Emmy-winning actor Jim Parsons speaks with Awards Daily on what it was like diving into the mindset of one of Hollywood’s most infamously abusive talent agents after over a decade of playing one of the most beloved sitcom characters of all time.
Twelve seasons, four Emmys, and thirteen years later, one of the biggest creative decisions of Jim Parsons’s life lies in just how to follow up his run on one of the most successful sitcoms in television history. That’s where Netflix’s Hollywood comes into the picture.
As real-life figure Henry Willson, Parsons portrays a successful talent agent that discovered some of the biggest names of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Willson is emotionally and sexually abusive, repeatedly trading in his clients’ well-being for his own success. Essentially, it is as opposite as one could get from his beloved character on The Big Bang Theory, and it’s a challenge Parsons was more than ready for, even if he wasn’t actively looking for it.
Speaking with Awards Daily’s Jalal Haddad, the Emmy winner touched on what it was like exploring a man infamous for abusing his power within the industry at a time when we are just beginning to reckon with Hollywood’s long, brushed-under-the-rug history.
Awards Daily: This is your second time over the years working with Ryan Murphy on a major project. What keeps you coming back?
Jim Parsons: We had been done with The Big Bang Theory for maybe two and a half months by the time we started filming The Boys in the Band and I had that planned for a while. The question for me though was what would come next? I was prepared as I could be for a possible desert that was a combination of would anyone want me to do anything or what would I even want to do next? One day Ryan came to my trailer to talk about Hollywood and I was shocked. Not so much that he would come to me because we have worked so well together before, but because it was so unexpected. I planned on reading the scripts, but I knew there was no way I was saying no. I consider him part of my tribe, the group of people I love working with and that I respect so much what they do.
I think back on that moment so clearly as a symbol from the universe. It was like a hand reaching down and guiding me to the next part of my career. I view it in such bold terms because the experience of playing this character turned into such an exploratory, formative moment. I never dreamed of getting to sink my teeth into a character like this. It was a monumental moment for me, but I never looked at it that way until afterwards.
AD: It goes without saying that Henry Willson is about as different as you can get from the role you played for over a decade on The Big Bang Theory. What was it like going from one extreme to the other? Were you consciously looking for that star difference after The Big Bang Theory ended?
JP: I wouldn’t say I was specifically looking for it. I wasn’t sure what I wanted but I was pretty sure I would say no to any scientist for a while! I would say I was excited. As an actor, I was so excited to play someone with so many different ways of relating to people that it overrode any chance for my thought process to wonder what others might think. It was filling a hunger that I didn’t even know that I had.
AD: While Henry Willson was a real figure in the Golden Age of Hollywood, he isn’t as well-known of a name as some of the actors depicted in the show. I’m curious as to what your research process was like preparing for the role?
JP: There’s a book by Robert Huffler called The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson. It was absolutely my bible throughout that entire process. It is such a well-researched, well-written book.
I didn’t realize this at the time but I was very lucky that I had no idea who Henry was before playing him. I had no preconceived notion. When I found out all of these things about him, even the most horrific of them, it was always through the lens of knowing I had to embody it. Certainly, I sat in judgement but I also knew I had to humanize all of these aspects. Again, Robert’s book does such a good job of that. One of the most telling things was the way that Henry was very much like any performer or writer who wanted to be a part of this business; he was a part of that huge wave of people coming from the east coast to make a mark in this fairly new atmosphere. A lot of what guided his most horrible behavior came from a place of this hunger to make a mark, to be important, to be indispensable. That I understood.
He was very hands-on with his clients, and not just in a dirty way. He helped them, he found them places to live, to break into the industry, their acting lessons. As much as he spent on himself, he also spent plenty to make sure that his clients were ready. I don’t know—he was complicated.
AD: One of your most unsettling scenes in the series was Henry’s number for the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome as a way to seduce a client. I read that you choreographed that number. What was that process like?
JP: I would use that term loosely although it is probably true in its own weird way. The story at the beginning of that scene was a little bit of terror on my part; mostly because when I first read the script it mentioned that he was down to the last two or three veils of his outfit. I just thought “Jesus Christ. I don’t go to the gym enough to pull this off.”
Once I got over the fear of showing flesh I went down this rabbit hole of researching Isadora Duncan. That turned into this really fun process of me at home in LA reading about her, watching videos of people recreating her dances. I started doing my version of moving around the apartment and I suddenly realized that this was his kind of spirit animal. He sees himself as this sensual, gorgeous, female dancer and it is at such odds with who he presents in real life to be. It’s kind of perfect and it suddenly gave me this pillar that I was building this portrayal on.
AD: To portray Henry Willson you went through a huge physical transformation including hair, prosthetics, and even fake teeth. What was that process like?
JP: It surprised me how transformative and freeing it was. I had never done that before in a way that wasn’t outlandish. It was a fairly lengthy process, about two and a half to three hours every day. That process ended up becoming a psychological transition into this other person. What I found especially helpful was there were so many things that Henry Willson says and does that makes me uncomfortable but that these physical layers gave me protection from. It was almost as if I put this stuff on and it gave me permission to fully embody what he says he is with full authority.
One of the things I thought about afterwards is that I would like to find ways of doing that for myself in other roles. It added this extra ounce to the experience that was freeing.
AD: Did you have a favorite scene or moment from your experience in Hollywood?
JP: There was one scene in particular where Henry is so apoplectic that Guy Madison has gained weight and lost muscle mass. He is just ranting at him. Not only was it fun to let loose like that but I feel like I’ve heard of these scenarios so many times of a male agent railing against the physicality of an actress. The chance to turn that around and turn it to a guy had some sort of poetic justice and I was so happy to be the deliverer of that news in that moment. As I say it out loud that sounds awful.
AD: In Henry’s final moments in the series he begins to show remorse as he sits Rock down and apologizes for his atrocities while dedicating the rest of his life to trying to right those wrongs. I’m curious what it was like as an actor to film that scene especially with where the industry is right now?
JP: It was more powerful to film than I knew going into it. It was the last scene that I shot so I had done all the other moments leading up to that, every nasty moment. I knew so much about the real Henry and what his life had turned into so I understood that this moment we were giving him through fantasy was something that world wasn’t able to offer him or he wasn’t able to offer himself. That felt very powerful to me.
Just a few weeks before shooting that scene I was called in for jury duty. While there, we were moved to another room because of the Weinstein trial, so it was all going on quite literally at the same time so it was impossible not to think about the stories we’ve heard, the stories we continue to hear, and the ones we haven’t heard yet.
Reading the script, it felt like they of course wrote in these aspects of him giving as honest of an assessment as you can expect from someone where they acknowledge what they did and to then not have that apology accepted. As hard as that was for him to hear, it was probably the best negative answer he could have gotten.
In terms of whether or not we’ll ever see something like this actually happen, I’m not sure, but I feel doubtful. I sound like a pessimist, but I feel like this was part of the fantasy sequence of our show. There’s a reason it was in the fictionalized sequence because it was something we represented that clearly didn’t happen—but maybe like so many other things in the show, it will just take time.
Hollywood is currently available to stream on Netflix