Hal Sparks up close and personal
It was ground-breaking, riveting and scandalously salacious.
After HBO’s prison drama OZ tested America’s threshold for male nudity and same gender sex, the bulldozer that was Queer as Folk pushed audiences ever further, bringing them face to screen with both a realistic and stereotypical group of four gay friends living in Pittsburgh, Penn.
Thirty-seven year old Hal Sparks was the central character ‘Michael Novotny’, an adorably puerile mama’s boy in his late 20s/early 30s, who, at the show’s premiere, seemed somewhere between puberty and his first day of high school. Hal’s character spent the first season lusting after his more experienced boyhood friend and gigolo, Brain, who just couldn’t see past the children’s underwear with blue lining that Michael still wore.
Two years after the show’s series finale, it’s no “where are they now?” story with Hal Sparks. He has been performing with his band, featured on “Celebrity Duets” and continues his VH1 television appearances (from which he says he is most often recognized). In the shadow of such a culture changing series and crossover success, the question remains, how has it affected the career of a straight man playing gay in such a prominent role?
O&A: As a straight guy, are you tired of being related to gay culture? Do other celebrities make jokes about all your money being gay money?
Sparks: No, actually I don’t think I would’ve taken the project if I was ever really concerned. I’ve been involved in the AIDS Walk for longer than I was on the show. I get more flack, I guess, about that from the gay community than support. Like, I must be tired of it because I’m straight. I must be wanting to get away from it because I am, than the reality. It’s really an awkward thing because I don’t know how one would handle it. It’s kinda like being on a date with someone, and they constantly don’t understand why you’re sitting across from them at dinner. It’s like, ‘I’m being nice, I’m being myself.’
O&A: You started in the business back in 1986-87 around the age of 17. How did you get started?
Sparks: I started at 15 doing stand up. I wasn’t really qualified to do anything else. I was poor when I grew up in Kentucky. Then I moved to Chicago to live with my dad, and he rented a guest house near this really affluent high school so that I could go to it. Most of this kids there who were in the acting program had been acting since they were two years old. I started in stand-up basically, which is really odd for anybody at that age. I won the “Funniest Teenager in Chicago Contest” when I was seventeen and that just opened up a lot of doors.
O&A: Where did your funny come from?
Sparks: Let’s never underestimate the power of poverty and lack of education for creating a sense of humor. I didn’t have a TV until I moved to Chicago, so I grew up listening to comedy records. I listened to Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Godfrey Cambridge, Shelly Berman and Woody Allen stand-up records, and Red Foxx.
O&A: When fans see you on the street, what work do they usually recognize you from?
Sparks: Talk Soup and I Love the 80’s on VH1 because those are the things that had the biggest reach.
O&A: I’m sure that by now, we don’t have to tell you that the makers of QAF (Queer as Folk) changed American culture and opened the gates to a flood of gays on television. There was virtually nothing gay on American television before QAF, and even with the on-slot of “gay” shows, the characters on those shows take more cliché roles, or are presented as the token gays, only present to lure a gay audience seeking representation in the media. What are you most proud of having been part of a culturally significant show?
Sparks: I think the portrayal of the Ben and Michael relationship as a [HIV] positive/negative couple, because that was the first time that was ever on television in America. It was the first time I ever remember it being in anything available to mainstream America. And then dealing with the issue of adopting kids too. And I think because the Michael character and the Ben character were the kind of people that you might know from the office, there was nothing extraordinary about their personality that would immediately peg them as gay, and so it was an easy crossover for a lot of the straight audience to understand it and get it. I catch a lot of shit for constantly reminding people that I’m straight, but that’s just how my life is. My life will remind you that I’m straight. The same way that Harvey Fierstein’s will remind you that he’s gay. You know what I mean--it’s just who you are.
I really honestly have to say that sexuality is not a choice. But one of the reasons why I think it’s healthy to constantly remind people is because the vast majority of straight people think gay is contagious. They think it’s either a bad choice, an immoral choice, or they think it’s something you catch, and that’s where their biggest fear comes from. Homophobia is largely rooted in the fear that you may become it yourself, or that it will take you over without your consent. I’ve been closer to it than probably any straight guy in the history of entertainment and in the end if I’m still myself; I’m still straight; I’m still me; then maybe that takes a bit of the fear away for those people. And they go, ‘It didn’t turn him gay, so maybe it’s not a lifestyle, maybe it is genetic or a choice a spirit makes before it enters the body on a metaphysical level,’ or whatever you wanna call it. ‘Maybe it is a birth right as opposed to something my religious book tells me based on ignorance.’
