Spark on fire

He's angry with the president. He's tired of being misunderstood. And he's ready for another season of making out with Robert Gant. Queer as Folk star Hal Sparks lets fly with an in-your-face interview

BY Anne Stockwell

March 16 2004 12:00 AM ET

Michael Novotny,
the protagonist of Showtime’s Queer as
Folk,
is so convincingly mousy that you forget
he’s fictional—until you meet the man
who plays him. When I greet Hal Sparks, he’s
carrying a Chinese sword. It’s his own, not some
fake from a prop house. For his Advocate photo shoot,
the 34-year-old star has just finished whipping the
weapon through a dazzling set of the kung fu moves he
began to master at age 8. That was before he posed
naked with a rainbow flag.
This behavior would be way too cool for Michael.
Sure, the mild-mannered Pittsburgh comic-store owner
is the secret of down-and-dirty QAF’s
success—the everyman has anchored the story
through three seasons and into a fourth now shooting in
Toronto. Amid a presidential campaign that’s
whipping gay marriage around like a saber, Queer as
Folk
’s message of “us and them”
has never seemed more relevant.
Chicago, is charismatic, decisive, irreverent,
sexy, and scary-smart. He is also straight, and right
off the bat, when the QAF cast did its first
round of press, he ran into a rough patch: Asked in an
interview what it was like to kiss another man, Sparks
compared it to kissing a dog. Outrage ensued. The
comment tapped into gay fears that the hetero ex-host
of E!’s cheeky Talk Soup might not be
sufficiently respectful of a role on TV’s
boldest-ever series about gay life.
But Sparks hung in and paid his dues. For a time
after QAF’s debut, the talk shows and
game shows where Sparks formerly exercised his quick
wit stopped calling. They didn’t want to mention the
word “queer” on the air. He says the
ostracism never shook him: “I live in such a
fearless space in my life, I really don’t give
a rat’s ass what most people think about me.”
Besides, he’s busy: Weekdays he’s
shooting long hours on the QAF set; weekends he
does stand-up. He’s now mixing the debut CD of
his heavy metal group, the Hal Sparks Band, for a spring
release through his own record label. “I decided a
long time ago that I was the president of my own
corporation,” Sparks says of his supersaturated
schedule. “I’m a blue-collar actor. I’m
in the med school phase of building a career.”
Now, with QAF’s third season newly
available on DVD and its fourth season set to start
airing in April, Sparks’s schedule and The
Advocate
have finally come together. Over a seared-tuna
salad in a Venice, Calif., restaurant, he gives me a
glimpse inside his energetic mind. On the page, Sparks
may come across as abrasive; not in person. He
radiates benevolent energy and higher purpose: For a comic,
the man is disconcertingly spiritual. But his stand-up
rhythm kicks right in as he starts riffing on
homophobes, the Bible, Enron, his future mate, anal
sex, and the coma that made him funny.

Let’s start with politics. What do you think
about Bush’s backing a constitutional amendment
against gay marriage?
I think George Bush is to Christianity what the Enron
accountants are to capitalism. They use the laws to
their advantage when they can, and when they
don’t, they break them. Bush is using this to ignite
his conservative base to get them to vote. It is
absolute posturing. But I think it’s going to
turn on him.

How so?
The big case they’re always making is,
“We’re protecting the sanctity of
marriage, which has always been between one man and
one woman.” Well, yeah, tell that to the Mormons, for
one. Secondly, if gay marriage hasn’t been
around till now and marriage is at a 50% divorce rate,
obviously gay marriage isn’t the problem.
Let’s say there are gay people who’ve forced
themselves into straight marriages. They’re
just now getting divorced because they’re
awakening to who they truly are. You could cut down on the
divorce rate by allowing them to be who they are from the
start. You want to protect the sanctity of marriage?
Allow gay people to marry gay people.

I know the show strives to reflect the news. Will
Michael and Ben decide to get married?
I wouldn’t be surprised. In fact, I’m
expecting it, in many ways.

