Life, Death, and Smurfs
Chatting about Spoiler Alert with author Michael Ausiello
Director Michael Showalter’s Spoiler Alert is adapted from popular television journalist Michael Ausiello’s best-selling 2017 memoir Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies. Both chronicle Ausiello’s 13-year relationship and marriage to photographer Kit Cowan, who tragically died from a rare form of neuroendocrine cancer in 2015.
Equal parts inspiring, heartbreaking, and uplifting, Showalter’s drama is strikingly authentic in all the right ways. Producer and star Jim Parsons gives the finest performance of his career as Ausiello, while Sally Field is unsurprisingly sublime as Kit’s devoted mother Marilyn. The remainder of the supporting cast is equally excellent, if at times somewhat underutilized.
But it is character actor Ben Aldridge who makes the most lasting impression. Much like the source material, Showalter and screenwriters David Marshall Grant and Seattle’s own Dan Savage puts Kit front and center. This is his story as much as it is Ausiello’s, and Aldridge makes the most of every second of screen time, delivering one of the best performances of 2022.
I had the pleasure to briefly sit down with Ausiello and chat about all of this and more. Here are the edited transcripts of what he had to say:
Sara Michelle Fetters: How is it being on the other side of all this, being the one getting asked the questions instead of asking them yourself?
Michael Ausiello: [laughs] It’s weird. It’s completely weird, and I’m not entirely comfortable with it. I would much prefer to be on your side: in control, asking the questions. But I’m making the best of it.
SMF: In regards to control, you’d already laid yourself so bare in your memoir. I want to say it’s one of my favorite books of the last little while: it helped get me through the pandemic, so thank you. But what was it like giving up control and letting Michael Showalter and the screenwriters make this film?
MA: It was scary. I think it was the one thing that gave me pause. Not specifically Showalter and [actor] Jim Parsons, just the idea of a movie adaptation. I knew it would involve me relinquishing complete control over this story.
I’m so invested and protective of this story, and particularly of Kit, that it was hard for me to come around and feel like it was worth the risk. But then someone like Jim Parsons expresses interest and Michael Showalter comes into the picture, these incredible artists who I have a massive amount of respect for, and who, when I tell them I’m going to be involved every step of the way, understand and are on board with it.
SMF: You’re watching these people reenact and reinterpret your life. Is it possible to have distance? To separate yourself and be the artist that allows the story to go the way that it needs to? You know how this works for television. You know what makes a good story. You know how these things need to be put together. But now it’s you. It’s your life. Is it difficult to separate like that?
MA: It actually wasn’t that difficult. I think part of it is because I knew going in that we weren’t doing a documentary, that we were doing a version of this story. There were some things that were super important to me that we [be] faithful to. Most of those things dealt with Kit and his parents, who I was very protective of. But beyond that, I understood that certain creative licenses had to be taken in order to make a movie. I was on board with that as long as we got the important stuff right.
SMF: I think one of the incredible things about your memoir is that yes, it’s about you, it’s your journey, but you still put Kit front and center. The memoir is maybe more his story than it is your own.
Somehow the movie follows through on that, and does so in ways that don’t soften the rough edges. You allow yourself to be honest about the good, the bad, and everything that’s in between. Was that important for you when you were watching them put the film together, that Michael Showalter, Jim Parsons, and especially Ben Aldridge remembered that this is as much Kit’s story as it is your own?
MA: I didn’t need to remind them of that. They wanted the same thing. We were all on the same page. I think one thing that was important to me — and again I got no pushback from Michael or Jim or any of the producers — was that I wanted the movie to not shy away from the messiness of love. These were two very imperfect people. This was not a traditional fairy tale by any stretch, and I didn’t want it to be depicted as such. Everybody was on board with that, and I’m so pleased that the movie doesn’t shy away from that stuff.
SMF: What was more difficult? Watching Jim become you? Or watching Ben, who is extraordinary, become Kit?
MA: None of it was too difficult. Honestly, so much of it felt like a privilege to be able to have both of those actors embodying these roles. I felt so lucky. I was on set every day, and mostly I was just sitting there with my mouth open being like, “Shit, these performances are incredible.” We haven’t even gotten to Sally Field!
Yes. Some of it was emotional, and I cried watching it. But mostly I wasn’t crying because I was watching my life be replayed before my eyes; I was crying because I was just so fucking moved by these performances.
SMF: You’re on set every day. Did you get embarrassed all over again by the Smurfs?
MA: No. Oddly enough, I’ve swung around. I’m now owning it [my Smurf fandom] in a way that I’m sort of proud of. I remember that day very well. I wanted to be there the day Jim arrived on set, because I wanted to be there when he saw it for the first time. I wanted to see his reaction, and it lived up to my expectations. He was floored. It took his breath away.
The funny thing is, that’s only a fraction of my [Smurf] collection. They were only seeing maybe a small piece of what the overall collection is. That was a super fun day on set.
There was an unsettling aspect of it, and that’s because it was my actual Smurf collection, and seeing it out in the wild like that and seeing it be handled by other people for the first time was not the most pleasant thing. [laughs] But they were all super respectful of it, and they all understood how special that collection was for me.
SMF: I do want to ask, it’s so rare that we get to see an LGBTQ relationship that is authentically complex in a major motion picture. I know this year we’ve had Fire Island, we’ve had Bros, very fun and enjoyable films that have attempted to explore similar themes. But I don’t think we’ve seen one that is this authentic, one that felt this real.
For you, as this gets out there to a wider audience that maybe never would’ve had a chance to read your book, what do you hope those audiences take away from the experience? What do you want them to feel or to be talking about as they exit the theater?
MA: I hope that they’re moved by it. I hope they’re entertained by it. Beyond that, I wouldn’t want to project any of my own expectations or hopes or desires onto anyone else. As an avid moviegoer, I like to go into a movie with an open mind and a clean slate, without all that noise around me of how I should feel or the messages I should take away. I want to have my own personal experience. I want to walk away with my own thoughts and ideas.
So I want to leave that to the moviegoer. I want them to have their own personal experience. That’s my hope.
– Interview reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle