Jason Stuart – an actor who is always worth watching
Written by Anthony Eaton
Actor, comedian, producer, writer, director, host, lecturer, LGBTQ activist, son, lover, mentor! Jason Stuart’s credits are extensive spanning multiple mediums, he is clearly one of the hardest working artists in the business. While he has held his own with such heavy hitters as Penelope Ann Miller, Gabrielle Union, Samm Levine, he has none of the ego one associates with someone with his breadth and depth of experience.
I first connected with Jason after seeing a plug online for his short series with Mitch Hara SMOTHERED. To my surprise he not only welcomed my request to connect on social media but also provided me with his thoughts on leadership by answering several of the questions for my new book project. Only after doing an interview with his Co-Star in Smothered Mitch Hara did I ask if he too might be interested in sitting down to talk to which he eagerly agreed. In what was a technically challenging interview that went from Zoom to the phone, it was an absolute pleasure to talk to Jason about his career, being “out” in the business as well as recent and upcoming projects.
Jason, how are you?
I’m okay. Wishing this whole thing was over, COVID, not our interview. Honestly.
No kidding. You and me both. It’s too much. Let’s start by talking about your biography. Shut up, I’m talking! Coming Out in Hollywood and Making it to the Middle. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so tell me a little bit about it.
The book is the story of this young Jewish gay kid who went to see Funny Girl and realized that he was in love with Omar Sharif. And if he was in love with Omar Sharif, who was he left to be Barbra Streisand. So he has spent most of his life, I would say, cleaning up the record wreckage of his past and learning to become a man.
The book is also about what it’s like to make it to “the middle” in this business and not become the biggest star or the biggest loser.
I love the reference to Funny Girl because it’s one of my favorite movies, of course, you know, I’ve got my card, and I got my toaster. So I can honestly relate. Although I have not yet read your book, I’m going to get it because I love your work. How has the book done since it came out?
It’s done very nicely. Yeah, it would be even nicer if you got it.
I will absolutely get a copy. I have to say, when I was looking at your body of work, I was like, wow, this guy has done a lot! You do seem to be one of the busiest people in the industry. Even with COVID, you have been working. Tell me about what you have been doing despite this pandemic.
That’s very kind. It doesn’t feel like that. In the last year, I guess, since COVID started in March, I did two little short films about COVID. I did a part on the Billy Bob Thornton show called Goliath, working opposite Bruce Dern, JK Simmons. And I’ve done several virtual comedy shows. I just did two shows for the Improv Comedy Club, one in Norco and one in Irvine, with Rob Schneider. I did these great Dive-In shows where the audience was in the car, and we were far away on a stage, and they would watch us on the screen. I did three of those shows. I did one for the chairs comedy club for my friend Randy Lucas first in a parking lot, but they didn’t have a screen. And that was a different experience as a smaller one; the bigger one was really fun. It was just great to be on stage again and to be doing something you know.
That is a very cool idea, unlike just taping something where you lose that audience interaction. But that’s not all; you have done more than that?
Well, yeah. I’ve done staged readings of plays of films. I’ve done little actors groups, an actor-writer workshop that we now do online. I’ve done readings to different actor-writer workshops I participate in; I’ve been keeping up on my craft.
Written by Jason Stuart and Mitch Hara and directed by Terri Hanauer, SMOTHERED is the short series of a longtime hateful gay Jewish couple who cannot stand each other but can’t afford to get divorced. Through a series of visits to a dysfunctional cast of therapists, the two search helplessly for someone who can help them save their relationship without success. Currently available for viewing on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Revry.
Let’s talk about SMOTHERED. You and I connected through social media after I came across a post about SMOTHERED, your short series with Mitch Hara. I watched the series and think it is terrific; you are both fantastic and very believable. You and Mitch have been friends for a long time. What’s it like, working together?
Mitch is my co-writer, producer, and partner in that series, but not my partner in real life. People think as we play a married couple, that we’re together. We’re not. We’re just right together in this.
We have had very different careers; Mitch has created most of his projects, he has always been the star, and I have always been part of an ensemble except in my stand up. Even then, you are part of an ensemble of more than one act. So we have a different process, Mitch likes to write things out, and I want to talk things out. He is very verbal, so when we got together, I knew he would have a strong personality, and so I created a character to play to that. Like all the other great teams, Sonny and Cher, I would have been sonny, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis I would have been Dean, but I put another layer on him, a denseness if you will, to show why he stayed.
