Jim Parsons reckons with mortality in tear-jerking film 'Spoiler Alert'

Jim Parsons is the star and producer of "Spoiler Alert," a film adaptation of the best-selling 2017 memoir of the same name. (Mary Inhea Kang for The Washington Post)

Jim Parsons is nothing if not a people-pleaser — perhaps, he reckons, to a fault. After ushering laughter into upward of 20 million people's homes a night while playing theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper on "The Big Bang Theory" for 12 years, Parsons can consider himself a rousing success in the joy-dispersing department.

Still, the 49-year-old actor can't help but aim to satisfy.

When it comes to dealing with the press, he acknowledges that impulse occasionally works against his better judgment.

"I think that I've revealed too much in some interviews because I want to help people with their interviews," Parsons says during a November video chat from his New York home. "I need to get better about that."

Sure enough, Parsons finds himself wavering on how much to share as he discusses his latest movie, "Spoiler Alert," an intimate tear-jerker based on entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello's 2017 memoir "Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies," about his 13-year relationship with his late husband.

"God, I hope this isn't too personal," Parsons muses before forging ahead. "I ended up in therapy for the first time in my life after we finished this movie. Not because of the film, not because I was traumatized by it — quite the opposite. I felt it opened me up in a way that I thought, 'I see the opportunity to live an even fuller, more authentic life, but I think I need guidance.'"

He lets that comment sit for a moment before promptly second-guessing it: "It's probably too personal. Whatever, whatever — I've told you."

Talk to the ever-genteel Parsons about his "Spoiler Alert" experience and it quickly becomes clear just how deep he delved into the tragicomic tale.

To play the quick-witted Ausiello, Parsons broke out the sly comedic chops he chiseled on his supernova-hit sitcom. But the Houston native also deployed vulnerability he's scarcely used on-screen, playing a romantic lead while portraying a loving but messy same-sex relationship with unabashed authenticity.

'Spoiler Alert' review: This tear-jerker earns its tissues

"He has a very unique comedic and dramatic energy," says "Spoiler Alert" director Michael Showalter. "He's so funny. His cadence is just very iconic. The way he delivers lines, his intonation, it's very sharp, it's very precise. There's an elegance about him, a refinement.

But there's also clearly this humanity and this fragility that is right underneath the surface."

Parsons, second from left, won four Emmys for playing theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper on the hit CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory." (Greg Gayne/CBS/Everett Collection)

After appearing in the 2011 Broadway production of "The Normal Heart," Parsons, left, reprised his role in the 2014 HBO film adaptation. (Jojo Whilden/HBO/Everett Collection)

Neither Ausiello nor Parsons can remember exactly when they met, but they both figure it was for an Emmys interview early in "The Big Bang Theory's" run. Although Ausiello describes his red-carpet interview style as "particularly snarky," he says Parsons always kept pace with aplomb.

"We sort of had this instant rapport that I can't really explain, other than we enjoyed each other's company and played off of each other really well," says Ausiello, the creator of the website TVLine and an executive producer on the movie. "It was a banter-fest, basically, whenever I would interview him."

So when the "Spoiler Alert" book came out in late 2017 and Ausiello wanted a celebrity host to moderate a Q&A with him at a Los Angeles Barnes & Noble, he turned to Parsons. At that event, it was Parsons's husband and producing partner, Todd Spiewak, who first floated the idea to Ausiello of adapting the memoir into a Parsons star vehicle.

There was a time, earlier in Parsons's career, when he concedes he might have avoided such a role amid concerns he'd be pigeonholed into gay parts. Now, the role of Ausiello in "Spoiler Alert" is the latest in a series of gay characters he's inhabited over the past decade-plus. Among them: parts in both the Broadway productions and film adaptations of "The Normal Heart" and "The Boys in the Band," plus an Emmy-nominated turn as unscrupulous agent Henry Willson in the Netflix miniseries "Hollywood."

"When I was a young adult actor, I was concerned about not being able to realistically play straight," Parsons recalls.

