Nick Jonas is a recovering teen idol, and now a thoroughly adult solo artist, and tonight he’s going to outdrink me. In the parking lot of Pinches Tacos, he tells his bodyguard we’re going to Bar Marmont, like he’s checking in with his dad, and we jaywalk across a strangely deserted Sunset Boulevard.
A bit later, over our second or third round of drinks, I ask him if he ever feels trapped.
“No, I feel really free,” he assures me. “The most free in my life that I’ve ever been. Career-wise I don’t feel trapped. I feel great. And as far as me, Nick, as a person, I feel the most free.” We tipsily clink our glasses: “Here’s to free Nick,” we say, toasting his liberation. Jonas adds, with a slightly mischievous smile, “He’s way more fun to be around.”
And he’s not wrong. Twenty-four hours earlier, all my notions about Nick Jonas were rooted in nostalgia for his Disney years and further complicated by his current breakout, a three-tiered career track that has him dabbling in acting, singing, and producing, seemingly trying out all the professional hats a 23-year-old megastar could. He’s always been seen as the “serious” Jonas. Maybe because he’s quieter, more reserved, even a tad world-weary. Tonight, he seems to want to break out of that mold, too, and be a touch more spontaneous, which means talking about dating, drinking tequila, and abandoning his bodyguard, with permission, of course. These seemingly small actions might mean a change of attitude—being a little more vulnerable, maybe not giving a fuck, and leaning into who Nick Jonas, as an artist and a man, is becoming.
By the time Jonas was a teenager, he already had a career that working actors could only fever-dream about: being discovered in a hair salon when he was 6 years old, performing on the Broadway stage, and starring in a series of Disney TV shows and the Camp Rock movie franchise. Of course, he was also one-third of the mass hysteria-inducing boy band Jonas Brothers, with brothers Kevin and Joe. He describes the Disney experience as strange—as if you were attending high school in front of everyone. “It was a job. It was a lot of responsibility. It was also excellent training for what I’m doing now,” he says.
Experiencing that magnitude of fame as a barely pubescent teenager—the kind where your face is plastered over lunch boxes, T-shirts, and television screens—made him nervous. The pressure to be perfect, lest everything disappear, was a legitimate and real fear for him. Fans did crazy things, like sneaking into the back of a tour van in Germany. One time he walked into his dressing room to discover a mother/daughter pair he’d never met just hanging out. The brothers even once received a dead baby shark in the mail. “That was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” Jonas says, with a laugh.
Still, though he spent his teen years in an invisible cage, watched by millions of other teens everywhere, Jonas insists that things were pretty normal for the most part (except dating Miley and Selena). In truth, his life felt like it was fractured in two: There was Real Teen Nick, and then there was Disney Nick. “This isn’t real,” he remembers thinking. What was real to Jonas was all the IRL teen drama he let into his life: the angst about girls, hormones, growing up—the usual. “I was preoccupied with that shit.” The brothers rode the high highs and the low lows until they finally split in 2013, after a 2010 hiatus, to explore solo projects. It was difficult and emotional for all of them, Jonas says, but he acknowledges that “it would have ended badly if we hadn’t ended it when we did.”
He looks exactly as I expected him to. That’s my immediate thought when we meet for the first time, at the photo shoot. He’s the boy next door but grown up—all buzzed hair, bedroom eyes, and a slight tilt to his teeth. He’s dressed in dirty fatigues for the shoot and is incredibly polite as we make small talk and he shows me a video on his phone of a stuntman being set on fire.
Still, I feel slightly creepy watching him smolder, mug, and flex at the camera, bopping along to his impressive, R&B-heavy playlist. (I later learned it’s called “Hot Jams.”) But the atmosphere relaxes soon enough when we meet up afterward at his favorite taco spot to talk.
When I arrive, he’s already sitting at a small table, looking very James Dean in a white T-shirt, black motorcycle jacket, black pants, and boots. He immediately offers me a beer from a bag on the chair next to him. It’s safe to say that the relaxed Nick Jonas sitting across from me, swigging Pacifico, and devouring corn on the cob, is a much different guy from Disney Nick or even Photo Shoot Nick, a consummate professional, whose politeness and professionalism could be easily mistaken for uptightness.
In the last couple of years, Jonas has worked hard to reintroduce himself to the world. He explored new sides of himself with 2014’s self-titled album, Nick Jonas, an R&B-infused pop confection that’s Timberlake-esque—Jonas cites JT as both an influence and a friend. It features the hit single, “Jealous,” which everyone in the known world has heard a version of, whether it be the gospel version, Tinashe remix, or the original.
