JONAH + CHRISTIAN LEES
photographed by Adeline Sumney Wohlwend
written Valerie McPhail
Where does our story begin? At Season One, where events pilot a full picture narrative of life? Or, is it at the intermission — where characters face a change of events that redirect their lives? It is here we meet Christian and Jonah Lees, twin brothers who made their start in classic musicals such as Les Misérables and Mary Poppins in London. Thirteen years later, the boys take their talents in a new market of storytelling: television.
In the stereotypical trajectory young-adult actors claim stardom by seeking roles that shed their skin from work on children’s television, acting in provocative roles where nudity and sexuality target the audience. Others take the path less traveled by pursuing roles that challenge the status quo. The ultimate decision speaks to the actor’s spirit. For according to popular belief, an actor’s heart acts similarly to a child’s capacity to play, and develops in the ability to see his or her work as the playground. In their latest television project, the Lees brothers reveal their maturity as actors striving to revisit history in light of a new reality.
In the recently launched CMT television series Sun Records, Jonah Lees plays Jimmy Swaggart, alongside his twin brother Christian, who plays Jerry Lee Lewis. Via record label, Sun Records, music producer Sam Phillips, played by Chad Michael Murray, shepherds the groundbreaking, fearless careers of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis: the formally referenced ‘Million Dollar Quartett.’
As the camera draws us back in time to the roots of rock and roll in 1950s Tennessee, the beats of groovy melodies and hyperactive piano riffs flock swooning women with their boyfriends into concert theaters and high school gymnasiums in anticipation for the musical genius – as Christian Lees refers of Mr. Lewis. The actor processes this praise as admirable qualities of the muse: “Jerry’s confidence and self belief [...] it’s such an important trait to have in this industry.”
In the same way, congregations gathered to commune in the power of their faith with Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Lee’s first cousin. Jonah Lee’s work highlights Swaggart’s desires —inspired and supported by the Holy Spirit —and devious habits exposed as he competes over women, rendezvous into the town chapel and yet still enjoys Jerry Lee Lewis’ company at the piano, where their souls blaze with passion.
The determination that fuels his souls, and pours out into his identity with the Church is a quality the thespian admires. Jonah Lees explains, “Jimmy was very driven and knew exactly where he was going and that he was absolutely going to get there!” These are attributes of Jimmy Swaggart seen in Lees as the young preacher. His ability to share Swaggarts’s musical talent postures the young actor as a multi-faceted performer.
With answers reflective of passions beyond the script, the twins are few of words. They speak on their of newfound interest in television and the relevant message of their show for society today. Without bias, yet with unwavering opinion, they’d prefer to let their work speak on their behalf. There is a genuine spirit that leads these 21-year old performers. Or rather perhaps artists is the better title, for neither of the brothers consider themselves as a triple threat. As his brother plainly states “I‘d like to think I‘m not a threat to anybody,” Christian explains, “ I’ve never advertised myself as a triple threat. Although I’m happy that the role of Jerry Lee also gets to highlight my talents in singing and playing the piano. Everything you hear in the show is played and sung live by me on the day.“
Their audacious tone articulates in accents. This should come without any surprise, for the brothers have built a portfolio of roles in Mateo Garrone’s Tale of Tales preceding roles in musicals Les Misérables and Billy Elliot. Jonah casted in BBC’s film Eric and Ernie and Mary Poppins after he and his brother completed their theatre studies at the Sylvia Young Theatre School. The beauty of such a foundation in music, acting and dance is found in the strength of their undivided attention to storytelling. The greater narrative continues off the camera, on Instagram, where Jonah posts intimate sessions of self-made recordings on the guitar and piano.
His latest post was dedicated to Chad Michael Murray and his wife Sarah Roemer’s newborn baby girl. Jonah, played the guitar and sang “Isn’t She Lovely” in accompaniment by Christian’s piano. Such posts offer personality to his social media accounts, that focus primarily on the show. Jonah explains, “We‘re already starting to get a great following for the show! The Sun Records fans are the sweetest! I love them! So really, I would say it‘s for them. To keep everyone updated on the show! Also, I love the show, so why not parade it on all of my social media accounts[?]” These boys are strictly business, and their art is an extension of their image. That means, that right now their talent, and social media accounts focus on television.
It may not be first preference, nor top priority of all the modes offered in the world of preforming arts. Both Christian and Jonah prefer film. With an identical perspective to his brother, Christian responds to the success of television “My passion lies in film, but it astonishes me how far television has come over the years. With smash hits like Breaking Bad and recently Stranger Things, TV’s a creatively fulfilling way to go right now.” Sun Records is the special project for the brothers, not only as a genre, an experimental musical television show, but also in its message. Setting aside the sizzling sounds and rustic anthem of rock and roll, the show carries a stronger tune, a belting pronouncement for the longevity of their budding careers. Making history in its time, the story’s backdrop during the Civil Rights Movement, where racial tensions were officially defined for today’s reference, the show brings relevance to the passions of society’s daily battles. Jonah Lee ponders, “I think that although we‘ve come a long way we‘ve clearly still got a long way to go. I think the show does a great job in highlighting the very simple fact that we are all the same, and we‘re all fighting the same battles.” Christian echoes his brother’s thought with stronger emphasis on music, as a medium of cultural value: “Hopefully this show helps to prove that we’re all the same, and how music can unite us in difficult times.” Crossing boarders from England to America, theatre to television, this is the first scene of greater tales to come.
Photography Adeline Sumney Wohlwend
Styling Rima Vaidila
Hair Carlos Ortiz
Actors Jonah and Christian Lees