O&A: There was an obvious absence of people of color on the show, what do you attribute that to?
Sparks: In what limited experience I have in talking with our execs and a lot of the other writers, [the show reflected what is] in the community itself. Because depending on where you are, there are larger racial walls within the gay community than there are within the straight community. I think it’s mostly like a cultural thing. But also, you’re dealing with an honest portrayal of this group of friends who grew up together from basically the same neighborhood, the same area, in Pittsburgh. So the crossover’s gonna be fairly limited. In the same way that towns like Boston—there’s a certain level of racial segregation that’s still evident. And it’s not even by choice on the part of the people that live there, it’s just habit. People tend to clique together. The writers themselves [were] just writing characters that they knew personally, representative characters. Instead of going, ‘Let’s be all things to all people,’ which is entirely impossible, they kinda went ‘I knew this kinda person growing up, I’m gonna write that.’ We never really had somebody on that was transgender.
O&A: The show originally aired from late 2000 to 2005, a short five years while most others culturally significant series run for eight or nine years. Why do you personally think the show was canceled?
Sparks: Well, it wasn’t canceled for the record. The exec producers and Showtime had always intended for it to have a limited run. The show it was bought from, the British show, only had 10 episodes all together. From Ron and Dan’s point of view, it couldn’t go on forever and show character growth. It was impossible. If they were to grow into being men, it had to stop at some point. In a lot of ways it was like a five-year-long movie. When you have a drama, character change has to happen, or you’re on a failed drama.
O&A: Were you disappointed?
Sparks: Not at all, I thought we’d accomplished something great. I always knew that the benefit of the show would only be totally understood and respected about four years after it was over, and we’re almost at the two year mark. There’s also the illusion that as long as the show was on, the change that it was instigating was happening. Just cause a TV show is on doesn’t mean that the changes necessary to the social structure are occurring. It’s like having the West Wing on and pretending that Martin Sheen is really the President, and ignoring Bush. The thing with Queer as Folk is that if you can escape into this world and live as if, then it might keep you from the activism, the voting both, and engaging other people in your community and people in the straight community, and people in the bisexual/transgender community.
O&A: So you felt like the fantasy of Queer as Folk was such a lure for some people that it was a distraction from major issues that needed attention?
Sparks: No no, it would have been had it stayed on forever. It needed to instigate change, follow through on that change, show the growth of those characters, and be a leading voice in that respect. The show was not about perfect identification so that everybody in the gay community would find someone on the show like them. The show was about watching someone in your community become the better version of themselves, and maybe leaving an allegory that you could follow.
O&A: Since the show, your former costar Gale Harold (Brian) has done four films, including one with QAF alumni Michelle Clunie (Melanie). Randy Harrison (Justin) is continuing a successful theatre career with a nationwide tour. Scott Lowell (Ted) has done one film and just completed work on “Ping Pong Playa” alongside Peter Paige (Emmett), who himself wrote, produced, and directed Say Uncle. Thea Gill is a regular on Dante’s Cove and has completed two films.Many of your former cast mates are still working, and some are even working together. Which of them do you keep in touch with?
Sparks: Well, I’m friends with a few of them still. I see Robert Gant around town cause he lives in LA. Occasionally I see Harris Allen, who played my son on the show, when he comes into town, he’s Canadian, and Thea as well. But for the most part, I’ve just been doing my thing since the show ended. When you do a drama, no matter what it’s about, it eats up your life. You’re in that environment--15-hour-days, five-days-a-week, for five years straight pretty much. So, being a touring stand-up comedian since I was fifteen, and being a musician, choosing the world of acting in a lot of ways because of the variety that it offers, once you get out of any kind of long term contract you kinda wanna start defining yourself again. So in a lot of ways that’s just what I’ve been doing.
