Q&A: Jim Parsons on Playing Bitchy Queens and What He Learned About Himself Doing 'Boys in the Band'

Chris Azzopardi

A lot has happened this year, and that's aside from Jim Parsons dancing around in a bra. That bit, of course, graced screens across the world thanks to Netflix's "Hollywood," the "Big Bang Theory" actor shedding his well-established onscreen TV persona to play a sleazy Hollywood agent in the flashy revisionist drama. The Ryan Murphy series garnered him an Emmy nomination, but best of all: It wouldn't be the only time in 2020 that Parsons would be taking on the role of a bitchy queen. 

In Netflix's "The Boys in the Band," again produced by Murphy, Parsons is a standout among standouts in the remake of the pioneering 1970 gay-centric drama, directed by William Friedkin. Initially staged as an Off-Broadway play in 1968, the film is based on Mart Crowley's screenplay, written about a group of gay friends and frenemies living in New York City. An awkward birthday party for their friend Harold, a self-proclaimed "ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy," becomes the breeding ground for savage takedowns, as they tear into each other, exposing the kind of self-hatred familiar to gay men trying to survive the oppressive state of pre-Stonewall America. Parsons plays seething party host Michael, a semi-lapsed Catholic whose aggressively nasty observations about his friends reveal more about him than it does about them. 

In the remake, Parsons reprises his role alongside the original – and entirely openly gay – cast of the 2018 Broadway revival: Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jes√∫s, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington and Tuc Watkins. Parsons's out "Hollywood" co-star Joe Mantello, who directed the Broadway revival, once again directs. 

On Zoom recently, Parsons talked about the revealing conversations he shared with Crowley about "The Boys in the Band" before his death in March and how working on the project led to a deeper understanding and questioning of his own self-worth. 

Being the bitchy queen doesn't seem like something that comes naturally to you.

Apparently I have an affinity with it, or an interest in it. Or Ryan Murphy has an interest in forcing me to do it! I'm not sure which. Ha!  

What has that experience been like for you?

It's been heaven. As an actor, I'll be honest with you: Both of these men are complicated characters, and the two roles this year in "Hollywood" and in "Boys in the Band" were very different in many ways, but they had a similar feeling to me. Going into the projects, there was a mystery and an unknown quality about the challenge that lied ahead. I felt confident that I would be able to get there with both of them, but it was exciting to know it wasn't a done deal. I was going to work to get there, and I was going to have to, most importantly, get on set and start doing these scenes for both these characters and see what happened, and that was exciting.

Your role in "Hollywood" earned you an Emmy nomination, which must have felt validating after being uncertain about playing that role.  

That was a great feeling. 

Playing more challenging characters such as these, when do you know, "OK, I think I've got it"? 

I feel like that specific feeling comes in little spots through the process, where you just feel good about something. But in general, everything I do, by the time it's all done and the months go by until it's released, suddenly I start having trouble remembering any of the good moments and I'm like, "Oh god, oh god. It's coming."

When I worked on "Hollywood" on the character Henry, that was a longer process than the film because it was episodes and it went on for about six months. We were about midway through the process when I actually wrote Ryan Murphy an email just telling him how appreciative I was of the experience, and it was because I had crossed some bridge about working on that character. It had really clicked in me what a special opportunity this was, this character, that I just hadn't seen as clearly when I first started. 

With Michael, the reasons for his ruthless disdain really reveal themselves at the end of the film. When you're playing characters as vicious as Michael and Henry, what's your process for exposing the layers of humanity beneath the surface of these characters' rough edges? 

In the case of Michael, I think that's a big part of what you carry with you going into the beginning of the rehearsal process, knowing that you're dealing with a character who is compensating as much as he can. I always had this phrase in my head every time I was working with the character: He's just dancing as fast as he can in order to keep things afloat. But it's so superficial because there's this elemental part of himself that he is completely unhappy with and so, as happens in this, just the right amount of things break the wrong way and he's cracked. 

What's interesting about both characters is that Henry in "Hollywood" was based on a real man, Henry Wilson, the man who invented Rock Hudson, and so I had this beautiful book by Robert Hofler that is Henry's biography. Robert had done so much research about who he was and when he was young and when he got old, and we focus on one specific part of Henry – and invented so much around it too; it wasn't all pure truth – so to have all that information gave me a humane quality to Henry that I understood. 

Michael was a little different. Even though I consciously knew that he was a rough stand-in for the writer, Mart Crowley, I didn't want to presume how much, nor did I want to put that responsibility on myself. At the time, both for the play and the movie, Mart was alive and I just thought, "Don't even think about it." But it kind of couldn't help creeping in, and the more chances I had to be around Mart and talk to Mart and exchange emails with Mart, one thing after another began to click and I was like, "The character of Michael is a writer just like Mart is." From this distance, now that we've had this put to bed for so long, although it's just now being released, I see a version of it where this is partly the story of Mart before he was able to write "Boys in the Band." 

