Interview with Neil Jackson from Make It or Break It

I was incredibly lucky to get to be part of an interview with the delicious and amusing Neil Jackson from Make It or Break It. He was fabulous, so gracious and funny.

Neil plays Coach Sasha Beloff on Make It or Break It, and his speciality is bending the rules and tough love. Under his tough exterior the thing Sasha cares about his gymnasts and wants the best for them.

Jump ahead to read the interview and here about Neil’s favorite gymnast, his take on competitive sports and his overall input on the show and life.

This past season we saw you playing on two different shows with very different characters over on FlashForward as Hellinger and then as Sasha over on Make It or Break It. I was wondering what it was like playing the bad guy over there and then the father figure as Sasha. Was that different and can you talk maybe about the evolution of your character?

N. Jackson- I’m really pleased with the way that Sasha is evolving. He was originally brought in as this enigma. He was this rouge coach who disappeared from the sport and has come back and been coerced to come back, but only to the rough because he saw potential. I always joked that he’s kind of like the Mr. Miyagi of this show. He finds different ingenious and creative ways to push the girls’ buttons to make them better gymnasts’, but also make them better human beings as well.
It took the first few episodes to develop the personality with the writers and the creator of the show. Then they just started having fun, especially, with this new season. They really started enjoying Sasha a lot more and tapping into his sense of humour, which is basically my sense of humour, and personality. He’s evolved a lot, which I love.

I want to ask you about your own sports background. I know you had some experience as a boxer. Did that help you center yourself as you play this character?

N. Jackson- Yes. I was a competitive boxer for a period of time and did reasonably well, won far more fights than I lost, which is always good. Of course, gymnastics is an individual sport as much as they put it in a team setting, it’s an individual sport. I can empathize with the kind of work and dedication that these girls, the characters, have to put into it. I also think the acting process is very similar to an individual sport as well, and the amount of time that you need to spend and the discipline that you need to put in on yourself is akin to being an individual sports person. So, the crossovers are huge.

Here are my questions! 😀

Megan- What drew you to the role and made you want to choose this show?

N. Jackson- I was actually back in Britain at the time working on another show and wasn’t able to audition. I heard about this show and had asked to put my name in the hat but they were only seeing people back in LA so I thought I’d lost my chance. Then it came back around and they asked me to audition, but by the time they asked me to audition I was back in Britain and wasn’t able to get my stuff on tape. Thankfully, Holly Sorensen found a way for me to travel to London. She paid for me to go to a casting director there, put myself on tape, and then they sent my audition across the wire and they cast me off that tape. So thanks to her, I got in.
The thing that drew me to it really was that it’s about sports. I’ve been a sportsman all my life and to able to show sports drama, I think, the two inherently go hand in hand. Having read the pilot, I think they did an incredible job. The role of Sasha Beloff, the way he was on the page, was so intriguing. I wanted to see where he would go. It enticed me on all levels.

[Note from Me: I love that it’s not the usual answer! The “I just loved the script” or the “They asked me”. It was meant to be because no one else could make us love the tough Sasha, the way Neil has.]

Megan -I’ve been asking your fans for their questions on Twitter, and the most common one is, “If you had to chose, which rock girl would be your favorite?”

N. Jackson- I’d probably go for Emily just because her story is so inspiring. She’s a girl who came from nothing who desperately fought because she had a passion for gymnastics. She wasn’t forced into it. She didn’t have the financial backing. She didn’t have the experience. She just had the passion to go for it, and it’s her passion that has taken us to an elite level. I think that’s a story that resonates with a lot of people and really connects with people.

[Note from Me: Emily (played by the beautiful Chelsea Hobbs) really is my favorite as well, because of her roots and how hard she had to work to reach her dream. It makes you root for her that much more.]

Now onto some more questions from my colleagues.

What about this role keeps challenging you?

