It has been a long road for Jason Stuart.
From the beginning of the veteran character actor 's career, the act of getting started posed a daunting proposition.
"I was just trying to get in somehow. I just tried really, really hard. And nobody wanted me," Stuart said, "They told me to my face. Literally, they would tell me to my face. It was really deafening."
However, even from the outset, as Stuart cut his teeth with guest performances on network television shows such as Murder, She Wrote and The Drew Carey Show, the Smothered producer's story was unique among his peers.
Not simply because of his multi-hyphenate success as an actor and a standup comedian, and not simply because he is, as he puts it, "this chubby gay boy who grew up in Los Angeles in a family with a father who was a Holocaust survivor and a mother who was a beautician." Not even because he is touted as the ﬁrst openly gay stand-up comedian.
Rather, what makes Stuart's story so powerfully aspirational is that it could have very well never come to pass.
In his new memoir, Shut Up, I'm Talking!: Coming Out in Hollywood and Making it to the Middle, Stuart chronicles his unconventional road to success.
The memoir, which is co-written with author Dan Duffy, spans from Stuart's recent success in the independent ﬁlm world to his ﬁrst gigs as an aspiring actor. In remembering the earlier days of his career, Stuart recalls the tribulations that came along with being one of the few openly gay performers at the time.
"You want to know the real truth? I was so scared in those days," Stuart said, "I was so scared of losing my job. For a gay person at that time, there were so many other things to think about. Number one, I was very aware of whether I was safe or not. I was constantly thinking about that.
"Also the fear was whether I could sell the tickets, and how much publicity I had to do, and then there was the fear of whether or not I could do the time of 45 minutes to an hour. All that I wanted to do, I wanted to do and do well. That was my focus."
Despite some signiﬁcant resistance, including being picketed by the infamous Westboro Baptist Church no fewer than four times, Stuart's perseverance led him to acclaim as the ﬁrst openly gay stand-up comedian. Stuart himself, however, disputes the accuracy of that claim, and says that praise would be better directed at those who inspired his work.
"It doesn't matter what I say, people will still say that. I think I know what they mean by that, and I'm humbled by it, [but] what's really, really important to me is that I stand on the shoulders of other people who have done all this before me, because I would not be where I was if not for them," Stuart said,
"I think what happens is that I had these opportunities and I jumped on them when they came up. I think at the time when some of the other (gay comedians and actors) did, they didn't have those opportunities."
Stuart also recalled times when his public identity as a gay man affected his ability to move through the industry. Struggling to acquire the resources that might have otherwise come more easily to straight actors, Stuart had to pave his own way.
"Having fun was so hard during that time, because I'd never done it before, and it was so hard to do by myself. I never had a high powered manager or a high powered agent," Stuart said, "None of them ever came to me.
"This is the deal: in show business, it's all about who you know and whether they like who you know, and then whether they like you. It's very complicated, there's a lot of hoops you have to jump through to get to the next place. There's so many elements to getting a part that I just keep learning."
While he may not have had the attention of the mainstream, doing things his own way afforded Stuart a unique perspective on working as an actor. Rather than pursuing the beaten path, he instead chose to seek out people and places that inspired him. It's a philosophy that Stuart credits with some of the greatest successes of his career.
"I just go to where the love is. Now, I speciﬁcally go to work with people that interest me," Stuart said, "I try to go to people who dig me. I try to stay true to those roots. When something touches me, and something is my heart, and reminds me of why I wanted to be an actor, then I want to write them a letter. Acknowledge peoples' work. I try very hard to show up every day, and work on my craft as an actor."
Staying true to his roots has led Stuart great heights, including roles on My Wife and Kids and Will and Grace, as well as cinematic turns in ﬁlms such as the 2014 and 2015 Sundance selections Love is Strange and Tangerine. But of all the prominent endeavors that he has found himself attached to, Stuart seems to remember one in particular as being the most memorable, if not the most touchingly personal, of his career.
The Nate Parker directed The Birth of a Nation offered Stuart with an entirely new world in which to challenge his abilities as an actor. What he hadn't counted on, however, was how deeply the project would impact him, not as a performer, but as a person.
For Stuart, The Birth of a Nation became more than yet another incredible project: to him, the ﬁlm represented the culmination of nearly four decades of overcoming barriers, persistence, and determination.
"I remember the ﬁrst day I met (Nate Parker) after the audition. I went to his house that he was renting, I went into the house, and he was there. He sat down at his desk, and I said, 'Thank you so much for casting me,' and he said, 'No, thank you.'" Thank God he turned his head, because if he had looked at me I would've started crying," Stuart said, "It was such an opportunity for me. Somebody let me sit at the big table. He let me sit there."
After The Birth of a Nation released across the country, including at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the San Diego LGBT Weekly reached out to Parker for comment on Stuart's performance in the ﬁlm. When Stuart read the article upon its release, he discovered something that was not only unexpected, but deeply moving.
"I read what Nate wrote, and it changed me. He doesn't…maybe he does realize. I'm not on the list. I'm somebody still trying to get on the list. I still have to do the footwork. It was so life-changing to this guy, who [in the beginning] had no connection to show business whatsoever at all, and I was so grateful," Stuart then recited Parker 's quote, which read:
"It was really all about the incredible work in the audition room. I wanted to stray away from the traditional psychopathic slave owner, and instead present a character who had more redeemable qualities. Qualities someone might almost perceive as likable. That would create in an audience member a more complex journey as they grappled with the systematic effect in this period of American history.
"Jason walked in with an understanding of that vision. He brought a conﬁdence, humility, and humor to the role in a way that helped achieve a much needed balance across the characters and overall narrative. His on-set instincts further validated his timing, as he constantly pursued brave choices that added in expanding the breadth of the character."
With such an unexpected and glowing endorsement, especially from the man who brought him on board the project, Stuart had accomplished a feat he had once feared he'd never attain.
"There are no parts for a gay 50 year old guy. There are no parts for that anymore," Stuart said, "I was speechless. It touched my heart in such a deep way as an artist."
Stuart's conviction and resilience have built a career with the sort of longevity most artists dream of. Since The Birth of a Nation, he has taken on roles in numerous series and ﬁlms, including the award-winning short Hank. While the parts that he plays are as vibrant and eclectic as ever, there is still one goal that Stuart takes with him into each and every performance.
"I want to be a part of stories that people want to tell," Stuart said, "I want to be a part of their vision. I want to be of service to those people. I've been lucky. Very lucky."
Stuart's memoir, Shut Up, I'm Talking!: Coming Out in Hollywood and Making it to the Middle is available now.