When Jim Parsons was approached for Netflix miniseries Hollywood, he jumped at the chance to play a complicated, real-life figure, unlike any he’d played before, whose experiences force us to reflect on the entertainment industry as it is today—and the extent to which it has or has not changed over the last 70+ years.
Created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, the drama follows a group of ambitious actors and filmmakers in Post-World War II Tinseltown, considering what might have happened, had inequality in entertainment been addressed decades ago.
In the series, Parsons plays Henry Wilson, the talent agent who launched the careers of stars like Rock Hudson. Vicious, vulnerable, calculating and unpredictable, Wilson is a victim of his times, who ends up becoming a villain. A closeted homosexual tormented by the bigotry with which he’s faced, he resorts to the life of a sexual predator, before attempting to make amends for his misdeeds.
Holland Taylor Spins Tales Of 'Hollywood', 'Two And A Half Men', Tom Hanks, 'Bill & Ted' And Emmys - The Actor's Side
From the perspective of the nine-time Emmy nominee, the character and the project in general were gifts that he never could have seen coming. “Without being too dramatic about it,” he says, “I felt at the time, and I still feel now that [they] changed me in some way.”
Below, the actor reflects on his approach to playing Henry, navigating uncomfortable sex scenes, the need to closely examine all kinds of human behavior, and Hollywood, as he sees it.
DEADLINE: How did you come to star in Hollywood? What excited you about being a part of this show?
JIM PARSONS: Really, the answer would be Ryan Murphy, but the longer version is that I was working on the movie version of Boys in the Band. We were in LA shooting, and Ryan was a producer on that, and one day, he knocked on my trailer. He was working on Hollywood, and asked if I’d be interested in doing it.
What was funny is he goes, “It’s a great character. Something you haven’t played before, blah, blah, blah,” and I was like, “Okay.” He goes, “I’m going to give you the first couple of episodes to read. We’re still polishing.” So, he didn’t send them immediately, but I remember going home and talking to my husband about it.
My brain just began doing somersaults because this was the summer after Big Bang had ended, and I knew I was going to do Boys in the Band, but I really had prepared myself for the highs and lows of a non-working wasteland in front of me, for however long that was going to be. So when he came, I was like, “Oh my God.” I’m trying to recalibrate, and it was my husband, Todd, who was like, “Well, there’s really almost no way in hell you’re not doing it, because you love working with Ryan.” And I was like, “You’re right. It’s absolutely true.”
So, I read the first scripts. I hadn’t ever heard of Henry Wilson beforehand, but I was only excited about playing him. I was excited to play a real character. I was excited about Google imaging him, and seeing if there was anything we could do to fuss with the appearance a little bit—and there were things. So, that was that.
DEADLINE: Can you describe what you spoke with Murphy and Ian Brennan about, when you first boarded the series?
PARSONS: Ryan knew from the beginning that it was going to be a fictionalized fantasy version of events, but other than that, they were still working on the episodes. I found Robert Hofler’s book, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, so I just threw myself into that and waited for the scripts to come down to see what would happen, and it was really fun in that way.
I’d never played somebody historical that was so literally based on them, so it was a very unique and rewarding experience to have so much background, and for that, I really should thank Robert Hofler. I mean, he wrote such a full-service book of Wilson’s life. It really was my bible, and it offered me a grounding, and an emotional backdrop to come from. No matter how lascivious or ridiculous or sinister, or whatever the scene was, I always had this full person in my heart and in my mind, thanks to that.
DEADLINE: Were there other aspects to finding your way into the character of Henry? How did you work through the nuances of someone who could be so venomous, yet was ultimately so vulnerable?
PARSONS: Honestly, it was really more of just what happened once we were on set and saying the words to each other. I mean, I certainly spent a good deal of time. They wrote some really delicious dialogue for Henry, and I enjoyed learning those lines, just walking around my own apartment. So, it was just so much fun. But it’s always a very different beast when you’re unleashing those monologues or lines onto another human being, and you get a reaction from them. So, it was more of an exploratory process in that way.
I remember there were a couple of scenes…One in particular is one of the final ones, which was when I have the apology scene to Rock. I felt so lucky to be a part of that. It was really a sweeping experience. Jake Picking, who played Rock, was so playful and so creative and so present for every scene we did together, and we were very fortunate. A lot of our stuff shot in order, enough so that that was the last scene I shot of the entire series, even though it’s not the last one that shows.
