Fresh Air Interview: Actor Jim Parsons - 'Playing 'Big Bang Theory's' Sheldon Cooper' Jim Parsons won the 2010 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his portrayal of Sheldon Cooper, the socially awkward theoretical physicist in the venerable CBS nerd-comedy. He joins David Bianculli for a discussion about playing the eccentric prodigy.

Jim Parsons On The Science Of Sheldon, 'Big Bang'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Our next guest, Jim Parsons, recently won the Emmy as Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series. He's a star of "The Big Bang Theory," a CBS sitcom co-created by Chuck Lorre, whose other credits include "Two and a Half Men" and the new "Mike & Molly."

Jim Parsons has appeared in regional theater and in bit parts in a few movies and TV pilots, but "The Big Bang Theory" was his big break. He plays Sheldon Cooper, a physicist who is brilliant at math and other things but baffled by what most of us would consider basic social situations. He does have friends, though. Johnny Galecki from "Roseanne" co-stars as his equally bright roommate, Leonard. And Kaley Cuoco plays Penny, the beautiful girl who lives in the apartment across the hall.

This season, Jim Parson's Sheldon, has a girlfriend of his own. She's a fellow genius named Amy, whos just as geeky, as you can tell from last week's fourth season premiere, when he got a text message from her.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Big Bang Theory")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JIM PARSONS (Actor): (as Sheldon) Excuse me. Oh, Amy is at the dry cleaners and she's made a very amusing pun.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) I dont care for prochloral ethylene and I dont like glycol ether.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) Get it? She doesnt like glycol ether.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) Sounds like either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Jim Parsons, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. PARSONS: Thank you for having me.

BIANCULLI: First of all, congratulations on your recent Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.

Mr. PARSONS: Oh, thank you.

BIANCULLI: And the setup of the show almost threatens to make fun of nerds or brainy people but the show doesnt really do that at all.

Mr. PARSONS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: Can you talk about the authenticity of both the characters and the science?

Mr. PARSONS: Well, the science part is extremely easy. We employ David Saltzberg, who is a physicist who teaches at UCLA. And he not only fact checks, he supplies a great deal of it. You know, its like we need Sheldon to talk about, you know, something or other that somehow applies to teaching Penny whatever.


Mr. PARSONS: And he'll come up with something, you know. And he sends over this diagram, you know, on this whiteboard and he'll throw in little inside jokes that, you know, I don't find funny because I don't know what the heck he's talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: But and then as far as the more geek culture, I guess you'd call it, between the gaming and the comic books and "Star Trek" and whatever you have, I think that we just have a fair amount of writers employed who totally know it and I dont, and every once in a while you'll hear a verbal disagreement break out.

But, you know, the setup does - would lend itself you would think, and we got a lot of buzz that are they just going to poke fun at geeks for, you know, a few episodes and hopefully we'll be rid of this show - whatever, when we first came on. And it was such a more affectionate embrace of these characters than ever that, and I think that's what is one of the major keys to this show working is like I say, that affection on the part of everybody working on it for these characters. And I think that engenders affection, hopefully, from the audience.

BIANCULLI: Some people have presumed or suggested that Sheldon is borderline autistic or has Asperger's syndrome. I know youve asked the writers and theyve told you no.

Mr. PARSONS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: But the way that you play him, is that a possibility in your mind?

Mr. PARSONS: I did not know enough about Asperger's to be utilizing any Aspergian traits, as it were, early on. And I still didn't know what it meant exactly to have Asperger's or what those qualities were in a human with that, until we were being asked about midway through the first season after being -having aired several episodes - you know, does Sheldon have Asperger's? And that's you know, my first question like you said, was I went to the writers and asked, they said, no.

And then I began a very slight foray into just researching like, what is this? And, you know, then I read and was like, oh, well, okay, they say he doesnt have Asperger's and they wrote it and so I trust them, but good grief, he certainly has a lot of the traits. So I've looked no further into that as far as trying to get any guidance from that. For one reason, whatever they're writing, the way it's being filtered through me and the way I'm doing it apparently is leading us in that direction anyway without having to think about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: Who knew? But the other thing is and I think they were very smart when they said nope, he doesnt, is that that's not what they wanted to do. You know, not that theyve ever told me this, but it seems to me its such an original reaction to the world through a filter like that - to look at the world through those eyes.

