By Kirsten Coachman
Writing and reflecting on one’s life can be quite the task. TVLine.com President and Editorial Director Michael Ausiello admitted he found writing his 2017 memoir, “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies,” about his relationship with his late husband, photographer Kit Cowan, in the midst of grieving to be “excruciating, painful, and hard.”
The book covers the couple’s relationship and the 11 months following Cowan’s terminal cancer diagnosis, including his passing in 2015. “The overall experience has been cathartic,” said Ausiello.
“Seeing what has come of [the book]—it’s therapeutic and also very healing,” he added.
What has come of Ausiello’s memoir is “Spoiler Alert,” a film adaptation opening this weekend in San Francisco from Focus Features. Directed by Michael Showalter, the movie stars Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”) as Michael Ausiello and Ben Aldridge (“Fleabag”) as Kit Cowan. It also stars Sally Field and Bill Irwin. The screenplay was written by David Marshall Grant and Dan Savage.
Much like Ausiello’s book, the film is full of heart and humor as it navigates the ups and downs of Michael and Kit’s 14-year relationship and coping with Kit’s rare neuroendocrine cancer diagnosis. Make no mistake, “Spoiler Alert” will have you reaching for the nearest box of tissues.
Art U News sat down with Ausiello last month during the film’s San Francisco press tour stop to discuss his love story being depicted onscreen, his involvement as executive producer, and that Smurf-tastic apartment reveal.
What I enjoyed about this movie is that I felt like was watching a depiction of an authentic relationship—things are imperfect and messy. Still, there is genuine love between these characters. Since it’s your love story, how important was it to have these different aspects depicted onscreen?
Some of my favorite love stories—both real and fiction—involve flawed people, involve imperfect individuals who have imperfect relationships. Those are the stories that I find most relatable. I knew when I set out to tell this story that there was only one way to do it, and that was to be honest about the messiness of it all. Because relationships are messy, I think there’s a tendency sometimes to sugarcoat some of those rough edges. And I didn’t want to do that. And I think it’s why people have enjoyed the book. And I hope it’s why people will enjoy the movie. Hopefully, they’ll be able to see themselves, but also maybe their relationships in it.
Being that you have a regular readership who knows you from your work on TV Line, was there any hesitation in sharing specific moments or not wanting to be too exposed?
Once I set out the write the book, I realized I needed to be honest about myself, and I didn’t want to sugarcoat myself either. I think maybe it was a little bit of self-preservation—I didn’t focus too much about what people would think or, you know, what impact it would have when people find out that I have these flaws, that I collect Smurfs, that I have body issues, all of these things. Mostly, it was just liberating to be able to just talk about it and put it out there and let the chips fall where they may.
Did it cross your mind that someone would want to option the book, let alone have it be Jim Parsons approaching you to option the book?
I didn’t really give much thought to it. I think in the back of my mind, of course, you hope that the book will be received well and people will respond to it and that someone will want to adapt it. But it wasn’t something that I put any stock in or was invested in any way. So, when Jim and Todd [Spiewak], his husband, mentioned that they were interested in optioning it, it just blew me away. Like, it was such an amazing moment, and to me, it spoke to how much they loved the book, and that meant a lot to me—that they loved the book so much that they were like, “We want to bring this story to the big screen.” [It] felt like a huge vote of confidence in me and in this story.
And speaking of Jim Parsons, he has played one of the most popular television characters in this era. What did it mean to you having him kind of stepping into your shoes, and what involvement did you have in casting Kit and his parents?
Yeah, I was involved in those big roles, and I had, I guess you could say, a vote, particularly when it came to casting Kit. I knew early on when Jim expressed interest in optioning the book that he wanted to play me. So that was already something that was set in stone pretty much. So really, the big thing was finding someone who could play Kit, and we struck gold with Ben.
What were you looking for when it came time to cast Kit?
For me, I wanted someone who worked well with Jim. I wanted someone who just had chemistry with Jim to the point where you could believe that these two people were in love and that they would do anything for each other. That was, to me, the most important thing.
So, like, “I don’t want it to look exactly how it was,” but more of, “I just want it to look real?”