"If I couldn't authentically play straight, then what was I going to be playing? One of the things that's changed is there are more opportunities with good material for gay characters. For myself, the string of gay characters I've been playing have been so different and so, so layered, I felt they've all helped me grow as a man and as a gay man."

After reading in Hollywood trade publications that Parsons and Spiewak's production company had optioned the book, "The Big Sick" filmmaker Showalter expressed interest in directing — unaware that his name was already atop Parsons and Spiewak's wish list.

When it came time to shop "Spoiler Alert" around Hollywood in search of distribution, Showalter pinpointed the same passion in Parsons that later fueled the actor's performance as Ausiello.

"The real Jim Parsons is a very sensitive and introverted — in many ways — person," Showalter says. "There were many, many times in the course of pitching the movie where Jim would get very emotional talking about this character in this story. So I had no doubt [his performance] was going to be great. That's the version of Jim that I was interested in."

Eventually, the project ended up at Focus Features. English actor Ben Aldridge subsequently joined the film as Kit Cowan, Ausiello's husband who died of neuroendocrine cancer in February 2015, with Sally Field and Bill Irwin cast as Cowan's parents.

Parsons, best known for his work as a stage actor and sitcom star, came in eager to deliver a more interior performance as the tragedy-afflicted Ausiello, who is depicted in the movie as an acerbic pop culture junkie with "a little Liz Lemon and a lot of Will Truman."

When production began in the fall of 2021, Parsons took it upon himself — both as the film's top-billed actor and a lead producer — to honor the true story on set, often by referencing his well-worn, sticky-note-laden copy of Ausiello's memoir for last-minute details to work into scenes.

"He was so, so connected to the material," Aldridge says, "and really felt like the safe-keeper, the guardian of the story in a really, really generous way.


Parsons, right, stars as journalist Michael Ausiello and Ben Aldridge plays his late husband, Kit Cowan, in "Spoiler Alert." (Focus Features)

Reflecting on why he gravitated toward "Spoiler Alert," which opens in wide release Friday, Parsons says he has always been infatuated with mortality. Yet that fixation with death took on new meaning in his 20s, when he lost his father to a car crash. "I am so appreciative," Parsons says, "of the view that having someone taken away from you gives you."

When Parsons decided to depart "The Big Bang Theory" in the summer of 2018 — walking away from the $26.

5 million a year that made him the highest-paid actor on television, according to Forbes — he did so realizing he'd soon be six years away from the age his father was when he died. If those six years were all he had left, Parsons reasoned, he wanted to spend them seeking fresh challenges and stretching himself as an artist.

"I definitely am at peace with it," Parsons says. "Even more so now, that time is going by, I see that whole 12 years on 'Big Bang' as such a glorious, creatively prosperous time. I have no regrets for how anything went on that show. That being said, and I say this with the full knowledge that I am a very, very fortunate man: I really love my life as it is right now.


Ausiello adds: "When you're on a show for 12 years and you win four Emmys and you're so identified with this single character, it's hard to break out from that. So it's super exciting to see people's reaction to him taking this sort of detour."


As a producer, Parsons continues to have a hand in the success of the "Big Bang Theory" spinoff "Young Sheldon," which he also narrates, and the Fox sitcom "Call Me Kat." He's back onstage as well, appearing in the off-Broadway musical "A Man of No Importance" through Dec. 18.

From there, where will Parsons's path take him?

"I will continue to look for these characters in situations that are deeply interesting to me," Parsons says as the conversation winds down.

"You know, I talked about mortality. Not that I'm looking to do another 'Spoiler Alert,' but I think that's an endlessly fascinating subject at one level or another — you know, the fact that we're all going to die one day."

Again, he replays what he just said, pauses and reconsiders. The "Spoiler Alert" star, appropriately enough, doesn't want to ruin a good ending.

"Oh, God — 'We're all going to die one day'? Is that the last words I'm going to say to you?" Parsons asks through mortified laughter. "Well, we'll see — maybe that's what people want."

"I have no regrets for how anything went on that show," Parsons says of leaving "The Big Bang Theory." "That being said, and I say this with the full knowledge that I am a very, very fortunate man: I really love my life as it is right now." (Mary Inhea Kang for The Washington Post)

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