A patient (John Cullum) gets help from Jackie (Edie Falco) and Thor (Stephen Wallem)
If you’re familiar with Showtime’s hit series Nurse Jackie, then you know Stephen Wallem, who has played out nurse Thor since the first season. But did you also know that Wallem is a man who stands 6’3”, can belt out a tune like nobody’s business and loves theater.
For the first time on Jackie this Sunday (the season finale), Wallem gets a chance to sing on the show as Thor in a heartfelt storyline in the episode that features veteran Broadway and TV star, John Cullum.
TBL: Let’s talk Nurse Jackie first. What do you think of the fact that over years we have learned little bits about Thor? In the season premiere we found out that Thor is a football fan!
SW: I love it. There are so few, in my opinion, well-rounded, fleshed-out gay characters on television that I have always wanted to make sure that he is a real human being and not just another cartoon because obviously there are a million different types of gay men and women. They are not all campy 24 hours a day.
TBL: Yes. I love it too. I appreciate as a viewer that it’s not a coming out story every time another gay character pops up, which I think 15-20 years ago that is what it almost always was.
SW: Yes. Terrific. Exactly. I would never feel comfortable if Thor was suddenly given a storyline [where] he is struggling with his sexuality. I hear from other male nurses, straight and gay, there is just an automatic assumption when somebody is a male nurse that either they are effeminate or they are gay or they are closeted or they are something.
I love the fact that it was just never an issue. There are references to Thor being gay but there wasn’t a huge discussion about it. Yes. That is the way it is in real life. Not everybody is struggling to come out. There are plenty of people that are perfectly fine with who they are at the moment.
Selfie-time! Merritt Wever, Falco and Wallem on Nurse Jackie
TBL: I hear that you get to sing on the show in the finale.
SW: I do. I was given a huge gift…I get to work with the Broadway legend, John Cullum. Most people these days know him from Northern Exposure. He has done a trillion TV and movie appearances, but when I saw that he was coming in for this particular episode, me being a musical theater geek knows him as a legendary Broadway performer.
I have this remarkable relationship with this patient that comes in, this older man played by John. Without giving too much away, it gives me an excuse to sing in the episode. It is beautiful, touching. I was kind of blown away by everything I was given, not just the fact that they let me sing, but the work I get to do with this particular actor. It was very emotional but all in a good way.
TBL: John Cameron Mitchell directed an episode this season…
SW: He is so wonderful to work with. I have admired him as a director and an actor. He has done so much as far as just advocacy for gay rights awareness and just being an openly gay actor and director. One of the first things he said to me our first day working together was, “You know we were sitting around having a production meeting and I just went out loud and said, ‘When does Thor get a love life?’” I immediately loved him even more for that.
What I love is that more viewers are sort of asking, “When do we get to see Thor have a love life?” We are inching towards it. We get a mention of it this year, but who knows? If the show keeps going maybe they will actually cast a real life human being to hold hands with Thor. You never know. [The series was renewed for a sixth season last week]
TBL: Yes, but it won’t be with [current hunky co-star] Morris Chestnut, correct? [laughs]
SW: No. No. No. No. He had his own experiences this season, let’s put it that way. Let’s leave it hanging like that, but it is not with Thor. If only I had control over those things. I have had my share of ideas through the years, yes.
Wallem performs in a show earlier this year at Birdland in NYC. (photo: Seth Walters)
TBL: I’ve talked to your sister, Linda, (who is Executive Producer on Nurse Jackie) several times and I was just curious growing up since she is a writer, you are a performer…was it a creative household you grew up in or was this just kind of who you two were?
SW: We were so fortunate because my mom used to be a tap teacher, and my uncle was a playwright. I attribute my love of the arts so much to my uncle because he ended up moving to Rockford at one point with his partner. He would babysit me, and we would write together. We would write musicals together.
It was just completely natural for me to get involved with the arts. We were so blessed because our parents supported everything that we wanted to discover. If we had given it up and gone into being a doctor or an architect or you name it, our parents would have supported us. There was never any pressure to go into any particular type of field, but because it just happened that my sister and I were both creative and ended up following through on that into our adult lives, it was just always supportive. They let us do it on our own.
TBL: What was the first song you ever performed for an audience?
SW: That was a song that my uncle wrote actually. It was 1976, and this was in Illinois, and it was for a little tiny theater company that wanted to do a bicentennial show. It was called Firecrackers. My sister and I were both in it. I wish I could remember what the song was, but I was a marionette. I remember that we sang something patriotic because it was the bicentennial, so that was it. I don’t remember being nervous. I remember feeling like, “Oh yes. This feels right.” I can sing with ribbons on my arms for the rest of my life. I will do it.
TBL: Being so involved with the arts and theater as a young person, was coming out an easy process for you or was it just as difficult as it is for a lot of us?
SW: It was easy as far as with my family because again. My uncle was gay and he was with his partner for 30 years. Having them around and having them in the same hometown a little later on, even before I understood that they were a gay couple because I really didn’t. All I knew was here is Uncle Jim and Ken. The funny thing is it didn’t dawn on me until much later that they were an actual couple because I just grew up seeing a really strong marriage both with my parents and with Uncle Jim and Ken. No one ever sat down and said they are a couple. It was just the way it was.
I think I was fortunate because of that and because my parents were so close to my uncle that when I came out I think they already knew. I personally think the parents kind of always know whether they admit it or not. I said this before when people have asked me about this, and I am still sort of blown away by it. I found out later that right before I moved to Chicago to go to college, and he sort of knew that I was struggling with wanting to tell them officially that I was gay.
My father ended up consulting a psychiatrist because he wanted to make sure that he didn’t say anything to me when I did talk to him that would make me feel like they weren’t completely supportive of me. Yes. My mother just wants her kids to be happy. My sister is gay too. We have got two gay children out of three and a gay brother. There were some family holidays, which were hilarious because all of us had our partners there. Sometimes the gays would outnumber the straight.
TBL: That is awesome. I love it.
SW: As far as coming out to my family, it wasn’t an issue in the least bit. Coming out among friends, yes, back in the mid-eighties in a pretty conservative town like Rockford, Illinois, that was not easy. I was teased all through high school because I was not involved with sports. I am in awe of kids these days and how it is becoming less and less of an issue as far as kids among themselves with their sexual identity.
My partner is a schoolteacher and he witnesses that all of the time and sees how much has changed over the last 20 years, even ten years. It is remarkable. It was still a struggle…it starts with your family support, and I had it 100% from moment one.
TBL: Well, what else do you have going on? I know you are not shooting the show right now. Are you doing some one-man shows this summer or what is going on?
SW: I did a big show at Birdland in January, which was fantastic. My next big thing coming up, which is a brand new experience for me, and I am incredibly excited about it is doing the US premiere of Anna Nicole, The Opera. It is the same composer as Jerry Springer, The Opera. This is the US premiere [in September]. It is New York City Opera. I am playing an absolutely vulgar trucker, and not that you want to print this, but my entire song is about pussy. I sing about pussy.
That was hilarious informing my parents about this, my 80-year-old parents about how I was going to be making my professional opera debut…it is so exciting. The cast is a mixture of legit opera singers and then musical theater performers thrown in as well. It is a huge 50-piece orchestra. It is a very limited run at the end of the summer, but I am thrilled about it because this will be my first experience in the opera world at all. I look forward to it.
The season finale of Nurse Jackie airs Sunday at 9pm on Showtime. For more information on Anna Nicole The Opera, visit the website.