Yeah. I want two great actors who can portray two flawed people who are in love. The fact that we got Ben, though, who does look like Kit in some ways. It’s eerie, not just how much physically he embodies Kit, but just the essence that he was able to capture of Kit, you know, Kit’s sense of humor, particularly. It’s amazing. I feel very lucky that we were able to get him for this.
In your executive producer role, how much say did you have as far as the adaptation of the script?
I was very involved, but it was a collaboration right from the get-go. So I had a voice, but obviously, Dan and Dave—this is their script—had a strong voice, as did Michael Showalter. So there were a lot of voices. There were a lot of people contributing their opinions—I was one of them. And I was grateful that I was allowed to be as involved as I was. And you know, David and Dan would come to me and ask about things that happened and my thoughts about things.
Was there anything from the book that you were worried might not translate well onscreen? Or something you were surprised by how well it did translate onscreen.
Well, one of the things that was important to me that did get translated—and I think I was worried that it might not—was the type of cancer that Kit had. [It] was a very rare neuroendocrine cancer. And what we experienced, and I went through this in the book, there’s so much that’s not known about it that it made the struggle even worse because the experts weren’t experts about this type of cancer.
So, there was a lot of misinformation. We were misled a lot. And it was important for me that the story does justice to that aspect of it because I think the only way to correct that and to ensure that other people don’t have to go through what we went through and that misinformation is by putting [it in a] story and letting people know that this is a very rare cancer. There’s not a lot known about it. Even the experts don’t know about it. Maybe this will help them get educated. I’m really happy that the movie did portray that, even from the medical perspective, where there was just a lot of confusion about how to treat this, what is it, how bad is it. The prognoses were all over the map. And I wanted to do that aspect of the story justice.
I really want to talk about that apartment reveal.
Let’s do it. Let’s get into it.
We see Jim’s Michael have a lot of anxiety knowing that they’re going to his apartment that night. I know in the book, there’s a lot of focus on Kit’s reaction to this event and just being overwhelmed by what he discovers. How close does the onscreen depiction reflect how you were feeling at the moment?
I think in real life, at that point, I was definitely concerned after having seen how tasteful Kit was with his life, with his art, with his style, with his design. I knew that he was going to have a very different experience when he saw my apartment. So, I was definitely worried about it. I don’t know that I was as worried as it’s portrayed in the movie because I don’t think I knew at that point how big a deal it was going to be. It scared me. I remember at that moment, and it was like, there was a little bit of, “Oh, this isn’t just something he’s gonna like laugh off and be, oh, this is charming.” It’s like, this is a big deal, you know?
It’s not—and the movie really captures this beautifully— it’s not the Smurfs so much that scares Kit, even though it was super scary. It’s that Michael was willing to share it with him. And also, at that point, I think Kit had already fallen in love. So it was a little bit of like, “Well, it’s too late for me to back out now, but now I’m stuck with this guy who collects Smurfs. How am I gonna reconcile this?” It was a lot of things, I think, at that moment. But I remember in that actual moment, I was scared that we were gonna break up. And not just because the Smurfs, just the Smurfs brought up so much stuff.
Were you on set the day that they shot that scene?
Yes. It was mostly because I was guarding the Smurfs.
So that was your collection onscreen?
That was my collection. Yeah. I had a stick. Anyone who came close to touching them I just hit them with the stick. [laughs] No, they were all actually really very respectful of my collection. But it was a little hard for me to see it out in the wild. This collection that only I ever had access to or touched essentially is now on this movie set. And there are grips, and there are set designers, and there are actors. It was a little hard for me to see, but also super exciting. It was like, “Oh my God, I’m so glad that I saved this collection.” Some of it I procured as an adult, but most of it was from my actual childhood. And the fact that we were able to be so authentic and have the actual collection was amazing.
The film features flashbacks that reference childhood trauma, and the idea of going back and recontextualizing this in a sitcom setting is brilliant, especially given your profession covering television. I’m very curious about how this came to be.
That was Michael Showalter’s idea. It was a brilliant idea. And the second he mentioned it, I was like, yes, of course, that’s how we have to do it. And that was maybe one of the most fun days we had onset was shooting those sequences, shooting that sitcom, ’cause, just tonally, it was so different from everything else that we had been doing. And also, just working with these wonderful young actors. It was just such a joy. And watching Michael work with these young actors, it was just pure joy.
“Spoiler Alert” is now playing in San Francisco. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.