Jonas has also kept active in TV, playing a gay MMA fighter on the DirecTV drama Kingdom and flexing his comedy skills on Fox’s horror spoof, Scream Queens. Jonas’ path to an EGOT puts him squarely in the viewfinder of all cameras, so it’s no surprise that he’s been in the tabloids for just about everything ranging from his 2015 breakup with long-term girlfriend Olivia Culpo, to speculation about his sexuality, to gossip that he’s been hooking up with Almost Famous’ notorious band-aid Penny Lane herself, Kate Hudson.
As we crack open a couple more beers, Jonas talks about pushing himself to do more, especially in his acting—a process he can pour himself into with his role in Kingdom, where the dramatic role of Nate is helping him feel like he’s growing every day.
At the other end of the spectrum is his Scream Queens role as Boone, a likely gay frat guy who is also a serial killer. Working with showrunner Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story) and a cast that includes Emma Roberts and Lea Michele, Jonas has been able to hone his comedy chops. He has nothing but praise for Murphy’s work. “He’s a visionary and someone who has his finger on the pulse of pop culture.”
Jonas isn’t stopping there. He recently wrapped his first leading role in the indie Goat, which will premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Based on a memoir by Brad Land, the film centers on a young man, Ben (Ben Schnetzer), who survives a harrowing assault and then follows his more confident older brother Brett (Jonas) to Clemson University, where he experiences fraternity “brotherhood” and hazing pushed to the extreme. Jonas has lately been drawn to complicated depictions of masculinity. For example, neither of the characters he’s playing is really out of the closet. “My character on Kingdom deals with so much,” he says. “There’s a responsibility that I feel to tell that story as honestly as possible and not be afraid of it. He's living in an incredibly macho world and isn’t able to be who he wants to be or who he is.” In his own life, Jonas says, he’s never felt like he’s had to prove himself. “I don’t let it stress me out. I am who I am and I can’t change that. It’s not something I’ve labored over.”
Unsurprisingly, Jonas has attracted a fervent gay fan base that isn’t just checking for his TV roles and music, but his frequent appearances at Pride parades and gay clubs, as well. Equality is a very important issue to him, he insists, explaining that his theater background and exposure to the community at an early age heightened his awareness. Publicly, it appears as if he’s been carefully toeing a line, maintaining his heterosexuality, but still playing coy about any possible relationships with men. At the same time, it feels like a new frontier to see a mainstream, very straight–seeming male pop star unabashedly catering to the gay community without fear of stigma.
“Career-wise I don't feel trapped. I feel great. And as far as me, Nick, as a person, I feel the most free. ”
Asked about recent comments in which he wouldn’t confirm whether or not he has been with another man, Jonas says, “It’s funny. I play a gay character on a TV show. Whether it’s me or the character, at the end of the day it’s still my body, it’s still telling the story. It’s the character and his journey, but it’s my body, my lips, my hands.” It frustrates him that some people think he’s exploiting the community for his own ends, dropping winking hints about his sexuality either way. “There’s always going to be negativity toward anything that is a positive effort toward change,” he says. “As a heterosexual male, [I am] open and comfortable about loving my fan base, gay or straight, because to me there is no difference, it is my fan base. Your sexual preference does not matter to me and it shouldn’t matter to anybody. I thought [the criticism] was kind of dumb, considering I play this gay character on a gritty show. There’s a gay sex scene. I kissed a man.
“The goal is acceptance on all levels— that should be the focus,” he continues. “I’ve gone to normal clubs, straight clubs, and I’ve gone to gay clubs, to party with my friends and fans. There’s no difference. I have nothing to prove. I’m very comfortable in my own skin and I’m thankful to have as many close gay friends as I have, people who have been so supportive in my life, and have always been there for me.” Jonas gets up to go to the bathroom. He leaves his wallet on the table, an odd move that feels weirdly intimate, but not before offering to bring back two more bottles of Pacifico. (Of course I say yes.) We’ve been sitting outside on a chilly L.A. evening; people have definitely recognized him, but no one has approached him. It seems like a good time to shift topics to something a bit less heavy—or not, depending on how he looks at it—namely, his music.
