Best known for his Mickey Doyle on HBO’s critically acclaimed series, ‘Boadwalk Empire,’ Paul Sparks spent the past decade carving out a unique career for himself in Hollywood. An incredibly expressive actor with a strong work ethic, Sparks pours every ounce of his soul into every role. Continuing her showcase his talents with captivating and highly emotional performances, her latest role teams him with writer/director/star Clark Gregg (ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D”, The Avengers, Iron Man 1 & 2) on his outstanding new film, ‘Trust Me.’
In the film, Gregg leads an all-star ensemble cast in this smart, sardonic and unpredictablefilm as Howard Holloway, a former child-actor turned floundering child-actor agent. But when Howard gets his new client (Saxon Sharbino) a shot at the lead in a huge movie franchise, he’ll also have to deal with a slick rival agent (Sam Rockwell; The Way Way Back, Iron Man 2, Moon), an icy casting director (Allison Janney; CBS’s “Mom,” Juno, NBC’s “The West Wing,” American Beauty), a cutthroat mega-producer (Felicity Huffman; ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” Transamerica, Magnolia), his single-mom neighbor (Amanda Peet;2012, Identity Thief, A Lot Like Love, Something’s Gotta Give), and a secret that could destroy more than just the deal of a lifetime.
The stellar cast is rounded out by Niecy Nash (HBO’s “Getting On,” “Reno 911,” “The Soul Man”), Molly Shannon (NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Never Been Kissed), and William H. Macy (Fargo, Dirty Girl, The Lincoln Lawyer, Showtime’s “Shameless”). ‘Trust Me’ is a true gem filled with amazing performances and has been heralded as “a dark comedy with a touching and dramatic flair.” Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Paul Sparks to discuss his roots in the entertainment industry, his journey as an actor, bringing his characters to life, the challenges involved and what the future might hold for this star on the rise.
How did you get started on your journey in the entertainment industry and what made you want to pursue it as a career?
I grew up in Oklahoma. My father was a high school football coach and my mother was an elementary school teacher. I didn’t know anyone in the acting business and wasn’t actually that interested in it until later. I had done some plays and things in high school. I went to Oklahoma State and started studying chemistry. I discovered I wasn’t a very good chemist! I got mixed up in the theatre department and enjoyed those people immensely. One thing leads to another and eventually I thought, “Well, what should I do?” [laughs] Coming from New York, my father talked me into going to school at NYU. I transferred there and studied theatre. When I graduated with my undergrad there, I really didn’t have a degree that would get me any work unless I was an actor, so I pursued it. I just stuck with it for a long time! I always loved it and the absurdity of people taking seriously these fictional stories. I love that as a lifestyle. I continue to work and I have been very fortunate!
Who would you cite as your biggest influences or maybe a mentor who gave you a push along the way?
When I was in high school back in Oklahoma, I lived in a small town of about 5,000 people. There was a woman named Paula McConnell who was my high school drama teacher. She was always nudging me and trying to say, “Maybe this is something you might want to do.” That got kind of got me mixed up with the Oklahoma State people. At Oklahoma State, there was a woman named Tracey Callahan, who also encouraged me to pursue acting. I look at those two teachers, even when I wasn’t thinking that it was something possible, they were thinking acting was something that could be a career for me. I think they had a lot to do with me eventually taking it on as a career.
Obviously, you are a working actor and have been very successful in your career. Did you ever have an “Ah ha!” moment when you felt like you have made it?
I don’t know! Maybe I haven’t had it yet! [laughs] I guess, in a way, I feel I don’t have to do anything else. I was a carpenter when I started in the business. I don’t have to do that anymore! I have come to terms with this being my career! That is really what I aspire to do: work, pay my rent, support my family and not have to do anything else! That is what I am doing, so in that way I feel I totally made it! [laughs] In a way, I don’t know if you are ever totally satisfied or you hope you have more access. I think we are hard-wired to be satisfied, so we constantly look for work. I still feel like I have yet to have that moment.
Your latest project is Clark Gregg’s “Trust Me.” How did you get involved with this project initially and what made you know it was something you wanted to pursue?
I didn’t know Clark Gregg but I knew Mary Vernieu, who is one of the producers. She is a casting director. I have been auditioning for her for a long time and I think she put Clark on to me with some of my tapes. I have known Sam Rockwell for a really long time. I know him from New York. I think there was some sort of connection that way. Clark got on Skype with me to discuss what he was trying to do. I read the script and thought it was such an interesting script because it was challenging and was dealing tonally with some very interesting ideas. It was a really funny script but it was also a really dark script. I love that complexity it had. I was very excited to work on the project and I was a big fan of his work. I knew he was assembling a really good cast. I love Amanda Peete, Allison Janney, Bill Macy and all of the people he had in the cast. It was a great group of people, so it was a pretty easy yes.
What did you bring to this role that might not have been on the written page?
