THE Big Bang Theory turned Jim Parsons into geek royalty almost overnight, but the shy Texan is glad his Bazinga moment was so long coming
‘OH MY, this is wonderful!” Jim Parsons is surprisingly cheery for someone who taped a new episode of The Big Bang Theory in Los Angeles 14 hours ago, then got on a plane to London.
Anticipating that he might be in need of a sugar boost, I’ve brought him a pack of Tunnock’s caramel wafers, and he examines the retro wrapper they’re in with every sign of pleasure. “The boy is a little like me?” he says. He’s not far wrong: Parsons is 42 in a few days but could pass for much younger with his giant eyes, clear skin and 6’2”, noodle-thin body. But I’m also thinking that right now, Dr Sheldon Cooper would be pointing out that, actually, chocolate chip is his biscuit of choice.
Comparisons may be odious, but they are also inevitable when you meet a star of The Big Bang Theory, the multi-generational, globally successful sitcom about science geeks and their slightly more socially aware girlfriends. Ostensibly it’s an ensemble piece, but from the start Parsons has dominated the show, winning four Emmys and a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame for his portrayal of genius physicist Sheldon. In seven years, he has never yielded his spot at the centre of the show, amassing a fanbase which includes Professor Stephen Hawking, Steve McQueen, the late Iain Banks and tennis player Eugenie Bouchard.
President Barack Obama, however, appears to have been otherwise engaged on Thursday nights. While working on his new movie Home, Parsons arrived at the Dreamworks offices to record some scenes with Steve Martin, and found the lobby packed with security men. Obama was in the area to deliver a speech and had decided to take a tour. “He came by and watched us record for a bit, and then came over to talk to us,” says Parsons. “I’m not sure if he knew who I was, or if he even watched The Big Bang, but he sure as hell knew who Steve Martin was.”
In Home, Parsons provides the voice for an over-friendly alien, and off-screen he is a self-confessed political junkie. So did he and the president chat about Roswell or the Republicans? “I was so star struck that I didn’t hear a word he said,” says Parsons, blushing. “It was a case of ‘Oh my god – it’s the president.’ If I met the Queen, it would be the same thing; all I would think of is ‘Oh my god, it’s the Queen.’ I could not treat her – and I did not treat him – as just another human. Looking back, I did think that he was very relaxed, and not in a sleepy way. He was warm and happy to control the room, and I enjoyed that very much. I would have found it questionable if the president of our country was uncomfortable around his own citizenry, but he wasn’t, and that’s really no small feat.”
George Clooney was 33 when ER started and he turned out quite well
Parsons appreciates the difficulty of naturalism in the heat of intense scrutiny. He was 33 when he became Dr Sheldon Cooper, and life changed completely. Before the show’s pilot, he was living in New York, and despite a body of theatre work, was still an unknown subsisting on small television roles, commercials and films such as Garden State and School For Scoundrels. After auditioning for up to 30 pilots in a year, he finally got the script for The Big Bang Theory and immediately knew the role of Sheldon was a “Bazinga” moment. He got the script on Oscar night, and instead of joining friends at one of the parties, he stayed at home and started writing and rewriting the lines to memorise them. It was love at first sight. “I really felt I knew what they were doing with this rhythm, with this use of the scientific language,” he says. Even so, he had to audition twice for the role because the show’s producer, Chuck Lorre, thought he was too impossibly good the first time. “The way he walks, the way he sits, the way he holds his kitchen utensils. He even listens as Sheldon,” Lorre has said.
Parsons stopped drinking around the same time, and has been teetotal ever since. He doesn’t disdain wine as “grape juice that burns” like Sheldon, nor does he have issues around alcohol. He just decided that he wanted to be completely focused for the pilot, “then when they picked it up, I thought, ‘Well, it’s going well, why jinx it?’ And eventually I kind of became superstitious about it.”
Initially The Big Bang Theory began as a small whisper. Critics dismissed the group of four geeks and the sexy girl next door as a clumsy sitcom throwback, but during the first series it quickly gathered pace and audiences.
At this point it is regularly in the US top three shows, and has made Parsons rich in every which way. Fame at this level has a way of unscrewing heads, but Parsons is appreciative and self-deprecating; “George Clooney was 33 when ER started and he turned out quite well. I’ve always known we have a lot in common,” he deadpans.
Originally from Houston, Texas, Parsons credits family and friends with giving him stability, including his partner Todd Spiewak, an art director who has been with Parsons for 13 years, long before any Big Bang. “I am more grateful that Todd came into my life before all this as every year goes on,” says Parsons. How does Todd feel about his boyfriend’s elevation to nerd royalty? Does he treat him differently? “It was too late to relearn a new way of talking to me or treating me,” he laughs. “We’ve reaped certain benefits from it, and go on better trips together now because of it, but as far as the expectation of who I am, who I’m meant to be, and how I treat other people – well that has remained tremendously consistent.”
Spiewak and Parsons are the same age, appear together at his theatre premieres and red carpets, and have homes in New York and Los Angeles, where they walk their two dogs. The couple have no plans to marry for now, despite some prodding by Ellen DeGeneres on her daytime TV show. The most progressive thing about their relationship, Parsons says, is that when he officially confirmed it in an interview three years ago, there was almost no reaction. In fact the biggest shock Parsons has generated since he became a star, was when he told Comic-Con that he had never seen an episode of Star Trek. “There was a gasp from a crowd of around 2,000,” he says.
