Playing the character of Michael Novotny for five seasons of Queer as Folk, Hal Sparks won a legion of gay fans by infusing reality, warmth, and heart into the role. We caught up with Sparks on the phone as he prepared to visit Rick Bronson’s The Comic Strip in West Edmonton Mall, from August 6th to 10th.
Many people have described Sparks and other straight cast members as brave for taking on roles that often graphically depicted gay sex, nudity, and gay situations.
“It was a strange experience. It was funny because they said certain parts of the show would get easier over time as we got used to them and they really didn’t. Any difficulties I had playing a gay man in a gay relationship on television are dwarfed by the difficulties of gay people who in real life have to pretend to be straight, and hide in straight relationships so that they don’t get beat up, accosted, or ostracized. As much as I appreciate the complement, my bravery if it exists at all in the show, is a small percentage compared to the bravery of the people who were reflected in the show, from what they had to do just to get by in life. There were people in positive and negative relationships like I pretended to be, the bravery they showed is stunning. While I appreciate it and am certainly glad that is the perception I am very aware there is more bravery in real life.”
Others slammed the decision, saying the entire cast should have been gay. There were plenty of opportunities for gay and lesbian actors to take the roles, says Sparks.
“The only thing that makes me brave in doing Queer as Folk is the fact that so many actors were too chicken-shit to do it. I wouldn’t have gotten the part if a lot of actors, gay and straight, hadn’t been afraid to take it. The straight men and women on the show would get maligned occasionally because there was a perception we were taking a cherry gay role away from a gay actor, and by right it should be theirs. The ironic thing, which a lot of people didn’t know, is that a lot of actors, gay and straight, in and out of the closet, would not go anywhere near the script. During the audition process they were being begged to take the parts and running away. Thank god they did though because if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have such a great opportunity to be on such a great show.”
Once past the audition process and into the actual show, Sparks said he was fairly confident that the show would either succeed or fail quickly.
“I felt it was either going to be a big hit or drummed off the air immediately, there was no middle ground for that show. It was so provocative and direct, [it was] an either/or situation. If we managed to get two episodes of that show on, there was no way it would be on for less than two years. Showtime would be in a position where they couldn’t cancel it even if they wanted to because of the nature of the subject matter, it would have been political suicide. I knew once we got rolling that we were going to be there at least two or three years.”
One of the challenges Sparks wasn’t prepared for was the fan perception and separating Michael from Hal, something he says is no longer an issue.
“The thing I wasn’t used to or understood was that much character identification; playing a character for so long that it really set you apart as that person, for a lot of people they see you as that person when you first meet. That is an odd psychological place to be in both for you and for them. There is a learning curve to that. I’ve been pretty good at making that distinctive. It is very important to me when I design a character like Michael that there is that separation and they aren’t automatically like me or a variance of my personality. Michael was a character concocted out of a collaboration of myself and writers on the show. He existed in the context of the show only, it was a special thing and as an actor you feel really attached to that.”
The cult following was something he had prepared for while being part of E!’s Talk Soup.
“The concept of trekkies was not a new one. If we did our job well, … there would be a group of people that would really be attracted to us. The only difficult part, if you are on a series that is popular just because it is popular like The Brady Bunch or Star Trek, there is no political ramifications to anything you say. On Queer as Folk everything you say is taken in the prism of it being the first show about gay people that is really honest and everything you say will be reflected in the emotional connection to not the show but the issues around it. That was a tall order, suddenly you are ice skating around people’s lives and you have to be very careful. That was the cool part for me.”
Since the show ended, to say Sparks has kept busy would be an understatement. He is constantly on various VH1 shows like Celebracadabra and I Love The New Millenium, voices the main character on the Nickelodeon cartoon Tak & The Power of JuJu, appeared in Fall Out Boy’s video for their cover of Beat It, touring with his band Zero-1 and performing stand up comedy.
“It is difficult and there are times where you just slump down on the bed and go ‘where am I going right now?’ At the same time, the little kid I was in Kentucky is still inside me going ‘look at all the neat stuff we get to do!’ I was not good at school at all, especially with ‘uses time wisely’, which was not found on my report card. Now it would be, I am much better at it. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes I have a train wreck. We all have that in our lives, and not necessarily doing interesting stuff, just everyday boring stuff. I can’t really complain, because I get to do so many neat things and meet so many people I wouldn’t pass it up.”
Another high profile appearance for Sparks was as part of the sole season of Fox’s Celebrity Duets. Sparks’ performances with the likes of Gladys Knight, Wynonna Judd, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and Sebastian Bach were often the highlight of the show, and many felt that Sparks should have won. He made it to the top three before losing to Lucy Lawless and winner Alfonso Ribeiro.
“In reality my feud was with Alfonso Ribero. In looking back at that show, he won by singing the same song every week in the same key. Every week we were singing rock and country and R&B and he just did an R&B song each week with someone in the same range as him.”
Fans will also recognize Sparks as Zoltan in Dude, Where’s My Car? and his cameo appearance in Spiderman 2.
“Dude became this accidental part of the pop culture lexicon just because of the name and nature of it. Suddenly there was this whole membrane of people that know you from the thing. It is really fun. I will be sitting in a restaurant and a group of 15 year olds will run up to the window, yell ’Zoltan’, give the hand signal and run away, which is awesome. Spiderman 2 has changed every elevator ride I have had from then on. If I am ever alone in an elevator with another person now, we both start snickering because we know what the other is thinking. It’s funny because people said it was a little thing, but the scenes became kind of monsters. That scene was in all of the ads and promo campaign for the movie. If you are going to walk up to a beautiful woman at a Schwab’s counter and go ‘you’re a star kid I can tell!’ can you at least look at the fact that I had a two minute scene that was the talk of the town and go ‘maybe if we put him in a whole movie it would be good!’ That is a goal of the actor.”
Fans who check out his stand up show, which he describes as “fun goofy smart comedy” that is a cross between George Carlin and Steve Martin, may not recognize Sparks at first. He now sports hair down to his shoulders.
“I had long hair up until about a month and a half before I got Talk Soup. I cut it because I had been auditioning for the job for five years and knew that was one of the things holding me back. So I finally bit the bullet and cut my hair to see if that would send me over the top, and it did. To me when I see myself in the mirror, I am a longhaired guy who cut his hair. People who are used to seeing me with short hair see me as a shorthaired guy who grew his hair out. It is a weird mismatch between my own self-perception and the audience’s perception of who I am. Since I have been ‘known’ and broken through the fame wall, I have been under contract and made to look a certain way. This is the first time since then that I have been able to shape my own look and be my own person, and as a stand up that is really important. People will learn to adapt. If Madonna can shift her look every five years, I can have long hair for a little while.”
Regardless of where Hal Sparks’ career goes, he will always have a special bond with the LGBT community, one he holds in high esteem. He concluded the interview with a message directed to his gay fan base.
“Be proud. That is really all there is to it. You guys are entering into a space where you can be yourselves truly in a way no one could until now. The struggle will be very different for this generation of gay people, and the difficult part will be the transition from total non-acceptance to acceptance. It could be one of the most confusing times. If you just know everybody hates you, there is some safety in that, you can create a bubble and protect yourself. If you know everyone loves you, you are safe as well. But in this in-between transitional phase of one to the other, and sometimes back again, that is the tough part. This generation of the whole LGBT community has more on their shoulders this time around than any generation before. My own message would be, enjoy the good parts, you deserve it, and know that the hard parts now have a shelf life and they are ending.”
The Comic Strip Summer Concert Series Presents: Hal Sparks
August 6th to 10th, 2008
The Comic Strip, West Edmonton Mall