Interview with big-bang star Jim Parsons
Jim Parsons, since 2007 you play Dr. Sheldon Cooper in “The Big Bang Theory”, a self-confident physicist with hardly any social competence, who speaks the “Star Trek” language Klingon fluently. What do you have in common with him?
Practically nothing. (smiles) We also have no common interests. I often don’t understand what Sheldon’s talking about. Fortunately, we have scientists on set to make sure I don’t say the wrong thing. But communicating with them is not easy for me, because my brain capacity is simply too limited. Of course, Sheldon is not a complete stranger to me: After all, it is the actor with his personal experiences who brings the truthfulness of a character to the surface.
Has Sheldon’s world view influenced yours – for example, as far as extraterrestrial life is concerned?
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is one of my favourite films, but the universe is too big for me to think about it seriously. I find the thought that there is life out there strangely comforting. But I have no idea what it might look like. I have no desire to travel into space to find out either. I make a fuss when I have to go to London.
So you do have panic moments like Sheldon?
Yeah, okay, I get OCD when I travel. I always think I forgot to turn off the oven, etcetera. But once I get to a place, I usually like it fine.
With celebrities like Stephen Hawking or Leonard Nimoy, guest stars always appear on the show. Which ones did you find particularly impressive?
Of course, such high visits are always special and an honour. Spock actor Leonard Nimoy was a wonderful gentleman. I never watched “Star Trek”, but then I found out what a great artist he is – a great photographer and intelligent man. That he was the director of “Three Men and a Baby”, I unfortunately only found out after his death. That was one of my absolute favourite films. And for my work it has a great meaning: early in the series there is an episode in which Penny gives Sheldon an autograph of Nimoy on a napkin. That was the first time Sheldon touched something emotionally – an important moment for me as an actor.
That a show about nerds was going to be a hit was never in sight. What is the key to success?
We weren’t the big hit with the first season, so we could grow slowly without being under the microscope from the beginning. For me, the series proves that there are more secret nerds than one would suspect. I’ve had a huge tattooed guy yelling at me, “I love you, man!” Our fans cover a very broad spectrum. I think people go home and turn on our show because with us they can be themselves.
This season’s ninth season, the relationship between Sheldon and neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler… Are they even going to get married soon?
I think they make a good couple and they’re perfect for each other. I’d like them to marry– they deserve that. They actually have a very honest and, in my opinion, the healthiest relationship in the show. Everything is regulated in the relationship contract. (laughs) But of course the authors don’t listen to me.
So you think the first sex is literally the culmination of Sheldon’s love life now?
Well, it always goes one step forward and two steps back with him. Well, I don’t see marriage anytime soon. And I pray to God they don’t have a child until we’re off the air. I don’t want to carry a baby around for a season. No offense, but I’d rather work with a monkey.
Sheldon Cooper (right) and his nerdy friends in the hit series The Big Bang Theory. Picture: Everett Collection/Keystone
What were you like as a child?
I grew up in Houston and lived there until I was 27. I showed an early inclination for the theatricality and was always working on some small productions. There was a performance every year at school: I was a bird in the first grade and even had a solo. I guess that pulled my sleeve in.
You always wanted to be an actor?
Yeah, or TV meteorologist. For a while I wanted to become a teacher too – that might happen one day. I went to college and left the theatre for a while because I wanted to learn something “decent”. But I told myself after a year that I would probably become a very unhappy old man if I didn’t try acting. My parents were not enthusiastic and warned me to be careful when I said I wanted to major in theatre. But they didn’t discourage me either, and that made all the difference.
Did your choice also make you feel like an outsider now and then?
Yes, always a little bit, but maybe everyone feels like they don’t really belong. I wasn’t interested in sports, I was attracted to the arts. I was not like the other boys. But I was lucky to always have friends – because I was friendly and liked talking to people. Even today I sometimes feel not really integrated, but in the meantime that doesn’t bother me anymore. I earn my money with it.
Sheldon is a memorabilia collector. Do you have any weird mementos that mean a lot to you?
I have the Mr. Proton doll guest star Bob Newhart used on the show. Other than that, I can only think of my late father’s laminated business card holder. The tag was attached to a suitcase I apparently borrowed from a friend of mine. It is worn out and financially worthless, but loaded with a lot of emotions. I simply cannot part with it.
Speaking of separation: It is said that you can take the Texan out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the Texan. How do you see that after years in the liberal entertainment metropolises of Los Angeles and New York?
That’s right. The pride of the Texan is legendary. “Don’t mess with Texas!” When I lived there, I rolled my eyes when I heard that. Now it’s my mantra: “Don’t mess with Texas!” It’s a great place. I love Tex-Mex food, and I still support the Rockets and the Texans, the Houston basketball and football team. It’s my sentimental home; my sister sent me a T-shirt with the Texas state and the word “home” on it. I wear it very often.
Did it take courage to admit to homosexuality in conservative Texas?
Houston is a metropolis, I never felt I had no right to my life. Sure, there were people who could have a problem with you being in certain places. But that did not deter me. I also don’t think I’m brave to be the way I am. Because I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me and paved the way.
You didn’t hide your sexuality when you became famous either – as a role model for other gay celebrities?
No, it was just the logical consequence. I was already in my mid-30s when “The Big Bang Theory” began, had been an actor for a long time and had already been with my partner Todd for five years. There was no turning back, fortunately. I took Todd to the first award shows as a date, and what happened?
Absolutely nothing. No one ever asked me: Are they gay? When I made the TV movie “The Normal Heart” about the AIDS crisis in the 80’s, the interviewers took it for granted and asked me how I felt about this or that as a gay man. Eventually that was dropped. I am grateful that everything developed so naturally. When Glisten, a student organization for gays and lesbians, awarded an inspiration prize to me and my partner, I was a bit perplexed. I’m not an activist. We just live our lives. And if that’s inspiring, it’s purely coincidental – but also okay.
Finally, a look into the future: “The Big Bang Theory” has been the highest-rated US sitcom for years, and the tenth season has already been announced. Are you already thinking about the departure of Sheldon?
I think that subconsciously I’m already preparing for the next stage in my life. But Sheldon is still fun when I don’t have to learn pages and pages of physics dialog. I’m always surprised at what happens to him next. I can’t imagine I’ll ever regret anything “The Big Bang Theory” was a valuable experience. I got a lot from everyone who worked on the show. But it also passed quickly: I was 34 when we started. And suddenly – there was a decade behind us. Where have all these years gone?