Jim Parsons Interview – The Big Bang Theory

By Abbie Bernstein
©Buzzy Multimedia

There is a theory, not entirely without basis in fact, that when actors become successful,

Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon

they can quickly become fed up with giving interviews. More, when these actors have achieved their success through comedy, they can sometimes become downright cranky.

Jim Parsons is a living refutation of this concept. An Emmy nominee and Television Critics Association Award winner for his role as the intellectually brilliant but socially challenged Sheldon Cooper on CBS’s comedy hit THE BIG BANG THEORY, Parsons is cheerful, candid and cordial at a party thrown by CBS for the Television Critics Association at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena.

Parsons grew up in Texas, where he worked extensively in theatre. “It’s funny,” he muses. “When I was in Houston doing theatre for very little to no money, I worked all the time. There was one play after another, rehearsing one during the day, performing another at night, and then when I turned professional, after school and all that stuff, you don’t work nearly as much, because you’re not working for free any more. And I missed working – it really is a muscle that has to keep going. And so I don’t feel that I’ve changed – I feel [that with the continuous work of a TV schedule] like I’ve gotten back to something.”

A CBS publicist comes by and asks if Parsons would like something to drink. Parsons requests a Diet Coke with a polite thank you. This is how success has changed him, he jokes. “I order people around to get me drinks now, that’s what’s changed. No – I have more money and I have had a job for longer than [previously]. I’m more comfortable at things like this [doing a succession of interviews] than I used to be, because until you do it a few times, it’s just a mystery until you get it done.”

Were events like this and Comic-Con what Parsons had in mind when he envisioned being a successful actor while back in Texas? Not exactly, he replies. “Not because it’s different, but because I don’t think I had a very vivid image of what [success] would be. It’s the same thing I feel about what will the future look like work-wise. I never go so far as to imagine – I only know that I will continue to try to keep working, and that’s always paid off really well for me. I’ve always been very fortunate that everything’s led to something – if not somewhat unexpected, it’s always been so good and healthy. So no, it’s not what I expected, but I don’t know what I expected.”

Sheldon has a rather distinctive personality. Did Parsons do any research to play him? “You know, I mostly keep it between the lines of the actual page, what they deliver. That being said – because so many people have asked – Sheldon has been my introduction into what Asperger’s is.” He is referring to Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism that makes it difficult for people who have it to connect socially with others. “People kept asking, ‘Does he have Asperger’s?’ I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And I asked the writers, ‘Does he have Asperger’s?’ ‘No.’ And then Johnny [Galecki, who plays Leonard] found this book by Augustin Burroughs’ brother, John Elder Robinson, LOOK ME IN THE EYE, and it’s about his life with Asperger’s. I was like, well, Sheldon may not have Asperger’s, but there are a lot of similar traits.”

Sometimes research can be difficult due to not knowing what to ask, Parsons points out, as when he got to meet a lot of science students at the California Institute of Technology, aka Caltech. “It was for TV Guide and they really wanted to get pictures at Caltech, and they wanted to get pictures of me with [the scientists] explaining or talking about apparatuses to me, and I mean, it’s the same way I feel about most of the science I look at – it’s so over my head, I wouldn’t know what to ask. I think I did ask a couple of questions like, ‘Why do you wear blue-colored gloves?’, which I don’t even remember the answer to now.”

As far as what Parsons tapped into in order to play Sheldon, he says, “As strange as this may sound, I really feel like I let the words bring it out of me. Literally, especially with preparing for the audition [and] for the first show, the struggle to learn the words – I did this on TV once, showing people – I put a pencil between my teeth to help with articulation, because sometimes the constructs of the sentences are such that it’s a full-muscle workout to get it out. But I have found that it really informs who [Sheldon] is. There is so much going on, he’s so busy inside his brain, so in a weird way, having to [use] my own muscles to get all those words out, because I do not have brain activity as quick as he does, that’s kind of my closest simulation to that ‘rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr’ – that rapid-fire thing with those words.”

Parsons acknowledges that he has a few Sheldon-like traits in real life. “Here’s a good example that’s very recent. When I got the TCA trophy. I didn’t really get a chance to look at it until I was out of the ballroom.” The Television Critics Association award is translucent. “I thought, ‘This thing’s going to show fingerprints horribly.’ And I said that out loud, and a friend said to me, ‘Okay, Sheldon.’ I was like, ‘You’re right, you’re right.’ And it’s where I do overlap with him. And you know what it is? It’s always the same sort of thing – it’s a little obsession about something that really doesn’t matter in the larger scheme, but Sheldon does that, and everybody does that, to a degree. I’ve often said that. Sheldon doesn’t do anything that most people don’t do, but he does it to the nth degree on all of them. It’s just exaggerated. Which I guess is the essence of comedy.”

A bout of intense Christmas decorating in 2007 was perhaps more due to a desire to keep occupied during the uncertainty of the writers’ strike (which shut down series television, BIG BANG THEORY included, for three months) than Sheldon-like fixation. “I always grew up with a tree at Christmas, but I was never real big into doing any Christmas decorating on my own, until our first season. The writers’ strike hit right before Thanksgiving, and by December, I realized we were not going back to work any time in the foreseeable future and I frickin’ threw myself into Christmas that year. I mean, to a ridiculous degree. And I don’t think I’ll ever hit it that hardcore again, but I enjoyed myself so much getting all that ready, that when I have time now, I’ll make sure I get a tree again and do a little decorating.”