It was very meaningful to me, to be able to bring our own time we’d spent together over the past several months, in some of those more harrowing or comical scenes that we had. It was an interesting marriage of what had really taken place, and the facts of Henry and Rock that obviously weren’t us.
DEADLINE: Hollywood’s cast is an exceptional, eclectic mix, bringing actors from different kinds of circles together. What was it like working with this ensemble?
PARSONS: It’s the kind of group that I don’t want to say only Ryan Murphy can bring together, but there are very few that can put this kind of potpourri of personality and performer types together. No one does it quite like Ryan does, and what’s so great is the way that extends beyond what’s in front of the camera.
I’ve worked with Ryan a few times now. The first two were both pieces of theater put to film, Boys in the Band and The Normal Heart, and I think because it was such familiar territory to me, I didn’t pick up as much as I did in this completely unfamiliar circumstance, where everything was new. The sheer level of creative people that Ryan attracts to his orbit… I mean, God knows the business attracts creative people, but there’s something very specific, and intensely playful and collaborative, about the people that Ryan brings into him.
Ryan has some ability to see what people are capable of that frequently, they themselves don’t know—or maybe suspect, or are scared, or just not sure how to accomplish it. On his confidence and his belief alone, you do rise to the occasion, it seems to me, and you see that play out in the costumes. You see it play out in the sets, and certainly you see it play out in certain actors’ performances. He’s just really good at giving people an opportunity to do things that not only have they not necessarily been seen doing before, but that they perhaps weren’t positive they could accomplish. I guess that’s one of his talents.
DEADLINE: In Hollywood, you’re playing a predator, and the show required you to take on a number of sexually explicit scenes. Were those challenging or uncomfortable to shoot? How did you and Jake work through those?
PARSONS: The first one we did together that was predatorily charged was the one where he comes to my office and I say, “I’ll work with you,” and then I force him into a sexual act in exchange for this. It was very early in our working relationship, and what’s funny is, the part that made me most uncomfortable was a part that wasn’t going to ever be on camera—and I don’t believe is in the final cut, now that I think about it. But we had a shot where we were face to face and he undoes his pants, and then I dropped out of frame. And obviously, nothing was literally happening, except it was an intimacy with somebody I didn’t know.
I haven’t played a lot of sex scenes in my career, so it’s not something I was used to. I don’t even know if you would get used to it, so much. But it was funny the way the shoot went on long enough and I had enough scenes with him, and like I say, I had a really good relationship with him, so that by the time we got to doing the stuff where we were in bed together, after I was dancing for him and draping myself over him, it was so nice, the way that turned into a really fun thing to explore. You know, there was a ridiculous aspect to it, and then, I felt like I had a partner that I knew well enough that to go on this journey wasn’t just horrifying and uncomfortable, but was also two actors, in a playground, seeing, “Well, what happens when you [go through this kind of exchange]?”
DEADLINE: Hollywood takes a fantastical approach to Old Hollywood history, and obviously, this kind of storytelling offers an opportunity for reflection on the world as it is now. Do you think that’s the gist of what we get from this reimagining?
PARSONS: I do. But I also feel like there was an extra layer to it for me when I got the final script. Specifically as I was reading over and learning the lines for the part that I was about to play, especially again the scene where Henry apologizes to Rock, that’s where he says that he has an idea for a gay love story, and I thought, “This is fascinating.”
Because in my opinion, it was enough that they put this alternate ending out there, and they showed the faces of people who were being directly represented on screen, and how it affected them, or how it might have affected them. But when they gave me that scene with Rock, [where] Henry had come to a bit of a reckoning in his own life, and was proposing another groundbreaking movie that would have never happened at the time, I thought, “Well, this is fascinating in that level of, will you make a brave choice like this?”
When you take a stand, when you say, “I don’t care if people are going to argue about it, or the threat that we’re not going to make money. I have a need to tell this story. It should be told, and so I’m just going to do it,” it can affect people who you never dreamed it would affect. Like, I don’t think anybody thought, just for example, in this case, this character was going to be affected in the way he was by this. But I felt like that was one of the ripple effects, is that everything that the movie, Meg, had brought about made him look at his life in a different way, and certainly inspired him to try and make his own groundbreaking movie, in that way.
