Jim Parsons is a hard-core geek—when it comes to theater, that is. The Emmy-winning star admits he needs to google many of the scientific and pop-culture references he spouts off as Sheldon Cooper on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, but the stage has always been second nature. Parsons studied acting at San Diego’s Old Globe theater and initially got his start working the Off Broadway circuit in New York. He made his Broadway debut last year in the Tony Award–winning revival of The Normal Heart, and he’ll return to his roots this May with a starring role in Roundabout Theatre’s revival of Mary Chase’s 1944 comedy, Harvey. Parsons will play Elwood P. Dowd, a grown man with an unusual imaginary friend. TONY quizzed him about giant rabbits, tennis and donating his DNA to a fan.
The first time I saw you was in Manhattan Ensemble Theater’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle in 2002. You were funny even back then.
Oh my God, that was the very first thing I did out of grad school! It was, like, the first audition I went on. It was the greatest thing in the world to get to New York City and start working right away. Not in terms of the money—I made very little money on that show. But I met people and started feeling part of the theater community.
Has your stage training come in handy on The Big Bang Theory?
I think in any form of acting, you’re always well served if you’ve done theater. Especially in the multicamera [sitcom] format, where you’re literally putting together a little 40-page play in five days, and then taping it before a live studio audience. There’s a core similarity that’s undeniable.
How did you decide you wanted to return to the stage?
I’ve had this hankering for a while now. A little over a year ago, [my reps] and I were talking about what was going to happen over hiatus, and I said I really wanted to do theater. I said I’d even work for free! A couple of days later, they called and asked if I wanted to do The Normal Heart. I nearly fell out of my chair. It was a reiteration of that old lesson: Let the universe know what you want, and you just may get it.
Did working on The Normal Heart have a special resonance for you? Or did you take the part just because it came along?
It was the latter, but everything else was an added bonus. I feel so flippant saying that, because everything else in this case was so life changing. I’ve done so much theater, and yet I never had an experience like The Normal Heart. We could feel the reaction of the audience every night. It was visceral. It affected me very deeply as an actor. I’ll never forget, as long as I live, the night New York’s State Assembly passed the bill giving gays the right to marry. After the show, one of the producers went to the microphone and the house lights came up. We all came back onstage and he announced it. For this monumental thing to happen while we were doing this play about the inept and unjust ways the AIDS crisis affected the homosexual community…it was the cherry on top of the experience. It really walloped me.
It must have been quite significant to make your Broadway debut with a part in Larry Kramer’s play about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City.
That’s why I can’t shut up about it! I was roughly 12-ish when [the events in the play] took place, so it really gave me an education. And being in New York, being able to walk by the now-defunct Saint Vincent’s Hospital or Stonewall down on Christopher Street, really magnified the experience.
Are you a fan of the 1944 stage version of Harvey, or the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film?
I actually know the play better than the movie, which I’ve never seen. I find the situation fascinating. Everybody thinks it’s a story about a man and his imaginary friend, who happens to be a six-foot-tall pooka, essentially a big rabbit. But there’s more depth to it. Why is Elwood doing this? It’s a sweet, human tale, and there are several lessons to be taken from it.
Is there anything you can share about the season finale of The Big Bang Theory?
They don’t tell me anything! There are two ways I hear about things. One is when another actor comes in as a guest star and says, ‘Hey, I’m playing your new neighbor’ or whatever. The other is like the time there were a bunch of cats on the show. They had to ask me the week before if I was allergic, so I knew they were coming. Other than that, I find out what’s going on the day we read the script.
So you’re as clueless in real life as Sheldon is on the show?
You had an awesome cameo in the “Man or Muppet” number in The Muppets movie. Now the song’s been nominated for an Academy Award. Any chance we’ll see you crooning the tune come Oscar night?
I actually don’t think so. I don’t think they’re doing live song performances this year. It’s too bad.… I’d love an excuse to get a new tux.
What do you enjoy doing while you’re in New York?
I’m very excited that I’ll be [in town] when the US Open happens. I love seeing tennis up close. I also want to see lots of shows. Hm, what else… [Asking a friend in the room] Do you know what I like to do in New York?
You have to ask other people?
Yes! What? [Laughs] Apparently, all I do is walk my dogs. In L.A., I have more of a yard existence, and so I enjoy walking my two little dogs in New York—one’s a Maltese and the other’s a shih tzu. I also really like the lobster roll at Mary’s Fish Camp.
What’s the weirdest fan experience you’ve had?
It was at the San Diego Comic-Con. I was on a Big Bang Theory panel, and there were, like, 3,000 people in the room. A guy came to the microphone with a napkin and—in the spirit of the Christmas episode when Penny got Sheldon the napkin that Leonard Nimoy had used—he asked if I would wipe my mouth with it, so I could leave my DNA on it.
Did you oblige?
I don’t remember. Maybe I did… It’s probably on YouTube.
After this call, I’ll be googling “Jim Parsons and napkin.”
Oh, you have a wonderful night ahead of you!
Taken from newyork.timeout.com