A polite guy like Parsons doesn’t resist being compared to Sheldon, but unlike Dr Cooper, he doesn’t speak Klingon and struggles with the Vulcan salute. Parsons is also a natty dresser – he’s rocking a very sleekly tailored purple suit today – whereas Sheldon favours T-shirts apportioned to each day of the week. “I can be a little obsessive, but I’m not as fixed as he is, and I don’t know about superheroes or comic books.”
We talk about Sheldon as if he’s a second cousin, rather than an alter-ego, albeit a brilliant, supercilious one with social skills that are alternately amusing and alarming. “I have difficulty navigating certain aspects of daily life,” the character concedes in an early episode. “You know – understanding sarcasm, feigning interest in others, not talking about trains as much as I want.”
Does Sheldon have Asperger’s? “That came up early on,” says Parsons, “but when I asked the writers, they said, ‘No, he doesn’t.’ But Johnny [Galecki, who plays Leonard in The Big Bang Theory] read a book about Asperger’s and said to me, ‘You should read this, there are so many ways this is Sheldon.’ So I did a little reading about it and the comparisons were undeniable.” He’s on the scale then? “It does seem that Asperger’s is not such an uncommon thing for extremely smart people to have, or share some of the signs, especially the way Sheldon goes ‘Huh?’ to a social and emotional situation because he’s so focused on intellectual topics.”
The intellectual science Sheldon spouts in every episode is also factually based. Physicist David Saltzberg, a teacher at the UCLA, checks the material and throws in flourishes for those moments where Sheldon teaches someone a theorem; “He’ll come up with something like a diagram, and throw in little inside jokes that I don’t find funny because I don’t know what the heck he’s talking about.” Has he learnt much about physics along the way? “I’ve learned very little. Every time I get something scientific in the script, I read up to find out what I’m talking about, but after I move on to the next script, it’s forgotten. I’m no smarter since appearing on the show. I may even be a little dumber, because I haven’t had time to learn anything else.”
When I ask whether, after eight years, Parson has become possessive enough about Sheldon to warn writers that they have gone off-course, Parsons looks politely aghast. “That’s an interesting premise but I would be hard-pressed to say, ‘He wouldn’t do this.’ Sheldon is capable of many odd things. If anything, my job is to keep faith, and go at anything 100 per cent.”
Later, however, he admits he was rather stymied by a recent episode with a scene where Sheldon cheers up his girlfriend Amy by lifting up his top and making his belly button “talk”. It certainly sounds an unlikely bit of whimsy for someone as grounded in logic as the brilliant physicist.
“I was, like, ‘Okay, that’s weird, but I’ll do it,’” Parsons recalls. “Then they saw it and it was gone the next day. So I guess what I’m saying is that the writers are such masterful guards and keepers of who he is that if something plays out in a direction that doesn’t work then it’s out of there.”
Taping Big Bang dominates most of his working year, so in summer, Parsons tries to flit to New York, where he has led acclaimed Broadway runs of The Normal Heart and Harvey. Film projects are a little more time-hungry, although doing an animated comedy like Home is a good fit for his schedule. He’s spent two-and-a-half years, on and off, voicing Oh, a squiddy ET who is unable to find friends among his own kind, but buddies up with an earth child (voiced by Rihanna). It’s a sweet film, with a gentle message about diversity and tolerance, plus vital information about an alien species who can change colour according to their emotions and go potty in three different ways.
Initially Parsons wasn’t sure he was right for the role. “I thought, ‘Ach, no he needs a cuter voice than mine, he needs a more adorable voice,’ or whatever.” This surprises me. The character Oh doesn’t seem a million miles away from Sheldon Cooper in the sense that both are alienated, both are socially awkward. “They are both strangers with their own society, they both feel like they don’t fit in, they both have misunderstandings,” he concurs. “But where he does differ from Sheldon is that he does want to be around human beings, he does want to communicate with them and things like that.”
Is Parsons especially attracted to outsiders who carve their own path towards friendship? His choices certainly seem to suggest a particular interest; even Elwood P Dowd, who Parsons played in Harvey, is a drunk on the social fringes until he pals up with a giant rabbit that only he can see.
“Well I was a very shy child,” says Parsons. “I remember at kindergarten open house being with my mother, with children saying ‘hi’ to me. I still remember that I couldn’t even say hi back. I was that shy. And I remember my mother squeezing my hand and saying, ‘you say hi’. So I think there’s something I understand about someone like Sheldon, and his lack of understanding about ‘What is it that other people want to hear? What is it that they want me to answer?’
“Even now, if I am walking down the hall and someone says hi, that can throw me. But if I have the script, then I understand where we’re going with this story, and what story I’m helping tell, then I’m very comfortable. It’s something about knowing where the end is.”
Our own end is nigh too. Parsons has a radio show to do, then another plane so he can be back in the US for work. He thanks me again for the biscuits. “I’m going to eat one now,” he says. Later on, while I’m waiting for my own ride home from London to Glasgow, a friend alerts me to his Instagram account. I didn’t even know Parsons kept up with social media. Unlike Sheldon Cooper, who has been known to tweet what he eats for breakfast at 8am and that he moves his bowels at 8.20, Parsons’ Twitter account opened a few years ago, and closed about 48 hours later. On Instagram, however, therealjimparsons has uploaded up a picture of his Tunnock’s.
“A delicious gift from my friends in Scotland during a press day for Home!” he explains. I’m just sorry I only gave him a four pack.
• Home is on general release