Randy, who played Justin, is touring doing Shakespeare right now. [He] lives in New York most of the time, so I just wouldn’t run into him. I think he’s a really talented, cool guy. As long as he’s gonna be on the road going to the Southern states doing Shakespeare, I doubt I’m gonna run into him unless we’re blocks away from the same venue and I’m doing stand-up or something.
O&A: So there wasn’t that bond where you intended to keep in contact as long distance friends?
Sparks: No, I don’t think so. I think because ultimately everybody came to the show for the right reasons, but [also] their own reasons. Politically, socially active, whatever you wanna call it--a pay check, whatever their reason for doing it was, they come and go with those reasons, and you’ll either bond with them or you don’t.
O&A: What was your worst experience working on the show?
Sparks: Umm, I dunno, death threats. We would have DVD signings—we got threats that there were gonna be people coming and throwing acid on us or doing whatever. Hardcore Christian right groups and just nut-cases in general. Someone believing that you should have your hands cut off like you were in Afghanistan, and getting mail about that from people in sections of the country where you were going in a couple of weeks.
O&A: Since then, you’ve been the most visible. I can probably turn on the TV right now and find you somewhere, so is it really as hard as they say coming off a highly successful show to find work, or are actors just pickier afterward?
Sparks: I think some of the actors absolutely found it harder after Queer as Folk to get mainstream work. The actors on the show who are actually gay had a harder time with gay casting directors not letting them be outside their character. There’s a bit of gay mafia [he laughs] in LA that is afraid to let them rise, or dismisses them outright as being their character, which is ironic I think.
O&A: If you were offered another gay role, completely different from ‘Michael’, and you thought the premise was original and had great potential, would you take it?
Sparks: No, not tomorrow. I’d do it in a few years though. I think it would to some degree water down the effect of ‘Michael’, and that’s another consideration. If I do another role within the next five years that’s very significant, there’s a section of the entire populous that will now write of the bridges that were built by Queer as Folk to some degree, and go ‘I knew it, he’s just gay, it’s just that’s what he does.’ And then they’ll go back to their lives. At that moment they stop having to confront who they really are. It’s the political decision that you have to make when you do that role as well. The long term effects of that role are more important than a pay check.
O&A: As you mentioned, you’re also well known for your work on the VH1 pop culture nostalgia series I Love the 70s, 80s, 90s, and all the follow-ups to those.
Sparks: Yea--I think I was the longest interview they did; in the very first one I did 10 hours just talking about all 10 years on the original I Love the 80’s series. I guess I was the first one to actually sit down and make jokes specifically, as opposed to just relating stories. I sat down and improvised for 10 hours straight. It kinda changed the face of the show according to the guys at VH1. Initially it was gonna be a mix of red carpet interviews and little sound bites and nothing else, and then it really became what Best Week Ever turned into because of me sitting there.
O&A: Did you get any free memorabilia for being part of the show?
Sparks: No. As a matter of fact, I brought my own Kiss dolls.
O&A: You front a band, Zero 1, with former Buffy creature affects artist Robert Halland Miles Loretta, your cousin. Zero 1 was an established band before you competed on Celebrity Duets. A lot of artists have said that they would never consider going on that kind of show (a show that ranks their talent and is obviously a cliché model of American Idol), what was your motivation for taking part in that competition?
Sparks: Well, you could win $100,000 for charity if you won. That’s it. If you turn down a chance to give any charity $100,000 because you’re afraid of being embarrassed, you’re an asshole. You are so self-involved and so self-important that you wouldn’t even take a shot at getting $100,000. That’s a life changing amount of money for a cancer charity or a homeless charity. I mean, that’s a big deal. If you don’t take it seriously and try really hard, f**** you! I really have very low patience for people who are more concerned with saving face than helping people.
O&A: Is the self-titled album the first for Zero 1?
Sparks: Yea, that’s our first record. It’s available on the Web. I produced it and released it independently because I couldn’t figure out a good reason to give all of my money to a record label in exchange for next to nothing. And I think that’s the way a lot of indie artists are going these days--it’s just a smarter, better way to go. Plus it meant that my cousin—music is the only way he makes money, it means more of that money goes into his pocket quite frankly. But yea, people can order it on my Web site. And we may end up with distribution by the end of the year, but we’ll see.
