UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Summer 2009
Hi Diddle Dee Dee
The actor’s life suits breakout TV star Jim Parsons just fine.
by Julene Snyder

D

own the stairs, single-file, through a long, nondescript hallway, he takes us past one metal door after another after another until one finally opens to the inky concrete night. Familiar faces look up briefly, and then resume their private murmur. Goodbyes are said, directions are given, then Jim Parsons turns back to his colleagues and takes his place among them.

It’s a lot easier getting off of the Warner Bros. lot than it was to get onto it. What with the lists, the security, the bag searches, the being handed off every 100 feet from one blue blazer-clad page to the next like batons in a relay race, becoming part of a “Live! Studio! Audience!” was more rigorous than seems reasonable.

Still walking. The soundstages look like enormous Quonset huts, except for the ones that are painted with trompe l’oeil to resemble monuments or piazzas or bowling alleys.

At last, the car and just one final guard, one more gate to be opened, then out into the real world, where the street wends past one walled complex after another after another, all designed to keep outsiders out and insiders in, so those behind the walls can keep on pumping out the flickering images that clamor for our oh-so-easily-bored attention.

T

he Big Bang Theory is funny. Given that it’s a situation comedy, that’s a good thing. The premise is both familiar and absurd: a pair of socially inept, brilliant physicist roommates live across the hall from a kooky gorgeous aspiring actress. Hijinks ensue.

Leonard: We need to widen our circle.

Sheldon: I have a very wide circle. I have 212 friends on MySpace.

Leonard: Yes, and you’ve never met one of them.

Sheldon: That’s the beauty of it.

Jim Parsons, who earned his MFA through USD’s partnership with The Old Globe in 2001, plays the role of Sheldon, a character described as a “beautiful mind with a neurotic but endearing personality.” He lives with Leonard, portrayed by Johnny Galecki, who became well-known as a teenager when he played Darlene’s long-term boyfriend David in Roseanne.

Sheldon is the über-geek in his crowd, which is saying something.

He’s a hilarious mass of often-insufferable neuroses, and Parsons’ rapid-fire delivery and gift for physical comedy jump off the screen whenever he’s in a scene. The show was conceived by TV veteran Chuck Lorre (Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men), and was recently picked up by CBS through 2011.

In conversation, the baby-faced Parsons is both like and unlike Sheldon. His voice tends to careen into a higher register when he’s excited, but he’s the first to admit he doesn’t share his character’s stratospheric IQ. He credits much of his success to the work he did at USD.

The MFA in dramatic arts program nationally recruits just seven students each year for its two-year course of graduate study in classical theater. At the centerpiece of the training is students’ performance work at the Globe. By all accounts, for the lucky few who get in, it’s an intense couple of years.

Globe/MFA program director Rick Seer says at first, the staff wasn’t sure about accepting Parsons as one of that year’s lucky few. “We had some considerations about bringing him into the program,” he recalls. “Jim is a very specific personality. He’s thoroughly original, which is one reason he’s been so successful. But we worried, ‘Does that adapt itself to classical theater, does that adapt itself to the kind of training that we’re doing?’ But we decided that he was so talented that we would give him a try and see how it worked out.“

Parsons says he uses his grad-school training all the time. When asked to provide an example, he’s quick to answer: “With breath control, there’s a way of being ‘on top of the text,’ as they used to say in Shakespeare. It’s very similar for me in this show, staying on top of it, because it will eat you alive otherwise. Sheldon doesn’t make brush-off comments; I certainly couldn’t improvise them. There’s no faking my way through it if I get confused or lost.”

That’s for sure. When Penny, the hot girl across the hall, says to Sheldon, “I’m a Sagittarius, which probably tells you way more than you need to know.” He replies, “Yes, it tells us that you participate in the mass cultural delusion that the sun’s apparent position relative to arbitrarily defined constellations at the time of your birth somehow affects your personality.”

And that’s one of his simpler speeches.

Parsons earned his B.A. in theater at the University of Houston, but he caught the acting bug much earlier. “I got my first named role in the first grade. I was the Kolo-Kolo bird in The Elephant’s Child.” The role had a big effect on him: “I don’t know what I’d done to make somebody think that I was the right choice out of 50 students to play a solo part.

