If there is one breakthrough TV role over the past year or so, it is Jim Parsons’ turn as physicist Sheldon Cooper in the hit CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” Brilliant, supercilious, socially clueless, Cooper is alternately hysterical and horrifying. And Parsons’ Emmy-nominated performance is so spot-on, it seems as if the character and the actor are the same person.
But unlike Sheldon, the tall (6-foot-2), 36-year-old Parsons, a Houston native, is actually a sports fan who does not speak Klingon. Lewis Beale discussed the role and other matters with Parsons while he was on a production break.
Q. What did you think about the part when you first read for it?
A. As a character, I don’t know I felt a relation at all. What I had a feeling about was the way the dialogue was structured, the way they had structured Sheldon’s speeches. Sheldon has always taken that many words to get to a point. I thought, and I still think, they brilliantly use those words that most of us don’t recognize to create that rhythm. And the rhythm got me. It was the chance to dance through that dialogue, and in a lot of ways still is.
Q. In some ways Sheldon is so out of it socially, you wonder if he’s borderline autistic. Is he?
A. I got asked early on, does he have Asperger’s (a mild form of autism)? And I asked the writers, and they said no. Then I read up, and he does share traits with Asperger’s and autism. But the writers say he doesn’t have that, so that’s that. His curse is his blessing, it’s how intelligent he is. And his intelligence in general causes him to be able to focus so singularly on the task at hand, that things inevitably fall by the wayside that wouldn’t in a normal circumstance.
Q. You’re so identified with the character right now, are you worried at all that you’ll be typecast in the future?
A. No. I see the reality, I see the “problem” that it could pose for me. But I say no because I don’t really have a choice at the end of the day. I feel like I throw myself no more or no less into this role than I have in anything else. I feel like, as an actor, should I be pulling back on how much I give to this character? Should I soften his edges so I don’t make the same impression? That’s the only thing I can do, and that’s an impossibility.
Q. You’re actually a classically trained actor who studied at the Old Globe in San Diego, which has a rigorous program based on Shakespeare. How did that hone your skills?
A. I knew the Old Globe had a groundedness in working on Shakespeare. I had done some, but not a lot, and they asked me in the interview, you don’t have much Shakespeare, and we just left it at that. They let me in, and I can’t tell you how often I have thought about working on Shakespeare while working on these passages they write for Sheldon — the dense road you wend your way through past those lines. It takes more effort than I ever thought a sitcom would take. And that’s really the fun of it.
Q. What were your influences growing up?
A. I was very interested in sitcoms. I remember watching “Three’s Company” a lot. And I was really formed by “Family Ties,” “The Cosby Show.” As far as movies went, my parents took me to “Star Wars,” and when I began making my own choices. “Grease” was big, then, when I was older, “The Color Purple.”
Q. When did you realize you could make it as an actor?
A. I did a play in high school, “Noises Off,” it’s a farce, and it was the first time I felt the most honest connection to a character and a play. It was the first time I felt like an honest-to-God actor. I thought it was going to be horrible, and I’m still astounded at the reaction we got. I realized it was something I was good at.
Q. Sheldon is kind of the ultimate geek. In what ways are you geeky?
A. I like words, and I like numbers. I like crossword puzzles a lot. I like to deal with lists and rankings and statistics. I’m surprised I’m not more into baseball, because I could geek on that. I love Casey Kasem’s Top 40, I love that order. I love seeing what were the nominated Oscar films.