I guess all you can bring is the parts of yourself that are spoken to by what is on the page. I am kind of a script purist in that I love well written stuff. Saxon Sharbino, who plays Lydia, is from Texas and I am from Oklahoma. I think we have a similarity in background that I think puts us in the same orbit. We could have grown up in the same place, if you know what I mean. I think that was very helpful. We had an understanding, she and I, right off the bat. That is important, especially since she plays my daughter in the film. That was really nice. Also, I grew a pretty good mustache for the film! [laughs]
I’m sure it varies from project to project but do you have a process you go through when preparing for each new role?
Yeah, I do. It would probably be pretty boring to hear about my process. Like you said, it depends on what it is. Sometimes, I will do a little more research for historical work. With this one, I just thought about the given circumstances of this guy and tried to fill out some story behind it where it all makes sense. It is a bunch of boring, tedious stuff. [laughs]
Except for the mustache growing. There is nothing boring about that!
Yeah! The mustache growing is exciting! [laughs]
What did you learn from your time working with Clark Gregg and the rest of this terrific cast on the film?
I have never worked with someone who was writing, producing, directing and starring in a project. I am still not convinced after seeing it happen that it is possible! It is crazy that he did all of the things he did and was able to fully wear all of those hats. It was amazing to watch him juggle all of those things. The thing I had worried the most about was that a lot of my scenes were with him and I worried that would be what suffered. That is not what suffered. He is so focused and such a good actor who is generous and giving. To do that, direct and make sure the children are done on time and we don’t keep them out too late is a huge undertaking. All of those things were on his shoulders and it was amazing to watch. Then, of course, it is easy to watch Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney and Felicity Huffman. I love to watch and listen to them riff. Molly Shannon was so funny on this project. I really enjoyed my time with them because they were all so creative.
Looking back on the project, is there anything that stands out as a challenge that you faced?
I think it is always challenging. When you get a script, you look at it and see how much there is to do, you think, “How are we going to film all of this?” I am always amazed when a film is over and we shot everything. I think it is a remarkable thing to accomplish with so many balls up in the air. As far as what I overcame, I don’t know. This is terrible to say but this was not a hard job to do. The script was great and the cast was amazing. Clark was very clear. Saxon was great. The part was a good part. Every part is difficult to do, as it is difficult to be in front of the camera sometimes with the pressure. However, this project was pretty easy and I am grateful for that! It was a pleasure to be a part of!
Saxon Sharbino was terrific in the film. When you are working a young actor such as her, do you approach it any differently since they aren’t as experienced?
I think you do. I am usually surprised at how savvy they all are and how they take notes and work just like everybody else. However, I am aware they are kids. I have kids and you want your kids to be taken care of and you fear for them sometimes on a movie set with a bunch of adults. Saxon has been doing this a while and she is very, very good at it. She is a very good actor. Occasionally, you see young people who need to be tricked into a performance and she is not one of those people. She is pretty fantastic. In the end, I usually learn that they don’t need too much special treatment but maybe they need a little more sleep! [laughs]
Your career continues to be very diverse when it comes to the roles you take on. Is there a particular genre or role that really intrigues you that you want to tackle in the future?
I have never been in a western. I would love that! It is funny that I am from what is basically The Old West and you can’t get cast in that kind of stuff! [laughs] That is really funny to me! I play a lot of Boston guys but I am from Oklahoma. I would love to do that but, as far as roles go, if they are good I want to do them! If they are complex and interesting, I want to play them. I don’t have a role I am dying to do. I love doing new stuff but I am not holding out for any one particular thing.
Do you have any desire to explore the world behind the camera in terms of writing or directing?
I do not! [laughs] I am probably the only one! I have no interest! I love being an actor and I like that side of it. I have been making movies a long time and I still have no idea how they do it! [laughs] That stuff doesn’t mean anything to me. The way they shoot things is always kind of a mystery. I love that there are other people who do that stuff but I just love the acting part.
Looking back on your career so far, what do you consider your biggest evolution as an actor? Is there anything that stands out to you?
Ten years ago I was almost predominantly doing theatre. I think in the past 10 years it has become a lot more television, film and working on camera. I have been really fortunate. I have played a lot of kinds of different characters and I am hoping that is the way it stays. I enjoy the diversity of playing a really normal person to more of a period type of thing like Mickey Doyle on “Boardwalk Empire” or like Ray in “Trust Me,” where he is more of a drunk southern guy. I like changing and being a different person. I don’t know that my style has really changed that much from when I started but I certainly have had opportunities to do a lot of different things and for that I feel very fortunate.
What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to aspiring actors looking to make acting a career?
If their career is anything like mine, you just have to stay at it. In opposition to what a lot of people say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff … ,” always sweat the small stuff. That is where the detail adds up to really good character work. When people have really spent the time to be complex and focused on the choices they make.
Are you involved with any charity work we can help shine a light on?
Absolutely! I am a Type 1 diabetic and I work with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (http://www.jdrf.org). I have run marathons with them and they are a great group. They are raising money and awareness on diabetes. They have scientists that are constantly at work. Type 1 diabetes affects a lot of children. It is not just about finding a cure but about learning to live with it, which is what I do every day. That is pretty close to my heart.
Thanks so much for your time today, Paul! You have been terrific and we wish you continued success!
Thank you, Jason! Take care!