Mitch is an incredible writer, incredibly funny, a hard worker, and not afraid to take risks. We had the same work ethic and goals in wanting it to be real, creating a series about a couple who hate each other but can’t afford to get divorced. It is amazing. I think it is the most successful I have had creating a project on my own.
Tell me about the film Immortal and your character.
I got to work with some extraordinarily gifted actors. I saw a casting notice and saw the director Jon Dabach had done another film with comics, I sent him my dramatic demo, and he liked it. He said a lot of comedians don’t do this. You just don’t know what people are going to like or not like. He said I would like to cast you in the role of Joe, I am going to reach out to your agent, and you will be working in 3 days.
I worked with Samm Levine and created the character Joe. That part really turned me on; it is one of the favorite things I have done. When I left the shoot, I was really terrified about my performance. I didn’t know if I had played it too quiet but was surprised because Jon Debach, the director, sent me my piece. He said I don’t usually do this but wanted you to have it because it’s so good.
Hank was also a character I had not done before, someone who was very quiet. I had asked the director to actually to cut dialogue. He said you are the only actor I have worked with that actually wants less dialogue. Hank will come out December 18th exclusively on Revry.
And what about your appearance on the series Goliath?
It was scary; everyone has either been nominated for or won an Oscar but me. How do you do that? You have to step up to the plate, work with these people. You have to hold your own.
Do you ever reflect on your career, what you have done and accomplished?
I’ve been thinking about all this a lot in the last six months. Where my career is, what I’ve done, what I’ve accomplished, my fears, and my roadblocks, my successes, you know.
I just watched the clip of when you came out on Geraldo; what was it like, before you came out?
That came after a very dark period of not getting any work and not being able to move to the next level. That has always been the plight, moving to the next level. You need somebody to be your champion. The saying goes, behind every successful man is a successful woman; well, if you’re a gay guy, you don’t have a successful woman. And if you’re a gay guy in the 90s or the 80s, when I was in the closet, indeed, you didn’t have somebody stand beside you because people didn’t want you to do this job. They didn’t think that people would accept you, and people forget that. So you lose a lot of years.
Not that long ago, there was a time when coming “out” could be career-ending for performers. Did you have concerns?
Oh yes! It changes everything; I became the gay guy. There were not gay guys who were stars of their own show. I remember several other people got chances, but they did not go for one reason or another. It just was not happening.
I am incredibly grateful and lucky and blessed to have the career I have had. Is it comparable to my straight counterparts? No. Do I get the same money? No. It is just the way it is. Stand up is a “straight” boys club; they don’t see you as a viable source in that way. None the less I am very grateful and humbled that I can make a living from it.
Jason tells me about watching a recent Sixty Minutes interview with Viola Davis. In the piece, they talked about how poor she was growing up, being a black female and not considered the prettiest; how these things held her back in the business. Viola’s struggle to reach that next place was real, and it didn’t end there, although she did have support from the likes of Meryl Streep after working with her. Similarly, Jason described sitting on the set of The Birth of a Nation with Nate Parker when he asked Nate what made him choose him for the role of Joseph Randall over so many others? Nate replied, “It was a vulnerability and a warmth that you gave to this racist plantation owner that no one else had done.” Viola’s interview highlighted the typecasting that exists for people of color, which is very similar to the typecasting that has and still exists for gay men.
Of course, being gay is not the same as being black or Asian or a woman. For them, there is no choice to “come out.” In any case, there is a disadvantage, and the playing field is not level.
Someone can say out loud, hey, I’m a black woman. I’m not getting the parts I should get because of the color of my skin. But nobody wants to say I’m a gay man, and I’m not getting it because I’m gay. And when you do say it, people are offended. I remember when The Birth of a Nation came out, we were sent a press release that said, “gay guy gets the straight role.” A very, very famous and successful casting director said, this is the worst email I’ve ever gotten. I’m paraphrasing it. He said, how dare you guys say this about us that we would not cast somebody if they were right for the role. We are not doing any anti-homophobic casting.
That was four years ago, and my manager at the time called me and sent me the email, and I said, this is what you should say; I’m so glad that you feel that way. But this has not been our experience.
