Jim Parsons on producing his first feature and tackling gender-identity issues
Jim Parsons has tackled his share of hot-button social issues as an actor — from the proudly nerdy (and possibly neurodivergent) Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory to gay-rights activist Tommy Boatwright in The Normal Heart to his current turn in the 50th-anniversary Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band.
Parsons has been honored by GLAAD for his work on screen, and for being an outspoken openly gay man in Hollywood. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that his first feature as a producer is one that delves into a more recently visible issue: gender identity and fluidity.
A Kid Like Jake, which Parson stars in and also produced alongside his husband, Todd Spiewak, under the banner of their That’s Wonderful Productions, tells the story of Jake (Leo James Davis), a 4-year-old highly attached to his gender-nonconforming play. When his teacher Judy (Octavia Spencer) suggests his behavior might be more than a phase, it sends Jake’s parents, Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Parsons), reeling as they re-evaluate their parenting and their marriage.
EW talked to Parsons in advance of the film’s release on June 1 to get the details on what drew him to the project, what it was like working with Danes, and what he hopes all parents take away from the A Kid Like Jake.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A Kid Like Jake deals with two parents grappling with the possibility that their son might be trans or genderqueer. Why was that a subject you wanted to tackle as an actor?
JIM PARSONS: This may sounds weird to say, but honestly, it wasn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but I wasn’t looking for anything like this. One of our other producers, Jenette Kahn, had seen Daniel Pearle’s play production of A Kid Like Jake in New York. She wrote to me and Todd. She knew we were starting a production company, and she said, “This might be a good play for you to adapt as a movie. It’s a smaller cast, and it’s rather contained in size.” Certainly the topic at hand of these parents working with a 4-year-old who may or may not be dealing with gender-fluid issues, that’s inseparable from what made it interesting. But quite honestly what I was so drawn to was the way Daniel wrote dialogue between characters. I’m glad they’re talking about something quote-unquote important and topical, but honestly they could be arguing about where to go for dinner and if they were doing it in this manner, I would still want to be a part of it as an actor. The way the parents talk to each other is so well done. I’ve certainly heard from other parents who’ve said we’ve had that argument. I don’t think you even have to be a parent to understand the discussions these two are having — you just have to be a human who’s ever had any sort of relationship of somebody you were close to. That’s just a good writer; he has an ear for the way humans talk to each other. The fact that it was something that was in the news more often and in our consciousness more often, this idea of transgender or gender-fluid — there’s so many terms I learned along the way — that was a plus. It answered the question of, “Why do this now?” But my desire to do it was just the way he wrote people talking.
You’re also a producer on the film, and though you produce Young Sheldon, this is the first feature you produced. Why did you select this for your inaugural producing gig for your production company, and are you eager to do it again soon?
It sort of just happened. This is over four years ago now when Jenette Kahn first sent us the material. There was certainly something about the size of this, both in cast and in location, that seemed manageable to me. It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day; it’s still a pain in the ass, no matter how big or small it is. Very few things were easy about it. Not in a bad way — it was always a joyous trip. Everybody was in it for the most beautiful of reasons, and everyone wanted to be there so badly, but this kind of goes back to my issue of the size of it all. It didn’t matter. It’s still a real struggle to try and make a movie. When we wrapped Jake, the first thing I said was, “Never again.” Then as we went through the editing process and started forming the movie and it started coming together, I got the bug all over again. You need some sort of forgetfulness to make you want to dive back in — even just getting a puppy was like that for me. We got our first puppy 15 years ago now, and I remember when we got another puppy later, we were so excited until day two and we were like, “What were we thinking? This is so hard.” But you forget about the pain of the best things in life, and you dive in all over again.
Both as a producer and performer, what kinds of research did you do into actual families in this situation?
