Parsons recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Tony Ruiz about what he knew about Willson, working alongside Jake Picking as Hudson and whether his character is truly redeemed in the end. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Jim, the real Henry Willson is is such a controversial figure. And so, I guess where I want to start is how much of the controversy of Henry Willson did you know in advance? And how did you go about learning about him?
Jim Parsons: Well, when we started, I knew nothing about Henry Willson. I had not even heard of him. Just one of those things that I had missed. And it turned into, I see now in retrospect, a major advantage for me, because all the reasons that Henry was infamous and rightfully vilified in many ways I only found out through the filter of knowing that I was going to have to play him. I was learning facts about him as I was reading scenes that they were writing about him, which a lot was based in truth. And some things were gilding the lily for entertainment purposes. And then obviously towards the end of the series, it gets completely fantastical. But I had no knowledge of him at all. And like I say, it was a very interesting and pleasurable one to read some of the darker things about him and have part of my mind already attempting to humanize them. Which as I’m saying, feels very apt right now, the way things are in the world, and I’m not referring as much to the COVID stuff as I am to the protests and everything going on right now, the many components that make up what is a human being. Henry, we see his extreme behavior that I’m not sitting here excusing, but I mean, we’re all capable of so many of those things. And to most of our credit, we don’t give in to some of the desires or predatory power-hungry things like Henry Willson did. But I don’t know, understanding that those just those things just exist in all of us. I’m really going off course of what you asked me just then.
But let me get back to it. Robert Hofler wrote a book called “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson” and it’s all about Henry Willson. It was absolutely my bible through the whole piece. I was reading it in tandem while I was working on it. I would see certain scenes, almost the spirit of them recreated in our show that I read about earlier. And it was very helpful, too, because Robert does such an excellent job of humanizing Henry. Again, not excusing, but giving so much context to him and so much about his background that he became just another Hollywood figure to play, who had a lot of the similar components that anybody else did to make it in this very competitive business. In his case, as a closeted gay man, which wasn’t helpful to him, it’s not helpful to anybody to live a secret like that. But yeah, that was what I did. And then, of course, the hair and the makeup team was really my family through the whole thing. I was in that trailer so goddamn long every day. But I didn’t mind because the effect for me was so worth it. I just felt different after I came out of there. I’d never been through a hair and makeup process like that. It was a very helpful, freeing thing that I had never experienced before.
GD: It’s interesting, I was going to ask you about the prosthetics and the makeup and stuff like that because, you’re right, it’s not something that we’ve seen you do a lot in your career. So was it a different experience? I have to imagine it was almost kind of like those mask exercises, like in drama school. Did it add something to how you portrayed him?
JP: You know, I do think it added something to how I portrayed him. I felt further away from myself. All that residual responsibility you feel towards yourself to, I don’t know, protect yourself and especially when you’re doing and saying things as a character that are as awful as some of the things Henry did to always, no matter how hard you try, it seems to me at least there’s always that part of you, “You know I don’t mean this, right?” Which is just terrible acting. That’s not a good idea. But it lessened that struggle so much more than I had ever experienced before. And timing-wise, for me, coming off of a 12-year-old TV show, it was all the more fun it and I guess in a lot of ways that was the key thing for me. It helped make the process of exploring Henry and playing these scenes as much of a playground feeling as anything I’ve done in many years. In some ways, forever. Really, when I first started playing Sheldon on “Big Bang” was probably the last time, certainly on camera, that I played a character that felt so colorful and complicated to me, at least, and full of possibilities. Like, you just don’t know what this character might say and Henry kind of had that in common for, again, my interpretation of it at least, with Sheldon. I mean, for very different reasons, obviously, but that it was like, “Jesus. What might he say next or do?” And again, once you get past the, “Oh, that’s horrible human behavior,” for an actor it’s very fun to portray.
GD: And you mentioned humanizing, not excusing Henry. What do you think it was that made not just the real Henry Willson, but particularly your Henry Willson, what turned him into what he was?
JP: You know, from my simplistic brain, it was really a combination of two major things, which was that, number one, he was obviously a little broken in some way, and I say that really coming from the Robert Hofler book that I read, which was he came from a good family. He, from all reports, had supportive parents. His father literally financially supported his move out west and supported where he lived and gave him money to live on for years. So he went in the best way you can get into a risky career like Hollywood in general. So that wasn’t a good excuse. He didn’t escape a horrible home. That wasn’t it. I do think that there’s just no doubt having to protect himself from his own sexuality being revealed, living in a world that vilified him at several different turns, he knew that whether it was happening to him personally or not, that’s just the way of the world. I think that obviously can cause a self-hatred and help cause bad behavior in that way. And I think he crossed the line as far as being power-hungry. He so admired performers, the real Henry Willson did, and the character as well. He was in love with them and he loved trying to help them make careers.
I think that Ryan [Murphy] and Ian [Brennan] and the other writers of “Hollywood,” when they inserted that Isadora Duncan dancing scene, for one thing, it’s ridiculous, which is usually decent TV, but the second thing is, even though I don’t think that would have necessarily been Henry’s thing in real life to do that — although I don’t know — I thought it showed that he would have loved to have been a performer. And he would have loved to have been admired and thought of as beautiful and sexual and sensual. I think knowing that he wasn’t, surrounding himself with beautiful men whom he tried to make famous, I think all of that came together in a way that got really ugly and that he felt better about himself when he lorded his power over these men who had beauty and in many cases, especially in Hollywood at the time they were obviously able to, quote-unquote, pass as straight for the most part, qualities that he just didn’t feel he had. And I think that made him power-hungry, bitter. But some of that I’m making up and putting on him, which was kind of part of my job to figure out how I was going to play him. So I don’t know for sure in real life but like you say, my version of it I felt was sort of in that way that I enjoyed doing that dance so much because it was that chance to say, “I am the diva, also,” which he sort of says when he’s not even dancing. He’s got that line that they put in for Rock Hudson. He says, “I’m not just a star, I’m a star-maker.” And it was just very important to him to note, “When I talk, people listen.”