N. Jackson- Apart from just the technical challenge, as an actor in the first five or six episodes, they hadn’t really developed the personality of who Sasha was. I think they were still finding who it is and I am, still finding the character. A lot of the stuff, a lot of page monologues where he is lambasting or teaching the girls, which are very one note is challenging. For me, as an actor, trying to find a way of performing them that makes it interesting and diverse and adds layers when he’s really doing a one note diatribe was a challenge initially.
Now they’re really opening up the world of Sasha and, as people have seen with the second season, he did this rouge thing by getting the Chinese in and he thought it all worked, but it’s starting to backfire on him with Ellen Beals now making it a one-woman crusade to get Sasha out of the sport. That’s going to escalate. Soon he’s going to find that he has a lot of guns aimed at him, all supporting Beals trying to get him out. So it means that the character has had a lot of emotional and physical challenges to deal with, which is a hell of a lot of fun to play.

Why do you think people keep tuning in to watch Make It or Break It?

N. Jackson- Because it’s good; it’s a good show. It does have a soapy feel, but it skates on such a good drama side of the soapy feel. I don’t know many dramas that are able to pack quite the empathy and the amount of dramatic punch into a one hour show as Make It or Break It does. It’s enthralling and all of the characters are so engaging. It’s kind of got all the ingredients to make the perfect drama cake.

[Note from Me: It gets away with the drama better than most shows, it’s so freaking enjoyable that I’ve been hooked since episode 1 !]

What motivates the character of Sasha to get out of bed each day?

N. Jackson- He lives in a trailer, so there’s not much to keep him in there each day, I think. I don’t know the full answer to that question, to be perfectly honest, because we haven’t fully gone into the background of who Sasha is. Holly Sorensen and I and some of the writers have sat down and discussed loosely what we think it is. Of course, last season we discussed that a girl he was coaching actually died on his watch, forcing him to leave the sport.
My interpretation of him is he’s an incredibly driven person, driven to succeed. He enjoys the competitive element, which is why he became a multi-gold medalist and why he strived in the sport as an athlete. So his goal for getting out of bed every day is one, to kind of stick the finger to the gymnastics establishment by succeeding in the way that he wants to succeed. That’s the message he’s trying to get across to the girls is you that don’t have to do things by the book and you don’t have to follow protocol perfectly. There are many ways to skin a cat, and he’s trying to find as many alternate ways to get to the same result, if not better, if possible.

[Note from Me: His slight sarcastic edge made me smile the whole conference call.]

If you could describe your character in three words, which would they be?

N. Jackson- Honourable, honest and devilishly attractive. I know that last one has two words, but I’m going to throw that in there anyway.

[Note from Me: Devilishly attractive 😉 That’s a given.]

You have quite a fan following of women crushing on you. How does this affect your personal life?

N. Jackson- It’s so surreal. It doesn’t really affect my personal life a great deal because I’m engaged and have a beautiful fiancé. It’s just fun. There are a lot of fans that contact me on Facebook and Twitter and all this sort of stuff, which I love! I love being able to contact and outreach. But we don’t get a great deal of physical contact with these people. I’m sure if you’re George Clooney and everywhere you go, you’ve got girls coming up to you and women coming up to you crushing on you. It’s got to fairly difficult to lead a normal life. But that hasn’t happened as yet. It’s just fun, and it’s incredibly flattering.

[Note from Me: Just you wait Mr. Jackson, you’re going to be a household name soon enough 😉 ]

Has being on Make It or Break It increased your interest in gymnastics?

N. Jackson- Yes. I didn’t really know anything about gymnastics. I went to Sports University and studied sports both as an undergraduate and a masters degree, that was when I was boxing, but there was a very competitive gymnastic team at my University with excellent skill who put on incredible performances. I would watch them train. They’re the magicians of sport, I kind of think. Every sports performer does stuff with their body that the average person can’t do, but gymnasts’ take that to such a magnitude. I just think what they do is magic.
Being a part of Make It or Break It, and especially being able to watch the elite gymnasts’ who double the girls or are background performers in the gym, it is such a joy to see what these guys are able to do with their bodies, which is just so foreign to me. They do a double punch somersault the same way that I’d wake up in the morning and do a shoulder stretch. It seems like such second nature to them. It’s a real gift to be a part of.