For me, the main magical thing about "Boys in the Band" comes from the fact that Mart was finally able to reveal himself and his situation and the people that he knew and loved with so much brutal honesty. I think that's why it connected with so many people. I think that's why it stood the test of time. I think that's why, as a piece of literature, it has stayed bubbling in our consciousness this long, and lo and behold has expanded to become something that's not just about gay men. It's become something that's about all people suffering under oppression and shame. And that's the way the world went, but I don't think, unless you're willing to open a vein the way that Mart was, that, going back to Michael, I believe that you can't create something that impactful and be that honest until you accept yourself for everything that you are. That's where we leave Michael, with Harold telling him, "You will always be a homosexual. There's nothing you can do to change it." And we don't see Michael transition into a healthier, self-loving person, but the more I think about it, the more I think that if he's truly a stand-in for Mart, then that's where Michael goes. Maybe he goes off to write his "Boys in the Band."

It's interesting to me to think that the film, when it was released in 1970, before the lexicon of LGBTQ identities expanded, resonated with an especially niche group of people. And that was, specifically, gay men. Now, that specific demographic seems almost antiquated because identity is far less restrictive. 

One of the things I'm realizing – and please understand that so many things that I'm realizing I'm realizing them in the moment as we are now able to talk about the release of this film and the evolution that this story that Mart created has gone through – that no writer or anybody could predict because you don't know what's going to happen in the world. 

Stonewall happened shortly after "Boys in the Band." It was a moment that created a real backlash from the gay community against "Boys in the Band," and for all the complaints, the main one was, "We don't want to be represented like this, as unhappy, self-hating, have-to-hide at-home (people)." And I totally understand that. Especially in that infantile time, that embryo of this independence starting to form, you need all the nutrition you can get, ha! 

But because of the efforts of so many, we have come far enough that we are more than OK to look at an honest portrayal of a real side of what it was to be gay. And even though it's not as intense in this way, there's residual (issues). 

One of the things I discovered going through this and having the luxury to spend so much time with this part, both in the play and in the movie, was how much of those feelings that I thought I didn't really have because of my age and the acceptance in the world. Bullshit. I do. I do. It's not as intense. It's a different world. But it's not gone completely. And there is still a part of me that, as a gay person, I see more clearly having played Michael for so long. (I'm) still dealing with – and it's truly OK, consciously I know this – but there's that little voice inside sometimes that still goes, "Am I enough? Am I OK?" 

I recognize that, with my very good friends especially, there's a language that we speak with each other that's tart-tongued and lovingly bitchy. I'm wondering if the way these gay men talk to each other on-screen translated off-screen since you worked with a cast of all gay men. 

(Smiles.) You know what? I don't know if it was because of who we are or because of the time we're living – ha! – or because we were actually working together: It was certainly not as biting; it's a lot kinder, although Charlie, sweet thing, may disagree. He takes a beating from us! But you know what? That's youth, and that's what you get. Ha! 

But no, definitely, it was one of the most profound things about going through this process, and I'm not even speaking about whether or not this is reflected in the final product on film. I'm really talking about my own personal experience of working on this: I feel we have the luxury now of not needing for safety and for personal comfort to be surrounded by your tribe of gay men. Many people have plenty of gay friends, and so many people solely, but it's not for the same reasons in my opinion that it would've been in the late '60s, early '70s where it was like, "Truly, we have to stick together." That's wonderful. But what I realized working with these guys is there's a language spoken. I don't know if it's all gay men all over the planet. All gay people. I don't know if it's strictly specific to a gay American male. I will say it's the only time I've gone to curtain call and repeatedly – and I don't even know why because I hate saying this, but I'm like, "Hey heney!" I mean, I never talk like that. Ha! But every once in a while, I would grab Zach Quinto's hand on stage before the bow and I'd go, "Hi heney!"

Ryan Murphy has said we need more stories about the history of LGBTQ people. Aside from starring in "Boys in the Band" this year, you are producing the LGBTQ docudrama "Equal" for HBO Max. What are some other LGBTQ stories you would like to see revived for new generations of LGBTQ people to experience?

That's hard to say. You know what's funny to me, and I don't know what this says about me, exactly – well, it says that I'm a child of privilege, that I'm a gay man of privilege living in the world that I've grown up in. But I've been so fortunate that the people that I've worked with have called on me to be a part of these things, whether it was "Normal Heart" or "Boys in the Band." Even "Equal" was something that was being created and thought of and they included me in on it. So I have been blessed with this story lesson since I was, again, just too privileged and going about my own daily business in order to go research on my own. 

But I guess my answer is twofold: I don't know what the next story is that should be revived, and the second thing is that I do realize the importance because of the impact that it's had on me being exposed to these stories, and a strength and a well-roundness that I feel as a gay man by understanding more specifically the historical context within which I walk as a gay man in 2020 now. It's crucial for making me the person I am.

And I get sweaty palms at the thought of, were it not for the sliding-door moments of these people asking me to do this, I might miss it, or not understand it, or feel it the way that I do now. So I hope that these projects go out to people and give a similar level of that. I don't want to say education because it's entertainment and I want people to watch it, for Christ's sake. Ha! But I hope that we've portrayed it in a way that is realistic and humanizing enough that you can't help but get the point.