Fri. Jul 3rd, 2020

Interview: Jim Parsons on ‘Hollywood,’ bringing gay history to the mainstream, and why he loves ‘Succession’

Jim Parsons didn’t ask for any of this.

The four-time Emmy winner, back in the awards conversation this year for his role as detestable agent and producer Henry Willson in Netflix’s Hollywood, tackles another part that many in his shoes (re: mega-famous former sitcom star) wouldn’t dare to touch. 

And yet, following 2014’s The Normal Heart, in which he played AIDS activist Tommy Boatright and was nominated for an Emmy, Parsons is back under Ryan Murphy’s watchful gaze playing another gay man. To hear him tell it, though, these aren’t stories that he’s sought out to tell. 

Parsons, an openly gay man himself, credits the benefit of circumstance, and maybe a little bit of his own subconscious, for bringing another project like this into his life.

While quarantined with husband Todd Spiewak, Parsons has bleached his hair and taken up painting, all while reflecting on the complicated history of men like Henry Willson and Rock Hudson, and how the industry has evolved to create room for somebody like him.

All episodes of “Hollywood” are currently available to stream on Netflix.

Daniel Trainor: Well, first of all, I need to ask about your hair. Because if it’s anything like the quarantine hairstyle I gave myself, things started out so well and now I’m having such doubts.

Jim Parsons: [laughs] Well, I didn’t use any scissors or clippers, I only took a beaching kit to it. And I hadn’t done this in 20 years, but I used to do this on and off in my 20s. So yeah, I’m kind of used to the different textures and behaviors of a bleached head, although it’s kind of new to me all over again because it’s been so long. So far, I’m still happy with it. But the problem is, or the good thing I can’t tell, I have not been able to take it out for a test drive. There’s no public consumption of it. I don’t go to the store and kind of run my hands through it. So it’s just me in my house looking in a mirror or combing it and we’re not washing it to see if the oils make it more…whatever.

DT: I’m glad it’s still working for you.

JP: Yeah. Well, I did it totally for me. I’ve made joking comments that I did it to give Todd something better to look at, or different to look at, which I guess it is for him. But I had wanted to do it. I thought, being a mature adult, I wouldn’t do an at-home situation. I wanted to go to a professional and actually have fun trying to do something nice with bleach product. But obviously the world conspired against that, and I considered waiting it out. But, about six weeks into this thing, I figured this could be a long time. I don’t know, I may not have hair to bleach by the time we get out of here. So, I just did it myself.

DT: I went back and watched your GLAAD Awards speech from a couple of years ago immediately after I finished watching Hollywood, which was such an interesting thing. Because, there you were, surrounded by so many out, proud men celebrating you and your career. It was, obviously, such a stark contrast to the themes of the series. While there’s still great distance to go, have you been able to reflect on the progress that’s been made since the days of Henry Willson?

JP: Oh, without a doubt…and long before I played this or knew who Henry was. You know, one of the things that comes up for me a lot is a very specific circumstance, which was when Ellen Degeneres came out. Because I was in my early 20s, I was finishing college, and I wanted to be a professional actor. And here was this comedian and actress who had her own sitcom who I admired. That was like a bomb going off. I remember feeling a sense of elation that it was happening. I remember me and my gay roommate, we had the Time magazine that said “Yep, I’m Gay.” I remember distinctly that feeling of elation and a speeding of the heart, a little fear. I haven’t thought about this so much until later in my life and after my own career has happened as an out gay actor, but I think that really lodged in my head. I can’t even imagine what it was like to go through for her. But, for myself, having watched her go through it, I think that it added even more fear to my own process than I might have had if I was just thinking only clearly about how the world was changing as we speak. 

That being said, a lot of changes in acceptance and attitudes have happened very rapidly and somewhat recently. I guess they were probably brewing for a very long time. God knows that the struggle to change hearts and minds has been going on for decades. But the actual result of it, parts of it feel like they came out in a bit of a dam breaking in the last decade or so. I think it’s hard to emotionally catch up to that, especially for anybody who identifies as somebody in a minority position that some people are against. It kind of doesn’t matter how much change goes on. There’s always going to be an element of fear because it’s so personal to you. 

But, that being said, being out and working as an actor in the public eye, especially in a situation like I was fortunate to be in on the sitcom, which had such a wide and varied audience in so many ways, that is so heartening to me. I go back to the Ellen thing. That show went off the air, and maybe it’s not so clean and easy to make an apples-to-apples comparison between different shows in two different eras, and I realize that, but there is something to it, just looking blankly on the surface of the situation about how much things have changed.