Do you prefer stage acting or TV acting?

N. Jackson- They are two different animals. I haven’t done stage acting for six years now. The thing I love about stage acting is you get to take the character through the full journey in one sitting, whereas in TV the journey is ongoing. But yet in TV, the character evolves continually so you get to live the life of the character and see it evolve over a long period of time whereas in a play, you only get two hours, one story evolution. So they are two completely different animals and I love them. If I had to choose one, I’ve got to say TV just because, one, it pays better and two, I like the longer duration and the slow burn of getting to know characters and evolution.

If you weren’t acting, what would you be doing?

N. Jackson- I’d still be in the industry. I write, I’ve had two movie scripts of mine produced and I have another one in development now. I write and I would definitely do that. If I had to do something completely outside of this industry, I’d probably be involved in sports. I’d be a personal trainer or a coach. I personal trained for five years as I was studying to be an actor and through the first few years of being an actor. If I wasn’t in this industry, I’d probably be a trainer.

If you could give any insight as to why Ellen Beals hates Sasha, because it doesn’t seem just professional. It seems a little personal.

N. Jackson- I think that they were lovers in a former life and he jilted her. No, I don’t know. I have no idea why. I don’t know if if she’s a man-hater. I don’t know what it is. She’s a real stickler for the rules.
We got a little hint in the season two premier that she was a gymnast herself and she followed the rules perfectly and did everything the way she was supposed to, and she still didn’t get picked for the Olympic team, and I think she doesn’t like anybody going against the grain. Because she didn’t get what she needed from the sport and she didn’t get her way, she now elevated herself to a position of power as we see so many times that in a position of power now she can dictate the dreams of others. I think that she’s enacting her own bitterness on anybody who goes against her.

What you think the biggest similarity between America and England is and what the biggest difference is?

N. Jackson- I think the biggest similarity between America and England is the language, and the biggest difference is the language. I don’t know. We like being an island, that very British stiff upper lip, don’t talk about your emotions type of thing.
America is the other side of that. You’re a lot more open, a lot more gregarious and one thing I love about America is I love the American dream, whether it’s lip service or it’s an actual effect. Anybody who gets the chance to strive for better are applauded, whereas Britain applauds to a certain extent, but if you go too far, we’ll cut you down. Certainly somebody in my line of work, you have a lot more opportunities here in the states.

[Note from Me: I was laughing during this question because he really had a sarcastic edge to his voice that amused me to no end.]

When you were a kid, what did you aspire to do with your life?

N. Jackson- My mom used to keep a book, I’ve got three brothers so the four of us, and she used to keep a book that she updated every year like first lock of hair, first picture, our teachers, our best friends. From the age of five, there was always what we wanted to be when we grew up. And I had stuntman in there. It was pretty much stuntman from about the age of 7 through to 13 when I don’t know why I wanted to be an ice cream salesman. Then it carried on and it was stuntman, stuntman, stuntman until I was 16 when I wanted to be an actor.
So I was always very physical and jumping around, and now the irony is I’m engaged to a stuntwoman. I’ve ended up doing, thankfully in my career as an actor, a lot of action stuff, a lot of fights in movies and in TV. A lot of sword work and a lot of running, jumping and diving with guns. I kind of managed to marry all of my aspirations, apart from being an ice cream salesman. Maybe one day I’ll get to Cold Stone and do a work experience there.

[Note from Me: I always find it amazing how as a child we want to be such amazing things but somewhere along the lines we figure out our true dream and go for it. I just cross my fingers that my daughter’s dream of being a superhero/ firefighter/veternarian comes true. 😉 What can I say I love that she dreams big, and who didn’t want to be a superhero!]

As the coach on Make It or Break It and an athlete yourself, what advice do you have for girls who want to get into shape or play a sport?

