Come fall, ask actor Jim Parsons what he did on his summer vacation and he’ll have a better answer than most: He made his Broadway debut. Parsons has won both Emmy and Golden Globe Awards playing uber-nerd and theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper on the hit CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory, but he isn’t spending summer rerun season lazing about in the tropics. He’s in New York playing self-described “Southern bitch” Tommy Boatwright in Larry Kramer’s Tony-winning The Normal Heart, about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the New York gay community. Broadway.com chatted with Parsons about his emotional reaction to arriving on the Rialto and his unabashed love for leading lady Ellen Barkin.
You’re a bona fide television star; why come back to the stage?
This is the fourth year I’ve done the TV show, and all year there are discussions bubbling about what my summer plans will be. A couple of months ago, I told my agents, “I want y’all to know something: A movie sounds great, but when we even mention the word ‘theater’ my palms start to sweat, in a good way.”
So, The Normal Heart coincided with your summer vacation from The Big Bang Theory?
The run fit perfectly into my time off, which is just incredible, but the rehearsal schedule didn’t. I flew out for a couple of weekends while I was still working, and I was very studious. In between learning lines for [The Big Bang Theory] I was learning lines for Normal Heart because I knew I needed to be word perfect by the time I got here, six days before our first preview.
Did you go crazy trying to learn lines for a play and your notoriously cerebral TV character?
It was weird! But I was so excited to do the play that the emotional adrenaline kept me very much afloat. As we got closer to the first rehearsal, I went on YouTube to find clips of people like Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey because my ear was dying to hear their voices. That was the only thing that made me a little crazy, that I was so alone with the script for so long.
What do you love about playing Tommy?
His solution, as opposed to hand-wringing, is to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. I’m in such admiration of those qualities. I certainly feel those impulses in my own life, but it takes a tremendous amount of self-confidence and bravery to say, “I’m going to step in here and do something.”
He couldn’t be more different from your Big Bang Theory character, Sheldon Cooper. What was that transition like?
It wasn’t hard because both Tommy and Sheldon are very well written and the way they talk lends itself to a certain movement, but it took me a few rehearsals to get used to approaching another character closely. I have spent four years playing somebody who literally says, “Don’t touch me,” and Tommy is running his hand down your shoulder before you can say hi.
Do you think appearing on Broadway is still the pinnacle for actors?
Having been a student of theater all my life, I really did feel that Broadway was just that, the pinnacle of being an actor. I’m a little surprised at how emotional I am about it. When we did our first preview, I exited from my first scene and cried. It sounds a little ridiculous, but I had just done my first scene on a Broadway stage and it really hit me in the gut.
Are you enjoying working with this incredible ensemble?
It’s unlike any experience I’ve ever had. The word "ensemble" can be overused sometimes, but it’s the perfect word for what’s happening here. At one point during rehearsal, I felt so happy getting to do this that the thought of a literal vacation, like lying on a beach, sounded horrible.
Really, doing this show is like vacation?
Look, it’s not everyone’s choice of a vacation! I guess I’m just twisted enough that it’s exactly what I wanted.
Ok, we’ve heard about it from the lady herself, so spill: Why build a shrine to Ellen Barkin?
She is a favorite backstage, and we have many, many a photograph taped up on our way into our dressing room. She’s giving a brave, passionate performance, and there’s nothing better than somebody really "leaving it on the stage," as they say. Well everyone in the play is doing that. I’m just kind of in love with Ellen!
You’ve also got a great leading lady on The Big Bang Theory, whom I love from her TV show Blossom. What’s it like to work with Mayim Bialik?
She’s delightful in every way, and so smart as a human being. She’s a neuro…something, I don’t even know. She studied something very impressive, so she is actually able to have conversations with our writers.
And you get to kiss her!
I do! And it’s not unpleasant! And Johnny Galecki, who is also on our show, kissed Blossom as Blossom on her show back in the day.
Have you guys compared notes?
No, I’d like to keep that my own special information. It’s none of his business how it was!