A conversation with Jim Parsons of 'The Big Bang Theory'

Posted Tuesday, Sep. 16, 2008  comments  Print Reprints

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Jim Parsons is quite convincing as a scientific genius in The Big Bang Theory. But in real life, he has no head for science. “It’s just not the way my mind works,” he says. There was, however, a brief time when Parsons, who plays brilliant yet socially inept Sheldon, was a wannabe meteorologist. “I was 10 and [the science of weather] just completely captivated me,” he says. “I wanted to be an actor from a very early age, but meteorology was a two- or three-year blip on my radar.” Alas, all remnants of that dream were shattered when the native Houstonian took a college meteorology course. “It’s the only class I ever failed,” Parsons laments. Acting was the right career path after all. On The Big Bang Theory (returning for a second season on CBS at 7 p.m. CT Monday, Sept. 22), it’s a work of genius the way Parsons has taken an arrogant, emotionally distant brainiac and turned the character into an endearing fan favorite.

Given that it’s not a knack for science that you share with Sheldon, can you single out some ways in which you ARE similar to your character?

“I can compare myself to him in lots of little ways. Like, yes, I can be a little obsessive-compulsive about things like Sheldon. And yes, I can be set in my ways like Sheldon. One of the wonderful things when you do a show like this, as opposed to doing a play or a movie, is that you grow together. The writers are paying attention and they’re always thinking, ‘What comes naturally to him? What turn of phrase does he deliver really well?’ So they start writing the character to fit me and, in the end, many of my traits become Sheldon’s traits.”

Such as the fact that Sheldon is from Texas?

“They never told me specifically that he’s from Texas because I’m from Texas. But I can’t imagine that, from all the 50 states they had to choose from, they just came up with Texas coincidentally.”

The difference from Sheldon on that front is that you’re not ashamed of being a Texan, right?

“Exactly. A lot of people say to me, ‘You don’t sound like you’re from Texas.’ But I think if you’re around me enough, such as you would be on a day-to-day working basis, a lot of Southern qualities slip out. Like the word ‘y’all.’ I’ve never given it up. I’ve caught myself during auditions saying ‘Thank, y’all’ on the way out. But you know what? I’m not going to worry about changing. And I have no doubt that our writers pounced on that.”

Was there a pivotal moment in your life that led you to become an actor? Or was it something you always wanted to do, as if acting was in your DNA?

“It’s chicken-or-the-egg, I guess. Part of me feels like it was just born there. But in first grade, I was cast in a play and they gave me a little solo part. I was a bird and I had a little song to sing. Maybe I would have found my way into acting without that. But there can be no doubt it was my first exposure to performing in front of an audience. And while I have no recollection of how I felt doing that play, it obviously made an impact on me. I’m just glad I found what I should be doing. We all know people who struggle to find what’s right for them. At the risk of sounding like I’m on Oprah, I think the answer is within.”

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the death of the sitcom. The dwindling number of sitcoms seems to support the theory that it’s a vanishing TV art form. On the other hand, the success of The Big Bang Theory indicates there’s still life in the classic format. Could it be that sitcoms aren’t dead after all? Could it be merely that the bad, unfunny ones are dead?

“I think you’re absolutely right. I wish I was older and had more experience so I could I feel more sure about my statements on this topic. However, I’ve certainly watched enough TV over the years. The multi-camera sitcom, the one done in front of a studio audience, has been so popular for so long and been so successful. Success like that gets imitated and duplicated -- and therefore the form gets diluted. It happens all over the place with any product. As a result, I think there has been a lot of not-as-well executed multi-camera shows shot in front of an audience. But I think the bottom line is this: If it’s done well, if you’ve got good writing and good stories, if you’ve got good characters and if it’s funny, especially if it’s funny, people are going to enjoy watching it, no matter what the format is.”

What’s the highest praise you’ve ever received for The Big Bang Theory?

“The height of TV compliments, I think, is when somebody says they like to eat dinner while watching our show. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

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