In April, Jim Parsons was pulling some weird double shifts. On the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California, he was shooting CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, in which he plays Sheldon Cooper, a theoretical physicist with zero patience and even less tact. A few hours later, he was rehearsing for the Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band, about a birthday party among gay friends during which, helped along by loads of booze, all niceties fall away, replaced by conflicts, taunts, and fangs. He was toggling, in other words, between a lovably silly sitcom and a wrenching examination of gay masculinity.
The cast of The Boys in the Band, which opened May 31 and features Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells, and Matt Bomer, had relocated to LA to accommodate Parsons’s schedule, because, well, he’s busy. He also executive-produces and narrates Young Sheldon, a spinoff that debuted last fall and was quickly renewed for a second season. And he has added to his film credits with A Kid Like Jake, opening June 8, in which Parsons plays the perplexed father of a gender-nonconforming four-year-old boy whose love of girly things causes adults to panic.
No matter the role, most people assume Parsons is a big nerd—an unavoidable byproduct of his having played Sheldon for 10 years. With his high-pitched voice and underfed-freshman physique, Parsons updates for the cosplay age the TV dork, a trope that traces back from Lisa Simpson and Dwight Schrute through Screech and Steve Urkel, all the way to Barney Fife. He’s won four Emmys doing this, plus a Golden Globe. But that role couldn’t be further from the polite and personable Parsons.
The actor called Hemispheres from his house in LA, where he lives with his husband and producing partner, Todd Spiewak. Parsons, 45, talked about the frustration of pronouncing Sheldon’s polysyllabic science words, whether or not gay kids now have an easier time coming out, and the day he was licked by huskies.
Is it difficult splitting your time between Big Bang and The Boys in the Band?
Yes. That’s not fun. Not because it’s two different rehearsals, but because of LA traffic. I think it’s just over five miles, and it takes 45 minutes to an hour.
It would be faster to walk.
It wouldn’t be the worst idea. And I do enjoy a walk.
How do you think it would go over if you showed up to a Boys in the Band rehearsal still in character as Sheldon?
I don’t know that I don’t!
The Boys in the Band debuted off-Broadway in 1968, and in the last few decades, it’s been viewed as problematic, because many of the characters are filled with self-loathing. That made a kind of sense back then, because so many gay men were in the closet, and laws discriminated against them. How does that self-loathing resonate with you, 50 years later?
Is it as bad as back in the ’60s, when even publications like The New York Times were writing demeaning things about homosexuals? No. It is obvious in many, many ways that the world has changed. But there are still plenty of forces in the world who make it known they have disdain for homosexuality, or that it’s wrong—even in the kindest versions of saying “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” which doesn’t make me feel very good. There are still so many people who, when they come out, don’t get the best reaction, even with well-meaning parents who love their children. I think that’s a lot more prevalent than people want to admit. I’ve never felt the need to hide with my coworkers, but I don’t believe show business is in any way typical of what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Your schedule is obviously quite full, so what drew you to A Kid Like Jake, on which you’re not only an actor but also a producer?
One of the producers on it, Jenette Kahn, she and her partner were going to produce a movie with me as an actor. And as it goes with movies, it never came together. But it started a relationship with her and her partner, and me and Todd, my husband, who is also my producing partner. One day, she sent us an email with this play called A Kid Like Jake. Todd and I immediately loved it. I was very excited at the prospect of getting to play the father. I was so taken by the way in which [screenwriter] Daniel Pearle, who had written the play, wrote conversations.
Was the hot-button topic—a child who might be transgender—part of the appeal?
I said this even when we were putting the film together and I started harassing people I know, like Octavia [Spencer], to see if she would do it: As much as Jake hovers around a hot-button issue, much bigger than that, for me, was the way adults in the film spoke to each other. I have to be frank: As much as I care about the issues we’re looking at here, the biggest reason I want to be a part of this is because I want to take part in these conversations. If they were arguing about where to go for dinner, I would still want to do these scenes. It’s just so lifelike, so real, and so appealing.
You were already 34 when The Big Bang Theory debuted. What were your survival tricks during the years before you were on a hit show?
Yeah, I was a late bloomer. I [took] five years getting through college. Then I spent the first few years out of undergrad working day jobs, like cashier at Whole Foods and an editorial assistant to an online publication, and at night I’d work with a theater group. When I moved to New York in 2001, I started stringing together a commercial here and there, and I was there only a brief time until Big Bang. Not only did I get some money from acting all along the way, but even more important was the feeling of a constant, low-level encouragement. Even if it wasn’t allowing me to save any money, it was allowing me to feel like I had a place in this world, in this industry. Then Big Bang happened, and suddenly 11 years have gone by.
Pre–Big Bang, you were in an ad for Quiznos (that can be still be found on YouTube), in which three wolves lick your face. Was that enjoyable?
