Normal Heart's Jim Parsons on Coming Out and Why Larry Kramer Scared the Hell Out of Him

Best known for portraying Sheldon Cooper on "The Big Bang Theory," Golden Globe Award winner Jim Parsons opens up about the impact The Normal Heart had on his personal life, his professional career and what it has to say to young LGBT people.

Jim Parsons
Jim Parsons

Nearly 30 years since it premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in the midst of the AIDS crisis, Larry Kramer's impactful docu-drama The Normal Heart makes its long-awaited screen debut May 25 on HBO.

Parsons, who portrayed AIDS activist Tommy Boatwright in the Tony Award-winning 2011 Broadway premiere of The Normal Heart, returns to the role for Ryan Murphy's vivid screen incarnation, which Kramer himself adapted.

Playbill.com spoke with Parsons about his connection to Kramer, the character of Boatwright and straddling the worlds of The Normal Heart on stage and screen.

The Normal Heart is a cry in the dark during a terrifying moment in history, and Larry Kramer turned that flashpoint into political theatre. As an actor, does that affect you at all, or add deeper urgency to your work? Or can it be a distraction from simply being in the moment?

Jim Parsons: Yes and no. The "no" for me is simply that I did not, foolishly or not, go into the play or the movie with any sort of feeling in my head of, "This is important! Gotta get this right!" It just wouldn't have behooved me at all. I wasn't naïve; I understood that it was hugely important. But all I could do with that was do my job, which was the acting of it. That being said, that importance did affect the work in a good way and did lend gravity to each and every scene and each and every character. As long as you can keep it from making you shrink in fear as an actor – "Am I doing a good enough job?" you can really utilize it. And it made things very real. It's always important, as an actor, to have your stakes be very high, as life and death as you can make them, and in this sort of situation, that was so easy. Both in a literal sense because what we're talking about is life and death, but in a less literal, more character-driven sense, in that these are real people, and this is about real lives that have been lost. More than you can count. And what we're doing here is important in that regard. So much actually happened politically when you were doing this on Broadway. Marriage Equality passed here in New York while The Normal Heart was playing. People who attended The Normal Heart the evening it passed said it was a very special event.

Jim Parsons: That was one of the strangest events of my life. We finished the show, we did the curtain call, we walked offstage and somebody stopped us from going upstairs and said, "Hang on, if ya'll want to wait around, they're going to make an announcement." And one of the producers got up and said, I can't remember the exact words, but he brought all the houselights up and said, "I'm sure you were all good theatregoers and had your cell phones off, none of you probably know that New York State just passed gay marriage." And, like I said, the houselights came up, we all came back onstage to applaud everybody, just life, and each other… everything. I was just so moved. It was such a rare experience on so many levels from the silly, which was to have the houselights up on this packed theatre of people you just performed this very emotionally wrenching play in front of – you don't normally get to see all of them like that. And obviously much bigger than that – What are the chances to have had this passed in New York City as we perform Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart in New York City? What the hell?! It was intense.

And the only other thing I'd add to that is that it was one more way in which I looked back and with disbelief, that Larry had ended this play with a marriage in the early 80s. I was alive then. I was a child, but I was alive then – and even though I was alive at the time this was written and even though I've seen things move and progress in so many different ways, even I have trouble understanding how absurd it was, this notion that he ended this play with at the time. You have to really think about it and try to put your feet in a different era, which is very hard to understand how unbelievable it is that he put that in there because that's all we talk about lately; and in a good way for once! It's just more and more, it's just like, "Of course, well, why not?" I don't feel like in my life that I've seen an issue evolve, as you will, so rapidly and in front of our faces in my entire life.

Having time to reflect on the Broadway production, the political implications, the awards... Did having breathing room to process all of that impact you or add depth to your work when it came time to shoot the film?

Joe Mantello and Jim Parsons
Photo by Jojo Whilden/HBO

Jim Parsons: I'm sure it did. I think it was almost a two-year period between finishing the play and starting the movie, and I think it would have been difficult to jump from the play straight into the film. Logistic reasons, for one thing. Even two years after the Broadway show had closed; to hear some of these lines coming out of new mouths, to hear some of these Ned lines now coming out of Mark Ruffalo's mouth, to hear Joe Mantello, who was my Ned on Broadway, and now he was Mickey, was very jarring in my ear for the first couple of days. You quickly got over it because things were going so well and the scenes were intense, and the acting and the actors were so good at taking their parts that it quickly became theirs. But I can't imagine how that would have been going straight into it.

