Actor playing occult-loving scientist: ‘Cults were a really big thing’

Rocket science and “sex magic” make strange bedfellows — but both were of interest to chemist Jack Parsons, whose life is dramatized in the new CBS All Access series “Strange Angel.”

The 10-episode first season, set in 1930s LA, was created by Mark Heyman (“Black Swan”) and stars Irish actor Jack Reynor (“Macbeth”). Premiering Thursday, it takes a deep dive into Parsons’ unconventional private life, which was the basis for George Pendle’s 2005 biography, “Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons.”

“Jack Parsons was one of the pioneers of rocketry and space exploration,” says Reynor, 26. “And he was also into this idea of magic and the occult. It’s really interesting to see where the line intersects between the two parts of this guy’s life.”

Parsons (1914-1952) was a real-life rocket engineer, chemist and occultist with connections to figures like Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Reynor, who plays Parsons with an affable air, says he knew who Parsons was before he signed onto the show, but still read Pendle’s book to prepare for the role. “For somebody who was into what would be perceived as such dark stuff, there were aspects of his character that were really likable,” he says. “So he wasn’t just a dark, twisted dude.”

When the show begins in the early 1930s, Parsons is a blue-collar chemist who performs rocket research affiliated with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). By night, however, his interests grow darker. In 1939, Parsons converted to Thelema, the new religious movement founded by English occultist Aleister Crowley, who also wrote about magic and ritualistic “sex magic” supposedly used to transcend one’s reality.

When the show begins, Parsons is just getting acquainted with LA’s seedy occult underworld — thanks to his surly neighbor Ernest Donovan (Rupert Friend, who played Peter Quinn on “Homeland”).

“Cults were a really big thing in LA at the time; there were all these offshoot religions springing up all over the place,” says Reynor. “That was surprising to me, because I know America to be quite a conservative place a lot of the time. So to read about how people were embracing this culture and these religions is really interesting.”

Parsons died in a home laboratory explosion in 1952 at the age of 37. At the time, his death was ruled an accident, but conspiracy theories abound that he was murdered or committed suicide. (Parsons was accused of espionage during the height of the McCarthy-era Red Scare.)

“I think he was just in a rush, dropped some chemicals, and they blew up,” says Reynor. “But you never know. Just like the rest of the guy’s life, his death is shrouded in mystery.”

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