There were no auditions. I think it was some sort of divine intervention, because looking back, it crystallized a lot of desires for me. I’ve known from roughly that age that that’s what I wanted to do.”

He continued to do theater in high school; one role that stands out in his memory was the villain Roat, who terrorizes a blind woman, in Wait Until Dark. “I had so much fun playing that evil character. It was just a wonderful experience for me because I’ve never had the most nefarious look.” His laugh sounds suspiciously like a giggle. “As you might imagine, I’m not asked to play mean people or conniving people very often.”

His training as an undergraduate gave him a good foundation as an actor. “I did set crew, I was exposed to every part of the theater: movement, voice, running crew, everything. I did a ton of plays at that time; it was a very ‘Say yes’ period of my life. I did The Infernal Bridegroom, Beckett, Marat/Sade, Guys and Dolls, children’s theater, Sam Shepard, Shakespeare. All of that helped me to really hone in and concentrate.

It prepared me to go, after a few years, to San Diego.”

C

raft is something that the 36-year-old Parsons thinks about a lot, and his experiences in the master’s program still resonate.

“The Shakespeare classes were three or four intensive plays in a row. It’s interesting to be that submerged. I learned more about Shakespeare than I ever had in my entire life, but I just felt more prepared in general, as an actor, from it. To be fair, Shakespeare can do that anyway. I think you could just study Shakespeare and be absolutely prepared for many facets of the acting profession.”

His former teacher says that Parsons’ most memorable role while he was in the program was a star turn as Young Charlie in a production Seer directed of Hugh Leonard’s Da. “It was during his second year, and it was a role that I had originated on Broadway 20 years earlier,” he recalls. “The play was very successful; it actually won the Tony. Jim played the part that I originated in New York.”

Seer laughs. “I’m sure it wasn’t easy, playing the part that the director played, because I have a lot of ideas of how it should be done, and Jim and I are very different people. But in truth, I think he was much better than I was in it. He captured it beautifully, and it was not a part I would have thought he was dead-on for.”

With so few students in each year’s MFA class, the bond that’s created is thicker than glue. “It could be a little risky, to be there all day, every day, with seven people, but for us, it seemed to work,” says Parsons. “You feel very protective of the other people by the end of it. You want them to do well.”

That’s at least in part by design. When it came time for the class to hold showcases in Los Angeles and New York — a ritual in which each new graduate presents two scenes in front of agents and other industry insiders — the actors had to rely on one another.

“It was done in a very smart way,” Parsons recalls. “You were asked to bring in scenes for other people, which did a couple of things: For one, instead of just looking for things for yourself, you had six other people looking for scenes for you. Secondly, it’s so great to have somebody else’s eye, going, ‘No, no, no, no, no, do this. You do this really well.’”

But just putting on a show doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will care, or even bother to show up. “The showcase we did in L.A. was very sparsely attended. But a week later, when it was time to go to New York, I think all of us completely packed up our stuff to move there after the showcase.”

A gutsy move, but as the song says, if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. Of course, the risks were huge: “My thinking was that I’d never done any camera work, so why would I go to L.A.? It made more sense to go where there was theater.” He shakes his head and laughs. “And I did one play, ever, in New York.”

The part wasn’t huge — he played a secondary role in the Manhattan Ensemble Theater’s off-Broadway production of The Castle, an adaptation of a Kafka novel — but the opportunity was priceless.

“The good thing about that was that I got the part, literally, within a couple weeks of being there. While it wasn’t much money, it gave me a real sense of working there as an actor.” And given the level of rejection most actors face, that experience helped him keep the faith.

“It’s so hard. It’s so discouraging. You have to really listen to the voices that are telling you you’re doing a good job. Whether it’s teachers or fellow students in an acting program telling you, or actually getting cast, or just having a good audition, you have got to listen.” He leans back, pensive.

“You can’t kick yourself over not working. I have personally felt tremendous about many, many, many auditions — and then I didn’t get the part. It had little to nothing to do with what I brought. You bring who you are and what you do and that’s it. You can be worth a gold mine to some people, but not to everybody.”

Of course, audience members will expect Parsons to serve up at least a few gold nuggets when he speaks at this year’s undergraduate commencement at USD on May 23. When asked what he’s planning to talk about, he pauses for a long beat, then smiles.

“Hopefully it will be wonderful.”

G

etting to this point in his career — stints on shows like Judging Amy and Ed, having a memorable part in the well-received indie movie Garden State, a starring role on a hit network sitcom — took stamina. Parsons doesn’t see his journey as resembling that of an overnight success. “I spent a couple of years getting little things here and there,” he recalls. “Working little jobs, surviving on unemployment.”

Three years went by, and then the big break came: Parsons got a pilot for Fox. But then it didn’t get picked up.

Not to worry: “It gave me enough money to live on for a little while. Then I got another pilot.”

Now the big break, right? “That one didn’t get picked up. But it did lead to a little talent-holding deal with CBS.”

Ah, finally, success! “That didn’t lead to anything specific. But once again, it paid for another part of my life. Then, I was out here shooting a very small part in a movie and I got another pilot, for The Big Bang Theory. And we didn’t get picked up.”

Wait, this is the happy ending part, right? “Well, CBS liked it enough that they thought it should be reworked. They thought it could be made better, and I guess they were right. Johnny Galecki and me stayed on board while different people were cast and it was reworked a little bit. Then it did get picked up.”

Interestingly, from Seer’s perspective, Parsons’ career has been on the fast track. “I remember quite clearly that he was really the star of that (New York) showcase, because he was so special. He just immediately started working, in rather high-profile projects. His career took off very quickly.”

So why does Parsons recall that time of his life as being so much of a holding pattern? Seer laughs. “It probably felt like that, but in truth, seven or eight years is a relatively short amount of time to go from waiting for the phone to ring to being very successful to being ‘a name,’” he says.

Parsons moved from New York to Los Angeles for The Big Bang Theory, and it turned out to be a good fit. “I’m very comfortable in L.A., because it reminds me of Houston. There’s a lot of driving, and it’s sprawled out, whereas New York is more condensed. For me, it’s just an easier way of life.”

He’s fully aware of just how lucky he is. After all, there are just as many starving actors on the West Coast as the East. “My vision is rosy, because I’ve only lived out here while I’ve been working. In New York I was unemployed a lot, just sitting around and waiting. But I’ve been a pretty busy bee since I’ve lived out here, and I feel pretty comfortable anywhere that I’m working.”

Even the endless driving isn’t really an issue, at least not anymore. “Now that I have GPS — because I’m a fool, direction-wise — I can get around. When I first started coming out here, like five years ago, it wasn’t that common to have a GPS, and I was completely reliant on maps. I would literally go seven miles in five hours if it was raining. But now I have a handy satellite thing talking to me. Life is really a lot better.” Speaking of the good life, at a taping of “The Vegas Renormalization” episode, the studio audience is atwitter with excitement. They’re seated in rows of straight-backed chairs on tiered risers facing a series of tall black, wheeled screens that hide the show’s set from view. An enthusiastic audience-warmer urges everyone to hold hands, burst into song, compete for prizes and generally make fools of themselves.

This particular audience is eager for taping to begin, and is, in fact, on the verge of hysteria in anticipation. When the lights go down, there’s a rustle of excitement that doesn’t abate, even though the dimming merely signifies that the monitors hanging from the ceiling are about to show a previous episode of The Big Bang Theory. More than one person sings along with the theme song: “Our whole universe was in a hot dense state / Then nearly 14 billion years ago expansion started. Wait.”

Twenty-two minutes later, the big moment has arrived. One by one, the cast members emerge from behind one of the wheeled screens.

“Kunal Nayyar as Koothrappali!” “Simon Helberg as Wolowitz!” “Kaley Cuoco as Penny!” “Jim Parsons as Sheldon!” “Johnny Galecki as Leonard!”

Sustained, wild applause. All of them seem really tiny, except for Parsons, who, at 6-foot-2, looms over his castmates. When taping begins, the screens are removed from in front of just the particular set featured in the scene, and the audience settles, more than ready to laugh.

One would think that having a live audience could be distracting for the actors, and Parsons says that in a way, that’s true. “It can be. That’s why I don’t look out at the audience; if I start looking at them, it really distracts me. “

Not to mention the dozens of people milling about a few feet from the actors, bustling here and there with pages of new lines, wheeling back and forth with cameras and lights, scurrying in with make-up brushes and props. It’s dizzying to imagine the pressure of all those people with their eyes on you, not to mention the millions out there in TV-land. “I try to run my lines while they’re actually doing costume and make-up,”

Parsons says. “I figure if I can get the lines out while they’re doing all of that, then I’ll be OK in the scene.”