GD: Yeah. I’m thinking of so many of those scenes with Jake Picking as Rock Hudson and when I talked to him about it, he said that there’s such heavy stuff going on between the two of you. But he told me how actually lighthearted it was between the scenes. So how did you two work together? You guys have to go to some very dark places.
JP: Yeah, well, it was interesting. It’s always funny. I think that in the same way it’s so hard to know who’s going to have chemistry onscreen, you don’t know what it’s going to be like to work with anybody, even a friend. And in this case, we didn’t know each other at all. And we got to know each other through these characters and through these costumes. What’s funny is that it’s been very weird to see Jake, either in interviews and the limited time in person I saw him once shooting was done, because he was in prosthetics as well, and he had his hair dyed a different color. And I didn’t know him as him in the pure him way, like what he looks like. And he didn’t know me either. That alone was very odd. And to realize that somebody like Jake to me, and me to him, doesn’t actually know precisely what you look like, when I think of him in my head, I don’t see him as him. I see him as how they had him made up for Rock Hudson. But Jake is, and I’m not saying this to blow smoke, I mean this sincerely because it affected my approach and my work so much I realized during it and certainly more afterwards, is so playful and so creative. There was something so game about him and I never worried about hurting him as an actor with anything we were having to do and perhaps even more importantly, the way he played Rock. I never worried about alienating the audience more than I was obviously going to anyway, because it has to do with his playfulness and his creativity, his willingness, he played Rock as somebody in his own way, equally power-hungry to Henry, which any successful actor has that drive. Hopefully, you don’t react the way Henry does and use it in such villainous ways at times. But they both wanted his success equally, if for different reasons. And so Jake never played Rock, I didn’t feel when I was doing scenes with him, in a way that would elicit an, “Aw,” from the audience, even though that’s sort of written in, that is what’s going on, but it was a playfulness.
GD: It wasn’t forced, that’s the thing.
JP: It wasn’t forced. And one of the things he brought to it that was or wasn’t really Rock, I don’t know, was a naive… naive probably would work for a young Rock, but every once in awhile it would veer into a little dim about certain things. I just found that delightful. And talk about not rubbing the salt in the wound of some of the things I was doing. He has that scene where I’m like, “We’ve got to get your teeth fixed.” And he just keeps going, “What’s wrong with?” His feelings weren’t hurt. He was like, “This isn’t going to work?” And I don’t know, there was something fact-based about it that just made it very funny as opposed to really as depressing as it kind of was.
GD: Well, the interesting thing that I find is, especially in the last episode, anybody who knows anything about Henry Willson knows that he kind of died penniless and alone and broken. And there is, I would say, a smidgen of redemption for him at the end. Were you worried at all about redeeming him too much in light of a lot of the things that he had done?
JP: I don’t know if I actively felt worried. I will say when I first read it, I think I was scared of it. And I couldn’t look back in time and tell you why. I don’t think I was articulating to myself what was making me go (gasps) about the scene. And what’s funny is I already mentioned this, but I had a similar reaction to doing the dance number obviously for different reasons. It was just so out there and showing some flesh. But both of them I went, “What is this?” And only starting to work on them, like running lines, in the case of the dance running over some sort of dance thing that I started going, “Oh, I feel how this could work.” With the apology scene, because you could say maybe he doesn’t get redemption really because he doesn’t get forgiven, which I thought was a really nice move on their part, I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of so much of what’s been going on especially in the past few years with the MeToo movement and everything, and not too heavily into that. I didn’t want to think about it too much, but it added for me, a gravity. It’s that meta thing, I guess, that happens in pieces like this, if it works well, which is it’s touching on the characters that are here right now and the stories you’ve been watching with the series and it echoes. There’s something else going on in the air right now in Hollywood, in the world in general. And that felt good. That felt like something worth doing, I guess, is what I mean. It took me a long time to get to the answer to your question I’m realizing.
Once I felt all that and was working on it, that gave it a reason to be, for me. And it didn’t feel less heavy but it didn’t feel scary anymore. It felt worth it. It felt worth doing it. It felt worth saying these words and seeing Rock Hudson’s not accepting the apology. And this character moving forward anyway, even not getting the apology accepted was an answer and was forward motion for him. And look, the biggest thing of all that justified it for me was that Henry was one of the only characters that you’ve been following through the whole series who you get to see affected by the dominos that fell by the work they did in casting a black actress in “Meg.” And all the grief that they took for that, all the bravery that had to go into those decisions, the whole what-if and how would this affect the world and lives, and I thought that they showed a direct effect in Henry. Something about that experience in going through that and seeing Rock and Archie on the red carpet, it made Henry take a look at his life and at least in our version, and the real Henry was not offered such a blatant opportunity because that’s not what was going on in the world. Nothing like that did happen, I don’t believe. And so in that way, I thought it gave even more food for thought, for “What if?”