DT: In your GLAAD speech that night, I was so struck by the fact that you had never heard of Stephen F. Kolzak, the namesake of your honor that night, until you were told you’d be receiving the award. As a gay man myself, I was unaware of his impact, as well. We are so often forced to seek out our own history. It’s not taught in school, it’s not dinner conversation. We consume it in media. If you don’t mind, here’s what you so eloquently said that night: “It is an irony, if not quite a sad irony, that I am free to live openly as a gay man working in Hollywood today without even having to know about Steven and those like him, for the very reason that these people did fight, struggle and turned into waves of progress that I surf on today.” Between Hollywood and The Normal Heart, has there been a conscience effort on your behalf to start to tell these stories?

JP: No. I should quickly amend that by saying I have no way of knowing and fully accept that it could be a subconscious plan. I don’t pretend to know my own subconscious that well. But no, it’s not. It’s one of the most wonderful things about following your heart with the work you do and the people you meet. Here’s an excellent example: I got involved with The Normal Heart, the Broadway production of it, because I had been doing Big Bang for three or four seasons at that point and I missed New York, but I really missed theater. And I wrote to my agent and was like ‘hey, I’m going to get a place to stay in New York this summer and I will do readings, play readings, whatever…I just want to be around some theater people.’ So, on that request, he suddenly comes back and goes ‘would you like to do The Normal Heart, George Wolf is directing, he knows you from Big Bang and he said he’d offer you the part.’ I’m like ‘what?!’ So therein lies how the world, the universe and the people that know you, love you, respect you, want to work with you…you get pulled into things. If you’re lucky, obviously. If you just do what you do, you get pulled into things that, organically, you start realizing how you can tell your part of your own story in the project. You get pulled into projects that make easier for you to reveal your view of the world and your view of human beings. You know, The Normal Heart play is directly what led me to Ryan Murphy because he was doing The Normal Heart movie, which directly led me to Boys In The Band because I met Joe Mantello and Ryan Murphy produced it, which directly led to playing Henry Willson in “Hollywood.” I guess that’s why I say, is it a conscious decision to tell these stories? No. Because in this specific case, we’re talking about a trajectory that has dominoed itself into telling a lot of his gay history. By the same token, this is the way that a lot of creative people’s lives go. One project leads to this person that you’re suddenly in an artistic tribe with and they do another project. So that lineage kind of happens on its own, whatever story it’s telling. So it’s kind of two things happening at once here. Is that a really convoluted answer? I’m sorry.

DT: No, not at all! I think it’s actually really beautiful in the sense that, whether it was subconscious or not, you’ve aligned yourself with the right people. I think there’s something to be said for that, about these stories maybe coming to you that’s even more beautiful than had you sought them out. 

JP: Yeah. I think that it’s easier for me to be an integral part of telling these stories almost coming at it from a sheer creative, actor, interpreter point of view, as opposed to trying to carry the responsibility of ‘it’s so important to me that the world hears this message.’ You know what I mean? That’s a very heavy onus and one that’s hard to play when it’s laying on you. At the end of the day, the most important part of bringing any story to life is the ability to play and make it lifelike and colorful and vibrant. You know, that’s where the subconscious kicks in, too. I’m not stupid. So I can’t be unaware when certain stories that I’m part of have this kind of feeling. God knows “The Normal Heart” would have been impossible to have been part of without realizing that! It’s also some sort of probably self-protection on my part to kind of try and shove that aside.

I will tell you that New York state passed the law that legalized same-sex marriage one night while we were performing The Normal Heart on Broadway. When the house lights came up, they announced that as we were taking our curtain call, or right there after. I mean, I just kind of fell into a puddle of tears and had to run off the stage. I wasn’t prepared for that at all. It was just one of those very powerful moments that happened and, in fact, the more years that I get away from that, I’m surprised. Like, I cannot believe that all lined up in my life.

DT: So, let’s talk Hollywood. A line that really struck me is when Henry said ‘I am not just a star, I am a star maker.’ That’s really how he saw himself, isn’t it? He so desperately wanted to be part of the show. He saw himself as a star, not just a man behind the scenes. Is that how you read him?

JP: Without a doubt, without a doubt. He thought that he had, and to a degree he did, both the power and the ability to create a star, if not quite out of thin air, at least with bits and pieces that seemed promising to him. With the right person, like a Rock Hudson, there is a certain amount of truth to that. I found his relationship with Rock very complicated and very reflective of that symbiotic nature. The wonderful book by Robert Hofler, “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson,” was like a Bible for me though this. Towards the end of it, Henry is just destitute and in bad health and he and Rock haven’t spoken in years. It’s a very, very bad ending for them and very animosity-ridden. But at one point, it’s reported that Rock sent him, I think, $20,000 and remarked to one friend ‘now I’m finally done with Henry,’ which implied, as much as he disliked him, Rock understood the things that Henry had done for him and that he simply wouldn’t be where he was without Henry. Probably both good and bad. 

