It Is Very Sad to Watch Stanley Tucci Die: On ‘Supernova,’ the ‘Gay Roles’ Debate, and His Mortality
The actor gets candid about his role in the same-sex romantic tear-jerker “Supernova,” his feelings about playing gay as a straight man, and why he’s always thinking about death.
It is upsetting to watch Stanley Tucci slowly die.
Of course, the celebrated actor does so with a shattering elegance. One would expect nothing less from Stanley Tucci.
In Supernova, writer-director Harry Macqueen’s romantic drama that is available to rent on VOD starting Feb. 16, the Oscar-nominated actor plays Tusker, an American who has spent the last several decades living in the U.K. with the love of his life, Sam, played by Colin Firth. Tusker is suffering from early onset dementia, and it’s clear to both of the men that his condition is worsening. So they assemble a wardrobe of the coziest-looking sweaters cinema has ever seen, pack up a camper van, and embark on a roadtrip across England.
They stop over to give parties with old friends. They reminisce about their past, and argue about the plan for Tusker’s continued care. They grapple with the fact that their life together, as they have known it for more than 20 years, will soon never be the same, an unspoken, tragic inevitability that undulates through every scene.
It is, to drive home the point one more time, absolutely devastating. It is also refreshingly beautiful.
Any person who has shouldered the emotional weight of caring for a loved one who is dying can tap into the poignant sentiments of the film. Heck, any person who has been in love can relate to the fireworks show of feelings that Tusker and Sam’s close relationship sets off. That this is a film about such strong love between two men later in life is still, in 2021, remarkable.
By the time Tusker confides in Sam, “I want to be remembered for who I was and not for who I’m about to become,” you might as well surrender your tear ducts to the mystic universe; they no longer belong to you now.
When we connect with Tucci over the phone from the U.K., where he lives with his wife, Felicity Blunt, and their children, he is well aware that talking about Supernova would be a different kind of press push for him.
“I was thinking about that before, that sometimes you’re talking about the fashion, the special effects, or how we all laughed on set. But this is very unusual,” he says. “First of all, it's a difficult story. And then on top of that, it is a story about a same-sex couple in which their sexual orientation is not even mentioned. For Harry to write that, and then second of all get the funding for it, and third of all to realize it so brilliantly is a really rare thing.”
It is, of course, impossible to separate the sadness underlying Tusker’s journey from the fact that Tucci, the actor playing him, is someone known for making us, the moviegoing, celebrity-loving public, very happy.
He’s beloved for roles that he could have been alluding to in that earlier answer: the fashion (Devil Wears Prada, Burlesque), special effects (The Hunger Games, Beauty and the Beast), or how everyone laughed on set (Easy A, Julie & Julia). We associate him with fun and with gravitas—Spotlight, The Lovely Bones, ER—a combination that elicits a public perception of comfort, like he will lead us to righteousness or, at least, a good time.
Look no further than his unlikely rise as the Resident Bartender of the pandemic, after a video of him making a Negroni cocktail went viral. It signaled an appeal as a classy party host that may have contributed to his new CNN travel series, Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy, which premieres Feb. 14. Who wouldn’t want to be guided through a food tour of the bel paese by Stanley Tucci? He has that ineffable charisma.
Even just listening to him talk over the phone you can picture it happening: that amused, pursed smile reluctantly growing across his face, a Cheshire Cat bashful about his gargantuan grin. It’s infectious and it’s also adorable—even just to hear, as much as you can hear such expressions.
And it’s telling that all of this is palpable even as we discuss the difficult subject matters that Supernova surfaces: the death of his late wife, confronting his own mortality and age, the complicated nature of same-sex relationships on film, and his part in the heated conversation about whether straight actors should play gay roles.
He’s happy to engage in all of it because he’s as touched by this story as anyone else.
Supernova came to him at a consequential turning point in his life—he turned 60 in November—“but whether the script was sent to me three years ago or 10 years from now, I still would have the same reaction, which is it’s beautiful and I have to help tell that story,” he says.
“You know, as you get older you gain more and more knowledge. Hopefully. But you lose more and more of the people that you love. And so, I think this coming to me when I was in my late fifties, because we shot it in 2019 and now I’m 60, it was absolutely right. But it’s so beautiful I would have been attracted to it at any time.”
He was sadly forced to consider his own attitudes about mortality and death years ago. Supernova raises questions about how one would want to live out life with the person they love, what the end might be like with that person, and the burdens we might put on each other as we age—and whether you, or they, would be able to handle it. So, too, does it enlighten the beauty of the support that comes from a life lived with the person you love.
“I always think about those things, even without this film,” Tucci says.
His first wife, Kathryn Spath-Tucci, died of breast cancer in 2009. A year later, Tucci’s Devil Wears Prada costar Emiliy Blunt introduced him to her sister, Felicity, at her own wedding to actor John Krasinski. Tucci and (Felicity) Blunt were married in 2012.
