Hal Sparks :: Actor, Activist & (Oh, Yes) Comedian
It was a love of Indiana Jones and Hans Solo that fueled Hal Sparks’ desire for show business. And although he never really became an action hero, he certainly became a queer one, starring as the loveable comic book nerd Michael Novotny on Showtime’s seminal LGBT drama, "Queer as Folk."
But that’s not to say that his career begins and ends on Liberty Avenue. Sparks is a veteran of music, screen and stand-up, with notable credits including hosting E’s "Talk Soup," the cult stoner movie "Dude Where’s My Car," and a current starring role as Donald Davenport on the hugely successful Disney Channel original series, "Lab Rats." Additionally, Sparks has completed a number of successful stand-up tours; alongside performing extensively with his Los Angeles based band, Zero 1.
Not only is Sparks a versatile performer, but he is also a perceptive and politically engaged activist, fighting for progressive causes such as LGBT marriage parity, AIDS research and the legalization of marijuana. Despite refraining from pot-use and identifying as straight, Sparks’ involvement in such causes boils down to a profound investment in the notion of freedom and liberty for all, ’in its most logical sense’. Without a doubt, for Sparks, discrimination of any kind is reprehensible.
Sparks is coming to Laugh Boston this week (June 12-14) where he’ll continue to ponder, from a hilarious angle no doubt, ideas pertaining to technology and societal progression. By his own admission, expect ’a TED talk with dick jokes.’ Edge caught up with Sparks ahead of his performance to talk about his extensive career, political engagement, and life after "QAF."
Stumbles into career
EDGE: So how did you break into show business?
Hal Sparks: I was always under the impression that you didn’t stumble into it -- more like you rammed your head against a wall until someone opened the door because they were annoyed by the noise or you broke a hole in it! (Laughs)
EDGE: Did you always want that career?
Hal Sparks: I think when I was like eight or nine I wanted to be Indiana Jones and I also wanted to be Hans Solo and then I realized that I wanted to be both, and that was the crucial turning point. I lived in Kentucky at the time, and the idea of a career in the arts seemed absurd, but then I moved to Chicago and acting and comedy was like a blue collar job -- not in the ’ blue’ comedy sense, but it was normal -- and you learn and practice and get better.
EDGE: You’re an actor, a comic and a musician -- do you have a favorite discipline?
Hal Sparks: Other than the fact that art is a form that you use to convey emotion and understanding, you can’t really hierarchically layer them, because you can convey any emotion in acting, but it’s up to the script and director as to which one you use -- you’re like channeling another soul. There is a limit to the emotions you can use in stand-up, for example, rage isn’t ok. In music, you can use rage, but doing annoyance isn’t really purposeful enough. So being asked that is like, ’what do you like better, eating or breathing?’ You like one better than the other, until you realize that you can’t do the other, and then you realize how important they both are.
The QAF experience
EDGE: You are arguably most known for your role as Michael Novotny. How was the experience of working on the show? Do you miss Michael?
Hal Sparks: Erm no ... it’s almost as if he exists in some sort of parallel universe (Laughs) It went on for so long, that it had an arc of life for itself. I appreciated the experience, and it was very worthwhile. But if it ends up being the last thing you do, it takes the specialness out of it. So playing Michael came with the caveat -- I had to work harder to make sure that I wasn’t done afterwards.
EDGE: Are you close with any of the cast still? I loved Michael’s relationship with his mother Debbie!
Hal Sparks: She’ll (Sharon Gless - Debbie) always come to my shows when she’s in town, and we’ll go to dinner. With the rest of the cast, as soon as you’re done, your schedule becomes like every other actor, and it becomes difficult to see each other.
EDGE: It was such an important show for the LGBT community and it was released in a more conservative time -- 2000 -- were you prepared for the impact that it had?
Hal Sparks: I knew it would have a political impact because of the way it dealt with the topic, it didn’t play around at all -- it was in your face and very direct. And that’s why I chose it. I wasn’t worried about the impact, I was hoping for it. It was a really valuable thing to do, because it affected the fabric of our society. And I feel proudly that we did good work and changed a lot of minds. I always said the power of it would be felt four years after the end date, whenever that was. And it was true because four years later is when we saw the marriage equality movement really kick off.
EDGE: Would you describe yourself as an activist within the LGBT community?
Hal Sparks: Yes. Activist is a funny word. I just feel a responsibility to further our social contract as human beings. And it always seemed absurd to me that gay people would have different rights -- it makes no sense to me. And rather than an angry or self-righteous point of view, I came from the absurdity angle.
EDGE: I am aware that you are a philanthropist for progressive causes -- such as AIDS research and marijuana legalization -- can you talk more about your involvement?
Hal Sparks: Sure. I don’t do drugs of any kind, but I think it’s cruel to lock up someone for their own personal use of marijuana. Similarly, I’m not gay but I certainly believe in gay rights. Although obviously they are different -- drug use is a choice, and sexuality isn’t. But it boils down to freedom -- I feel like in this country there is a little asterix next to our idea of freedom. I’m for freedom in a very logical sense.
EDGE: You’re coming to Boston this week, where you will be performing at Laugh Boston -- are you excited to be visiting the city?
Hal Sparks: I think Boston is great, because it has such a distant history and also a recent one. I think that means there is more awareness. Past history, the Freedom Trail obviously, and recent history, with sports stuff and the comedy wave of the 80s. So that awareness in Boston means that your audience is going to be a little more attuned and a little smarter than the average crowd, because it’s more meaningful to them. For example, if you tell a historical joke, it takes some deductive reasoning from the audience, and that happens quicker in Boston than say other cities.
A TED talk with dick jokes
EDGE: Can you give us a hint of what audiences can expect from the show? What will you be talking about?
Hal Sparks: Lately I’m basically doing a TED talk with dick jokes. I talk a lot about futurism and where we’re going as a culture. I talk a lot about technology and stuff and where our social structures are moving.
EDGE: You are currently working on a Disney Channel show -- ’Lab Rats,’ will we be seeing more of that?
Hal Sparks: Yeah! We just got commissioned for our fourth season before we even finished our third!
EDGE: Any big plans coming up?
Hal Sparks: My band is playing residency at the Dragon Fly every Monday in Los Angeles all summer long. We’re woodshedding our songs for our next record and we’re playing with lots of local bands we like. The night is called ’Zero Wonderland’-- it’s our own live rock night.
EDGE: Thanks Hal! Anything else you want to share with Edge readers?
Hal Sparks: If people want something lampooned or satirically disemboweled they can always tweet me at Hal Sparks before I come to their town and I’ll try and work it in!
Hal Sparks appears June 12-14, 2014 at Laugh Boston, 25 Summer Street Boston, MA . For more details the Laugh Boston website.
For upcoming appearances of Hal Sparks,