He had a bit of a factory for a while and these beefcake types with their slick names like Guy and Rock and Tab and stuff like that, he pumped them out and sold them around town. Like you say, he wanted to be part of the show. That was one of the ways in which I felt a great empathy for him, as much as I found his ways distasteful to the point of criminal sometimes, he loved this industry. He loved this world and the people in this world and wanted to be a part of it. That was the way he felt he could be a part of it. All of us who work in the industry, in whatever form, have that same feeling. This is not the kind of industry you get into because it makes sense. I don’t know a single job, whether it’s actor, writer, press, nobody who is hovering around this industry is here because they’re like ‘well, it made sense!’ It only makes sense to your heart. It’s a passion that you follow. Henry came East very early on, when Hollywood was in its earlier days, when a lot of people were doing the same thing. He felt that his part was to help make people stars that wanted to be stars. He, of course, wanted credit for that, too.

Interview: In ‘Hollywood,’ Jake Picking is between a Rock and a good place

DT: How do you view him now? I mean, is he a villain? Is he just an inevitable byproduct of his environment? Deep down, do you think he was a good person?

JP: For all the ways in which he was a victim of his time, where it was not okay to be outwardly gay, he was making up for that in dealing with clients like Rock Hudson who were gay and trying to keep them working. That grows shame and secrecy and self-hatred in any human being, no matter what they’re made of. That being said, people have been dealing with that, to greater or lesser degrees of millennia, and not even the majority of them do some of the lecherous, villainous things that Henry let himself do along the way. My feeling is that Henry suffered partly from being gay at that time, but also from a deep insecurity over who he was and what he brought to the table. I don’t know if he secretly wished he could be a performer or what it was, but there was something else that he felt that made him do these terrible things. 

DT: You even see him taking on a producer role in an effort to try something else, an attempt to wear a different hat because the hat he was wearing never seemed to be quite good enough for him.

JP: Right. I think this was pure invention on the writers’ part, but the sequence where Henry dances for Rock, whether that was pure invention or not, it seemed true in flavor in that there was this side of him that wanted to perform. There was a performer inside him. There was a beautiful diva inside him, as far as he was concerned. His own Lana Turner, if you will. That bubbled inside him and had no outlet and probably ate at him. I will tell you, in a very selfish way, I feel a personal gratitude that this character existed, that I as an actor was able to play him. They’re some of the most interesting psychological shoes I’ve ever had the chance to walk in, as an actor. It was just one of the greatest times of my life.

I thought a lot about the people who have played Roy Cohn in Angels In America. I imagine it’s a very similar feeling of ‘oy!’ But there are many riches inside that twisted, complicated psyche. For somebody who enjoys ferreting out the whys and hows of human behavior, these kinds of people are a treasure trove.

DT: Some of the lines of dialogue that you’re able to say are incredible. It’s almost “Veep”-like, some of those insults. 

JP: Yes, I know! That’s well-called.

DT: I have to say, I’m very jealous of you because you’ve managed to take up painting during quarantine. I’ve mostly taken up sitting on different couches and wearing different pairs of sweatpants. Outside of painting, have you been able to watch or binge anything?

JP: The only thing I’ve binged, and I did it from beginning to end, was Succession. I loved it. Those actors, oh my god. 

DT: Well, talk about dialogue!

JP: Yeah, that’s very true. It’s very true. Every single one of them is so god damn good! And every guest spot! Cherry Jones has an arc that’s two or three episodes. It is so impactful. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen her do! Whatever they’re doing, whatever is in the water over there, is just giving actors a field day. It is so rich. It was such a joy to watch. 

DT: Holly Hunter was amazing.

JP: Holly Hunter! Unbelievable. Brian Cox is just great. Brian Cox…would it be too far to say he’s kind of unsung as far as how good he is? I don’t think enough people know who he is. 

DT: No, I totally agree. I think Succession is finally letting people know. I think he’s just been such an actor’s actor for so long. 

JP: I think you’re right.

DT: People who know him respect his work so much. This is one of the only big, buzzy things that he’s really getting to sink his teeth into that people are actually watching. It’s well overdue. I can’t imagine anybody else playing that role.

JP: God, no. It’s got an essence of Tony Soprano to it, where it’s a perfect marriage of part and actor. They’re iconic as soon as you see a couple of episodes. 

DT: Well, I think some could say the same of you and Hollywood, sir. 

JP: Oh, thank you!

DT: Congratulations on the show and thank you for telling these stories. 

JP: I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Hollywood is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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