After three seasons, Queer as Folk still
seems to get people hot under the collar. Why?
There’s so much fear around this show—from
both the gay and the straight side—that I feel
like it’s a responsibility to back away from
the fray and say, “Can we all settle down and
look at this for what it is?” Those who are against
it need to look at the import of the show, the genuine
desire to do some good in the world [on the part of]
myself, the rest of the cast, the execs. And then give
everybody involved the benefit of the doubt.

What in the world drew this heterosexual comedian,
Hal Sparks, to a show called Queer as Folk?
The main reason I took the job was because nobody else
would. That fall I could have—and this is not
arrogance—gotten a sitcom and been on it for
the last three years. But it would’ve been a
seven-year contract, and at the end some people
would’ve said, “Yeah, but can he act? Is
he going to do anything important instead of just fluff?”

How did you hear about the show?
My manager said this script was floating
around—had been for, like, seven weeks.
I’d been on Talk Soup and I was fired,
and then two weeks later I got Dude, Where’s My
Car?
and they were looking and looking again for
Michael. They couldn’t find Michael, they
couldn’t find Brian; they’d found a Ted and a
couple of Emmetts. Apparently they weren’t having
much trouble finding lesbians, so the girls really get
the kudos for being chosen out of a large group, but
for the rest of us it was fairly refined. And I was
one of the few people who had any kind of a name who was
willing to do it. The pilot script was very touching,
very emotionally extraordinary. And my manager, to her
credit, said, “This is
important—it’s worth going up for.” She
said something very interesting and, I think, true:
“It’s either going to be a phenomenon or
it’s going to disappear.” There was going to
be no middle road with Queer as Folk.

What was it like meeting Dan Lipman and Ron Cowen,
the American show’s creators and executive producers?
They were at the auditions. They were very sweet. But
you have to think back to that time: I didn’t
know these people from Adam. [If I agreed to do the
series], they’d have power over my career for
six years, because that’s how long our contracts
were. As a businessperson and as a human being, you
are taking an enormous leap of faith.

That must have been terrifying. What convinced you
to do it?
I had a long phone call with Ron and Dan, and they were
great and very reassuring. I was like,
“We’re going to enter into a sort of
gentlemen’s agreement that this show—and
Michael, the character that I’m
playing—will remain heart-oriented, as opposed
to head or penis. Because the minute we shift to head or
dick, you’re done. It’s a waste of time.
You can rent better penis stuff, and nobody needs to
be intellectualized about this.”

What do you mean?
You can’t argue on an intellectual level with a
fanatic. But if you can touch their hearts, the armor
falls away. We get letters from parents and children,
like “I hated my son for being gay; my wife had
me watch this; now I love him more than I did before I found
out he was gay, and I miss the time I could have had
with him.” That’s why you do this show.

When we met at the spring Television Critics
Association press tour, I said you had made a negative
comment about kissing another guy. And you said,
“No, I didn’t.”
I said something that was construed as being negative
when I was trying to be purely descriptive. Somebody
asked me what it was like to kiss a guy. Keep in mind
that at this point I had not kissed a gay man—I
had kissed Gale Harold and another guy. Two straight guys.
So if you think I’m referring to kissing
gay men as like kissing a dog, then
you’re wrong on that count, and let’s
start there.

OK, go on.
Secondly, the point I was trying to make was, have you
ever seen somebody who has a dog and they love
their dog? They have so much emotional connection to
that dog and they kiss it right on the
face—right on the mouth. And they can conjure up all
this emotion about how much they care about this
animal, but they don’t want to fuck it.
That’s what playing a gay man and kissing other men
is like. As much as I can conjure up the emotion of
caring and love and support, I don’t want to
fuck them.