We did work more as an ensemble, and we had a couple of things at our disposal that were really informative. Number one was the playwright, who had done so much work on his own, and he brought everything he knew to the table, obviously. Then we had a transgender director in Silas Howard who brought his wealth of life experiences with him. While that’s particular and unique to who he is and what he’s been through, it’s still a very important touchstone to have somebody to ask questions of. One of the amazing things about working with Silas, and he says this in interviews all the time, is that he was learning new terminology and what was in vogue to be saying right now and what was maybe a little passé and bordering on offensive. It’s all just changing rapidly. To that point, there was so much information that you couldn’t avoid in the news and on podcasts and on radio shows. It was really so much in the ether. We kind of hit a sweet spot, obviously, with Silas and Daniel, but also for where the culture is right now. It felt to me like me and Claire and Octavia, our characters specifically, were kind of sitting exactly where we needed to be, which was aware but uncertain. Aware but not even sure of what we’re aware of is actually sitting in our midst. In some ways, the movie beautifully doesn’t answer that in that specific way. It’s not a film that wraps up and you understand the future of this kid called Jake. You just understand that growth has happened for this family, and they’re going to motor on, we guess, we don’t know how — it’s just an episode of their life, two steps forward, one step back, as it goes.
You and Claire work off each other a lot, and you share a particularly moving scene where you have a big fight. What was it like having her as an acting partner, particularly in those more difficult moments?
That scene is obviously a great example of what it is to work together. We got a long immediately. We had a lot of overlap in sense of humor, which is probably a pretty important thing and maybe not an uncommon trait for a couple to have. I think that’s frequently a way to connect. I don’t know how she works exactly as far as what she does at home or what she does before she comes to the set, but she comes to the set much as I do, which is ready to rock. Unless there’s an exceptional circumstance, I don’t particularly struggle with lines that much. I feel I am ready to take direction, I feel malleable, but I know my words and my scene. I know the point of the scene and the story we’re supposed to be telling, and she kind of tackles things in a similar way, whatever her actual method is. We had set aside two production days to get through that fight because it was very long, and the intensity of it, tonally, maybe it would take some time and massaging and what have you. We only needed one day. Part of that was because the way they worked the cameras, we didn’t have to do a ton of different set-up. As you can tell from watching us, he did a lot of moving with us. The cameraman was definitely the third character in that scene who we tried to ignore but work around at the same time. But the biggest portion was I think between me and Claire and the work we’d done on it — the way we were ready to go at each other in that. Also, Silas’ approach to us, which was both informative, but also show me what you want to bring. We just went at it, and for as intense as it was and as oddly painful as it was, to say some of the words to each other and what have you, it was really fun. It really encapsulated the biggest reason I wanted to do the movie at all. Not the fight scene in particular, but again, it’s just a joy as an actor to get to engage in that type of dialogue with another actor who’s also willing to go there and play. For whatever message or important topic we are talking about here and dealing with, nobody cares if the movie’s not entertaining. It just doesn’t matter. The way I believe this movie is entertaining and felt it would be from the first time I read the stage play was through the way the characters talk to each other. It’s very real, human interactions, and the way people actually engage in difficult matters when they have to.
You are openly gay, but you’re playing a straight parent here. Was there any part of this that felt, if not how you hoped your parents would react to a situation, at least a sense of giving a guidebook or some advice to parents in a similar situation?
Daniel Pearle managed to take and write about a very specific hot-button topic in society and humanity through the eyes of these three adults, who care so deeply about this child and want to do what’s best for him. He frames it through their eyes, and by doing so and sticking with them and their journey and trying to help this kid, you see how this is just like anything else when trying to raise a young person in our world today. This happens to be about gender fluidity. This happens to possibly be a transgender issue; we don’t know for sure. If you expect you are facing that with your own child, I imagine that can feel scary and alone. If this helps anybody understand, and even people who aren’t but maybe know somebody who are, or just felt like they had a view of what that would be to raise a child who’s dealing with these issues — it’s just another aspect of being human. Not to say it’s not unique and doesn’t face its own unique set of complications, but so does every other aspect of growing up, every single one. There’s a lot of other things I hope people take from it to, but that’s the biggest one to me. That’s the beauty of what Daniel did. It takes another shroud of mystery off something that may or may not seem foreign to people.