Jim Parsons is honest.
The actor, who is currently starring Off-Broadway in the musical A Man of No Importance, spent a rare day off in San Francisco recently to screen and support his new film, Spoiler Alert. The movie started with Parsons and his husband, Todd Spiewack, who optioned entertainment journalist Michael Ausiello’s book about his relationship with his late husband, photographer Kit Cowan. The couple are producers of Michael Showalter’s comedy-drama in which Parsons plays Ausiello. But it is also a role and a movie he is not sure would have come to fruition had Ausiello not asked him take part in a Q&A when the book came out in 2017.
“I think his graciousness and his impetus to do that, it made the material land differently with me, just because it had been handed to me by the source in that way,” Parsons says. “And I think that there’s no denying that that affected my journey with material, that he brought it to me, even though it wasn’t to make a movie with it. I would have been made aware of the book at some point, but I can see it easily passing by.”
The title of the book is Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, and it is not just Ausiello and Cowan’s love story but also a recounting of Cowan’s battle with cancer that ended in his death in 2015. Ausiello, who joined Parsons and the film’s Kit, English actor Ben Aldridge (Fleabag, Pennywise), in San Francisco, describes writing the book as not a therapeutic experience. Instead, it was torture but he felt compelled to put Kit’s story down on paper while his memories were still fresh even if it meant working through the throes of grief.
Being involved in making the movie as an executive producer was different. He is a fan of Parsons’ late acclaimed sitcom The Big Bang Theory and developed a rapport with the actor over several interviews. That was why he asked Parsons to moderate his Q&A in the first place. That event leading to a film was unexpected, but it also gave Ausiello a chance to grapple with his story in a new way. If writing the book was hard, being available to screenwriters Dan Savage and David Marshall Grant, and to Showalter and the actors on set, was a happier circumstance.
“I had done a lot of my grieving,” Ausiello says. “And writing a book is solitary; it’s lonely. This was an opportunity to collaborate and work with amazing artists and people I’ve admired for so long. It was just exciting and thrilling, just a much more fun experience.”
Parsons and Aldridge came at Ausiello and Cowan’s story from different places only to both draw catharsis out of it before ever stepping on a stage. With Parsons, it was through the book that he found a commonality between Ausiello and Cowan and his own relationship with Spiewack.
“I began to realize I had connected to this very honest and beautifully brutal portrayal of what it is to be in love and be human and go through heartbreak,” Parsons says. “I was just extraordinarily moved by it.”
Aldridge’s introduction to the story was initially through the Spoiler Alert screenplay, and when he read the book, he first looked at it through the lens of the character he was going to portray.
“My reading was very Kit-centric,” he admits, as he mined the book to clues to better portray Cowan. But even through that narrow focus, the story creeped under his skin.
“It opened my heart; it broke my heart,” Aldridge says. “And I think more than anything, it taught me to love better. There’s a real power to what Michael wrote.”
One challenge facing Parsons and Aldridge is that they were going to have to throw themselves into an intimate screen relationship without much opportunity to even be in the same space before shooting began. Aldridge’s work schedule prevented him from traveling to New York where Spoiler Alert was shot until the production was ready to go. The actors were not going to have time to spend together, so Parsons initiated an email relationship.
“We were electronic pen pals for about five months,” he says. “There was something in that continual discovery process, since we didn’t know each other going into this, that I felt was very, very helpful and added a level of romance. There is something romantic about getting to know anyone, even just in friendship. We just kept talking.”
“We talked about everything,” Aldridge added. “We talked about our partners, about becoming actors, about our journeys getting there, our mothers and our fathers. We really just dove in and shared.”
Talking about parents was another crucial piece to better understanding Michael and Kit’s story. Sally Field and Bill Irwin play Marilyn and Bob Cowan, Kit’s parents. The pair were delightful costars but Parsons also realized the first day they came on set, that Spoiler Alert is bigger than Michael and Kit.
“While this is a love story about these two guys, it is also a love story about a wider web of personal connections, these familial connections,” Parsons says. “Sally and Bill bring that kind of gravity and depth to what they do, and it calls that out.”
For Ausiello, the film represents a final chapter in his relationship with Kit. In the nearly eight years since Kit died, he has continued to live with him, first through the book and then through making the movie. Ausiello moves forward now, with trepidation.
“I’m terrified,” he says. “I think the book and the movie have allowed me to hang on Kit to all of these years and the idea that once this movie is over initially, this chapter closes, that I have to let go. I have to let go of him and it scares me because I don’t want to let go. I still don’t want to let go. But that’s a process I’m gonna have to go through. I have a great therapist; I will be leaning on him throughout that process. But it’s gonna be hard.”
Spoiler Alert opens at Bay Area theaters on Friday, December 2.