If Ryan Murphy’s opulent Netflix series Hollywood is one-half golden-era Tinseltown fantasy and one-half sleazy tales from the movie industry’s underbelly, Jim Parsons is responsible for the sleaze. Months after the end of The Big Bang Theory, Parsons returns to TV today as a fictionalized version of real-life talent agent Henry Willson, complete with fake teeth and a fake hairline. Willson, the man responsible for championing Rock Hudson and Lana Turner, was known for his collection of beefcake clients, many of whom were gay, and for his abjectly horrible behavior toward them. On the show, he preys on Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), and seemingly enters every scene swearing, demanding a blow job, or threatening to use someone’s sexuality to blackmail them.
It’s a far cry from Sheldon Cooper, but maybe a bit closer to the self-hating pre-Stonewall gay character Parsons recently played in Murphy’s Broadway production of The Boys in the Band. And, as the actor realized in the midst of filming Hollywood, Willson’s arc is a little similar to another character he’s always wanted to play: Roy Cohn in Angels in America. Over the phone, he explained how Murphy coaxed him to play the part, shooting Hollywood’s big bacchanal scenes, and why he’s not quite sure why he keeps playing this specific type of historical gay villain.
It seems like Henry Willson uses a swear word or says something about blow jobs every time he appears onscreen. Did you have any hesitation going from The Big Bang Theory to a character as out-there as him?
I didn’t have any hesitation, but it wasn’t so much the character as it was working with Ryan. He said, “I’d like to ask you to do something. I promise it’s a character unlike any you’ve played before.” And he was right. Working with Ryan, he’s really good about building a sturdy sandbox to try things in, never mind the fact that he has an uncanny ability to match actors to material and roles that most other people, including the actors themselves, would not have seen.
The other thing is that I have always wanted to try the Roy Cohn character in Angels in America, though I’m not at that age yet. It did occur to me, as I was playing, that Ryan’s given me a crack at a little bit of a Roy Cohn character.
Had you told him that you wanted to play Roy Cohn?
No. We were midway through the process when I sent him an email saying that this had turned out to be a hell of an important experience for me. I mentioned that there was a part of me, only half jokingly, that wanted to do for Henry Willson what Angels in America had done for Roy Cohn.
There’s a lot of a physical transformation for you as Henry Willson, too. What went into that?
They had to put on this bald head, and then put thinning hair over that. Then I had on these brown contacts and these fake teeth. It ended up being an important part of my process. I felt, in a wonderful way, not fully myself. That was very helpful, especially with some of the nastier things that I had to do. I felt a nice lack of responsibility. I knew that it wasn’t me.
Was there a major aspect of Henry Willson’s biography that helped you understand him as a character?
The beginning and end of his journey. The beginning, where he’s going out West with the rest of the people of Broadway that are trying to break into the film and TV business. He so badly wanted to be a part of that world. Then, the way he ended, which was completely broke and alone. He was alone because so many people had turned on him whom he had treated badly. He was penniless because he had spent so much of his life furthering not just his career, but his clients and getting them acting lessons and putting them up and getting them cosmetic work when they needed it. He made a lot of choices and he felt he had to do ugly things in order to keep power, but there was a part of him that was a kid who wanted to be a part of show business. That part’s heartbreaking.
You see that when he does the Salome dance with the veils in the third episode. He’s trying so hard to perform. What was it like shooting that scene? Did you have a choreographer?
I was just dumb enough to work on it alone and bring the inner workings of my own twisted soul to that number. What I loved about that scene was the odd marriage of this man with this passion. When I first read what they had written, I thought, Oh dear God. The more I started thinking about it, the more fascinating it became because it was such an unlikely match. He’s doing this at the most passionate, need-for-expression level that he has. Then it became really, really fun.
The show re-creates big Old Hollywood bacchanals, like the scene where you’re at a pool party with a bunch of naked people. What is it like on the set making sure everyone felt comfortable?
Well, I try not to look as much as possible, just to let somebody keep their modesty. Although human nature being what it is, it’s very hard sometimes to be in these situations. I can’t overstate the admiration I have for the men and women who are so comfortable with their bodies. It’s a healthy relationship that I envy. It’s exactly how everybody should be, and we’re not. The most straight up naked scenes I had to be part of were the ones at the party, and it was so goddamned cold. I worried for these people’s health. But yeah, they took good care of them, heated the water, had the robes ready.
You’re working with a lot of theater pros on the show: Patti LuPone, Holland Taylor, Joe Mantello. What was that group like?
It’s an intense level of heaven. I met Joe several years ago when we did The Normal Heart on Broadway. The theater people, especially, bring a confidence and a certainty about their performance that is somewhat uncommon. There’s a real power there in all three of them. They were all being asked to do this show at the same time I was, and it was a big part of why I wanted to be a part of it.
You’ve gone from playing Michael in The Boys in the Band to Henry Willson in this, and you also want to play Roy Cohn. They’re all charismatic, yet repressed, often devious, self-hating gay men. Is there anything you find interesting about that type?
If I do, I didn’t know it! With Roy, you’re right, that one did interest me. The other two were both brought to me. I didn’t know Boys in the Band. I didn’t know Henry. I don’t know what it is that connects me to these roles. I certainly didn’t grow up with the specifics of the societal things going on in their eras — much to my benefit, thank goodness. I guess, for whatever reason, I feel inclined to cut all of the characters some benefit of the doubt. I feel interested in finding a way to empathize with all three of them. Not because I think they shouldn’t be despised by certain people. Maybe it’s just a challenge. Maybe there’s a part of me buried that does empathize with them, but something … [pauses]. That was a shitty answer, I’m sorry!