The theatrical production Sons of Hollywood covers an important part of cinematic history.
Silent-film stars Ramon Novarro and William Haines enjoyed lives as Hollywood royalty, engulfed in luxury. But when the Motion Picture Production Code brings an end to the no-holds-barred attitude of Hollywood and its acceptance of its gay stars, both men are forced to grapple with their identity in a suddenly oppressive world.
Adam Jennings co-stars in Sons of Hollywood as Haines. The candid (and telegenic) actor recently talked with Windy City Times about his own career, his attraction to the role and lessons viewers can learn from the production.
Windy City Times: Tell our readers what Sons of Hollywood is about.
Adam Jennings: Sure. This is a true story, although some of it is fictionalized. The writers, Barry Ball and Carl Menninger, did a tremendous job bringing to life these characters from a hundred years ago.
The story is about love and friendship. It's a tale of two of the biggest silent-film stars in Hollywood history who both made the successful leap to talking filmsRamon Navarro and Billy Haines. They both take wildly different paths from film stardom to the next phases of their lives.
This plays spans 50 years of history. It starts in 1925 and ends with the announcements of Billy, Ramon and Lucille LeSueur. (I won't give anything away.) It's such a rich story and has got a lot of relevant issues. I've been blown away by the whole process.
WCT: And tell me about your background.
AJ: Sure. I grew up in the San Francisco area. I started doing plays and TV commercials before I was 10 years old. My sister and I used to dress up and put on shows in the living room. So it was a no-brainer that I was going to end up in this business, one way or another. I did shows in school and managed to start a career in Los Angeles; I lived there for about a decade.
Most of my regular work is in video games; I do a lot of motion-capture work. Guitar Hero and Call of Duty, and being able to perform video-character work has been the most consistent form of employment for me in this business. Theater is where I feel I grew up, and to be in Chicago and do work with Windy City Playhouseknown for its award-winning work and extensive runs[is a dream].
I actually had this audition in April 2020. When they started sending details, I started reading and it clicked for me really quickly. I appreciated the depth of it and I see a lot of myself in Billy Haineshe's quoted as being a gentleman and a clown, and that fits me. So, to have had a Zoom table reading and go to rehearsals (with masks on) to [COVID] tests three times a week… I couldn't have asked for more from the theater company; this is something I love to do.
WCT: One of the ongoing debates regarding gay roles is if gay actors should play them. You identify as straight. Did you have any hesitation taking on the role of Haines?
AJ: No. To me, living in this neighborhood [just north of Northalsted/Boystown] makes me feel strongly about telling the story of these [actors] defining themselves in a time … when [sexuality] wasn't defined. When Billy was asked by the studio to get rid of his lover, he told them [no]; he was so bold as to throw away a movie career just for the chance to be authentic. It just felt like such an important story to telland in a time when homosexuality was seen as a sickness.
There's a lot of fun, joy, laughter and singing in this showbut as it goes on, you start to feel the struggle of these characters. I feel like I have a responsibility to tell this story, and I feel like we do it well.
[After the initial interview, Jennings wanted to add to his answer about what he said is "a sensitive issue." In part, he said, "I feel like, for me to play this roleas a straight, white, cisgender male in the entertainment business, which doesn't adequately represent the queer communityit's an opportunity that's helped me to grow as a person; it's been life-changing.
"I had started to prepare myself for questions like this because I understand what it means. The reality is that I could never fully understand the struggle we're talking about here. There are things that I will just never experience so it's my job and duty to tell the story to the best of my abilityand to [know] how much it means to people who feel they don't necessarily have a voice.
"I read a fascinating article about straight actors playing gay roles, going back to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia [as well as] Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain. Then there's a separate level of cisgender actors playing trans roles, which I think no one is better able to tell that story than someone who is living that life.
"If I was ever offered another role as a queer character, I'd have to seriously consider whether [it] was appropriate. In the casting process [for Sons of Hollywood], they didn't ask for gay actors, specificallyand I don't think it's their business to ask about someone's sexual identity. But there's quite a bit of inequality in the business in relation to queer actors and I hope that there were a significant number of gay actors who had a chance for the role. All I know is that I was given three weeks to prepare for the audition, and I did as much research as possible. And I identified with a lot of Billy Haines' character traitsand I think it was incredibly courageous of him, in the 1930s, to stand up for what he believed in and to live an authentic life.