But there is an energy that comes from acting in front of an audience that makes all of the hullabaloo worth it. “It makes the show better,” he says. “It’s so similar to doing theater in front of a live audience. When you’re rehearsing, the audience is the missing character. This show has that in common with theater: You work and you work to get it as sturdy as possible and as honest as possible, and you know you’re going to play in front of them, but it never fails that certain things become black and white when the audience is there.”

It’s fascinating to watch, this carefully choreographed ballet. The filming is done linearly, probably more for the actors than the audience.

Once each scene is good to go, a woman stands with a clapboard that digitally records a time code. Time and again, her soft voice precedes the definitive clack when she snaps it shut: “Camera A … B … C … and X.

Common mark!” Then she steps out of the way and a voice calls out, “Continuing on, and action!”

P

arsons’ dressing room is upstairs, just a few dozen steps from where the show is filmed. It’s nice enough: overstuffed neutral furniture, some photos, a few personal mementos. He’s a bit manic after the show, which isn’t surprising, given the schedule that leads up to filming each week’s episode.

“We start out Wednesday morning with a table read, then we stage the whole show. We usually go home pretty early that day and get rewrites that night from what they heard at the table read.” So far, so good. “Then we rehearse all day on Thursday and show the writers a full run of the show that afternoon, and then they rewrite some more. Friday we do a repeat of that; we rehearse all day and then the writers and Warner Bros. and CBS all come to the Friday run-through. And then we have the weekend.”

His gaze is direct, his manner, utterly charming. Parsons is one of those people with the gift of seeming like they can’t think of anyplace else they’d rather be.

“For me, personally, I’m so grateful to have those weekends. I don’t know how I’d memorize some of the longer passages if I didn’t have that time. I really treasure having time alone to focus without being tested with a run-through. On Mondays, we come in early and stay pretty late because we stage it with the cameras and lighting and pre-tape any scenes that are technically difficult, because when you do it in front of a live audience, they can get pretty tired.”

It’s exhausting just hearing about it. “Tuesday we come in late, 11 or noon, and we go through the entire show again for the cameras. Then we run the show for the producers again. Then we have dinner, do the live show at 7 and tape until around 10:30.”

And the next day? Get up and start the process all over again. “That day we’re always like zombies, no matter how easy the taping was.”

Sheldon: It’s very simple. Scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock, rock crushes lizard, lizard poisons Spock, Spock smashes scissors, scissors decapitates lizard, lizard eats paper, paper disproves Spock, Spock vaporizes rock, and — as it always has — rock crushes scissors.

I

n spite of the distractions, Parsons can’t seem to stop waxing rhapsodic about performing in front of a live audience. “It’s a wonderful marriage of the theater and the camera work. The advantage is that if you mess up, you get to do it again. The disadvantage is that you still want to get it right, because things don’t get any funnier the second time around.”

And his character Sheldon is not only the funniest on the show, but also the one with the most complicated speeches. Which isn’t all that surprising; after all, he is supposed to be an incredibly gifted physicist.

“The problem is that Sheldon is not only brilliant, but he has no social niceties to him at all, so he finds no reason to condense something for somebody. Why would the whole list of facts bore you? He thinks, ‘You should probably have all of the information at your fingertips like I do,’ so he goes through every excruciating step of an explanation.”

His star is clearly rising, but Parsons says he’s nowhere near the point where his celebrity impedes him from going about his business. “I’ve seen some photos of me when I was out shopping that surprised me, because I didn’t know they had been taken, but that’s a rare occurrence.” He laughs. “Let’s put it this way. I’m not getting mobbed. I sign scarce, few autographs in real life. I guess I’m pretty low on the excitement totem pole of the people you can see in L.A. right now.”

He stifles a yawn. It’s getting late. So he leads the way, down the stairs, single-file, through a long, nondescript hallway, past one metal door after another after another until he pulls one open to the moonlit night. His cast-mates glance up, then go back to their own business. Goodbyes are said.

Parsons turns back to his colleagues, and then takes his place among them.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
Congratulations are in order! On Thurs., July 16, Jim Parsons ‘01 (MFA) was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his work as Sheldon in the CBS situation comedy, The Big Bang Theory.