So you had good intentions.
It’s important that people know that, because a
lot of people think gay is contagious. In most of the
interviews I do in the straight press, they keep
asking the same questions over and over
again—“Are you straight, are you
gay?”—even though they know I’ve
answered it a hundred times. The reason, on a
sociological level, is that they are answering the big fear
that most of America has, which is “Are you gay
yet? Have you caught it yet?” My point in
answering those questions is “Don’t be
afraid of it. They are who they are; you are who you are;
it’s OK. It’s not the flu.”

Tell me about meeting Robert Gant and starting to
work together.
They brought him up to Toronto because they really liked
him. We read a scene together, and it was
great—he was very good, very on. I liked him
immediately. He’s a genuinely cool guy and really
excited about the project.

I have to ask about the sex scenes.
Working with Bobby has been the easiest and best
relationship stuff I’ve had to do on the show.
Not just because he’s a really good actor, but
we’re both very respectful of what the other needs
in a scene. Shooting a sex scene is not sexual at all,
especially—especially—if you want to
convey emotion and you want people to feel that
there’s some connection going on.

And with Bobby you’re kissing a gay man.
Yes. It’s easier to work with Bobby, hands down,
because the gay men are more at ease with the actual
kissing and the actual contact. A lot of straight guys
have that “dodge” reflex: If a guy leans
in to kiss you, your first reaction is to twitch
back—“What’re you doing, dude?”
Bobby always spots it too. He’ll go to kiss me
naturally in a moment, and if I’m not aware
that we’re going to kiss, I have to watch that
flinch reaction. A couple of times it has actually worked in
the scene, where Michael is angry at Ben—so we
kept it.

What do you say to people offended by two men kissing?
You know, wackos on both sides can go fuck themselves. I
don’t live my life by caring what they think.
Once you know that, then all the attacks, the
Christian right people who are threatening to throw acid in
your face—

Wait. Christians actually threatened to throw acid
in your face?
Yeah. Then you’ve got gays who think all we do is
promote promiscuous gay sex or that our characters are
drugged up—just watch the show, for chrissake.
My character’s been in an
HIV-positive–HIV-negative relationship for two years.
As for the promiscuous sex scenes, kiss my ass.
It’s just annoying.

Is it hard for you to play the guy who’s
being penetrated?
The bottom? Not necessarily. Sometimes when I play
Michael, I’m not playing a gay man, I’m
playing a woman. I’m playing the feminine in
the relationship. A lot of the mannerisms and stuff that I
built for Michael, I’ve gotten from my mom and my
aunt Karen.

Some people do seem to think “playing the
feminine” would be harder.
It’s just fear, that’s all. I think in the
general populace more people are afraid of anal sex
than death—of being on the receiving end of it.
When people talk about going off to prison, they never
talk about being killed in prison. [Anne laughs] Your
chances of being killed in prison are pretty high. But
that’s not what everybody’s worried
about, are they? No. It’s always about being
raped by some big guy in the showers.

I think people are appalled by the idea of doing
something in the same canal that you defecate through.
Yeah, but we piss with the other one. I don’t
know what the big deal is. Most people just live in
fear of being discovered. That’s what the
really hard-line Christians are afraid of: The only way they
can divert attention away from their sins is to point
at yours: “Look, I may have thought about
cheating on my wife, but that guy’s a
fag!” It is so funny that of all the things that God
supposedly hates in the Bible, they manage to make
that one of the top ones.

Isn’t it great?
It’s retarded. I was a born-again Christian,
baptized when I was 11; I was a Bible scholar and the
whole deal. Believe me, there is a lot more in the
Bible that supports just being open and loving of people
than the two verses that they rattle as a saber. The truth
is, they’re dying off and they’re
freaking out about it. The fundamentalist idea is a
factor of old people watching their system die. The
big rise in the religious right is the dying gasp of Jason
Voorhees at the end of Friday the
13th
—you think he’s dead,
completely, and he’s got that one last lunge at you
to scare you a little bit. [Anne laughs]
Because he’s really got nothing left.

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