How ‘Hollywood’ Star Jim Parsons Tried to Find the Heart of a ‘Despicable Character’

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “The job as an actor is to see the most seemingly despicable characters as the humans they are,” says the actor who played talent agent Henry Willson in Ryan Murphy’s miniseries

Last Updated: August 20, 2020 @ 10:31 AM

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A version of this story about Jim Parsons and “Hollywood” first appeared in the Emmy Hot List issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

When Jim Parsons was first offered the role of talent agent Henry Willson in Ryan Murphy’s limited series “Hollywood,” he was in what he figured would be a slow, contemplative stretch in his career. “I kind of had been preparing myself for the vast desert of ‘What’s next?’ that I knew was going to come after ‘The Big Bang Theory’ ended,” he said. “And I kind of looked forward to wandering around and figuring out more precisely, ‘What do you want?'”

But during the shooting of the upcoming, Murphy-produced and Joe Mantello-directed Netflix adaptation of the Broadway play “The Boys in the Band,” Murphy derailed Parsons’ plans for some time off by pitching him on “Hollywood.” The miniseries, which was nominated for a dozen Emmys, blends real movie-business figures from the 1940s with fictional characters to tell an alternative history in which Golden Age studios make huge strides toward tolerance and inclusion.

The character he offered Parsons was a real-life agent known both for shepherding (and re-naming) hunky stars like Rock Hudson, and for having sexual relationships with many of his clients.

“I knew nothing about Henry, and not knowing about him beforehand made it one of the most exciting acting experiences that I’ve had in a really long time,” Parsons said. “It was this chance to not only play a different type of character, but to explore and educate myself and figure out who this real person was.”

He leaned heavily on the 2014 biography of Willson, “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson,” by TheWrap theater critic Robert Hofler, to flesh out his understanding of the man.

“In many ways, Henry is one of the pillars of villainy in the series,” he said. “And because of that, you don’t get as much of his soft underbelly as you would in a well-researched book like Robert wrote. But it was very useful to know those things and to learn about what he was like as a younger man. When he was first starting out, making the trip from the East Coast to Hollywood, it wasn’t from any evil desires. It was to be a part of the business he loved. And the twists and turns his life and personality took along the way were not nice or pretty — although some of the horrible things he says are very fun to play.”

Some of the things Willson did, though, gave Parsons pause. “Ryan said that there’d be a lot of sex, but he also said that my character wasn’t going to be doing a lot of it,” he said. “Which made it all the more surprising when Episode 3 came down and I came across the dance scene.”

That scene finds Henry luring a male client to his home late one night, and then dancing “seductively” clad mostly in lingerie and veils. “One of the things it said was ‘Henry is down to the last couple of veils in his dance of the seven veils.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, s—. How much flesh are they looking to show here?'”

Despite his misgivings, the dance is one of the many scenes Parsons steals in his performance as the acerbic, predatory Willson. And while there’s no record of Willson appearing in drag, either in public or private, the actor reconciled himself with the need for that artistic license.

“The drag portion, I knew that there was no reference for anything of that nature in Robert’s book,” he said. “That being said, what I liked about it was that the more I started looking at Isadora Duncan (the ballet dancer Willson is channeling in the scene), the more I thought, ‘This is like a spirit animal for him.’

“He has a vision of himself that is gorgeous and seductive and a powerful diva who can control men. Henry never had the good looks he could use on men, so he found his power in other ways. And I felt that deep down inside there was a beauty in him that that was screaming to get out there and have a moment in the sun. I thought of it that way as opposed to it being silly. Even though it is humorous and odd, I thought that for Henry it was quite sincere and important, even. And that was really how I justified and enjoyed it, ultimately.”

Like everybody else in the miniseries, Willson gets a fictional happy ending in Murphy’s hands. In real life, the agent died disgraced and penniless, and was buried in a Styrofoam coffin in an unmarked grave. (When the shoot was over, Parsons brought flowers to that grave, which finally got a headstone years after Willson’s 1978 death.)

“You could question if he deserved the happy ending,” Parsons said. “But that happy ending was related to social breakthroughs that happen in this series that didn’t happen in real life — and it begs the question, if more brave moves like that had been made at the time, how would it have affected somebody like Henry? How much of his villainous behavior wasn’t just power-hungry, but was self-hatred because he had to live a life of secrecy?

“You can think he got what he deserved,” he added. “But the job as an actor is to see the most seemingly despicable characters as the humans they are. And in that way, this whole process went back to the greatest gift of all, which was that I didn’t know who the hell Henry was when I started playing him.”

So is Parsons now in the state he thought he’d be before taking the role in “Hollywood,” looking at a post-“Big Bang Theory” career and wondering what to do next?

“Yeah, I would say I’m firmly there,” he said. “And the strangest part is, so is everyone else, in their own way. It’s almost as if this moment that I was anticipating, both in curiosity and slight nervousness, is happening for everybody.

“I’ll tell you this, I have discovered through this pandemic that I don’t enjoy anything like I enjoy acting. I mean, absolutely nothing. It’s become clearer with this time away that acting where I feel most alive and excited.”

Read more of the Emmy Hot List issue here.

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