But if you don’t have the credits, the celebrity, or the notoriety to say those things (speak up), then you have to live with that idea.
It is interesting; you know that nobody questions a straight actor who plays a gay character. But there’s been this question of gay actors who are out who play a straight character. And it’s always ironic if you think about it.
It’s worse than that. It’s that there’s inner homophobia, and it even comes from our own people, too. I don’t blame people because I don’t think that they do it purposely. It’s a different kind of stereotyping, without malice.
I completely understand what you are saying. We all have hidden biases that often we are not even aware of; we are conditioned that way in our society. How does that affect you where you are in your career today?
You get to a point in your age and think, Oh, well, I didn’t make it, become the big star. Not to say that I’m anywhere close to where Viola is in her talent; Viola Davis is one of my all-time favorite actresses, and I don’t stand in the same class as her at all in terms of career accomplishments or opportunities.
Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the career I have had and the opportunities I have gotten, but that’s what I’ve been thinking about. It’s just where I put that in my head, in terms of what I’ve done, because when you call and say, wow, what an impressive body of work; I think to myself, God, yeah, but I never got that one part that pushed me over the edge to where you get ten years of people offering your roles.
Still, you have done such a wide range of things, parts that are very different from each other. And very similar to Viola, you are a character actor and a good one at that. I can get lost in the character you are playing to move beyond watching Jason Stuart, and it only takes one thing to lead to another great role, right?
When I did the The Birth of a Nation, I got offered Hank coming out on the 18th of December on Revry. I have SMOTHERED now on Amazon. I have an episode of Goliath coming out next year, in season four, Episode Six, I believe. So yes, that’s true.
In your online bio, you mention when you were a kid, and there were only three networks, the movies and the theatre. I remember that, as well. Are you surprised or even overwhelmed by all the different possible outlets for your work?
Oh yes, it is good that you get to work all the time, the bad thing is that people don’t know you as they would have back then because there are all these outlets. But 30 years ago, you would not be able to make the show that Mitch and I did with SMOTHERED.
What don’t we know about you as an actor?
I love disappearing. First, I was a crazy kid, and then I was the gay guy, then the racist plantation owner, and now the powerful guy. Look at Viola Davis; she is playing Ma Rainy, years ago that may have gone to Monique or Whoopi Goldberg.
We often see how insulated, and unapproachable artists or performers can be. How have you managed to avoid kind of that insulation of fame? The industry kind of lends itself to that.
I don’t know, how is it I managed not to keep people at a distance? A manager said to me; you’re too nice. You’re too humble. You need to be more unapproachable; you need to say no and act distant. And I said, you know that would be great not to talk to anybody, but that’s not me.
I’ve learned to work this way. Like, now, since COVID. A lot of the way I sold the book is by engaging people, the fans. Some have been my fans for literally 20 or 30 years, you know, since the 90s.
When I came out is when my fan base started. Some people have followed me for years. And some of them I’ve never met, but I’ve talked to them online and kept in touch over the years. And they’ve been so supportive. So I’ve tried to cultivate that and let them know how much I appreciate them.
Jason describes for me how back in the heyday of Warren Beatty and Barbara Streisand, you could do a couple of interviews with the likes of Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, or Connie Chung and an interview with Premiere or Vanity Fair, and that would be it. Today, however, you have to do everything you can; you have to be everywhere people are. It is not unusual for those who are famous to also be fans of their peers, and Jason is no different. He describes being taken to a party by his publicist at the time and her introducing him to Warren Beatty as the actor who plays Joseph Randall in The Birth of a Nation and his surprise that Warren has heard of it. The kind of awe only a fan has of standing next to someone they admire and being noticed.
I mean, look at this guy who has worked with some of the greatest directors of our time; that’s what I want to do. That’s where my goals are.
What is next for you?
I am supposed to do a film in March; they are trying to get the lead actor. At this point, I can’t say more about it. Right now, I have SMOTHERED, my book (Shut up, I am talking), Hank, a short film called Tribes that got picked up and is being considered for an Oscar. My friend Jake Hunter had done this, and he asked me to mentor him. You can watch Mentor, and it is on Amazon.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, it was an absolute pleasure and I can’t wait to see your upcoming work.