He may have fractured his foot last weekend, forcing The Boys in the Band co-star to take a couple days off, but that’s not going to stop actor Jim Parsons. The star of television’s smash hit, Big Bang Theory, Parsons (who also produces and narrates Young Sheldon) is one of a dozen gay men behind the new revival of a 50-year-old play about a gay dinner party in New York City.
For the groundbreaking play’s Broadway debut, Tony Award winning director Joe Mantello and producers Ryan Murphy and David Stone, brought together nine out queer men to play the titular Boys, none of them strangers to the stage. Parsons will join Zachary Quinto (of Star Trek fame), Matt Bomer (White Collar), Andrew Rannells (The New Normal and tons of Broadway), Tuc Watkins (One Life to Live), Robin De Jesús (In the Heights), Brian Hutchison (Man and Boy), and Michael Benjamin Washington (who theater goers know from La Cage aux Folles but for the rest of us will forever be Donald from 30 Rock).
It’s Parsons’s third time on Broadway; his role as Tommy in The Normal Heart garnered a Drama Desk Award nomination (for stage) and an Emmy nomination for his reprisal in the film version of it. He also appeared in a 2012 revival of Mary Chase's Harvey as Elwood P. Dowd. There are also four primetime Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe to his name, and earlier this month, GLAAD honored him with the Stephen F. Kolzack Award, which is given to an out LGBT entertainer or media personality for their work toward eliminating homophobia.
The Advocate: Do you remember when you first saw or read The Boys In The Band?
Parsons: I guess it wasn't quite a year ago, at some point last summer, I heard first from my agent that Ryan was thinking about putting together this 55th anniversary production of The Boys in the Band and would be interested in [me] being in it. And that was not the first time I had heard the title of course, but I had never read it. I had never seen it, and I would be lying if I told you that under pressure I might have gotten confused with The Band Played On — or anything with “band” in the title.
I sat down and I read it, and the biggest thought I had was: “What the hell is happening?” The way the men interacted with each other, the proceedings that go on through the evening of the play. I got in contact with [Boys director] Joe Mantello at that point. I said, “I have to be honest, I find this both exciting but, also, I'm not sure I fully get it.” And do I fully, fully get things now? No. But, talking with Mantello, I immediately felt like it was an adventure and a challenge I really wanted to take on as long as he was helming it. The fact that he's guiding this as a director is a big reason we're in such good hands — and the right hands.
Why do you think you had a strong reaction to the script?
It's such an exploration of a group of gay men at a particular time and their lives and their ways of dealing with each other in the world, which our reaction is very tied to the way the world is at that particular time. The more we're going through this and running through the conversations and the arguments and the “whatevers” in the play, the more and more resonant for me everything feels.
It's true how much has changed, and how much hasn't changed. It seems to me that there is not a moment, a reaction, a statement, a feeling, a take on anything, that any of these men have in this play from 50 years ago that can't be and isn't daily replicated in the lives of gay people now — just perhaps not to the same degree. Some of them, some things, still do elicit the same kind of reaction and what have you, but I don't know, it's not a parlor piece. It's not some time capsule thing.
The play really telegraphed that sense of shame and desperation some gay men experienced in pre-liberation days. Are you able to look at that and say the relationships gay men have nowadays are less fraught?
I do think that is true, but I would say by certain degrees… Most gay people come from straight parents, and so you have those parents to guide you in a majority of ways… but for that not-insignificant part of your life, your sexuality and whatever lifestyle that means for you then, there are certain things you're only going to find out either through an outside of the family source or on just fumbling on your own.
Today, a lot more people are out, and examples out there, but nothing compares to a physical guide — a force in your life that is in your daily life. And I guess why I say all that is because I still think that means there is this struggle at a certain level. It may not be entirely unpleasant — I'm not saying that — but a struggle. You do have, if not an armor that's built up from having to struggle, you do have at least a tiny bit of this ability to wage battle when you need to… I've realized certainly about myself, even as passive as I can be as far as interpersonal relationships go, as far as conversation goes, I have found my way to do my version of battling to get through the world when I needed to.
What do you mean when you say a “physical guide?”
I think that a lot of gay people — we're talking about gay because of this play specifically, but this could go for a tremendous amount of people who are sidelined, or a minority, for various different reasons that have a similar thing I think — you come to the table as a gay person, especially with other gay people, and there is a language. There is a way of dealing that has threads of commonality between all of you that you don't even consciously understand. Not only is it from 50 years ago, but it's a play, so it's exaggerated reality at some degree or another no matter what. It's heightened. But we, as a group of gay men in this production, fall into these rhythms very easily… Within about 30 minutes of [the first rehearsal], being in a room full of gay men, working with all these other gay male actors, I knew there was a tribal thing here. I don't know what it is exactly. I don't want to make too much of it, but if nothing else, you realize how rarely that is the case. That's interesting to me.
