Before rehearsals began, Education Dramaturg Ted Sod sat down with Actor Jim Parsons to discuss his role in Harvey.
Ted Sod: Can you tell us about yourself? Where were you born and educated? When did you decide to become an actor?
Jim Parsons: I was born in Houston, Texas and I lived there until I was about 27 or so. I went to undergrad at the University of Houston. I did a lot of theatre in Houston in addition to being at the university. Looking back, it’s fun to see how important that was to me. I learned a lot in class but I learned much more by having to get out there and perform. I was very fortunate. There is a Shakespeare festival that the university had an affiliation with and although it wouldn’t guarantee a part, it certainly guaranteed that the students would be involved. So I was a part of this Shakespeare festival as well as a children’s theatre festival. There was a company of actors and writers, really a company of misfits in a way that I had the opportunity to work with. We got to do all sorts of work, everything from Beckett to Guys and Dolls, so I had a wide and varied playground in Houston.
Did you go to graduate school?
I decided I really wanted to go to New York or LA and I knew that I needed a reason to leave. So I auditioned for grad schools and I spent two-and-half-years in San Diego at the Old Globe theatre in their Master’s program. It was a lot of work because you understudy many roles in the Old Globe season while you’re also taking classes. There were three separate productions that I actually had to go on for. It was a little unusual. I don’t think many students had the chance to go on and it was really an adrenaline rush when one of us did.
Understudying those roles at the Old Globe was one of the most informative things that has ever happened to me. I’ve always felt pretty strongly about any role that I approach based on what I see on the page. As an understudy, you’re paired with another actor, and as far as making decisions, their opinion is more important to the production, but you get to bounce ideas directly off that person. Sometimes I disagreed with the choices the actor made and that was as informative as anything. One of the most challenging things about understudying is figuring out how another actor came to a particular choice, and sometimes you would come to see their way and sometimes you wouldn’t. That gave me strength and confidence.
You ultimately came to New York, didn’t you?
When we were graduating from the Old Globe, we did a showcase in LA in 2001 and not very many agents attended but when we did it in New York, it was highly attended. I had different meetings that I went on with different agencies and that is still to this day the single most fortunate thing that has ever happened to me as an actor. I struggle when actors ask me about getting an agent. For me, there was some luck involved or at least some good fortune as far as the people who were attending these showcases. The right person attended for me and it was a good match.
Did you get work right away?
As soon as I moved to New York in November of 2001, I went on my very first audition which was for this version of Kafka’s The Castle at Manhattan Ensemble Theatre. It was very little money but it was hugely important to me to be thrust into a working environment and to meet so many working actors. It made me feel like I was on the right path and running in the right company. From there my career started moving into different directions: I started doing commercials and I did a couple of regional theatre shows at La Jolla Playhouse and did a couple of smaller parts in independent movies. One of them was Garden State which was seen by a lot of people and, again, that was just fortunate. Then I started booking a lot of pilots for television and some didn’t get picked up and then one of them did and that brings us to today.
You were on Broadway in The Normal Heart last summer—correct?
I get summers off from working on The Big Bang Theory. Last summer, I thought I hit the jackpot. The Normal Heart was running in the exact time that I was going to be away from The Big Bang Theory. It had a creative team, mostly George Wolfe, who said, “I’m okay with him only arriving in New York six days before the preview.” That was kind of a head-over-heels experience for me; it exceeded my wildest expectations. I used to say when we were doing The Normal Heart it was exactly what I wanted to be a part of when I was a young actor. It was a real ensemble effort, a team. You’re part of a group of people passionately committed to telling this story the most honest way they can, and passionately committed to the vision of the director.
How did you respond to Harvey when you first read it?
In my mind, the story of the play is not hard to follow, but it has the possibility of going much deeper into the heart of an audience. That is very exciting and I am thrilled to get to be a part of it.
I’m curious about your take on Elwood. It seems like everyone loves him and yet he needs this imaginary friend. Do you have an opinion on that?
I can see why you would think that he seems to need this friend, but I think a choice has been made. Elwood says a few things that imply that.
There’s this line that he has, “I wrestled with reality for years, and I’m happy to say I finally won out over it,” and another line is, “For years I was smart, I recommend pleasant.” His mother would always say, “You need to be very smart or very pleasant.” It seems to me that there’s this switch that happened for Elwood. It’s not explicit, and I’m certainly not married to the idea, but it seems like Harvey appeared soon after the death of Elwood’s mother. Someone says, “He always took things so easily, he took change so easily, the appearance of the white rabbit he took so easily.” There is something so lovely that this pooka appeared and he stepped into the opportunity and this is where it’s led him.
You don’t hear a lot of the other characters talk about Elwood being unpleasant. They say that they liked him, but it seems to me that he must not have been as happy in the past as he is in his current state. If there is one thing that you can say for sure, it’s that he is very happy. He’s in no hurry, why would he be? If you’re in too much of a hurry, then you don’t enjoy the people around you, you don’t really take them in. There’s nothing that is anxiously driving Elwood. The only thing driving him is to make these connections with people, with strangers. This is something that I think intrigued me as much as anything about doing this role. I love the chance to step into this character. He takes opportunities to spend time with others and to discover other people’s dreams, their hurts, their worries, their whatever, and, in the process, he doesn’t really state any of his own. He doesn’t seem to have any. Of course, it’s possible that once we start rehearsal, I’ll find that he does have all of the above, but I don’t see that right now.
I think you have a very cogent understanding of Elwood. Some people might say he’s just a happy drunk, but I think what’s motivating him is bigger than that. I think that’s one of the reasons this play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 and is still so popular. It seems to hit a chord in people about the way we’re living. It seems to say that there is a simpler, gentler way for us all to live.
I think it’s one of the reasons it’s such a good play for right now. I won’t pretend to know the social implications of why. I speak more from a general buzz of a feeling than anything else. After reading this script and thinking about it for a moment and letting it have an effect on you, you feel a hint of something. That’s why I feel Elwood has made a choice. If you don’t want to miss out on certain things in this world, if you want to experience this world in a certain way, you have to make that choice. I don’t know if he’s gotten off the train as it were, but he’s certainly protected himself.
One of the things I love, and I guess you could call it a deus ex machina, is when the cab driver comes in at the end and says, “Lady, after this, he’ll be a perfectly normal human being and you know what bastards they are!” I think that has a lot to say.
I think you’re absolutely right. This idea of yes, you can change Elwood and you can make him more aware of all the things in the world that you want him to be aware of, but you need to understand that he won’t be the same. For any embarrassment or awkwardness he’s bringing to your life, there’s a good chance that if you take that away, you will also take away the joy and lightness that he brings to your life at the same time.
Elwood’s really an amazing creation. The audience falls in love with him because he’s unconventional and yet, people still have issues with those who are different.
There have been huge societal changes that have happened from 100 years ago and even 50 years ago, but it doesn’t seem to ever stop. It’s one of those ongoing, organic things; there’s always going to be differences between people. There’s always going to be another way of doing things that rattles your own and that needs further investigating on your part and, ideally, acceptance. I think that’s another reason this story survived so well — that conflict is forever. There’s always a battle for acceptance going on.
Is there anything else you would like to add about the play or Elwood?
I feel like there’s a wealth of interpretations as to what’s going on in this play. I feel that everyone will have their own take on what it is that they are or are not seeing. I don’t think the audience will be able to pinpoint the why of everything that they see. That’s the beautiful thing about this play and something I’m drawn to. I’m excited about making specific choices and I’m equally excited about the idea of working with Harvey. My greatest hope is that he is made clear to the audience.