The Emmy-winning “Big Bang Theory” actor “could’ve done anything he wanted.” Now starring in the tear-jerker film “Spoiler Alert,” he’s forging his own path.
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By Juan A. Ramírez
Ten years ago, the actor Jim Parsons, riding high on the success of the sitcom that would lead to his eventually making the Forbes list as the highest paid actor in television, casually told The New York Times that he was gay and in a long-term relationship. He remembers not wanting everything from 2012 forward to be about his sexual orientation.
Now starring in the romantic drama “Spoiler Alert” (in theaters), of which he was also one of the producers, and having just wrapped an Off Broadway run of the musical “A Man of No Importance” — both of which have him playing gay leads — he says he wouldn’t trade the work he’s been able to do for anything.
“Right after that piece came out, I felt power in being part of a group that I had not known I could feel,” Parsons, 49, said on a recent video call. He added that he was happy not to end up pigeonholed as an actor who could only do gay roles, even if more work came his way featuring gay characters.
“It became a beautiful exploration of myself,” he said. “Not to say I feel completely satisfied and that there’s not plenty I still want to do, but I don’t know how I could be much happier or feel more fulfilled.”
Parsons ties this feeling of catharsis to a lifelong quest to find himself worthy of love and acceptance. Growing up gay in a Houston suburb, he said he spent his first two decades with a “very real understanding that love would be lost” to him in certain corners of his life. Years into a successful career, he still considers himself on a journey to overcome the feeling that it is “overwhelming and a bit difficult to accept that much love from so many people at once.”
He said that his recent projects have reflected that journey. “It’s kind of funny, since so many of them I didn’t pick,” he said, “but this chance to discover these things about myself, and other humans in the process, feels like a gift.”
“Spoiler Alert” is adapted from a memoir by the television journalist Michael Ausiello, recounting the cancer diagnosis of his husband, Kit Cowan, and the difficult path on which it set the two. It presented Parsons with an “open vein” of emotion that appealed to his lifelong fascination with mortality, one he said was deepened by the death of his father in a 2001 car accident, and the loss of his dog years later.
“Both experiences were so painful, yet offered me a view of the preciousness of my time here that I had not experienced before, and I’ll forever now view my life through that lens of having loved and lost,” he said. “The thing that really crept up on me in the book was the story of two people who have this tragic, but also unique and rare, opportunity to go through an experience as close to two naked souls as you can be. It cracks open both of their hearts to see the risks that must be taken in order to live and love fully.”
Parsons and Ausiello had interacted on red carpets and press junkets throughout the 12-season run of “The Big Bang Theory,” of which the journalist was a vocal fan, but it wasn’t until he asked Parsons to host a promotional Q. and A. for his book in 2018 that the actor learned Ausiello’s story.
Jim Parsons’s Expanding Universe
The actor stars in the tear-jerker romance “Spoiler Alert,” adapted from the memoir by the television journalist Michael Ausiello.
“I remember going back through Michael’s Instagram after reading the book, and seeing this picture of us at the Emmys,” Parsons said. “I saw the date on it and realized he’d been in the thick of all this when we took it, and I had no idea. I never met Kit, I didn’t know he was sick, I wasn’t friends enough with Michael to know, but I couldn’t shake that feeling.”
Parsons became attached to the overlaps he saw between Ausiello and Cowan’s partnership and his own relationship with his husband and producing partner, Todd Spiewak. (A tweet from Ausiello, posted on the day of Parsons’s 2012 Times interview, points to two of these main parallels.)
Ausiello recounted by phone always being drawn to Parsons’s comic rhythms, on- and offscreen, as well as his surprising career choices, like taking on a supporting role in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures” after having won four acting Emmys for “The Big Bang Theory.”
“We had this interesting rapport and snarky banter that made our interviews so much fun,” Ausiello said. “I looked forward to talking to him because it was going to be an entertaining experience; he was going to give me as much as I’d give him, and never miss a beat.”
For the book Q. and A., this time it would be Parsons in the interviewer chair. “He shows up at this Barnes & Noble with pages of notes — he did his homework,” Ausiello said. “It was backstage, before we walked out, that Todd mentioned to me that they were interested in optioning the book; that was the first time I found out, and I was like a deer in the headlights.”
For Parsons, the film proved to be the most involved he had been in any project. Though he mainly stayed out of its financial aspects, he played a central role in production, down to selecting his English co-star Ben Aldridge’s vocal coach — the same one he had as a student at the University of San Diego.
The past few years have seen Parsons taking the reins more often through the production company he and Spiewak started in 2015, as well as stepping into more leading roles. This month, he finished a run in the Classic Stage Company revival of “A Man of No Importance,” about a closeted man’s efforts to lead a theater troupe. The Times critic Jesse Green wrote of his performance, “With his confident voice, unlined face and television polish, he never seems hopeless or, viewed from our time, too old for a new start.”
His last stage outing before that, in the 2018 Broadway revival of “The Boys in the Band” (a 2020 film adaptation followed), saw him play opposite Matt Bomer, who also attained mainstream recognition through television before coming out as gay in 2012. In a phone interview, Bomer explained that he’d known Parsons as a “legend” in the suburban Houston high school drama circuit. (Though born a few years apart, both men grew up in Spring, Texas.)
He said he came to respect Parsons’s leadership and “fearless approach to the character” while working on the production, in which he played an often unlikable colead.
“Jim achieved the type of television success that happens once in a generation, and he could have done anything he wanted after that,” Bomer said. “He’s translated it into these really thoughtful choices and performances, and taken creative responsibility for a lot of projects that are so interesting and that I really respect.”
Three years removed from playing Sheldon, the role that made him a household name, Parsons isn’t sure that this new film and the recent musical point to a new career phase of leading roles, as opposed to the ensemble projects for which he’s been known.
“Both projects required such tremendous, constant communication with my partners, and I like having a lot to do,” he said. “It’s much easier, if I’m a lead, to be constantly needed on set or onstage than it is to have swaths of time off, where I can get in my own head. Because I’ll find something else to do, I promise you, and it won’t be nearly as healthy as just doing the work.”
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