Many kids dream of growing up to be an actor, and Texas-born Jim Parsons was no different, getting the acting bug after appearing in his first play at age 6. But the highly affable 42-year-old hardly could have imagined he would eventually gain worldwide fame—not to mention four Emmy Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and many millions of dollars—for wearing nerdy T-shirts and shouting “Bazinga” as he has for the past eight years as socially awkward physicist Sheldon Cooper on CBS’ megahit comedy,The Big Bang Theory.
Still, Parsons has never let go of his theatrical roots, and in recent years has starred twice on Broadway, first in the 2011 production of Larry Kramer’s AIDS-era drama The Normal Heart (later reprising that part for the 2014 award-winning HBO adaptation) and then taking on the iconic role of rabbit-seeing eccentric Elwood P. Dowd in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2012 revival of the classic comedy Harvey.
Now, he’s back on the Great White Way sharing the words of the Almighty in David Javerbaum’s irreverent comedy An Act of God. Parsons recently spoke to us about the play, returning to live in New York with his longtime partner, art director Todd Spiewak, and how his parents’ support led to his eventual success.
Q: How did An Act of God come about for you?
A: My agent and I were thinking about what I would be doing this summer on my hiatus, and he suggested this play to me. As soon as I read it, I knew doing this would be heaven. It is very funny and a real challenge. I find this show to be my favorite kind of comedy—one that tackles somewhat touchier subjects. And it’s sort of profound in the end. I find it quite moving.
Q: The script almost seems like a monologue that was written for a stand-up comic. Since that’s not your background, how are you approaching the material?
A: I admit that I am an unlikely candidate for this show: There are some stand-up rhythms and a general tone of showmanship that present a challenge. I think my interpretation is that this way of speaking is God’s best effort to communicate to the masses. If it sometimes goes just above “borscht belt humor,” that’s fine, because he’s giving the people what they want. David has many years of experience for writing for Jon Stewart, and it shows.
Q: Some of the humor borders on blasphemous. Are you afraid of offending your TV fans?
A: I am not worried about offending anyone in particular, and that’s certainly not my goal. Still, I know some people are already offended that someone is impersonating God. I hope people will realize we’re putting on a good piece of entertainment. I already know that I am going to have some audiences that don’t laugh as much as others, but I will still be irritated as I would be doing any other comedy. You always want people to like it: audibly!
Q: This is your third Broadway show in the past few years. How do you feel being back in NYC?
A: Before I was on Big Bang, I spent about six years in and out of New York City, and I loved living here—even in unemployment. And there is nothing like being a working actor in New York. It is a thrill like no other. You feel like part of an electric current. And, of course, being on Broadway is just a dream fulfilled.
Q: Are there restaurants you’re dying to eat in?
A: When I did The Normal Heart, Todd and I used the hell out of Joe Allen. I think we ate there four times a week. Todd and I both love to eat; we’re the kind of couple who talk at lunch about where we are going for dinner.
Q: How do you keep Sheldon on Big Bang so funny year after year?
A: I am very committed to the idea of keeping the character fresh and alive, but it is really the writers’ doing, 100 percent. That’s not false modesty. They expand all these characters in ways that are organic, and in doing so, never alienate the audience. If you had told me in Season 5 that Sheldon would confess his love for a woman that year, I would have thought that was the beginning of the end. But when he finally did it, it seemed so real and right. It always feels easy to play Sheldon, because he’s believable to me.
Q: What do you think your life would be like now if the show hadn’t become a megahit?
A: It seems like, both in my life and career, things have played out in a natural way, if not always a pleasant one. I think the most fortunate part was having parents who didn’t discourage me from acting. We weren’t rich, but they assisted me financially when I needed it, and that’s the biggest pot of gold I struck. I was able to keep working as an actor, even doing free theater, which led to me to getting into a great graduate school with a scholarship and no loans.
Q: Your dad passed away in 2001. What would he think of your success?
A: He’d be thrilled. I have to say my dad was probably the more supportive parent. He was the one who used to say, “Why have we worked so hard to put our kids in school to discourage them from what they want to do?” My mother more expressly worried about my future. I remember one time when I was in grad school, I was home and they were talking in another room, and my mother said to my dad: “Do we have any investments?” And I saw Dad point to me in the kitchen.
Q: What will your life will be like after Big Bang ends?
A: I will keep acting. I have yet to get the writing and directing pull. Of course, I would love to do more film work, since I haven’t done much on that front. But the thing that gives me the most joy is live theater; that’s the most fertile ground for an actor.