It’s not easy outrunning an outsized character like Sheldon Cooper, the awkward theoretical physicist played by Jim Parsons for 12 seasons on the ratings hit “The Big Bang Theory.”
But only a year after the May 2019 finale of the sitcom, Parsons delivered two breakout dramatic performances that no primetime CBS viewer would recognize — a cruel summer of sorts — playing a monstrous talent agent in Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood” in May, and a malignant, self-loathing ’60s gay man in Joe Mantello’s “Boys in the Band” in September.
With both programs airing on Netflix, Parsons was restricted neither by broadcast standards nor audience expectations. Particularly in “Boys in the Band,” a piece for which he serves as the dark beating heart, Parsons showed off a dazzling (if not horrifying) knack for confrontation and disdain.
“He really burns the house down,” Parsons told Variety recently of his character, Michael, whom he also portrayed in a 2018 Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s Tony Award-winning play. “One of the reasons I enjoyed playing Michael, and the work I got to do in ‘Hollywood’ with Ryan Murphy, is that it’s such a fulfilling puzzle to put together the humanity of someone doing vile things.”
In “Boys,” Parsons’ Michael plays host to a birthday party for a frenemy named Harold (Zachary Quinto). As a religious man with a penchant for overspending and untold depths of internalized homophobia, it only takes a few cocktails for Michael to start relentlessly antagonizing his group of gay male friends. From the dunes of Fire Island to the shared trauma of being societal outcasts, Michael exploits their fears and desires using an old-fashioned party game.
“I remember during rehearsals not fully understanding why he says and does these things. What does he need, and why does he want this? I felt a great empathy for him,” Parsons said. “I don’t think I’ve ever behaved like he has, but there’s a simplicity about it. Misery loves company. This desire on his part to force these other gay men to admit what he believes to be true, that we can never know true love because we’re gay. Deeper than that, maybe, he’s hoping these other men will convince him it’s not true.”
Much of the critical reception of the film, and a bit of the Broadway revival feedback for that matter, obsessed over the film’s verbal acidity, while others pondered its relevance in a modern era where the wide umbrella of LBGTQ people are facing threatened lives and rights.
Parsons said the personal feelings the film adaptation inspired in him was a reminder him of why the work still matters.
“I realized there was a big part of me that felt just as ashamed and scared of who I was, as these men did. It was different, but there is some of that internalized. One of the thing that was in the movie that hit me really hard … there are three different moments when some outside heterosexual force or presence representing the society outside this group,” Parsons recalled.
One of those moments comes when the effeminate Emory (Robin de Jesus) saunters from his apartment building in search of a cab, and his old white doorman looks on with disgust. Another comes when the bookish Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) ogles a strapping young man on the subway as a disapproving old woman watches on.
“It’s this side-eye judgement, and a little bit of disgust. Not only is it painful and telling to see those, but for me, it struck several memory chords. I know that side-eye very well, that feeling you get when you realize someone knows you’re gay, or you’ve made them question your validity and equal footing because of what they might be seeing as your sexuality. For that reason alone this piece, for me, remains vital. Hopefully it’s happening less,” Parsons said.
Only weeks after production wrapped on the film, “Boys in the Band” playwright Mart Crowley died, which Parsons said made both the play and film more meaningful experiences for he and his costars (which also include Matt Bomer, Charlie Carver, and Tuc Watkins).
“I think many of us will look back at this as the best and most profound thing to ever happen. to be on stage with him when he won that Tony for revival two years ago now,” Parsons said. “It’s funny that Michael comes from so much of his personal experience, because it has such dark depths and pain to it. From what I knew of him, he was a perfect balance between absolutely fabulous and the kindest, most thoughtful person. He grew into being someone anyone would emulate, and certainly for any gay man.”
The actor is currently in a professional holding pattern thanks to coronavirus quarantine. But when he does return to the screen, he is not opposed to breaking bad again.
“The one thing I do know is that I feel very open to being led by what I would call my angels, like Ryan Murphy. Me playing Michael was Joe Mantello’s idea, but he’s another one of those angels. I don’t know what subliminal signals I’m sending out to get these opportunities, but I’m so grateful for them. I know in my gut when to say yes,” he said.
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