Jason Stuart is done waiting for his turn to be the next great character actor in Hollywood.
The out, gay Jewish comedian, 47, stars as a straight, Christian plantation owner in the upcoming Oscar contender The Birth of a Nation, written, directed by, and starring Nate Parker.
Before that, he’s made appearances in films including Tangerine and Love is Strange, but for several decades worked as a standup comic, a far cry from the emotionally complex roles he’s now bringing to the screen.
After quite the struggling actor’s slog—he spent years closeted working in the industry—it looks like Stuart is finally getting the respect, and screen time, that he deserves. In a surprisingly emotional chat with the emerging star, we asked about the process of coming to work on The Birth of a Nation, the importance of showing up, and being a 40+ working gay actor in Hollywood.
Out: You’ve been doing comedy for a long time—did you ever think you would be taking on such a dramatic role like this?
Jason Stuart: Oh yeah, always. I’ve just been waiting for someone to give it to me. I’ve been waiting in line, for my turn. That’s got to be the title of the article: Jason Stuart: “I’ve Been Waiting For My Turn!”
Can you talk about your Birth of a Nation audition? What lead you to that role?
So this is what happened. Around five years ago my dad passed away. And I felt like I was just not going to get where I wanted to go. I decided to get agents all over the country. I met this one agent who seemed to really get me and sent me up for these really wonderful roles.
They’d send me up for parts. Instead of “funny manager”... they were real parts with substance. They weren’t just the funny gay guy. And at my age, the gay guy parts are drying up. Basically gay people in movies die at 40.
There’s the quote.
After 40, they’re not around much anymore. So what I did, is I started experimenting with what it’s like to be an older person, in acting class. Because what I believe is that when talent meets inspiration, that’s when you really get good work done. You have to be prepared. And you have to be skilled.
A week later [after the first audition] I got this call that this guy, Nate Parker, wanted to meet me, and I had to go down to Savannah, Georgia on my own dime. So I went “OK, I’ll do it.” I believe showing up is the most important thing. The problem with this business is that there’s so much showing up to do, it’s exhausting. And it doesn’t always work out. I work because I keep showing up, and working hard, and trying to be as good as I can. I show up with depth, a sense of humor, and a really good attitude, and I’m just ready to do anything. Because I love my work.
So I went into the audition, and I got there, and I was in this shitty little hotel with a pregnant woman smoking on a balcony, and a guy standing by the pool looking like he was going to murder me in my sleep. I rented a shitty rent-a-car and went to the audition, which was a half hour outside of Savannah, Georgia in a strip mall. And I’m in the parking lot, going over my lines, and I see this man come over, and he goes, “I know you.” I have a fan in the middle of a parking lot in Savannah, Georgia, a half hour out? It's Nate Parker.
He looks at me, he says something to me, and he’s so handsome, and he has a great spirit about him. I’ve always been so nervous about first days for anything. He made me feel like I’d had my first day, and I went in and auditioned, he made an adjustment, told me to have more of a sense of humor in the role.
I went home, and I was exhausted, and I thought, “OK, that was a really good experience, I got to audition for a really cool role, I got to work on something really powerful, and I’m never going to get it.” Then I got a call from my agent’s assistant that Friday, and they said to me, "You got the part!”
And I burst out crying. I could not believe that I got the part. Because what happened was, I actually got the part because of my work. And that, to me, means so much. I still get emotional. (Cries). Because all these years, you work so hard. To be in a film that means so much to me, that’s the beginning of Black Lives Matter, that says something—when you go into the theater, this movie is going to change how you sit in the room.
How did you get started in show business?
I started as an actor, in the '80s, and people would look at me like I was missing some type of neuron.
Were you out?
Not at all. I came out in ‘93 on the Gerardo Show. I was very nervous. It was 25 years ago.
So you started trying to be serious, and it wasn’t working?
I was always a serious actor, in my mind. And I had a manager in my early 20s who said, “You’re funny. You should do comedy.” I said, “I can’t. I don’t know how to write. I’m too nervous.” And in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “If I do comedy, they’re going to know I’m gay.” That was so frightening, because I didn’t want anybody to know.
I was in the gay pride parade, in Los Angeles, in 1995. And I had done a special on Comedy Central called "Out There in Hollywood." I was in a car promoting it in the gay pride parade, and Lea DeLaria yelled at me, “Why did it take you so long!” I said to her, I took a beat and looked at her, and said, “I didn’t know that I could.” It had never occurred to me that I would be able to be out. It wasn’t in my zeitgeist. I was told that being gay is bad. Being feminine in any way, you’re never going to get any work. No one’s going to want to hire you.
How did coming out change that? Were they right? Did you struggle?
When I came out in ‘93, I became a very successful touring comedian in the mainstream comedy clubs. I did that for literally 20 years. I headlined comedy clubs.
So you think over the course of your career, the Hollywood gay mentality has shifted dramatically?
Look at someone like me: a gay liberal Jew playing a white, heterosexual Christian plantation owner. Who lives in Hollywood, California. I did not get this role in Hollywood. I got this role through a New Orleans agent. Not through a back door, but through a sliding glass door on the side.
Do you think if this had been cast and shot in Hollywood on a studio that you wouldn’t have gotten the role?
I don’t know if I’d have been able to get the audition. I’d get the part, but I don’t think I’d be able to get the audition. And if they don’t see that you can do this, they can’t see it. I’ve never played a part like this.
The Birth of a Nation comes to theaters Oct. 7. Watch the trailer below.