Tony Kushner’s epic play Angels in America
encompasses a blue-blooded protagonist with
AIDS, his lefty Jewish boyfriend, their
ex–drag queen pal, a trio of confused Mormons, a
fierce angel who crashes down from heaven, and the
fire-breathing real-life McCarthy-era lawyer and
homophobic homosexual Roy Cohn.
In HBO’s six-hour adaptation, debuting December 7,
Justin Kirk plays Prior Walter, a gay man living
happily on a trust fund with his Jewish boyfriend.
Prior loses his peace of mind and his lover when
he’s diagnosed with AIDS. But when an angel
smashes through his bedroom ceiling, he finds
he’s ready to do battle.
How complicated was the scene in which you’re
hanging out over the city, hanging on to the Angel?
That was fun. That was all green screen, of course. And
at that point, actually, a lot of that stuff they
wanted to do with my stunt double. Not to sound all
Tom Cruisey about it, but are you kidding? How often
am I going to get to hang, you know, 20 feet in the air, and
scream and kick my legs? So I did as much they would
let me: jumping off the bed, onto Emma, and riding up.
It was fun. I know it was painful for her being in
[the harness]. And then I was in that thing too: The harness
was pretty painful. But one thing I love is that in
this day of CGI, most of our special effects are
“in the room,” you know? Emma’s coming
through the ceiling looked better in person than it
does in the picture, and it looks great in the
[movie]. The ceiling falling on my head was all real.
We only had one chance with it, because they had four huge,
king-size mattress boxes full of debris, and they
could drop it once, and if it didn’t work for
the shot, they would have digitalized it in later. But it
did work, so that was great.
And it’s not every day you get to go to heaven and
tell off God, as Prior does at the end of the
That was a brutal day. All of it, actually, the whole
movie. I know the play so well, so every scene was
like, “Oh, well, now we’re at that
scene, putting it down on tape.” Then we fly out to
Rome [to shoot the heaven sequence] and there’s
a table with Meryl [playing an angel bureaucrat], just
watching, and then I’ve got the speech about the
children wiping the flies out of their eyes. It was a
When Angels was onstage, there was a real sense of
urgency, particularly in the AIDS crisis. Did you
do any work to reignite that sense of urgency?
No, because if you’re acting, you’re
always in the given circumstances of whatever your
characters are doing. I think you get in trouble if
you try to see things on a larger scale. As soon as you
start thinking about the politics of something, or
what it means to a group or to the world at large,
versus what it means to the person you’re talking
to and in your life, I mean, I wouldn’t know how to
One of the things that drives the play emotionally is
that Louis betrays and leaves Prior behind. What
was your worst breakup?
Well. [Pause] I’m less and less
emotionally available to people as the years go by. I
would say that. But I do know betrayal—triangle
betrayals where I had a relationship with a friend
before the one with the lover—you know what I mean?
In other words, I was more betrayed by not the person
I was with but by my friend—
Who took the person you were with away.
Exactly. Betrayal comes in many forms.