"So if I can be a contributing voice in the struggle the LGBTQ+ community is going through, or to make someone feel more comfortable… I hope this story opens the door to someone feeling more comfortable about who they are."]
WCT: To many, Hollywood is supposed to be a bastion of liberalism. Why do you think there are closeted relationships there today?
AJ: I think it has a lot to do with this period of time we're dealing with in the play, where Hollywood was liberal and free. There's a line in the play: "Why are there no rules for the men who control the money?" I think that's incredibly powerful and scarythat those who don't have the money (whether it's about choices, lifestyles or identities) have to play by the rules. Now we're dealing with cancel culture; we have free speech but we're also criticized for things we say and do. There are issues we deal with today that we've been dealing with a hundred years, but at least now we're in an era where there's more discussion and acceptance. Hopefully, that will win. At least, we're seeing a lot more friendly shows and commercials.
WCT: You mentioned that you read to prepare for this role. Did you do anything else to prepare, like consult someone?
AJ: My first resource was the book about William Haines. It's called Wisecracker [The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star], by William J. Mann, and it's everything I could've wanted to find out about Billy and his life. There's an index where you can look up names, places and issues. The author was able to find friends of Billy Haines and find old archives.
Of course, the script of brilliant. And even if you simply Google his name, stuff comes up like documentary footage, movie clipsthere's one of him just being a ham. The character started to develop in me early on; I saw how he moved and dressed.
I feel like to create a fictional character, there's a little more libertybut you have more pressure, too. To embody somebody who has already lived a legendary lifeI don't want to do an impression of William Haines. He, as a person, was so authentic so if I can scratch the surface of who he was, then I'm doing my job.
WCT: What was the most surprising thing you discovered about William Haines?
AJ: That's hard to say. There are a few things I think were notable.
The book says that he grew up loving his mother, helping her in the kitchen and with decorating. He redecorated his bedroom when he was, like, 6 years old. Also, he had an athletic build but hated competitive sports. At 14, he ran away from home to a place called Hopewell, Virginia, and he opened a dance club/brothel with this boyfriend at the time. He then took care of his family and, afterward, moved to New York City and became part of the Greenwich Village bohemian [scene], where he developed his feelings of inclusion. He was then discovered in New York City and sent to Los Angeles to start a movie career, at age 22.
In 1930, he was the number-one box-office star in the world. Three years later, he was hardly in anything after they started cracking down on stars. He later became a world-famous decorator. I'd encourage [anyone] to read the book, because Billy Haines was a fascinating person.
WCT: What do you hope people take away from this production?
AJ: I know people will be affected, regardless of their station in life. I can only imagine what it's like to sit and watch this show, because it moves quicklyand there's a lot to absorb. I hope people are able to learn about William and Ramon, and their friends and their lives. What they went through helped to define who we are today. I hope people laugh and cry, and are affected. In this challenging world we live in, people should feel the need to escape or, as my mom would say, "stare at four different walls for a while."
There's a sense of responsibility to put on a good show, as people don't go out as much as they used to. I really want to see the new Spider-Man movie but I'm still a little nervous to go to the movie theater.
WCT: People have learned different things about themselves and others over the past two years, between the COVID pandemic and the racial awakening some have experienced. What have you learned about yourself during that time?
AJ: I've learned that … I've lived a privileged life and that I can always be better, more aware. I love being a part of my community and supporting those around meall colors and creeds.
I've been deeply moved by the different movements. It's not about a select few in my life who have had to deal with racial or sexuality issues. There are so many people, and what they deal with is near and dear to my heart.
What I've learned about myself is that I have a responsibility to come correct, you know? It's important to have a voicenot even publicly, but in my own groups and with my friends. For me, it starts with my friends and family, and then goes to my circles of friends.
At the start of the pandemic, I couldn't act or servemy two careers: hospitality and theater. They were hit hard. So we got jobs at Jewel; I ended up running the liquor department. Being part of a business like that during these challenging timeswith everything from protests to maskshelped me get a sense of people's struggles and it helped me get out of the house, as I like to be physically active and connect with people.
Over the last couple of years, a lot of scary stuff has come to light. I'd like to think we're on the right track but we have a lot of work to doand I want to be part of the solution.
Sons of Hollywood is currently running at the Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd. Find out more and purchase tickets at windycityplayhouse.com . Note: COVID protocols are being followed, including showing proof of vaccination and wearing face masks.