Other people seem to recognize Sheldon more than see themselves in him, Parsons notes. “I used to feel – and I still do, to a degree – almost everybody who says anything says that they know somebody like Sheldon and I’m not surprised by that, because number one, I think that Sheldon has many, many good traits – very intelligent, I don’t think he has a mean bone in his body. He can be snarky and self-centered and a little haughty, but he’s not mean. But he is so unaware of things that people who are getting through the world in an average way need to be aware of that there is a stupidity with his great intelligence. He’s socially ignorant and unaware. And I don’t think most people want to be that way, which I understand,” he laughs, “but for the same reason, I feel like anybody who was very similar to Sheldon may not be able to see it. I don’t think they would identify with it.”

At the time of the interview, Parsons is the only male member of the BIG BANG cast not sporting massive facial hair, the result of the characters spending three months in the Arctic. “I probably selectively heard this, but I heard, ‘Don’t cut your hair,'” Parsons explains. “I didn’t hear [‘don’t shave’]. And then everybody else was all bushy-faced and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And they said, ‘We’re not supposed to shave.’ When I found this out, it was two days before we were supposed to announce the Emmy nominations and I was like, ‘I’m shaving for that. I’m going on national television, I really don’t want to look like …’ But the other thing too is that all of them grow honest-to-God beards. I just look filthy. I don’t care that it wouldn’t look pretty – it’s not even a full beard. It’s like – it’s shameful. So [BIG BANG co-creator/executive producer] Chuck [Lorre] told me that if they decided to go with facial hair for me, they would build something [in the hair and makeup department], they would make something work.”

Parsons is hugely enthusiastic about his costars, both regular and guest actors. He cites Christine Baranski, who plays Leonard’s mother. “She’s incredible. We’ve been so lucky with some of the people we’ve worked with. Laurie Metcalf was the same way. They’re actor’s actors. They’re so smart about their acting, they’re so willing to play and they’re so good and therefore they’re confident, and they’re confident, so they’re good. You know what I mean? There’s that willingness and ability to just go, just try, and it’s like a good sparring partner. Everybody in the cast is. I say, though, just out of nowhere, the most surprising – not because I thought she wouldn’t be, but [Kaley Cuoco as Penny] – I have had more fun doing those little dances with Kaley! I didn’t know her that well before. I had worked with Johnny on the pilot – I just didn’t know about her. And what a wonderful treat that’s turned out to be, what a wonderful comedy partner. Chuck [Lorre] told us the first few episodes that the character would grow, but I think that that’s the one who’s really come into her own. I don’t think anybody would say anything different. In the second season, especially, no one grew more than Penny. She’s been fantastic. I mean, that’s one of the joys of doing an episodic [series] like this, is that continual working relationship with the writers. You never know exactly who’s gleaning what from who and it just keeps moving. The growth of her character is really in the end a testament to both [Cuoco and the writers] – them for listening to her, and her for inspiring them to make it grow. Because you can tell it’s happening. They start hearing what’s going to sound good coming out of somebody’s mouth. ‘I bet she can handle this’ and sure as hell, she can. She had one moment specifically where she’s fighting with the new neighbor, the girl. [Penny] says something about how the guys don’t have shields.

And [the neighbor says], ‘What?’ And she says, ‘In STAR TREK, when the shields come up – where the hell did that come from?’ It was such an honest moment. I had chills when I retold it, because I can just see it. It’s so genuine.”

In real life, comic books are not Parsons’ area of expertise. “I probably shouldn’t admit this, but we have a local morning radio host who has been a friend of mine. If you’re looking for something to download, try geekshowpodcast.com. But what kills me is, I’m there to be the TV guy. We had the whole discussion about, is it the Green Lantern in yellow before [a similar discussion] was on [BIG BANG]. And I’m sitting there going … I learned [about Green Lantern] from being on this podcast. It’s all Greek to me. It’s as foreign to me as the science is, at first blush. I have no idea what I’m talking about. I mean, a lot of the [comic book] characters I’ve seen or heard of, and they’re all over the set for reference and what have you. But it is very foreign to me.”

When did Parsons realize THE BIG BANG THEORY was connecting with its audience? “I would say, obviously, once we were picked up for the rest of the first season and then the second season, all that, those are good signs that something is working. But really, viscerally, the first thing that I had ever felt that I could tell something had changed for us was towards the end of the first season. The live audience started coming in and laughing before the joke was delivered. And it was really weird at first. Not completely unpleasant, but it was weird. It was only completely pleasant when we all talked about it and realized what was happening – that they knew the characters and they knew what was coming. And I should have realized – oh, my God, it’s the essence of television is, you want to tune in. It’s like your friends, it’s like your own family. I always say, you know how your mother’s going to react to blah-blah-blah, you know how Uncle So-and-So is going to react to whatever. And that’s what I think a lot of times, at least, we want to see from our characters on TV. It’s not a movie, it’s not a play, it’s every week. And that was the first thing where I felt, ‘I feel I’m a part of something now that I didn’t even know about before.'”

The growth of the characters has been gradual, Parsons observes. “Chuck [Lorre] and [fellow co-creator/executive producer] Bill [Prady] always say that, ‘Oh, they’ll change – but it’ll be the slowest, most painful growth you’ve ever watched in your life.’ Much like real life, frankly.”

Parsons says at some point he’d like to play a non-genius. “I would love at some point, next summer or something, to do diametrically opposed [to Sheldon. The character doesn’t] need to be stupid, but I would love the chance to play something, next hiatus, maybe, that was more average.”

Is there anything else Parsons wants to say about Sheldon and/or THE BIG BANG THEORY?: “I just love getting to do it and as long as we get to keep doing it, I’m going to be very happy, I think.”

By Abbie Bernstein: Entertainment Reporter
©Buzzy Multimedia

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