The actor talks to me about politics, straight actors playing gay roles, "Queer as Folk" and his greatest love, stand up.
Hal Sparks knows a lot of things and he's not afraid to talk to you about them. Which is a good thing because he was sitting in L.A. traffic when he called me for our interview so I learned a few things about him. Hal is one of those people that makes life's biggest problems sound so easy to figure out. You ask him a question and he has an answer and suddenly you think, "I'd drink his Kool-Aid."
And that's not a bad thing because his power is used for good. He is about the only straight person I've ever met that says he's an LGBT ally and puts his money--and time--where his mouth is. Most Gen-X gay men know the actor for his character Michael Novotny which he played for five seasons on Showtime's groundbreaking series "Queer as Folk." Others may remember him in "Dude, Where's My Car?" Gen-Zers, like my kids, know him as Davenport on Disney's Lab Rats. His career is like his mind, always working.
But before all of that, he was a stand-up comedian and this week he is coming to Martinis Above Fourth to perform his show simply titled "Hal Sparks: Live! in San Diego."
Ahead of that show, I wanted to talk to him about his career, his political views and any other random thing we got sidetracked on. Hal has been doing stand up since he was 16 he says. He's taken very few breaks from it. "The only times my stand up slowed down was in the mid-90's when I was in a sketch group for two years and then during Queer as Folk because we were sequestered in the Great White North, filming 16 to 20 hour days, nine months out of the year," he said.
But it's definitely something in his DNA, "I am a stand up it’s not something I do if that makes sense," he said, adding that his material changes on a daily basis, he says everytime he does a show at Flappers in L.A. he improvises the whole hour. "From that, it's usually the seeds of the show that kind of comes out of what I'm aggravated about or feel needs attention. But I'm not topical in that regard. I'll deal with some of the underlying stuff that goes on in the topics that are just all around us, but I don't tend to name names, I do it as little as possible because I want the jokes to live as long as the problem, not as long as the symptom goes away. So Trump jokes aren't Trump jokes. Trump jokes are 'How did he get here, what's wrong with us?''"
Hal has a unique take on things though. As an LGBT ally, I wondered if he, as a straight man, recognized his power to connect with that part of his audience.
"Comedians throughout history if you stop to look at it served as bullshit detectors," he explains. "The other area is we sort of fill in the perspective gap, so if everyone is looking at the problem it's either from the front or the back. Comedians look at it from what I call the cutting angles; 45 and 90-degree angles to get a different perspective to help people kinda digest this thing that they're looking at in a way they're not prepared to."
He also makes an interesting point about allies. He says bigots want you to believe that there are no "true" allies so that you don't trust those that say they are. He says if people feel that way it's only a matter of time before they feel isolated. "And then you wonder why depression, anxiety and suicide rates go up because we allow that thought to sit. I'll catch shit sometimes by pushing back on LGBT activists who will kind of lump all the straight people into one group or what have you. I'm like, you're doing more damage to the vulnerable among you because you're killing them, they don't have any friends that aren't gay and they also think at the same time that the gay people around them aren't trustworthy. It's a terrible thing to do to somebody."
Hal believes everyone should be heard, not dismissed because the larger collective voice says so. "Lesbians who are genuinely concerned that biological males can, without any paperwork or any other say-so, declare themselves trans can go into their spaces, that may be a reasonable fear that they have and they need to be heard on that part of it. But that needs to be worked out over time. You don't get to skip a step The only problem is that the LGBTQ and the "I" and the "A" and everything else you attach on to it have been marginalized for so long, everyone bum rushes the buffet when you've been starving. There will come a time when everyone will have their say at the table, and what's said at the table starts to matter again."
I wanted to talk to Hal about a current hot-button entertainment issue because he actually lived it: a straight actor playing a gay role. "The irony is had more gay actors actually showed up to audition for Michael I would not have gotten the part because I was late for the casting anyway. I was not available, they had been looking for months to fill these roles and had a hard time especially anybody with credits."
He warns that if casting directors started asking people if they are gay or straight before hiring them that could set up a very dangerous precedent, "I would never ever say that only straight people should play straight parts because goodbye thousands of amazing performances over the last fucking millennium."
He says there are a few actors who can vacillate between gay and straight roles because they have been famous long enough or were in big enough projects it allowed them to break out of that mold and they can be themselves. "I used to catch a lot of hell about how out I was as a heterosexual while playing Michael. I never brought it up, but they would always bring it up. and I would always say yes. and the reason was I wasn't talking to the LGBT community about my alliance to them. They should either know that from my participation in the show or watch in my actions, doing every AIDS Walk in the country or marching from Harvey Milk Square to the mayor's office with Gavin Newsom for marriage equality. the people I was talking to was all those straight people out there who think it's contagious."
He says he wanted people to understand that gay people aren't trying to turn you gay, it doesn't work like that. Born this way goes both directions so relax. "If anybody would have 'caught it' it would have been me," he said. "The two big problems are essentially the casting directors tend to typecast people and when it comes to a gay actor playing a gay part, getting back out to play straight parts is harder for them. So I don't even blame them for not showing up for Queer as Folk in some instances--they weren't wrong to do it! You can't ask somebody to sacrifice their entire career for you especially if you don't have their backs later on."
Speaking of Queer as Folk, there have been some rumors about a reunion. Of course, I asked Hal if the gossip was true.
"They've been saying that for years," he said "The cast is all-in if they decide to do it but ultimately it's not up to us. It's up to either Showtime to release it from their grasp or Netflix to pick it up or some other place to pick it up. If it happens it will be Showtime, it won't be Netflix. Everybody lives in this fantasy world where Netflix fixes everything and it just doesn't exist."
As for where he thinks Michael would be now, he is optimistic as the times we live in have changed since the series ended in 2005.
"It means a lot to be in a long-term HIV negative-positive relationship in the case of Michael and Brian," he adds, "It certainly means something that we have two children and they'd be one adopted and one quasi-biological as they say. My belief is that Michael and Ben are still together and very much in love and it's a stable, strong relationship and will remain so forever in that regard; you know 'till death do us part.'"
As we close our interview after more than an hour it becomes apparent to me that I agree with about 99% of what Hal has talked about. That's quite a percentage that I don't think I have with any of my straight friends, not even my best one. How this all will translate into a stand-up act is for him to figure out.
But as he said about a Queer as Folk reboot and all the life that remains within the people in that series, "There is absolutely room to tell a story."
You can catch Hal Sparks at Martinis Above Fourth on Thursday, Oct. 25 at 8 pm. Get tickets HERE.
Martinis Above Fourth is located at 3940 Fourth Ave, San Diego, 92103.