N. Jackson- Getting into shape, really, is just having the dedication and desire to get out of the house and train. Fitness isn’t easy; it can be fun but it isn’t easy. Getting in shape is really difficult. Staying in shape is really easy. If you happen to be in shape, it doesn’t take as much effort to maintain the position where you’re at. Start burning those calories and getting to the desired shape you want to be can be a struggle so just set your sights on a goal and go for it, don’t let anybody dissuade you.

I was wondering about the independent films since I know that’s something you’re definitely involved in. How does that compare to doing somebody else’s work? It’s got to be great to write your own stuff and star in the movie.

N. Jackson- Absolutely. I’ve got a picture that my fiancé took. We were lucky to be on set for The Passage, which we shot in Morocco two and a half years ago. The Passage was a film that is a rarity, it never happens in Hollywood. I’ve pitched the idea to a producer; I went over to her house and pitched the idea for this film and 11 months later we were on set shooting it. So from pitching it through writing it, her finding finance, casting it and going over to Morocco took 11 months which is just unheard of.
It was the final shot of the movie. We’d spent all the money on this big crane shot, getting a massive hydraulic crane to come in and do this beautiful shot over the main square in Marrakech. This square always has thousands and thousands of people. It’s a spice market, it’s an entertainment arena and it’s a food court, all in one, about the size of two American football fields.
I was standing doing some behind the scenes stuff on the camera, and just turned around at one moment and looked just off camera and there were probably about 2,000 Moroccan locals who were all being held back of a garrison of maybe 20 policemen behind a fence in this main central square. And, it just suddenly dawned on me that we brought basically the center of Morocco to a standstill for this one idea that 11 months ago I’d gone over to a producer’s house and sat and pitched as a story. In that second that that happened, my fiancé took a picture. That sits on a wall in our house. It’s an incredible feeling I can barely describe and one I hope I get a chance to do over and over again.

How much say do you have in the development of your character and where you’d like to see him go as the show continues?

N. Jackson- I don’t have any say into my character. Thankfully, that’s all left to the great brains of Holly Sorensen and the writing team and Paul Stupin, Executive Producer. I say thankfully just because how they manage to craft such a rich drama with so many characters and yet satisfy all of the storylines so equally and continually outdo themselves with stories, I don’t know how they manage it. I don’t think I’d want to be involved.
Where I’d like my character to go is actually the direction they’re taking him in. I wasn’t entirely sure towards the end of the first season where Sasha was going to go and who he was going to become. I love the teasing on the storylines between Summer and Sasha, which the writers call the Summer Sausage story lines because one of the writers accidently called Sasha Sausage one day when he was in a writer’s meeting. He said, “When Sausage comes into the gym.” So they now call it the Summer Sausage storyline. I love that storyline, but more, I love the fact that Ellen Beals has now got the bit between her teeth to try and get rid of him. If there is one thing Sasha seems to thrive on, it’s a challenge. She’s going great guns to try and get rid of Sasha not only from the rock but from the sport.
We just shot episode eight and there is something that happens in episode eight that is just going to shock and amaze the fans. It puts Sasha in some dire straits. I’m really looking forward to the next couple of episodes and then, once we come back off this hiatus for the next lot, to see how they manage to get themselves out of this Gordian knot of Sasha’s dilemmas and problems with being in the sport. I think it’s a great direction; I couldn’t be happier.


Do you think that at some point they will address the relationship with Summer or are they just going to let that go on hold for awhile?

N. Jackson- They’re absolutely addressing it. The first two episodes back have kind of left it a little bit because it was getting the drama back up. So now the third episode will be airing next week and you’re going to start seeing some development in Summer and Sasha’s relationship. I love the fact that they are, on paper, such polar opposites just because of her religion and Summer’s religious beliefs. Therefore, Sasha’s lack of religious beliefs causes such a problem potentially for them getting together, but hopefully we’ll find out that love conquers all.

You described the character as Mr. Miyagi or kind of that vein. I was wondering what would you say is the most important thing that Sasha has taught the girls?

