Honestly, if this keeps up, they’re just going to have to rename the Emmy Award for Lead Actor in a Comedy the Jim Parsons Award. Last week, the 41-year-old won the prize for a fourth time for his role as Sheldon Cooper, main character on CBS’ The Big Bang Theory. It was a busy August for Parsons. Two weeks earlier, he and his cast mates Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting signed a three-year deal with the show for $1 million per episode each, and more than one observer suggested CBS should be happy to pay so little. (Big Bang returns for Season 8 on Sept. 22.)
Parsons in particular is worth it. The sitcom is the most-watched show on broadcast, averaging a 6.2 rating in the dollar demo (the next-most popular show gets a 4.4). It’s also an incredibly valuable rerun, bringing in $2 million per episode for studio Warner Bros. Domestic TV. In many ways, it’s the swan song of the multicamera, laugh-track comedy era, with Parsons’ Sheldon at its center.
Parsons, an accomplished stage actor, took time between seasons to play Tommy Boatwright in a revival of Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking autobiographical play about the AIDS crisis, The Normal Heart, in 2011, and then again in 2013 to reprise the role for Ryan Murphy’s adaptation for HBO.
Over the phone, Parsons is warm and deferential, discussing his career successes the way you’d talk about finding a $50 bill on the ground. But it’s clear after a moment or two of conversation that he’s also a guy who takes nothing for granted.
Adweek: You started your career on the stage, and you’ve come back to New York to work in The Normal Heart on Broadway in between seasons. Do you miss that part of your career?
Parsons: Yes, without a doubt. Not because I’m currently left wanting for anything, but that will always be home, artistically speaking, and I think that’s true for a lot of actors. It’s such a beautifully brutal training ground. One of the things I’m always reminded of when I’m back on stage is how much you have to be aware of, and in control of. There is no tight shot. There is no “we’re only shoulders-up this time.” No, from the top of your head to your pinky toe, you’re telegraphing part of the story the entire time you’re up there. The theater I got to do informs every move I make as an actor and will for the rest of my life. I can’t shake it if I wanted to, but I don’t want to.
Video directed by Jeremy Goldberg
Has the enormity of the show’s success changed your day-to-day life?
Even after [the show’s popularity grew], it was more of a fact on paper. And in some ways it still is, if I want to be honest about it. Do more people recognize me, or any of us, in the street? Yeah, yeah, yeah. But some of that had started to happen in Season 1. The numbers are just a figure you read, and it’s kind of inconceivable. I don’t know that it will never not be inconceivable because I can’t count that high.
As the show’s gotten bigger, you’ve been adopted by more than one community. Rather than say “Hey, do you want to be a spokesman for, you know, Pepsi and we’ll pay you X?” people say, “You are now the spokesman for Asperger’s.” How do you deal with that?
Asperger’s came up as a question within the first few episodes. I got asked about it by a reporter, and I had heard of it, but I didn’t know what it was, specifically. So I asked the writers—I said, “They’re asking me if Sheldon has Asperger’s,” and they were like, “No.” And I said, “OK.” And I went back and I said, “No.” And then I read some about it and I went, OK, well, if the writers say he doesn’t, then he doesn’t, but he certainly shares some qualities with those who do. I like the way it’s handled.
It normalizes something that’s difficult and comes with a real stigma for many people.
That comes up very much with gay issues, too. And being part of that community, one of the things I’ve always said is that it’s nice when you see gay characters as normal people; what’s even better is when it’s not even worth remarking about. This is who this person is; he’s just another human.
The Normal Heart seems like a very logical choice for you along those lines. Was it rough going so quickly into a Broadway play?
Because of my production schedule, I arrived in New York to start rehearsal in earnest about seven days before our first preview. A lot of it had to do with the pressure, but I’ll never forget our first preview: It went fine. It was lovely. I had a great laugh line to end the scene, and I closed the door behind me and went offstage, and I burst into tears.
That run of the play that summer ended up being one of the best artistic experiences of my life. It’s a real lesson. You just have to speak up. You just have to say, “I would like to do this,” and it’s amazing what people who listen can do for you.
The run of that show and the subsequent production of the movie happened during a vital period in the gay rights movement, too.
During the filming of the movie, we were having a big extravaganza of a scene that we were filming, which was a big reenactment of the first Gay Men’s Health Crisis fundraiser, and that was the day DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act] was overturned. And [Normal Heart’s writer] Larry Kramer came to the set that day—it was just surreal. But equally surreal was the night during the Broadway production when New York legalized same-sex marriage, and we took our curtain call, and somebody kind of stopped us on our way offstage, and all the house lights came up, and we came back on stage and one of the producers said, “Since I’m sure all of you had your cellphones off during the production, you probably don’t know yet that New York State just legalized same-sex marriage.”
And oh my God, was that chilling. Just the kismet of the moment, being there, but also the house lights shining on a Broadway theater filled up to the rafters with people cheering after having just finished that play, which Larry … You know, one of the things that keeps amazing me is that it’s hard to hear Larry’s story, The Normal Heart, and how it ends with that marriage in that hospital room. It’s hard to hear it these days and realize what a radical plot point that was in the early/mid-’80s. That wasn’t rewritten in 2010 or 2013, no—that was the way he wanted that story to end way back then. And I don’t know, credit’s not the right word, but it keeps surprising me when I think, that’s not now—he wrote that then. He was ahead of the curve.
How do you go back to Big Bang after that?
Oddly, happily as hell. There is nothing more refreshing for the current, continuing TV job than to do any other acting job in the interim. I got to be somebody who likes other people, who wants to talk to other people, who can pick up on the subtle, human cues, who wants to touch other people, and who deals with the sick. I never get bored playing Sheldon. You get used to it—and that’s good, too. You should; it can help to deepen things, but it’s so nice to have a reminder of the remarkable character you’ve been given a chance to inhabit. I mean, from the moment I read the pilot, that’s what it was that was so attractive to me. I couldn’t tell you a good, bad or ugly pilot just from reading it, but I can tell you a character I want to play. I did feel that with him from the beginning.
God knows why. It probably does say something very odd about me psychologically. That guy? Really? Yeah, yeah I did. I liked the way he talked, and I still do.
Just in terms of season renewals, 10 seasons is the pyramids as far as television longevity goes.
Especially in this day and age. TV is so diversified, and the good side of that is that there’s so much work out there and there are so many risks being taken that you just would never have dreamed of seven years ago. If you’d told me seven years ago, the same spring that I auditioned for the pilot of Big Bang, that I was also going in for a pilot for Netflix, I’d have said, “What the hell does that mean?” Now we’re talking about shows being done for Amazon. The flip side is that I think that might make it more financially difficult to keep things on the air for long. But I may just be basing that on old rules. The new rules are still writing themselves.
The negotiation process was drawn out and high profile for this last renewal—what was that like?
I’d certainly never done that before, and it’s hard to imagine going through that again. There’s no joy in going, “OK, we’re not starting.” That was no fun. We enjoy doing this show. By the same token, I didn’t have my head buried in the sand. I’d heard of these things being done before, and it simply … it’s weird, but it simply has to run its course and do what it does, and that’s how I could finalize. And sure enough, we didn’t stay out past that last date everyone was worried about. It was very clear on the part of everyone who works on the show, from the actors to the production crew, that everybody wanted to do it. There was no negativity as far as anyone saying, “I’m done with this anyway, so whatever.”
Are you on set?
Yeah, we shot two episodes—they always do two or three episodes in a row and then we’ll take a week off. And they had blocked off way in advance the week of the Emmys, in case we had to go.
Well, at this point, I feel like they ought to block it off for next year, too.
You just never know.