I just think that’s one of the most beautiful things that is true to life, that when you do something new and brave in that way, the dominoes start to fall, and more and more innovative, progressive ideas like that start to come out, and it just feeds on each other. But it all starts with one small need. One small spark, as it were, to start this whole raging fire.
DEADLINE: Interestingly, while Henry is someone who would be justifiably canceled in our modern-day culture, in Hollywood, he’s offered redemption. Do you have a sense of what the intention was, in taking the character’s story in this direction? How did you perceive Henry, in the end?
PARSONS: I couldn’t speak for what [the writers] really were going for.
I will say that, both from working on the film, and going through my own life, and certainly from reading Robert Hofler’s book about Henry, I don’t think there can be any doubt that the society that Henry was living in as a gay man, both in the world at large and in Hollywood, these things fed the side of him that hungered for more power. They fed the side of him that could be controlling, and cruel, and secretive, and dirty to the point of hurtful with his sexual urges, things like that.
I don’t offer a full forgiveness pass, but I do think to your point about how we really do live in such a cancel culture, I’m not saying that’s never warranted, although I do wonder. But I would say that with a character like Henry, and a situation like this, maybe it’s a chance to try and just get a better look at all the myriad reasons that lead somebody to behave awfully.
And again, I think you can do that without forgiving them. You can do that without working with them again. You can do that without supporting them. But I think that we do ourselves a disservice, as humans in general, when we cut off the conversation completely, when we decide not to explore it at all, because it’s just too heinous to look at. “Never mind.” There’s very few human behaviors that aren’t worth investigating, I guess is my point.
DEADLINE: How much do you think Hollywood has truly changed since its Golden Age?
PARSONS: Without having lived through it, I think in some ways, it’s a night-and-day difference. You know, it’s an interesting thing because it is a business, and I think that they deal with this smartly in Hollywood, where it’s like, they need to make money. They can’t afford, literally, to have the protest that shut down the theaters, because then what’s going to happen?
So, that part will, to one degree or another, always be true. It’s a business, but because of activism, because of people with stories to tell that they kept pushing and pushing, that people were saying no to, stories and characters and different lives, we see more and more of because they’ve broken through. Because when they push, and shove, and claw their way into the spotlight, they more often than not show that they can find an audience, that the business can still be fed and be representative of all people and all stories, that there’s a place at the table.
That being said, it’s a huge business. It’s turning the Titanic, and that’s a long journey. So, is it “better than it seems to have been in the past”? Well, yeah, from what I know about it. It seems like it is. But I think very few would deny that there’s more to do, and further to go.
DEADLINE: What are you most proud of, in terms of the work that you did on Hollywood?
PARSONS: I don’t know. I will say that I wrote Ryan an email. We were about midway through shooting, right at the new year, and that’s why I wrote him. It was just something about reflecting on my last year, and how I didn’t see this role coming. I didn’t see this project coming, and it was such a gift to me, [not just because of] the opportunity to play this character.
Between costumes and makeup, and all the people Ryan surrounds himself with, it was one of the most fun, creative, fulfilling jobs I’ve gotten to do in a long time. I don’t mean to pooh-pooh any other job I was doing, but it was just such a gift. It changed my own internal trajectory, at least a little bit, to where it is I’m headed for next, and I guess that’s one of the things I love about being an actor, and this career, is that you take on a project, and you don’t know what it’s going to lead to, mostly because you never know what each project’s going to open up to you about yourself, and what areas it’s going to ask you to explore.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you? As you mentioned, there’s The Boys in the Band, directed by your Hollywood co-star Joe Mantello…
PARSONS: A couple of years ago, we optioned Michael Ausiello’s book [Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies] about him and his husband, and that’s been going very well. David [Marshall Grant] and Dan [Savage], who are writing it, have just done such a beautiful job. I don’t know date-wise [about production], but it’s still moving along. It’s not wallowing in a file cabinet somewhere; it’s actively happening.
I’m not involved as an actor on this, but as a producer, we’re working on the show Call Me Kat with Mayim Bialik over at Fox, and we have a table read for that tomorrow. I don’t know, schedule-wise, what [the coronavirus pandemic] means, but these things are going on.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.