Nick Jonas dropped last year (a re-release of the album including the new single, “Levels,” came out in November 2015), with the aforementioned “Jealous,” “Chains,” and a batch of R&B–tinged ballads, including a collab with BFF Demi Lovato. When we start talking music, Jonas lights up. He’s now in the last stages of putting a new album together, which includes a surprising collaboration with Purity Ring’s Corin Roddick. After a year of professional growth and personal upheaval, Jonas is using the new record to document his evolution—emotionally, vocally, and instrumentally. “I think personal life and career have to kind of line up in the sense that my career changed so dramatically,” he says, “and then I think I had some catching up to do.”
The word “vulnerable” comes up a lot when he talks about the project. By that he means not just in the songs, but in his musicianship. “I play drums, guitar, keys. That’s a huge part of my artistry, and I’m going to make an effort to show more of that,” he says. He mentions new songs—“Chainsaw” about his breakup with Culpo and “Don’t Make Me Choose”—that he feels are showcasing this more vulnerable self. Most of the album was recorded at Jonas’ house in Mammoth, Calif., a place he considers therapeutic and that helped him after his breakup. He doesn’t hide the fact that the split is a large influence on the new songs. “Naturally I’m going to pull a lot from that,” he says. “Not even so much about that relationship in particular, but about my state of mind, who I want to be. I’m meeting new people, and what that has been like. Also, just as a general change in my life. This year has been kind of nuts.”
The new album will come out under Safehouse Records, the label he founded with Lovato, and their manager Phil McIntyre (in conjunction with Island Records), which was borne out of their frustration with what he calls “the industry bullshit” and “the old-school mentality of how people measure success.”
“That can be exhausting, just because I really care quite a bit. I’m working toward caring less actually,” he says. “The world of music is changing so dramatically every day, the way people hear music. It’s different. It’s a new day and requires new thinking.” They formed Safehouse to provide “a safe place for us to create and be who we want to be. There have been times for both Demi and me in our careers when we didn’t feel protected, didn’t feel safe,” Jonas says. “It’s important for us to transition, not only as artists, but as business people. To take that next step.” He’s excited to help find and develop artists under the label. “I’ve learned so much over my career,” he says. “I certainly haven’t learned it all and don’t feel like I know it all, but enough to help someone else who is starting out. I’ve also produced and written music for other people. There’s a joy in being able to do it. It’s something you believe in and want to succeed.”
Jonas is forging something that’s bigger and more permanent than early boy band fame. “You never know what’s going to happen, but the goal is to build something that becomes equally as important as my career—something that not only has value, but also matters to people, that really curates the moment,” he says. “Quality. That’s the key. Everything I do, I want it to have that stamp that people like Jay Z, for instance, have on all the things they touch.” Jonas spent the day with Hov at last summer’s Made in America festival, and his manager McIntyre’s company Phillymack has partnered with Roc Nation. Now Jonas reaches out to Jay Z when he needs advice. “I’ll throw things off him when things come up, music-wise, or when trying to come up with a name for the tour,” says Jonas. “It’s amazing to have someone like him around. I’ve been incredibly fortunate with that. The partnership already is great.”
More than anyone else, Jonas’ greatest partner and rock is Lovato. In an email, Lovato tells me about her love for Jonas. “He’s so driven and it inspires me to work harder as an artist. To every last detail, Nick will work and work on a song or idea until it’s perfect. So not only I am thankful to have him basically as my twin brother but also to have him involved in my career and as a brilliant business partner as well.” They’ve known each other since they were both Disney kids, and have grown up together in the spotlight. His love and respect for her is wildly apparent: “I love Demi to death. She has gone through her journey, which was complicated. I think she’s one of the most talented, passionate people I know. I’m grateful to have her as a friend and also as a business partner.” Jonas and Lovato will be hitting the road together for their worldwide 2016 Future Now tour. He says that it was the right time for them to go on tour together—to celebrate both their business partnership and their incredible individual accomplishments—and to keep an eye on the future.
By now, I’ve begun to get a feel for Nick Jonas. (But it could just be all the Pacificos.) We’ve been together for a couple hours, talking closely, our beer bottles touching. We’re chatting about music and some of our favorite songs—he promises to send me the playlist from the shoot. I ask him about influences no one would expect, and his answer is a complete surprise.
“Shania Twain is one of my biggest influences,” he says. “I love her. Her ex-husband [Robert “Mutt” Lange] is one of the greatest record producers of all time, specifically with that crossover pop music thing. Melodically, vocal arrangements, the songs—I think it’s all brilliant.” Twain was one of Jonas’ formative crushes, and when she followed him back on Twitter he felt like he’d really made it. He even remembers the yellow scuba outfit she wore during a CBS special he saw when he was 10. We decide to switch locations. I jokingly suggest that we find Shania Twain karaoke.
