Imparting knowledge and passing on the possibilities in an interesting exercise when the character you play on a major international TV show is that of Sheldon Cooper, played with finesse and specific approach by Emmy winner Jim Parsons. Visiting the set of “Young Sheldon” as part of the Warner Brother TV Day at Warner Brothers Studios during the TCA Winter Tour 2018, Jim sat down to talk about the evolution of the character, his perceptions and the living on of Sheldon’s legacy.
Your understanding of Sheldon has evolved over the years including unforseen aspects of compassion. Can you talk about that?
Jim Parsons: Well, what’s interesting to me is — and again, why I’m not a writer is because I don’t see things like this. But what they touched on, how we’re seeing, of course, [in this show] is how Sheldon evolves into who we know him to be on the adult older show. And I made a joke with [the younger actor], “Eventually you’ll get to be more irritating,” I said today to him. But it’s really kind of the truth about it. It’s like we’re going to see the slings and arrows – I’m sorry – of life and just growing turn him into even more of the person I’m playing. I don’t know. It’s interesting.
And yet there is more a transformation as the older Sheldon has become engaged…
JP: I do agree with that. I think that it’s one of the journeys they’ve really worked to take him on. We’ve had several different episodes, it feels like, where Amy is coaching him in the ways of being empathetic — we’re working on an episode right now, not to give anything away, where he realizes that she doesn’t do certain things that she wants to do because she knows how he’ll react to it. And he doesn’t like it. And so he begins — it’s another example — he starts trying to work on not complaining about what she wants. It lasts for a couple of pages (laughing) I’ll be honest, as an actor, I really thank God for it because it’s one of the fences that they straddle so well as writers is keeping everything true enough to keep the audience there, but moving it along enough to keep everybody working on it interested, I think including themselves. It’s a major gift and the longer we’ve gone on our show, the more evident that’s become.
Now the overarching journey, especially with your — Sheldon’s relationship with his mother in “Young Sheldon” — I mean, obviously that affects how you relate in present time
JP: Well, I feel like, if I’m being honest, the writers keep doing the thinking about it. So not to sound like…
But you inhabit him.
JP: Without a doubt. But so much of the inhabiting process for me is just saying the words out loud in rehearsal. And once you’ve done that, how IT makes you feel to say it, how it affects the person that you’re saying it to…that kind of instructs it along. And I also will say, I’ve tried to be — I don’t overthink this, but I have always tried to be very conscious of — it’s kind of what they teach you in acting 101 — don’t judge your character or whatever. I try to leave myself enough at the whims of him to be able to do kind of a 180 from one script to the next if it’s just not that happening in that week or whatever the mood is that Sheldon’s in. I don’t know. At the same time, I guess, I’m not thinking about it too much.
So they’ve talked about writing the end of the show. Can you see going several more seasons?
JP: I think anything is possible. But that’s the thing. I just think anything in thisv– it’s getting into really odd territory as far as less and less examples [of places] to go. “Well, they did this. And there’s this other show did this.” It’s really getting into a very individual state of how does everybody feel and whatever. And that includes the writers, who we’ve not had some major discussions with. There hasn’t been a cast and producer discussion about the future of our show or whatever. I will tell you that, for whatever reason, they’ve all been enjoyable seasons. But as far as camaraderie goes, the frivolity on the set, and just the jovial atmosphere has never been at a more pitch degree than it is this season. And I don’t know if that’s because they’re always like, “I think the end is near”. Or just because it’s uncertain now where we’ve gone through so many seasons, we’ve been lucky enough to just know certainly what’s going on.” But I don’t know. I think it’s related to some sort of appreciation of each other that you were able — kind of like family — to just kind of take it for granted that they’re going to be there next week. They’re going to be there. And now the weeks are might be getting short. You just don’t know. So because of that, I could see making things go further. It’s really hard to say. And there’s so many people making their own decisions and all.
How has your appreciation for TV evolved?
JP: Well, you know what’s funny is the day and age we are in I feel is, in a good way, overwhelming. I think we’re in a wonderful time in the entertainment industry in general as far as everything goes. But it’s still so in flux, and changing, and moving, and growing. Just the sheer amount of options is just– it’ll be really interesting to see because you can’t help to feel like everything is still evolving.
How much time do you spend on doing the voice-over for the show?
JP: Very little. I can do anywhere from three to seven episodes in a 45-minute period. I mean, even on a heavy episode. What I enjoy about this process [is that] it’s different version of using timing and a different version of putting a pause here or whatever there that will make it funnier, hopefully, or just change it. And when it’s not timed to visual, it’s just less of that.
Can you talk about imparting appreciation to Ian? So he knows sort of what to expect in terms of the impact of Sheldon as a character. You’ve said that you’ve sort of guided him. But how do you maintain that sort of mentorship?
JP: Well, if it’s happening at all, it’s happening as organically as it can, and it’s happening a lot through his mother. Lee Armitage, his mother, and I, we are usually texting and incontact with each other a bit, like quite frequently and not for a pointed purpose. We just enjoy talking. But as you do with relationships, the specific questions get snuck in, not snuck in, but they just come up. Like, “Have you ever been to one of these events before?” And so it just happens very organically like that. There’s no real preparing for anybody for some of the more, oh God, recognizable type aspects of this and the celebrity of it or whatever, just the being noticed. Any preparation, especially with young people, and really, for adults, too, has to happen before. And, in these kids’ cases, they really do have a remarkable set of parents. They’re all different. They’re all unique.
Does that allow the kids to be naturalistic, do you think, in their acting? Or does it have to be nuanced?
JP: I don’t know if that’s a direct relation, but I do, now that you say that, I have to think that, yes, none of them have a kind of like – I don’t know – squeaky little cutesy thing that they came in doing. They all just kind of, as the adult actors do, read the material, say it, and see where it goes.
But as creator Chuck Lorre has, you found the way to make somebody like Sheldon so likable despite some of his characteristics. There’s an art to that.
JP: Well, I think, though, that it’s partly, too, a point of view that a lot of actors come in with to varying degrees and is, in their own special way, seeing what is redeemable about my character? Because coming into it with over-obvious assumption, of course, that my character doesn’t want to do harm. Of course, my character wants other people to like him or her in one way or another. And when you kind of approach it through that, I think that’s really the way around in how things are, if not softened, the audience can be able to identify in like, “I’m a good person, and I say nasty things sometimes!” (laughing). I don’t know.
By Tim Wassberg