But I think that they, you know, for how ever long we're lucky enough to keep doing this show, I dont think they wanted to saddle us with a responsibility. I dont think they wanted to, I would assume, claim something that we were -suddenly had to make sure we upheld to the letter for 10 years, if we're lucky, you know, or whatever.

I certainly am relieved as an actor that I'm not constantly having to fact check. Look, trying to figure out what - that the Spock sign - the Vulcan salute is every time we do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: So I can only imagine what Id be doing going, now is this actually what an Asperger's - you know, somebody with Asperger's would do or autism? So I feel like theyve made my life freer in that way by not doing that.

BIANCULLI: You had a really interesting challenge last season when one episode was built as a lengthy flashback to show how Sheldon and Leonard first met.

Mr. PARSONS: Oh yeah.

BIANCULLI: To play Sheldon pre-Leonard, what adjustments did you make and why?

Mr. PARSONS: Basically they said, you know, we have, we're going to flashback and whereas the other three guys are going to have physically changed, Sheldon will look identically the same and only his dealings with people and the world around him will have evolved. That's what has changed about him, which is a wonderful conceit. But it's very hard after working on something for nearly three years at that point to go: And now I dont talk like this anymore.


Mr. PARSONS: Now I talk - I dont look at people and I dont blah, blah, blah, whatever.

BIANCULLI: Well, let's play a clip from the flashback episode.

Mr. PARSONS: Okay.

BIANCULLI: The plot has Sheldon, this is the less-socialized Sheldon, advertising for a new roommate. But he's got very tough standard, as Leonard learns when he knocks on Sheldon's door. So you have Johnny Galecki playing Leonard, and our guest, Jim Parsons, playing Sheldon.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Big Bang Theory")

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of knocking door)

(Soundbite of door opening)

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) Yes?

Mr. JOHNNY GALECKI (Actor): (as Leonard) Yeah. I'm Leonard Hofstadter. I called you about the apartment. You said to come by and...

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) I know what I said. I know what you said. I know what my mother said on March 5th, 1992.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) What is the sixth noble gas?

Mr. GALECKI: (as Leonard) What?

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) You said you're a scientist. What is the sixth noble gas?

Mr. GALECKI: (as Leonard) Uh, radon?

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) Are you asking me or telling me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALECKI: (as Leonard) Telling you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALECKI: (as Leonard) Telling you.

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) All right, next question. Kirk or Picard?

Mr. GALECKI: (as Leonard) Oh, uh, well, that's tricky: Original series over "Next Generation" but Picard over Kirk.

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) Correct. You've passed the first barrier to roommate-hood. You may enter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: That's Johnny Galecki and our guest Jim Parsons in a flashback episode of the CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory."

Jim, youre 37 but you look and play so much younger.

Mr. PARSONS: Thank you, God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: And you seem to really get this character. I know you grew up in Houston.

Mr. PARSONS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: But what was your own childhood like? What could you draw from that would make you understand Sheldon this well?

Mr. PARSONS: I was a very shy child. I remember being very - early in, I think it was kindergarten open house or whatever and being with my mother, and children saying hi to me or other children that were in my class and I still remember feeling this way, but I don't know why. I wouldn't even say hi back. I was that shy. And I remember her gripping my hand and saying, you say hi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: I'm sorry, Mother. She's not a tyrant by any stretch. But this is just like in my DNA. This is who I was. And the reason I do start there is that I think there's something I understand about his lack of understanding about what is it that other people want to hear? What is it that they want me to answer? I feel like, you know, when I've been asked this question in this conversation, mm, I dont know that what I'm about to say is what they - is normal, is what they're expecting or...

Now, I think for Sheldon it's different, you know, he's more obtuse than I. He's not even thinking that far into it normally, like oh dear, I dont want to hurt their feelings. In fact, that's one of the keys to him, I think as a character is that he says things all the time that could hurt someone's feelings. But the reason he gets away with it is because it wouldnt occur to him. He didnt check it through a filter and go, oh, they'll be fine with this. No, skip that barrier completely. He just says it.