It was not enjoyable. They were Siberian huskies, a mother with her litter. For one thing, we were dealing with live animals who would perform properly only if they were actually hungry. We’d separate the mother from the pups for long enough to get them wanting food, and they’d put honey on my face so that hopefully a dog would lick me. We did that a few times. The whole situation was weird. It was so primal, and I thought, “What the hell am I doing?” If it wasn’t morally wrong, it was kind of off in general. It paid the bills, and I don’t think any dogs were harmed. But I’m not dying to get into a litter of puppies again.
You seem to be a polite Southern gentleman. When are you not polite?
Anytime I feel I’m witnessing or being treated in an unjust way, I get very angry. But actual confrontation is pretty rare. Even today, we were shooting a scene and I’m foolishly trying to do two jobs at once, so I’m sure my brain is tired, and it’s also the end of [filming] the season. Normally you can just memorize the science words and it flows out, but when it doesn’t, and you start stuttering over it, you can feel the circuitry in your brain breaking apart. I don’t know what the hell Sheldon is talking about, in any deep sense, and sometimes, like today, it leads to an absolute breakdown. Luckily, everyone there is very kind while you’re throwing a fit. There’s unpleasant footage of anyone who has ever done work in front of a camera, and I don’t know how long they hold this in the vault until they air it for all the world to see, and I’ll have to go on an apology tour.
Who do you get mistaken for?
It’s funny you asked this. We were just having this discussion at The Boys in the Band rehearsal. A couple of different people were saying they’ve had full conversations where someone said, “I loved you in” whatever it was, and they’re like, “That’s not me.” It doesn’t happen to me. It might happen in the future, when I’m not doing Big Bang every week, but even then, it’ll be on in reruns.
Well, you’re physically distinctive.
I am tall and on the lankier side. When I speak, that’s the giveaway. Sometimes if I’m going through a crowd and no one’s noticing, it’s when I talk that people will recognize me. It’s an odd thing, public recognition, maybe because I got started so late. It’s still surprising to me.
So if someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, aren’t you that guy from the TV?” you can’t say no, because, as you say, they know it’s you from your voice.
Yeah. I’ve said no in the past, and without fail they say, “Yes you are.” To which I’m always like, “Well, then why did you ask? You knew. Claim it.”
I don’t know what the hell Sheldon is talking about, in any deep sense.
Can I say, and I think maybe you’ll understand what I mean by this, you don’t seem like a Jim?
I understand what you mean and do agree at a certain level, and yet I feel like I don’t know what other name I would have. Maybe I could be talked into feeling like that wasn’t the right name either.
Did you ever consider using a stage name?
My maternal grandmother had a sharp last name, I thought: McKnight. Not that there’s anything wrong with Parsons. Picking a new name, that’s harder than trying to pick out a new toothpaste or deodorant in the grocery store. Suddenly, every name in the world is available to you. That’s harrowing.
You helped create the idea for Young Sheldon. Will we ever see a show called Old Sheldon?
Not with me in it. I can’t imagine it. The thing that I keep coming up to is, What would he wear? Because you don’t dress a 55- or 60-year-old in double-layered T-shirts that say The Flash.
Big Bang fans like to speculate about whether or not Sheldon has Asperger’s, OCD, narcissistic personality disorder, or some other diagnosis. Is it possible he’s just a jerk?
Yes, he can be at times, but in general, no. I think he walks the tightrope between not understanding what’s appropriate and just being so sure of himself that he won’t harbor doubts that are thrust against him. You don’t argue with him. When we started the show, I was asked by a couple of interviewers about some sort of diagnosis, so I went straight to the writers and asked, Is there anything Sheldon “has”? And they were like, Nope. As an actor, I had never felt the need for any explanation in order to justify what they’d written or his reactions to things. I understood how they were trying to elicit humor, and I understood the timing they’d written in and his unexpected reactions. So I try and give the most honest, but also frequently the oddest and funniest, response or delivery.
Have you ever kept any of Sheldon’s clothes?
I hadn’t thought to do that, and the biggest reason is because it would be stealing. I would have to ask, and in that regard, nothing’s ever occurred to me to ask for. I’m sure I will figure out one thing, whether it’s a piece of clothing or an article from the set that I’d like to take at the end of the show. I’ll be honest: This late in the game, toward the end of season 11, it’s the first time I finally understand, as I’m trying to put this together for you, why I would want something. Before, I’ve been like, “Well, I’m certainly not going to wear Sheldon’s clothes.” That would be insane in my real life. But now I get it.
It sounds as if, in addition to knowing the series is nearing an end, you now also feel that it’s near an end.
Oh, very much so. It would be nice to have something extremely meaningful and specific to, I don’t know, frame, set on a bookshelf, and look at once every couple of years and go, Oh, that was fun.