N. Jackson- One thing I do love about Sasha, and I kind of mentioned it when we first spoke, was that he not only tries to find the best way to help them become better athletes. He’s not just interested in creating good athletes. He’s not just interested in creating perfect gymnast robots that, once the competitive sport is over, they’re going to be broken pieces of meat. He wants to develop fully rounded people and human beings.
I think he instils in them good morals. He instils in them a good understanding of self. But what he also instils in them is an identity and he, through the sport and through his interpretation of the way to coach the sport, gives them a better sense of identity and a better sense of self that goes beyond just the gymnastics training. I think that’s more than they would have done with any other coach, Sasha makes them better human beings.

I was wondering about The Passage and the setting in Morocco, wasn’t Alexander filmed partly in Morocco?

N. Jackson- Yes. I actually came up with the idea for The Passage when we were in Morocco shooting Alexander. There was a portion where we shot up in … which is at the top of the Atlas Mountains. I got locked in a deserted hotel one night accidently, and it took me two and a half hours to get out of this deserted hotel and there was nobody in there and eventually somebody realized they’d locked me in there and they let me out. It was incredibly scary.
From that, I came up with the idea of setting this story about it was more like a punch line in reverse. I knew the punch line was going to be the series of events that were me being locked in this one place. Then I worked backwards and tried to work out what would force somebody to be there that would be a good story telling device. The script …. I finished Alexander and moved to America and met up with Lynette Howell, who’s the producer and thankfully she was receptive to my idea.

I read somewhere that Oliver Stone cast you on the spot for that or the very first time he saw you. I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about that?

N. Jackson- Yes, it was my first movie and of course, yes, my first big break. I wouldn’t be in America if it weren’t for Alexander. I had auditioned once with the casting director Lucinda Syson and she liked me enough to put my tape through to Oliver Stone. Then I went out drinking, I had just finished the musical Queer as Folk and went out that night drinking with some buddies. There was a guy in a bar who wasn’t being particularly nice to one of the girls in our group. We moved away and he followed us and we moved away and I had a few more drinks. I ended up getting in a fight, forgetting that he had several buddies with him. I ended up having a black eye and three stitches above my eye. I got the call the day after from my agent saying Oliver Stone was going to be in town in two days and he wants to meet you for Alexander. I said was it possible if we could move it, at least until I got my stitches out or the black eye is gone. They said no, he’s here for one day and he wants to see you at this time and deal with it.
I decided to turn up and not mention my black eye at all. So I turned up and met him in the room and he had a big grin on his face when he saw me because the part was to be the general of Alexander’s infantry so he wanted a fighter. He wanted somebody who was a little more hardy. So I did the audition and he gave me the role on the spot, said he was going to cast me as Perdiccas. We ended up shooting four months later. I kind of attribute my break in this industry … to getting in a bar fight with a guy.

You were talking about with the evolution of Sasha. In the beginning, the girls were kind of in awe of Sasha and he was basically this coach on a pedestal. But right now, he seemed to have lost all respect by the girls and some of the parents. I guess I’m thinking about how Payson is acting around him. What do you think that relationship will develop, because she and her mother both don’t seem like they’re respecting your decision with where her career should be at this point?

N. Jackson- The Payson/Sasha storyline is one that actually develops the best in the next eight episodes of this first ten before we go on hiatus. Any performer, any athlete, especially a young one, we’re all impatient about where we aspire to be and she impatiently lobbied to get on to the gymnastics team against Sasha’s advice. They kind of realized that Sasha may have been right and Sasha then starts working with Payson to try to help her become the athlete that she wants to be, and the way that it’s written by the guys, is a really, really beautiful relationship. I’m very, very happy with the way that one develops and I think all of the viewers will, as well.

I had a blast being part of this call and I’m so happy to bring it to you. It was a pleasure and an honour to get the chance to speak with him and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Neil Jackson as Sasha on Make It or Break It, Tuesdays on ABC Family at 9 pm.

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