Ryan Murphy’s latest series, Hollywood, features an ensemble packed full of stars. Despite all the celebrated performances, there’s no overlooking Jim Parsons’ villainous turn as agent Henry Willson, one of the many real-life people in this revisionist take on history. His portrayal in Netflix's limited drama marks his first on-screen performance since saying goodbye to his longtime role as the highly idiosyncratic yet lovable physicist Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, which ended in 2019.
Although Parsons’ absence from the screen was brief, his return as one of the industry’s notoriously problematic figures is an unexpected turn for the actor. It’s what Murphy calls his “Mary Tyler Moore moment,” making reference to the late star’s Oscar-nominated performance in the 1980 film Ordinary People a few years after The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended.
“When we were coming up with this part, from the very beginning I thought you needed a brave actor and you also needed somebody that was a surprise to you,” Murphy says. “So right from the beginning, when I wrote it, I thought that Jim Parsons would be interesting in this part because you wouldn't see it coming.”
While the actor ultimately said yes, it didn’t come without some concern over just how Willson would be portrayed onscreen. In real life, the agent became known for his ability to pick out unknown young actors from a crowd and turn them into the era’s leading men. His most prominent client was Rock Hudson, whose sexuality he helped keep hidden from the public and the press alike. Like Hudson, Willson also remained in the closet much of his career -- but he also wielded his power within the industry to torment and prey on other gay men.
Not only is Willson portrayed as a ferocious personality with a whiplash tongue, he’s also seen offering Hudson (played by Jake Picking) a film role in exchange for sexual favors and later holding his own sexuality against Hudson when the aspiring actor defies his wishes.
“When I first started reading about Henry, I was like, ‘Wow, this is intense. How are they going to present this?’” Parsons tells ET. “And when I first started getting the scripts, I was like, ‘Jesus, I've got some interesting things to say, to say the least.' And then little nuggets would come in like, ‘Henry dances to the ‘Dance to the Seven Veils,’ and the last veil comes off,’ and I thought, ‘Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?’”
But once he got on set and started getting into the character, Parsons realized what a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this was. “It’s very rare that these very complicated, colorful characters come along that allow you to sink your teeth into,” he says.
The end result is a scene-stealing transformation -- which required a toupee with a bald spot, contact lenses, false teeth and prosthetics -- that is as fascinating to watch as it was for Parsons to act out on set. One of the more notable moments comes in episode three, when Willson forces Hudson back to his house and then performs his own version of the aforementioned “Dance of the Seven Veils” from the 1908 film Vision of Salomé starring Maud Allan and popularized at the time by dancer Isadora Duncan.
According to Murphy, that was one line in the script. But when Parsons showed up to set, he had the whole thing choreographed. While fully researched and prepared on the day, the actor admits it was an “oh sh*t” moment for him, realizing what Willson was doing in the scene: “He was bearing himself literally,” he says, not even worried about having to dance gracefully in front of the camera. Eventually, he came to the idea of what this meant for the character. “It was only happening because of a white passion and need of expression on his part.”
While Parsons got the affirmation he needed after performing the scene (“They let me do my Looney Tune dance and said, ‘Great. Cut,’” he says), it unexpectedly earned him the highest of praise from Meryl Streep. According to Murphy, they were in the middle of filming his Netflix adaptation of The Prom when the director showed her a cut of the scene. “She was like, ‘Oh my god, this is so brilliant.’ And if Meryl thinks you're brilliant, that’s the best you can do,” he recalls.
But as brilliant as it was, it doesn’t undercut the unexpected emotional scene between Willson and Hudson in the final episode. In the series, after Willson lands Hudson a role in the film Meg, he feels betrayed by his client, who starts a relationship with screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) and comes out as gay. Some time later, in an effort to make amends and atone for his wrongdoings, Willson apologies to Hudson and even offers him a part in a new film.
Done in one take, Parsons says “it was very moving to me to get to have that moment. In some ways, all the more so because Rock doesn't really accept it.” In the end, despite Willson’s overtures, Hudson can’t forgive him for the torment he endured.
“I couldn't help but feel the echoes of the real movement that’s been going on in the past few years with our own industry and that it was, for my ears at least, it was nice to have a moment of hearing what a sincere reckoning with your behavior might sound like,” he adds.
For all the alternative paths Murphy sends each of the real-life characters along after making the film Meg, Parsons says Willson’s is the most specific. “He’s able to see more honestly why he is the way he is and try to take steps to be at least partly a better person,” the actor explains. “I found that very moving.”
And while it’s too early to predict what will follow, Parsons’ performance here will perhaps only be matched by his other Murphy project, the upcoming Netflix adaptation of Broadway’s The Boys in the Band. “He’s great in the movie,” Murphy says of his performance, which marks the third time the two have worked together since Parsons appeared in the HBO film version of The Normal Heart.
When it comes to working together, Parsons credits Murphy for his “uncanny ability to match performers with material that they wouldn’t necessarily look for on their own or didn’t realize that they had in them. And given his confidence and his intuition, it turns into just a joyful exploratory experience,” he says, pointing to the example at hand: Henry Willson. “I kind of just dove right in and it really paid off.”