on a romantic trip to Mexico who befriend another pair (John Cena and Meredith Hagner) while there. Amongst its star-studded cast is TJ Jackson, an actor whose varied resume includes credits like HBO Max’s Doom Patrol and the upcoming ABC series Women of the Movement. With a number of projects in the works, Jackson still found time to virtually sit down with Casting Networks and share his Vacation Friends casting story.
It’s great to virtually see you, TJ. What can you tell us about the character you play in the film and how you landed the role?
I’m the bandleader who introduces Emily and Marcus at the beginning of their wedding weekend. For the self-tape audition scene, my character had been performing before stopping to make their introduction. It was supposed to end after I said, “Ladies and gentleman, may I please present to you the bride and groom to be, Emily and Marcus.” But I always look to see if I can add a button that will make my audition a little different. In this case, I figured the bandleader would go back to performing after he was done introducing them. So I added a count-in and then started singing the first bit of Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E.” After submitting the tape, I got an email from my agent saying that they wanted a video of me pretending to play the piano. Well, it just so happens that I know how to play the piano because I used to write love songs and perform them when I was younger for college sweethearts and that kind of thing. So I recorded myself playing a song that I wrote and sent it back. Then the next day, I booked the movie.
Wow! I bet they were impressed that you did so much more than just pretend to play the piano.
Thanks. And after I booked it, I took the time to really understand the character. You know, you want to do justice to the role you play, no matter how big or small it is. Because you’re portraying a person. So I sat at my desk one day, turned on the camera, and just started talking as if I was giving an interview as the character. I discussed how booking the wedding gig came at the perfect time for my band after grinding for so long. We’d been together for about seven years, and this was a great opportunity for the band. I went on and on as the character, just building his world and defining who he was as a person.
I love that commitment to knowing your character and his backstory. And for you as the actor, how’d it feel to book such a high-profile project?
So the film is from 20th Century Studios, which means it was actually the first-ever Disney project I’d booked. And then I started looking at the names who were attached. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” We filmed during the NBA Finals last year so I was having a conversation with John Cena while we watched the Lakers win. And then the vice-presidential debates were going on at that time, too. So getting to share those moments with him and with people like Yvonne Orji and Lil Rel Howery was really cool. Plus, Vacation Friends made history as Hulu’s most-watched original movie in its opening weekend to date. And a sequel is already in the works.
It sounds like an incredible experience. And how has this opportunity impacted your career?
It’s recently felt like everything is just falling into place at the right time for me, and that’s all centered around the film’s release. Bigger opportunities are being presented to me because of it. And I’ll say that one of the greatest things that has actually come since shooting this film has been training with the right coach. I started working with Carol Hickey, who’s based in Austin, and she’s now become a sort of mentor to me. The growth I’ve experienced from training with her has allowed me to book projects that I can’t even talk about yet. It’s exciting when you put in the work and then get to see the results.
Those interested in actually seeing a part of Jackson’s casting story can visit his Instagram page. There you can find his “From Self-Tape to Set” post, in which Jackson shares his initial self-tape audition for the role along with him performing the same lines in the film. More information on the Vacation Friends actor can also be found on his official site.
This interview has been edited and condensed.