On a less literal level I've never been in a position to have essentially gotten to do so many months of homework on a project before. Literally living day in and day out with that material for months and then to let your subconscious sleep with that for a year and a half and then to go back to it again. That is something that I don't know the ways that it affected me, but I know it did, and I'm very grateful for it.

Did you initially know that you'd be part of the film following the Broadway run?

Jim Parsons: When we did the play, I knew the movie was happening, and I had no designs about being in it. I didn't not want to be in it, I just didn't think I had a place with it. [I figured] that Ryan [Murphy] would be doing his own thing and that it will, of course, be his own cast. And no one had come to me, you know, everyone knew where to find me if they wanted me for it. But a couple of months after getting back to LA after closing Normal Heart, I got a call from my manager saying that Ryan did want to meet and I found out even later, that even just recently, that it was really Larry's goading that Ryan met with me. Although I don't know that he did it dragging his heels behind him, but that was what happened. It was really Larry who had pushed for me to be seen for that. What was your working relationship like with Larry on both the play and film?

Jim Parsons: It scared the shit out of me. Having Larry around for the play scared the hell out of me. I was scared to death that Larry was going to come along and say, "You're ruining this part!" Not because I thought I was [bad], but just that negative human instinct of going, "Oh, God. It's his baby and he's here to watch it." But the exact opposite happened. Well, obviously, he went to Ryan on my behalf by the end. But even during the play, I knew that he was very forthcoming with his positive feelings about what I was doing and I was so grateful. I only bring up that I was scared because I was too scared to pepper Larry with any questions. I thought that if I was doing something wrong, he'll probably tell me, so why go asking for trouble. What I did do though was that I found out that Tommy is based on Rodger McFarlane, and there is a fair wealth of information to find on Rodger. The first thing I found was that he had recently died; he committed suicide a couple years before the play. That was heartbreaking. But he left such a legacy of organizations from Gay Men's Health Crisis and Broadway Cares, and also he literally wrote a book. It's about seeing somebody through the end of life. And that was the most interesting thing to me. I read a lot of it. And there was a certain way that you can kind of hear him talking through it. His voice... There's a rhythm and a music to the way that Rodger apparently talked, that also being from the South, I feel like I could hear the song in there. I think it's really useful given the topic at hand. Dealing with death and dying in such an intimate way can really use a bit of a song, if you will. There's something about Rodger's presence, apparently, and I think Larry put that in Tommy, too. There's something about those characters, the real person in that character's presence that helps take an edge off for certain people to deal with certain things.

The play is immediate in a way that only theatre can be. What struck me so profoundly watching the film is how terrifying and vividly this moment in history is presented. In the theatre, the audience must fill in those gaps to some degree; everything is so visually specific in the film. Did that in-your-face realism color the work for you?

George C. Wolfe and Jim Parsons
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Jim Parsons: It's not that it rang more deeply, it's just that being part of the play – It's one of the things that fascinated me about doing the movie version, but really getting to watch the movie version to see if it's as effective because so many things don't transfer from one medium to the next very successfully. More often than not, if you've got a good book when they make the movie, you're disappointed. [Laughs.] And this was kind of the exact opposite case. It seems to glow in the cinema as brightly as it glowed onstage. But I think that has a lot to do with the fact that one of the things that worked so deeply about the theatrical production, a certain lack of realism with everything but the emotions, everything but the heart and the emotion. There was a gurney onstage, there was a telephone on stage, there was a chair onstage, there were some groceries onstage, other than that… there was nothing. And when we did the play, I thought what was so brilliant about that (thank you, George C. Wolfe) was that it made all of the emotions and the words more real and more impactful. That was your meat and potatoes, that was it.

