Jason Stuart has taken on a lot of different roles in his career. As of this writing, he has 145 IMBb.com acting credits listed, going all the way back to 1980.
One of his latest credits is the titular role in the short film Hank, which will be screening at the Palm Springs International Shortfest as part of the “Coupling and Uncoupling” program on Wednesday, June 19, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center.
The Hongyu Li-directed short features Stuart as the main character, Hank, who is feeling down about the desire of his husband, Tommy, to open up their relationship. Tommy is a gorgeous musician, while Hank is overweight and bald. Over the course of a day, Hank feels even more alone and alienated as he tries to deal with the predicament.
During a recent phone interview, Stuart—who has also made a name for himself as an openly gay comedian—talked about how he was approached for the role.
“I had done another film called Tangerine a couple of years ago, and it was the first (feature-length) film to be shot on an iPhone,” Stuart said. “It was directed by Sean Baker, and it was written by Sean and Chris Bergoch. This Chinese kid (director Hongyu Li) saw this movie and said he wanted me to play (in Hank),” Stuart said. “I got this part of this sweet, kind, middle-aged gay man who didn’t have a voice but gains his voice through the film.”
I asked Stuart if he felt the short-film format was restrictive.
“In the old days, I would agree with that. When you do an independent film, you want people to be able to see it, and that’s important,” Stuart said. “Now, it seems like everything is every size, every length: You watch things online, and it doesn’t matter what it is.
“The world over the past five years has changed so much. I would love for it to be in the theaters, and I hope it gets a decent release. That’s what you care about these days. In every film that I’m in, I ask, ‘How do you get people to see it?’”
One of Stuart’s biggest roles came in the 2016 film Birth of a Nation, playing Joseph Randall, a plantation owner. He said that while the film was disturbing to many, it has important historical context.
“That is probably one of the top 10 things I’ve done in my career. It changed me completely,” Stuart said. “I think that it’s the antithesis of Black Lives Matter. It’s the antithesis of saying, ‘Hey, we’re not going to take this anymore,’ and the antithesis of paying it forward in life—to the worst of consequences.”
Surprisingly, he said it was easier to play Joseph Randall than it was to play Hank.
“When I did Hank, I had just broken up with a boyfriend,” he said. “ … It was one of the hardest roles to play, because he was a different character to me. People say, ‘Was it hard to play a plantation owner?’ I say, ‘Not as hard as it was to do Hank, because I worked on (a character like the plantation owner) in a different project in my acting class. I worked on it years ago when I was cast in something about Vietnam that was never made. (The plantation owner) was kind of a show-off and a guy with an odd sense of humor. In Hank, I had to be so quiet. I had to actually ask the director to cut the dialogue down, because I thought it would be better that he didn’t have a voice.”
Stuart said he was impressed by working with Hongyu Li.
“He had a bit of a challenge with language, but he was so open,” he said. “… What was really interesting was his youth: He’s only 25. That was wonderful, and I couldn’t believe that he had so much intelligence for that. I think he would love to do a full-length film, and I hope that he does.”
Stuart continues to act and do comedy—he’s slated to appear at Oscar’s here in Palm Springs on Aug. 1—but he’s also excited about his soon-to-be-released autobiography.
“It’s pretty exciting, given I’ve never written a book or even thought I could get a book published,” Stuart said. “It was really an exciting thing, because (the publishers I went with) weren’t the only people to say yes. The book is called Shut Up, I’m Talking!”
He said the personal reflection required for the book was not easy.
“It was fucking awful!” he said. “The first chapter is all about my dad leaving Poland running away from the Nazis, and it was really difficult. The second chapter is about me. My mom also has a chapter in the book, and I really love my mom a lot. My mom is 82, and she still shops at Forever 71. She, very much so, gave me the title of the book, because the original title was supposed to be I’m Not Barbra Streisand because of a story that happened to me as a child when I went to see Funny Girl. As a kid, I see this woman on a stage, and she’s funny on the outside, but sad on the inside and looks like someone from my neighborhood. I’m attracted, just like her, to Omar Sharif, and if I’m attracted to Omar Sharif, who is left for me to be attracted to?”
Hank will be screened as part of the Palm Springs International Shortfest at 1:15 p.m., Wednesday, June 19, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $12 to $13. For tickets or more information, visit www.psfilmfest.org.