Bar Marmont is fairly deserted on a Sunday night. We sit at a corner table in the dimly lit bar, and Jonas orders a tequila on the rocks with three limes and a half rim of salt. He’ll proceed to have three of these specific orders. The real Jonas is a guy who drinks straight tequila and unabashedly loves Twain. Whatever reticence I felt earlier in the day has completely evaporated (again, it could just be all the Pacificos), and the conversation turns personal.
“The real Jonas is a guy who drinks straight tequila and unabashedly loves Shania Twain. ”
He tells me he and Culpo were together for two years, and that ending the relationship was the best thing for both of them, even though it was difficult. Being single felt bizarre to him, but has allowed him to explore himself. “It was first excitement to have freedom to be whoever I wanted to be, be my own person. Then the feeling of being disheartened by what’s out there. Then getting into crazy artist mode and throwing it all out, the good, bad, and ugly,” he says. “Then meeting people, making a real effort to open up and be free as a person. I’ve met some people that are amazing. And my current situation is that I’m very much single, but I’m trying to be as open to people who can inspire me in some way.”
You won’t see Jonas on Tinder anytime soon because it freaks him out, but you might find him sliding into your DMs—he readily admits that he’s sent some Instagram DMs to ladies. “Slide right in there sometimes,” he says. “And then you’ll text the person and finally meet the person. It’s like online dating. Even that freaks me the fuck out. I’m like, should it be a group? Just the person? It’s scary.” Navigating the dating world for a regular person sucks, so adding celebrity to the mix, knowing that everyone is going to be in your business must be insane. As of late, Jonas has been linked to Jade Thirlwall of the British girl group Little Mix and, more scandalously, Hudson, who is nearly 10 years older than him. He assures me that he’s very single. Bucked up by my second Old Fashioned, I go for the question.
“Are you having sex with Kate Hudson?”
“Umm,” he laughs. “You know, it’s interesting. You’re allowed to ask me whatever the fuck you want and I’ll answer it, or not.”
“You’ll answer it in whatever ways it fits.”
“Kate’s incredible. We had an unbelievable connection as two humans who just admire things about each other, and see something in each other that’s beautiful. Out of my best effort to respect her and her privacy, I’m not going to say if we had sex or not. But we did have a beautiful connection. Even now I have so much admiration and respect. She’s amazing.”
His face says it all. My face flushes afterward and I apologize for asking a shitty question. Jonas laughs it off, saying that I have a job to do. “It doesn’t shock me or surprise me. I don’t get pissed off about it. I’ve come to accept it. With that in particular. It’s a bizarre matchup to a lot of people.” We start talking about people’s sex lives and he shares a few of his crushes: Emilia Clarke, Amy Schumer, and a conflicting one. “I know they are besties, so I can’t really say this, but Jennifer Lawrence, too.”
His crushes stem from being a fan of those ladies’ work. He just binged Game of Thrones and “The Red Wedding” fucked him up like everybody else. He loved Trainwreck and is excited about seeing Joy. He asks me if I’ve seen the underrated Take Shelter, which surprises me. Stoner bro comedy This Is the End is one of his favorite movies, and he teases me for not having seen it.
We’re beginning to wind down. He’s gonna go home and watch This Is the End. “After this interview, I need a good laugh tonight,” he says. “I’ve had to open up about too much.” Since that movie has a very specific demo, we talk about weed. Jonas doesn’t smoke that much but he mentions one time when he had a bad high. “I had voices telling me I was going to die. It was like, ‘That’s it.’” He’s never done any other drugs. “I don’t like being out of control,” he says. “I don’t like that feeling. I like being in the driver’s seat. Putting myself in the position where I feel like I would be out of control scares me.” I ponder this, and consider the many different Nick Jonases I’ve met during our evening together—the artist, the actor, the musician, the former boy band member, the Disney star, the single guy, and “free Nick.”
Earlier in the evening, I asked him if he feels like he’s lived 70 different lives, been 70 different Nicks. He thinks about this, noting that he’s known nothing else other than this life. He never pursued some of the other paths he thought he might—the baseball player, the English major, or the review writer (which he wasn’t good at). Like everyone, he’s waiting for his truest self to be seen while he’s figuring out who that is. “I think I’ve loosened up quite a bit. I’m very fun. I’m just waiting for other people to see it, too.”