Jason Stuart isn’t a household name, but he’s been working steadily as an actor, stand-up comedian and writer for 35 years. He has more than 150 film and TV credits ranging from “Kindergarten Cop,” “Vegas Vacation” and “My Wife and Kids” to more recent work in “Love,” “Birth of a Nation” and “Tangerine.”
The 60-year-old chronicles his showbiz journey in his new memoir “Shut Up, I’m Talking: Coming Out in Hollywood and Making It to the Middle” in funny anecdotes about his experiences. But it’s also a very personal dive into coping with insecurity, identity, family dysfunction and the neuroses and emotional baggage that come with them. Stuart spoke with the Journal about why he felt compelled to bare his soul.
Jewish Journal: What motivated you to write the book?
Jason Stuart: Nobody does anything for one reason. I feel like at my age, I’ve learned so much and had this compulsion to share. I’ve been mentoring people for the last 10 years or so. I realized that I needed to say these things out loud. My co-writer Dan Duffy is not a Jew or a gay man so I got tremendous perspective from him and without his encouragement, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. I felt like I needed to say these things, but I didn’t tell everything. Some things are too private.
JJ: What’s the most important takeaway message from the book?
JS: I want people to know that if you want to be an artist, some of it is going to be emotionally devastating. But the highs are so high. Being in a film like “Birth of a Nation” and playing a straight villain was such a high, but the balloon doesn’t stay up there. And you have to be able to handle it when it comes down. You can’t take yourself too seriously. I wanted to share that with everyone.
JJ: You write about being the son of a Holocaust survivor, your parents’ bad marriage and the broken relationships with your siblings.
JS: It’s who I am and what I came from. I’m the child of a Holocaust survivor. There’s nothing more overwhelming than that. It changed the course of my life in such a big way. Just because you grow up in the same house doesn’t mean people care about you. My father’s goal in life was to give us everything so we wouldn’t have to go through what he went through. I’m an artist because of my father and mother. I get the inspiration from her and the wherewithal from him. He always told me to wear a tie and look my best when I go to an interview and I took that to mean ‘be your best self.’
JJ: You also write about the people who made a big impression on you including Dustin Hoffman, Whoopi Goldberg and Barbra Streisand, especially. Why does she mean so much to you?
JS: I don’t know her as a person, but it’s what she has done and accomplished as an artist. What she meant to me growing up was that she was unapologetic for who she was. She was funny on the outside and had pain on the inside. She made a very sad, gay little boy’s life better. I’ve met her in passing a few times. I always wanted to have her direct me in a film but I don’t know that she’ll do that anymore. Dustin Hoffman is a very big deal to me. And Whoopi Goldberg made me realize that if there’s a place for her, there’s a place for me.
JJ: Most of these are Jewish icons. How connected are you to Judaism and your Jewish identity?
JJ: I’m not connected to religion. I’m connected to the culture and the plight. I think being a cultural Jew has given me the opportunity to step up to the plate and it’s made me a better person. In my family, we were led by tradition, not religion. We gathered together for the holidays and that’s where the craziness would begin. That’s where I got all my comedy.
JJ: When did you realize you were funny?
JS: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t! I think funny.
JJ: You’ve done a lot of comedies, but dramas, too, in recent years. Which roles stand out?
JS: Above all, “Birth of a Nation.” The shrinks I played in “My Wife and Kids” and in Judd Apatow’s show “Love.” “Tangerine,” “The Closer” — my first annoying Jew. The obnoxious office manager in “Coffee Date.”
JJ: What’s next for you?
JS: “Immortal.” It’s a great thriller about these people who die in terrible accidents. I play a very intimidating private investigator. It’s coming out in the fall. “Abducted” is my first action film. I play a straight detective. And I have a wonderful short film called “Hank,” where I play a sweet, kind, quiet, gay man. It has played at film festivals and I’ve gotten the best reviews since “Birth of a Nation.” I’ve created, written and acted in a web series about these two Jewish men called “Smothered.” It’s about two crazy people who’ve been together for 30 years and hate each other but can’t afford to get divorced. Going forward, I’d love to get a call from David O. Russell or Martin Scorsese or Patty Jenkins. I’m looking for that next role that’ll move me to the next place.
JJ: Any upcoming standup gigs?
JS: Always, and I’m doing lectures and talking about the book at appearances and signings, some coming up in L.A. and Palm Springs. They’re on my website.
JJ: What else is on your to-do list?
JS: A husband. I’ve been a complete failure in every relationship so there’s nowhere to go but up!