But in that there's something I understand about maybe feeling like you haven't understood the question exactly.

BIANCULLI: How early did you go from being a shy kid to being a kid who wanted to be up on stage and acting?

Mr. PARSONS: What's funny is that if my - if that open house where I was so painfully shy that my mother was upset with me was in kindergarten, my first play was in first grade and...

BIANCULLI: So your trauma didnt last very long.

Mr. PARSONS: You know, I dont think it ever went away. I still feel pretty -I'm not the best social person. It's a matter of comfort, I think. And for whatever reason, the same way I dont know why I was so painfully shy at the age of five, I dont know why I was so comfortable playing the bird in the first grade show and doing a little solo in yellow tights, which I did willingly, happily, you know, caught the bug, as it were.

And, but it's a matter of comfort and it's a matter of understanding the situation youre in. And there's still something about walking down a hall and people saying hi, that can throw me. But if I have the script and I understand where we're going with this story and what story I'm helping tell, then I'm very comfortable because I can see what's - there's something about knowing where the end is. And maybe that's all it is, is I dont know outside of the script where the rest of this life leads and that makes me a little more anxious. I dont know.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Jim Parsons, the star of "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: If youre just joining us, our guest is Jim Parsons, star of "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS.

Tell me if this is too personal a question.

Mr. PARSONS: Okay.

BIANCULLI: I know that your father died in a car accident about 10 years ago.

Mr. PARSONS: Mm-hmm. Yes.

BIANCULLI: At what point in your life were you then professionally, personally and looking back on it, how did you react and what did that mean to you?

Mr. PARSONS: I was in graduate school for acting at that point. I was, it was about 10, so I was 27 at that point. And my father was really the one who was very eager that I explore this desire to be an actor. Not that I got a lot of flack from anybody. You know, my mother didnt call me and say, what are you do, you know, nothing like. But it was, I did find out in retrospect, he was certainly the voice who told her that they needed to let me try, you know. And there's no repaying the gratitude that I feel on that level because I've been around too many people who weren't supported as much as I was, say, at home in that way.

And I dont mean just financially, although there was some help but not, you know, we weren't rich, but more emotionally, just like I say getting no flack from them, like this needs to stop. Instead, they would pose questions to me like, what are you doing to make a real financial go of this? You know, what is your next step? What's the whatever, which kind of led me to grad school, etcetera.

I had one experience in grad school that was very important where, coincidentally, I was an understudy for a very big part in one of the main shows at the regional theater where we were studying, the Old Globe, and the guy who I was understudying, his grandmother passed away and he had to go to a funeral for her and I had to go on for him and purely coincidentally, my parents were visiting me that weekend at school.

They got to see me go on and it was a wonderful experience, this adrenaline rush of a moment with this full-paying audience at a, you know, an equity regional theater and it was just a professional thing going on. And I will never forget that getting to spend that one day with them when they got to watch that and got to be around everybody else watching it. And, you know, while he, my father hasnt seen, you know, from Earth at least, with us, he hasnt seen anything that's gone on in the regard of the past 10 years, he did see the first tow into the water of making a real professional go of this, I feel.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Jim Parsons, the Emmy-winning star of "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS.

Are you used to that yet, Emmy-winning?

Mr. PARSONS: No. This is weird, but that night a couple of people said, how do you feel? I said I feel like I'm kind of dreaming and they're like, give it a week, give it a week and I thought how weird to have a timeline on your acceptance of an Emmy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: What a ridiculous thing to say. But it was very accurate. And here we are, I dont know, four weeks, five weeks out, whatever, and what's changed is not that I've accepted it and become comfortable with Emmy-winner, it's that now it feels less like it happened.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: Now I look back and go, I can't believe that really happened. So its gone from being unreal to as if it just didnt happen. Such an odd thing.

BIANCULLI: Well, it did happen.

Mr. PARSONS: It did. I know. I know. I was there. I hugged LL Cool J.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Well, Jim Parsons, thanks so much for being on FRESH AIR.

Mr. PARSONS: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Jim Parsons, Emmy-winning star of the "The Big Bang Theory." The CBS comedy moved at the start of this season and now airs on Thursdays.

(Soundbite of music)

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.