That would be a very strange movie. That's not what Ryan did with it. Instead, everything is fleshed out to the nth degree. For me, as an actor, having that, I have to say, it simply made life a lot easier because one of the things I keep having to talk about, and I don't mind I enjoy it, the eulogy scene that wasn't in the play, but was in the movie. It was emotionally hard, but that was okay because you knew that that was the point, to traverse in that area. So as an actor it was a pleasure in going there because that's what you were supposed to do, to tell the story properly. But as far as preparing for it, you just walked into it. We were in a church and everyone was wearing their clothes for a funeral, there was a body in a casket, and it was like, "Well, there's no ignoring this." I would have to willfully take myself out of this mindset, it's sitting right here. And that's an extreme example, I'm sure that Mark and Matt and Julia probably felt similarly about some of those hospital scenes. There's just no denying it at a certain point. Set or no set, part of the mind doesn't know the difference at the end of the day it just knows we're at a hospital or at a funeral. And so, I don't know what that has to do with the material transferring from one medium to the next, but it certainly worked at a different but equally effective level for me as an actor.

I don't think I've ever seen a playwright with so much at stake in their work, certainly not the way Larry Kramer does it. He was standing outside the theatre passing out information on HIV/AIDS. How involved was he in the film?

Jim Parsons: Once we were actually shooting he wasn't around a whole lot, I think because of health issues, but he was there for some key moments. It was all the work that he had done with Ryan before. I've heard Ryan talk about that. To work with Larry is to work and struggle with Larry, and Ryan threw himself into that, as one must to get something like this done. It was such a difficult process to get to this point right here. Many years and even once in Ryan's hands still more years and whittling away, and there lies the key for me. Like many things in life, those things that aren't that easy to get done tend to turn out more brilliantly because you chop away all the excess bullshit, you know? You go back and forth enough and you struggle with enough people and emotions and minds that sometimes it's not too may cooks spoiling the pot. Instead, sometimes it's the right people getting together to say, "Here's the diamond that we have." I felt this way doing the play, but I felt this way as I watched the movie too, there's a real clarity about it, it's not a mystery. It's not confusing, it's not muddy, it's just as clear as a bell, which only makes it more painful because there's no disguising what you're seeing in front of you. And what you suspect happened at that time, what you think you're hearing is exactly what you're hearing. It's not an over dramatization, it's not gussied up, this is it. And that's very powerful.

The Normal Heart is not just a history piece, it's also about our future. What do you hope young LGBT people, who are coming of age now, will take away from the film?

 

Jim Parsons
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Jim Parsons: Without a doubt. I think it's so important to understand – I personally, everyday reap the benefits of the efforts of the people depicted in this. Not just even as a gay person, but as a human being I stand on the shoulders of the efforts of these people, of Larry specifically, of the other characters that he depicted after real people. And that's always good to know. Obviously, you can be grateful and have a level of respect for what came before, and more importantly, who knows what's next? And who knows what's next with what group of people? This story may or may not be important in the future as far as what happens with gay people, or even disease, but what's so powerful about this story, I think, and why time has been really good to Larry's text, is that the story transcends being about a specific group of people and being about a specific disease. It's a tale of human beings and of how they treat each other both for bad and for good in certain periods of time for whatever reason. It's a tale that's been told before, and sadly, but let's all get informed now, [it] will get told again. Whether this serves as a warning to keep your eyes open or it serves as a lesson on how to react to whatever injustice is being practiced next. I think that's important.

In The Normal Heart, Ned talks a lot about claiming our gay identity and coming out. Is that information valuable to you? Do you think that it's important for people to come out? Did it have a meaningful effect on your career and personal life?

Jim Parsons: Well, yeah, oh God yes. The freer one feels about who they are, you know, in all aspects. But the more comfortable with who they are, just every hour of life is easier. What's hard, and this has always been hard, has been trying to say what's best for somebody specifically. It's amazing to me that Larry was able to put voice to the fight of "everyone must come out" on Ned's end and he is also the man who wrote Bruce's side, which is that, it is not for you to identify other people. My hope is that the progress that is going on and the way the world is going, we're going to a time where it won't even be a topic. Who you are or not, as far as sexuality goes, will not even be any more interesting than anything else about sex is, which is always obviously going to be somewhat interesting. [Laughs.] But I don't think it's all the way there yet. I have tried to live as organically and as honest to myself as I can. By the same token, I have never desired to have a cover story about "let's talk about my sexuality." My hope was that it would always just be a part of who I am, the same way that I don't cook a lot is just a part of who I am. I'm very fortunate that it sort of turned out that way for me. But again it goes back to the people and the story that we're talking about in The Normal Heart. That's what paved the road for that to be possible.