“I lost my wife 11 years ago. And I’m married to Felicity, who is 21 years my junior, which is something I never, ever thought would happen,” he says. “We never know what’s going to happen but it’s most likely that I’m going to die before she does. I will die probably before she becomes old. I said to her once, ‘I’m never going to see you grow old.’ That’s an odd realization. And maybe that’s OK, but I would like to be able to be there for her when she does grow old. But I won’t be able to be.”
Before filming of Supernova began, Tucci and Firth were originally set to play each other’s roles. It’s Firth who suggested they swap parts, an instinct Tucci had shared as well. When they read through the script again as the characters they would eventually play, they found the film clicked in a way it hadn’t before.
On a personal level, it was a profound experience for Tucci, who had 11 years earlier in his own life been the caretaker for his late wife—the Sam role of Supernova—but who now was channeling what it might be like to rely on your partner as you face your own death.
“It’s all there. It’s all a part of you,” he says. “You see it from one point of view, from one perspective, in your real life. And then in your creative life you see it from another. There’s no question that my experience informed what I did.”
Over the years, he’s been sent many scripts about cancer, whether he would be playing the person with cancer or opposite the character who does. He turned them all down.
“I've always said no because they don’t necessarily ring completely true to me. I’m not saying they have to be documentary. But if I don’t believe it, if it’s overdramatized or histrionic or whatever, then I don’t do it. That story is a very personal story, and that story is different all the time, even within its sameness. It just has to be right. A lot of time, people fall into a lot of really overwrought [tropes], and that's not what I want to do and not what I want to watch. What I love about Harry’s movie is the things that are left unsaid are equally as important as his beautiful dialogue that is said.”
Those unsaid moments are Supernova’s own special effects, and key to the ways in which it’s almost singular in its romantic storytelling. Tucci makes the point several times as we chat that he was struck by how the film doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Tusker and Sam are gay, outside of just showing them living their life together. That’s still an incredibly unusual creative decision, as simple and obvious as it sounds.
In queer film still, there’s so much preoccupation with the trauma of coming out, that It Gets Better, and the triumph of falling in love—that if you fell in love you’ve somehow overcome the odds. It’s refreshing to see a film that says, “Oh and by the way, there is long, true, real love that you can have until the end of your life.” That Sam and Tusker are gay isn’t a plot point, but still essential to the film’s impact.
In a perfect world, a love story would be approached as a love story regardless of the gender or sexuality of the people in love. But that is still not the case. In Supernova, every scene in which Tusker and Sam wake up spooning in bed or steal a compassionate glance or kiss matters because of how casual it is. There’s a fleeting moment in which Sam reaches across the van to hold Tusker’s hand while they’re driving that is so matter-of-fact, yet intimate, that it seems monumental.
“In that way, it is groundbreaking,” Tucci says. “And it's an honor to be a part of it. There's a way of showing it, and there's a way of just showing it. You know what I mean? The film is the latter. Just, ‘Here we are.’”
Supernova isn’t the first time Tucci has played a gay character. Famously, there was The Devil Wears Prada and Burlesque. In 2014’s A Little Chaos, he played King Louis XIV’s gay brother. But it is the first time he’s done so as the discourse surrounding LGBT+ representation in cinema has galvanized around the lack of opportunity openly queer actors face, and whether or not it is appropriate for straight actors to continue to play queer roles.
Even those firmest in the position that straight actors should not play gay roles seem to grant a bit of a dispensation for Tucci, perhaps a testament to that aforementioned likability, or the assurance that he would do so with dignity—as he has done in the past. But the conversation is obviously something that was on his mind, and he has a bit of a hopeful perspective on it.
“Yes, we do think about it. You worry about it,” he says. “You want to make sure that there's a level playing field. And I think that the genesis of the problem is that there has not been a level playing field. Since forever! Meaning that the problem is societal and systemic.” But, he says, “Things are changing, which is great.”
The fact that actors are now able to be openly gay without career repercussions signals to him that the industry is evolving.
“You have openly gay actors who are playing gay roles, but also playing straight roles. And that's, frankly, the way it should be,” he continues. “If I'm offered a role that I think is really wonderful, if it's gay or straight or whatever it is, I want to play that role because that's my job and that's what I love. As the playing field gets leveled, I think that what we're going to find that we're not even going to think about who is gay or isn't gay or whatever. And I think that we're inching in that direction.”
The best thing that could happen to movies, television, and the industry, he says, is that people stop being defined by their sexuality.
“We should be defined simply by who we are. Are we good people? That's all that matters. What I love about this movie is that the movie doesn't focus on their sexual orientation or preference. It simply focuses on love. And when you see love being politicized or religiousized, there's nothing more disgraceful. Love is love, and you are who you are. And then, let's go have dinner and have a nice time.”
I suspect he’ll take care of the Negronis.