Go ahead, meet your heroes. For THR’s inaugural Empowerment in Entertainment issue, four Hollywood pairs got together to share how far courage, mentoring and a lot of leadership can ripple in an industry built on relationships. Some of the duos know each other well, like The Chi creator Lena Waithe and Gina Prince-Bythewood (Waithe once worked as an assistant to the Love & Basketball director) and writer-actor Ryan O’Connell and The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons, who teamed to create the Netflix series Special. Others were reuniting after many years: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D actress Ming-Na Wen always looked up to Flower Drum Song star Nancy Kwan, and then finally worked with her on ER 18 years ago. And one pair was meeting for the first time for THR’s photo shoot: Pose director Janet Mock, who found inspiration in trans supermodel Tracey “Africa” Norman as she went through her own transition. Through their intimate and complex connections, these four pairs reveal how every innovator is shaped and guided by another who came before.
Tucked away in a corner, Jim Parsons is quietly coaching Ryan O’Connell on how to do video interviews — “work the question into the answer,” he says. But it turns out that O’Connell, the writer and star of Netflix’s Special, also has had a hand in advancing Parsons’ career, helping the Emmy-winning actor transform into an executive producer for the first time.
The pitch for Special started four years ago when Parsons and his husband and producing partner, Todd Spiewak, read O’Connell’s memoir, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, which details the complexities of living with cerebral palsy. The couple raced to option the title as their first producing project. Four other studios bid on it, but O’Connell — who wrote for MTV’s Awkward and NBC’s Will & Grace revival — was drawn to Parsons, despite his agents’ warning that the Big Bang Theory star was unproven as a producer.
O’Connell had considered Parsons, 46, a role model for years because of his work on the CBS hit, struck by the fact that an openly gay actor was playing a straight character on TV’s most-watched network. “He’s America’s sweetheart and gay — and it was NBD [no big deal,]” says O’Connell, 32. “That was revolutionary.”
Despite positive responses to pitches all over town, none of the cable networks stepped up to buy Special. But Parsons remained steadfast. “Jim never wanted it watered down,” O’Connell recalls. “We needed the culture to catch up.” Since debuting April 12, the autobiographical comedy has become a critical favorite, and the pair has developed a powerful, collaborative bond.
When O’Connell asks Parsons about his own journey, the Big Bang star reveals he was never pressured to stay closeted, but also that he was never directly asked about his sexuality until a 2012 interview — around the time he was starring in HBO’s The Normal Heart. “It felt really good that it wasn’t that big of a deal,” says Parsons. “It’s not like people started tuning out of our show or I quit getting work, which I didn’t really think would happen. But as far as you think the world’s come, progress is really a dance. It’s two steps forward and one step back — and that’s really only if it’s going well.” But O’Connell won’t brook Parsons’ demurrals about his accomplishments. “I like Jim because Jim does whatever the fuck he wants,” says O’Connell. “He’s quietly commanding. You’re an out gay man on one of the biggest sitcoms in the country. That speaks volumes.”
A version of this story first appeared in the April 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.