You’ve seen Jason Stuart before, whether you recognize him from his roles on TV shows from “My Wife and Kids” to Judd Apatow’s “Love,” his decades of prominence as one of the first openly gay stand-up comedians (he came out on “Geraldo”), or from his masterful character work in dozens of feature films (including “Tangerine” and “The Birth of a Nation.”) He’s “that guy” – the one who can slip into any role, in any genre, and make his mark, with over 150 credits that are testament to his talent, professionalism, and persistence.
Now, Jason documents his long and curious career in his new memoir, Shut Up, I’m Talking: Coming Out in Hollywood and Making it to the Middle from CCB Publishing. It’s part of a whirlwind year for him, which also includes a weekly radio gig with Dash Radio (“Riffing with Jason Stuart”); roles in notable indie dramas such as “The Infiltrators” and the upcoming “Immortal” (with Samm Levine and Dylan Baker); comedy turns in his new web series “Smothered” (which he co-created with Match Hara) and the feature “DIVOS!” with Marisa Jaret Winokur and Nicole Sullivan; and the starring role in the dramatic short “Hank,” which won the Best LGBTQ Short at this year’s Los Angeles International Film Festival. Lastly, Jason play the voice of “The Dispatcher” in the science fiction thriller “The Fare” airing this fall.
Born in the Bronx and raised in Los Angeles, Jason Stuart has been working professionally as an actor and comedian for thirty years, ultimately making a name for himself when a personal decision – to finally publically acknowledge his identity as a gay man – gave him some prominence in an era when many performers remained closeted. Nearly twenty five years later, Jason admits that being gay is only a small part of his identity, and he has transcended any sort of label through his increasingly impressive range of dramatic work far removed from his success as a stand-up comedian. Acting alongside Armie Hammer and Jackie Earle Haley as one of the brutal plantation owners in Nate Parker’s searing drama “The Birth of a Nation” showed the world that Stuart’s talent is formidable.
That’s not to say that he isn’t hilarious – and still evolving as a performer and as a human being hoping to make the world a better place. Talking with Jason Stuart offers the perspective of a master of his craft and insider who knows all too well what it means to be “that guy” that every project needs.
After 35 years of steady work in film and television, and approaching 150 credits on his IMDB page, actor and comedian Jason Stuart has achieved a pinnacle of success many actors only dream of. “For the last few years, people have started to approach me and say ‘you’re that guy,’” he explains with his characteristic gravelly laugh. Indeed, with guest-starring and supporting credits in everything from Judd Apatow’s “Love” to “My Wife and Kids” to “Tangerine” and “The Birth of a Nation,” Stuart has now established himself as one of those all-too-familiar faces who might just pop up anywhere, in any kind of role.
It’s just the latest remarkable but true chapter in the career of Stuart, a longtime veteran of stand-up comedy, born in the Bronx and raised in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. A self-described insecure Jewish kid who turned to theatre and performing to mask his emerging sexual identity – he jokes about going to see Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” as a youth and falling in love with Omar Sharif. His talent and determination got him some early professional work in films like “Kindergarten Cop,” “Vegas Vacation,” and TV shows like “Murder She Wrote” and “The Drew Carey Show.” But by the early-90s, frustrated by years of living in the closet, Stuart chose to come out publicly on an episode of Geraldo Rivera’s talk show focused on “Unconventional Comedians.”
That led to a wave of interest in Stuart as a “gay comedian,” giving his act new material and energy, and a purpose (his sexuality, as a Los Angeles Times article from 1995 states, is “a full-time job”). Today, Stuart marvels at how much has changed about the visibility of sexually diverse actors and celebrities, having experienced the transition from “closeted” to “gay” to “queer.” “That was such a negative word, “queer”. It was a word ‘they’ would call you and it still takes some getting used to, but I can see how things are changing. And of course, I’m not just gay or queer, it’s just a part of who I am: I’m also a Jew, a man of a certain age, a lover, a friend and a son. But it’s always a part of who I am,” says Stuart.
Just as his identity as a gay man has not fully defined his career, Stuart is also proud of how he has kept his reputation as a comedian while still flourishing as an actor. “I’ve always thought about myself as an actor first, comedian second,” he says. “When I think of what I want to do with the next phase of my career, I think about being a great character actor. I revered the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, his ability to always disappear into his characters, no matter the role. He was a character actor who happened to be a movie star.”
A look at Stuart’s most recent work underscores this, notably playing a similar part – a detective in a crime drama – in two wildly different ways. In Prince Bagdasarian’s “Abducted,” he plays a police sidekick – “My version of J.K. Simmons or Paul Giamatti,” he explains citing two more character actor role models. “I played him like my brother, who has been slightly irritated his entire life.” On the other side of the coin is the private detective character Stuart creates in Jon Dabach’s “Immortal,” a new thriller co-starring Samm Levine and Dylan Baker. “He’s much more powerful and intimidating.”
For Stuart, one of the most significant moments in his recent career was being cast as Joseph Randall, one of the villainous plantation owners at the wrong end of a rebellion in Nate Parker’s searing historical drama, “The Birth of a Nation.” Being cast by Parker was a sign for Stuart that he had turned the corner from funny gay comic to established character actor. “I remember Nate saying to me that part of what he wanted was my activism,” he recalls. “He wanted advocates for different communities, and he knew that I’d represented not just the LGBTQ community, but I’ve worked on behalf of Black Lives Matter, the homeless, youth, and Jewish causes.”
At the same time, taking on the role of an empowered racist in 1831 Virginia also allowed Stuart to reflect on his own evolving complex identity. “How can I be gay and Jewish and have white privilege?” he found himself wondering through working on Parker’s film. “It helped me establish this new part of my career, and it changed me as an actor and a human being,” he says of the experience. “To tell the history of this man, Nat Turner, who had the audacity, tenaciousness and self-esteem as a black man, in 1831, to stand up against his slave owners knowing he would be murdered. Is he mentally ill? A martyr? Touched by God? To be part of that story, to work with talented people like Nate Parker and Armie Hammer, was exactly what I wanted my career to be about.”
These days, Stuart keeps his comedy chops polished through stand-up gigs all over the country and his new weekly radio gig with Dash Radio (“Riffing with Jason Stuart”). He continues to serve as the National Co-Chairman of the SAG-AFTRA LGBTQ Committee, and has a memoir about to be published from CCB Publishing (“Shut Up, I’m Talking!”) He’s also just completed a number of projects, including a new comedy web series “Smothered,” co-created with Mitch Hara; the Sundance hit “The Infiltrators” from directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra; and the high school comedy “DIVOS!” with Marissa Jaret Winokur and Nicole Sullivan. He also just starred in the short “Hank” from director Hongyu Li and co-starring Jay Disney, about a gay couple who consider an open relationship, which continues to earn praise at numerous festivals, including winning the Best LGBTQ Short at this year’s Los Angeles International Film Festival.
“It’s still a challenge to get the next great role,” he says of his passion for acting as a career. “When I was a kid there were three networks, the movies, and the theatre. Now there’s a hundred networks, movies that stream on your phones, and theatres, and TV, and pay-per-view, and social media…so how does someone know you?” he asks. For now, he’s happy enough to take on any role and thrive. “Someone recognized me from both ‘My Wife and Kids’ and ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ and they said ‘You’re that guy! We used to love you, now we hate you because you play all these villains!’ I’m the guy who can do that – I’m ‘that guy!’”