Jim Parsons on Dancing in ‘Hollywood’ and Why Playing a Woman in College Theater Changed His Life

Marc Malkin
Jim Parsons on Dancing in ‘Hollywood’ and Why Playing a Woman in College Theater Changed His Life

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Jim Parsons really knows how to play lecherous and repugnant.

Just take a look at his work as Henry Willson in “Hollywood,” a new Netflix drama from Ryan Murphy. Wilson, a ruthless powerbroker whose clients included Rock Hudson, Lana Turner, Robert Wagner and Tab Hunter, was a sexual predator who preyed on young men trying to make it in show business.

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Despite the makeup and fake teeth, hair and eyes, Parsons is far from physically unrecognizable in the role. Still, the actor says he had never felt such “freedom” in front of the camera while portraying Wilson.

“I had a friend watch it. She wrote me and said — and I thought this was very well put — ‘It’s not that it doesn’t look like you. It’s not like anybody would notice that and say, ‘Who the hell is that?’ It’s like you were shot through a spider web covered creepy filter,’” Parsons recalled on the Variety and iHeart podcast “The Big Ticket.”

“That was enough for me to say there was a freedom with it, especially with some of the things that Henry does and says. There’s not only a disgusting vile aspect to some of the things he does and says, but there’s also a real sense of power and willingness to take control that I don’t normally feel as much as a human,” Parsons said. “Something about the makeup and hair let me just be there and do that in a way that I don’t know if I would have been able to otherwise.”

It wasn’t until he portrayed a woman in college productions of Charles Busch plays that Parsons was able to find himself as an actor.

“I discovered an actor within me and a love of being on the stage, and finding my light, and a power up there that without the skirt and the wig and the birdseed in the bra, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to find,” Parsons said. “I don’t know what trajectory it would have taken, how long the journey would have gone until I did, but it was a seminal moment for me playing those roles in my ram shackled drag. I just didn’t have to hide anything anymore.”

However, coming out publicly was something different, which he didn’t do until 2012 in a New York Times story when he was starring in the Broadway debut of Larry Kramer’s AIDS play, “The Normal Heart.” Looking back, the 47-year-old Parsons now realizes how pivotal it was to watch Ellen DeGeneres’ career implode when she came out in 1997.

“For as much as it brought someone like myself a little closer to being able to realize their dream, and seeing that it eventually it could be dealt with, that event also planted a subconscious seed of scared to death,” Parsons said. “Having been in my very early 20s, and having been at home with that Time cover that said, ‘Yup, I’m gay,’ and it made both good and bad marks inside my soul.”

Parson’s performance as Willson is already generating awards buzz. Even if gold statues don’t come, the world will forever have his dance sequence in “Hollywood.” In the scene, Parsons, who has taken home four Emmy Awards for his work on “The Big Bang Theory,” is covered in lucent fabrics as he dances choreography inspired by the “Mother of Modern Dance” Isadora Duncan.

“It was more fun than I thought it would be,” Parsons admitted. “I was very scared about it when I first saw it in the script. Not the dance, because I knew Henry wasn’t supposed to be a dancer, so it wasn’t like I had to be good. I was freaked out when it said, ‘Down to his last two or three veils.’ I was like, ‘I didn’t think I was playing one of those characters in this. I thought that the young people had to show their ass and what have you. I didn’t sign up for this.’ I didn’t go to the gym long enough before and I just didn’t sign up for it.”

But, he adds, “I loved the idea that suddenly I was playing a character who his spirit animal was Isadora Duncan. When he emulated that and opened up to that, he felt beautiful. He felt like a diva.”

Listen to the full interview with Parsons below and catch up with episodes of “The Big Ticket” at iHeartRadio or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

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