October 19, 2018

Stand-up comedian turns slave owner in ‘Birth of a Nation’

Actor Jason Stuart arrived for a recent interview at his favorite Hollywood coffeehouse, dressed in striped shorts and a T-shirt, and immediately embraced a reporter in a bear hug. He’s a gay, Jewish, liberal comedian, and his stand-up comedy show, “I’m Only Gay on the Weekends,” came about “because I’m just getting too old to be gay every day,” he said, breezily. 

Stuart is so affable and funny that his latest role may come as a surprise to his fans: He’s playing a racist, straight, Christian plantation owner and sexual predator in Nate Parker’s new film, “The Birth of a Nation.” The drama tells the true story of the enslaved preacher Nat Turner (played by Parker), who, in 1831, leads a bloody slave rebellion against his white oppressors — including Stuart’s character, Joseph Randall.

Randall is one of the first landowners to invite the preacher and his owner, Sam Turner (Armie Hammer), to his farm. Sam is making a profit selling Nat’s preaching services to fellow plantation owners; the goal is for Nat to increase productivity among his fellow African-Americans by inspiring them with pro-slavery sections of the Bible.

Randall, who has cut his slaves’ rations back to one meal a day to increase his profits, desperately needs such help; he can’t understand why his slaves are so depressed. Later in the film, he asks Sam to provide him a reluctant female slave for his sexual pleasure. In the aftermath of the rape, which occurs off-camera, we see the woman collapse onscreen.

“This guy is completely dead inside, a product of his time and his generation,” Stuart said. “I was repulsed and disgusted by him. He just wants to make some money, drink a bottle of wine at the end of every day, and have sex with his wife and other women.”

Randall rapes female slaves, Stuart added, “but he doesn’t consider it rape. He considers it his right, because in those days, [whites] owned other people. It’s incomprehensible to us today. But Randall would have thought nothing of his behavior. So that’s how I played him.”

Stuart was so disturbed by the violent racism in the script that he only read it once in full. To grasp his character’s motivations, he studied books on the Antebellum South and worked on his scenes for hours with actor friends.

“I didn’t want to play my character as a traditional sociopath,” he said. So the actor focused on what Randall’s goal was in each scene, whether it was showing off as the drollest guest at a dinner party or eluding Nat Turner’s slave rebellion.

During a rehearsal on the set, Stuart nevertheless had difficulty with the sequence in which his character demands to bed a female slave. “I was playing it as Jason Stuart, rather than Joseph Randall, because I was so revolted,” the actor said. “There was a kind of sheepishness in me, because I was judging him. 

“Then Nate gave me the direction that when I say the line, ‘Why isn’t she here?’ I should be like a businessman on a trip where they’re providing prostitutes. It was, ‘I don’t want to know what’s going on, I don’t want to see the process; all I want to know is that I’m getting my girl.’ And it comes across so gruesomely.”

Even so, Stuart said, “It’s very important to show that these things happened.” For African-Americans, the film’s images are akin to the gay rights slogan “Silence = Death” or the Jewish mantra, “Never Forget” about the Holocaust, he said.

The actor, born Stuart Ted Greif, grew up with a Polish immigrant father who, at 10, escaped the Holocaust with his parents and brother. They survived the war in hiding with Christian families, always hungry, always on the run. When Stuart’s grandmother learned that all of her other relatives had been shot by the Nazis, her hair turned white overnight. “Talking about it makes the hairs stand up on my arm, because I don’t have any on my head,” the balding actor said.

“For my entire childhood, my father and grandparents had post-traumatic stress syndrome,” he added. “They were angry; they were afraid, and they used to say, ‘Don’t trust anyone but the Jews. … It was so confusing to me as a child. And being a [closeted] gay person, I felt there was no place for me.”

On Stuart’s first day at John Burroughs Junior High in Los Angeles, a classmate wrote the word, “fag,” on his locker. Later, a girl punched him in the face, injuring him so badly that he landed in the hospital. During another beating by a fellow student, Stuart passed out. In his stand-up act, Stuart quips, “I’m gay and Jewish, so I’m pissed.” 

But he isn’t really joking.

Stuart found some respite on the stage, performing at the Westside Jewish Community Center from the age of 8. But when he began his professional career in his 20s, he was often told at auditions that he was “too light in the loafers.” “I lived on Low Self-Esteem Boulevard,” he said of those years.

His career took off when his agent suggested that he try stand-up comedy in the 1980s; Stuart eventually headlined mainstream clubs as an out gay comic and went on to land parts on sitcoms such as “Will & Grace” and in films like “Tangerine” and Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange,” opposite John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.

While most successful as a comic, the actor had always aspired to perform more serious roles; after decades in comedy, he decided to pursue that interest in earnest and hired agents all over the country four years ago. It was his agent in New Orleans who secured the performer an audition for “The Birth of a Nation” in 2015.

 “I flew out to Savannah on my own dime, rented a s— car, and stayed in some crappy motel with a pregnant woman smoking on the balcony and some guy sitting by the pool looking like he was going to murder me in my sleep,” Stuart said.

 “So I took the s— car, drove a half-hour out of Savannah to a strip mall … and I went to the parking lot. I started walking around, saying the N-word over and over again, because I’d never said it before — only maybe in the car when I was singing along to Snoop Dogg. Then I see this man who goes, ‘I know you!’ It was Nate Parker, and he had this wonderful sort of energy. And I exhaled and realized I was going to be fine.”

Nevertheless, Stuart assumed he’d never land the role; he burst out crying when the news came the very next day. 

As a Jewish and gay actor who co-founded SAG-AFTRA’s first LGBT committee, Stuart said he finds it deeply meaningful to be part of “The Birth of a Nation.” Not just to enhance his personal career, but because the film is meant to push viewers to speak out against racism today.

“It’s a gift to be part of telling this story.”

“The Birth of a Nation” is now in theaters. Stuart will perform “I’m Only Gay on the Weekends” at the Purple Room in Palm Springs on Oct. 15. For more information, visit this story at brownpapertickets.com.