When The Boys In The Band first debuted on Broadway in 1968, there was a lot of strife that year—Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated and later Richard Nixon was elected president. Is there anything in this story that is particularly relevant in the post-Trump era?
I thought about this a lot. I think that a play like The Boys in the Band, at one level, it could and should be viewed a little bit as a warning. So much of what I think as a viewer I would personally consider unpleasant and thorny about this play and the way these men deal with each other I think relates… They're having a direct reaction, whether they know it or not, to the society and the oppression that they're feeling that's around them, and that turns them inward — both on themselves and to the others like them.
The reason I say a “warning” is because so many wonderful things have happened for many people — then again, talking solely about gay people... I think a play like this is worth revisiting on many levels. One of them being that it's not impossible for this type of situation to happen again. It is only by rigorous attention to yourself, and who you are, and the people around you who are like you, that you stay [vigilant] to not let it happen. When you go to sleep at any certain level, you always run the risk of an oppressive other rolling back the clock a little bit. And here’s what can happen: death by a thousand cuts. One day you look up and suddenly here I am, feeling this way about myself and those like me, because one after another thing has built back up again to say this is wrong, or this is bad. It's so easy as a human being to lose a sense of history. It's absolutely natural to. You've got to carry on with your own life.
GLAAD just gave you the Stephen F. Kolzack Award.
I didn't know who Stephen was until I found out I would be receiving this award. In one way, that's natural, but here I do sit with the luxury of being a 45-year-old gay man in 2018. I know I don't have to be bothered necessarily, knowing about some of the people who fought so hard before me in order that I can lead the out life that I am leading. But that can be taken too far. I think that this ties back into the gay people not coming from gay parents. [LGBT people] are our elders — and that is, at least a percentage of it, of who you are, part of your heritage. It's not just beneficial to have a connection to that, to heritage of your own. It can be very detrimental to not recognize and deal with the heritage that you came from.
You’ve given that a lot of thought.
I do think it's one of the interesting things, and I thought a lot about this again going to the GLAAD awards. So much of what this award is that I'm being given is about being visible and out and gay — and it hasn't been an overly conscious struggle for me in that way. That's really on the backs and shoulders of so many people who came before. I'm not going to say that it's easy to do always for people these days. I don't know. [Personally] I feel in some ways it's the least I've ever had to do to receive an award. I just motored along and then fell into it in some ways
It's not easy maintaining a relationship in Hollywood and LGBT relationships aren’t always validated. You and your husband [art director Todd Spiewak] have been together for 16 years now. How do you make it work?
I happen to have been lucky enough to find somebody who we just get along at a certain level and enjoy each other's company, and that's never waned, so we tend to kind of be in tandem for a majority of our days and nights. Related to that is, obviously, the fact that while I am having this relationship in Hollywood, while having a Hollywood career, Todd does not have the same type of Hollywood career. Unlike dating another gay actor, who's off shooting in Australia, we don't spend longer than a couple of weeks apart if we can manage it because we don't have to. A lot of the work that Todd does can travel, and there's been some intentionality to that on our part because we enjoy spending time together.
I was lucky enough to meet Todd at a time in my life where no one — other than my friends and family — knew who the hell I was. I do think that having spent six years together before we came out here and thrust into some version of a limelight, it was the same way I felt very lucky that I was in my early-30s by the time that happened to me. There was so much under the belt for me life-wise. Of course certain things are going to change, they would even if this hadn't happened. You're going to get older, but you’re less apt to have core things change about you that give you a real identity crisis.
And you have good role models in marriage, too.
Todd and I were very lucky to both come from parents who stayed together for their whole lives. His parents are both still alive. My mother is still alive. My father's gone. But we both came from couples who, when they joined together, they joined for life. And, I don't know, not that you can't have a successful marriage without seeing that in front of you, and plenty of people do, but I do think both of us have always readily acknowledged that it made a real impact having that in front of us. That's just good fortune for us.
When director William Friedkin turned The Boys In The Band into a film, some critics surmised that he wasn't really hired to improve it, but rather to preserve it. Do you think the same can be said of this new revival?
No, but I don't want to imply that there's any improving going on. I think Friedkin was working at a time not distanced really at all from the time at which it was written and produced. So we're being true to it. We are discussing, thinking, and having long talks about all the implications of living in 1968 as a gay person. That being said, we are all products of the here and now… and that's the way we'll be viewed.
We're not going to get the 1968 audience. Well, maybe a few, but the majority will be products of the here and now. Even the people who did see it in '68 have lived through 50 years of changes [since]. So it won't be the same, but I don't think that has anything to do with intentionally trying to say something different. It's just trying to be as honest with it as we can. We are the people of this day and age who are being honest. So that's up to us.