O&A: Do you think it will be a challenge to convince audiences to hear you as an artist given your acting success?
Sparks: No, mainly because I play metal. And there’s an element of—it requires so much skill to play that style of music. It’s not like playing punk or pop music where you’re singing to a tape, it requires you knowing your instrument. I get judged the same way any metal band does. You go and you watch, and either I’m doing it or I am not. Actors who play pop, or blues, or punk, I kinda feel bad for because you could pretend to do those art forms a lot easier than you can, say, blue grass, or metal, or classical music because they’re not virtuoso styles.
O&A: Are you dating?
Sparks: Yea, I live with my girlfriend in LA. Her name’s Samantha.
O&A: Is she an entertainer?
Sparks: She’s a graphic designer. I stole her from her past relationship and made her move in with me. We’ve been living together for a year.
O&A: Are there plans for a ring in the future?
Sparks: I don’t do marriage. I don’t think the government has anything to do with my relationship.
O&A: If you were single and looking to date anyone in Hollywood, who would that be?
Sparks: I used to not find Angelina Jolie attractive, but then I found out that just recently her first boyfriend went on record and said that when they were young and they were having sex, it wasn’t good enough, so she started cutting him with a knife. Suddenly I found her attractive. I’m not a huge fan of knife play, but whatever.
O&A: If you were actually gay, who would you see yourself dating?
Sparks: That’s an impossible question.
O&A: Rob Thomas answered it.
O&A: Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20.
Sparks: I’ve heard his music. In all honesty, Rob Thomas is a pop musician who was never on a show like Queer as Folk, and he doesn’t probably take the question as seriously as I do. To him it’s kind of a flippant little, ‘Oh, that’s cute!’
O&A: Alright. If you had a “man-crush”, who would you say you have a “man-crush” on?
Sparks: Oh, well that’s totally different. Me! I’m the best kisser I know, I have a fantastic body, I think I know myself very well, so I think I’d get along with me.
O&A: Have you ever been with a guy in any way?
Sparks: [He chuckles] No.
O&A: Where do you see your career in the next 10 years?
Sparks: I’ll be doing a stand-up special every year and a half. Putting out an album with my band on the same kind of schedule, doing feature films pretty regularly.
O&A: You just made a stop with your stand-up tour at Zanies Comedy Club in Nashville. Every comedian has a style, describe your comedic style?
Sparks: I’m an exact rip off of Hal Sparks. I perform almost exactly like he does.
O&A: You’re voicing the lead character ‘Tak’ for a computer animated series called Tak and the Power of Juju set to premiere on Nickelodeon this fall. Are there any other projects in the works?
Sparks: Yea, I’m doing a movie called “The House that Jack Built.” It’s a suspense story; it’s like a haunted house story. My stand-up DVD comes out next month.
O&A: Did you take the voice role to lend your image more to your band?
Sparks: I did it because after five years on Queer as Folk, doing very adult programming, I wanted to have the opportunity to do something that was good for kids. The ability to be able to do something that was funny and entertainment for kids after five years on a show that, quite frankly, kids shouldn’t watch until they’re older.
Hal is not afraid of being burned with his fingers in the pot all over the board: acting, music and comedy. He plans to find success in all three, which would be another first in American entertainment.
“The House that Jack Built” will begin production in LA the first Wednesday in June, with the film to be released later this year.
After the close of his comedy tour with his three one-hour sets at Zanies, he will continue performing with his band Zero 1 and appearing on VH1 and elsewhere. No doubt, at least in part due to rigorous media training, Sparks is almost more a militant supporter of GLBT rights than the average HRC member. Probably most evident during his stint on Celebrity Duets, there is a genuine boyish zeal that seems to shroud his own admitted personal struggles with growing up in poverty.
Outside of his careful choice of words when on the subject of sexuality, Sparks finds comfort in expressing himself uninhibitedly with the apprehensive rebelliousness of a junior rocker; almost unsure of whether or not he’ll get a spanking for saying “f*** you.”
I imagine that these are the elements of his personality that made him the perfect ‘Michael Novotny’ and that these same elements are a result of what makes him a successful comedian. With the right timing, we can look forward to more groundbreaking work from Hal Sparks in the future.