Jim Parsons likes contrast between ‘Normal Heart,’ ‘Big Bang’ roles
LOS ANGELES – Jim Parsons welcomed the chance to play a character who “radiates warmth” for a change in “The Normal Heart,” in contrast to his “cold, analytical” geek in “The Big Bang Theory.”
The actor was as smart-sounding in person as “The Big Bang’s” Sheldon, but he did not speak in his physicist character’s often rapid-fire manner of talking. Rather, he weighed his answers and spoke unhurriedly.
On this recent interview at New York’s The London Hotel, he was dressed in a blazer, checkered shirt and jeans.
Jim and his “The Normal Heart” cast mates—Mark Ruffalo, Taylor Kitsch, Matt Bomer and Julia Roberts—and director Ryan Murphy are winning acclaim for HBO’s TV movie adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play on the start of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York in the early 1980s.
Jim reprised his role of gay activist Tommy Boatwright, which he played in a Broadway production in 2011.
“I felt this very strongly when I played the role of Tommy on Broadway and then of course again when we did the movie,” Jim said, his blue eyes lighting up. “It was very clear to me that summer, when I was doing it every day between seasons of ‘Big Bang,’ that it was so pleasant to play someone who picks up on every social cue, who picks up on every moment and wants to hug people, to touch other people. If I am doing it right, and I believe he should, Tommy should radiate warmth.”
He clarified, “There’s a lot of joy and humor to be mined from playing such a cold, analytical fish all year long on that TV show.” But he also welcomed the chance to tap other emotions. “For me, yes, it felt like muscles that were near atrophy suddenly got used again. I am so grateful. Sheldon has a heart—that’s why he gets away with some of the things he does but it’s a heart that not a lot of us understand completely. Tommy’s is much more regular in its own special way.”
Jim said it was quicker for him to learn his “Normal Heart” lines than his sitcom script. “The dialogue for ‘Normal Heart’ is just a lot easier to memorize,” he said. “But again, this required a more empathetic feeling and that probably made me easier to live with.”
He was referring to his partner for over a decade, art director Todd Spiewak. “Suddenly, you love all your fellow men. But he (Todd) probably would tell a different tale.”
He added, “If I am a terror at home—I probably can be at times —it has a lot to do with … I will never memorize these god-damned words (from ‘Big Bang’). What the hell do they mean?”
But, as his Emmy and Golden Globe awards prove, Jim is convincing delivering the lines of his brainiac character who has a master’s degree and two PhDs.
“In a project like this (‘Normal’) … I simply don’t struggle with it in that way,” he explained. “It feels more natural. I memorize alone. I don’t like to run lines with people. I don’t want to be tested. I will save it for the camera.”
He cited a scene in which his Tommy gave a eulogy reflecting the depth of loss and tragedy felt by the gay community as the new disease claimed more lives.
“When I was memorizing this, especially the eulogy scene, I had to really be careful to not let myself get too deeply emotional with certain parts because I was saving it (emotion for actual filming). It was like: Don’t deal with this here, get the words down, and don’t exist in this speech. Don’t exist at this funeral yet, just get the logistics down.”
Jim noted with a smile the irony that supergenius Sheldon was standoffish, even arrogant, but viewers loved the character and eagerly approached him when they saw him in person. “It’s very interesting to play such a character on the TV show who has such trouble connecting with other humans,” he said.
“The warmth with which I am approached by people is really the exact opposite. And I don’t know if that character … makes people want to take care of him or something. I thought that people would be hesitant, like, ‘Oh, he hates people.’ People say that all the time. They get confused by the actor and character. But people run right up to me, so it’s very sweet.”
The actor, whose sexuality was officially revealed matter-of-factly, not sensationally, in a New York Times profile in 2012, said he was “very grateful” that he was out.
“It was somewhat accidental, a very organic process. It was so much later in my life when ‘Big Bang’ came along so, while I have been acting for many years, no one outside of the 100 people in the box that I was in ever knew who the hell I was.
“By the time people knew who I was, I was in my 30s and I was five years into my relationship. At that point, there was like, in a good way, no turning back. I had a life. Was I going to uproot all of that? No, that wasn’t the point.
“The point was to successfully work as an actor while living the life. We were fortunate as a show that we (he and Todd) started going to some award shows. You get a date ticket. I remember the first time that happened. I was like, well, here we go, I don’t know what will happen. I had no idea. And absolutely nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. So we existed for a few years.”
The New York Times revelation was in reference to how “The Normal Heart” resonated with Jim on a personal level. Jim said, “It wasn’t until I was part of ‘The Normal Heart’ play that people started to ask, ‘As a gay man, how do you feel about that?’ I felt like I got to jump a few spaces in a weird way. The question never was, ‘Are you gay?’ The question was, ‘As a gay person…’ I was, again, so grateful for that. I feel that that’s how it should be.”
The Texas native said he got messages “every once in a while” from gay kids who looked up to him or got recognition from groups. “But not so much,” he stressed. “There’s Glsen (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Student Network), a gay student organization that gave us (he and Todd) an inspiration award last year. My entire speech was basically about, if we were an inspiration, it had been quite accidental.
“I was just doing what came naturally. I admitted this when we accepted the award that, if by living our lives organically and naturally, it was inspiring to people, I could understand that and I was very pleased to be a part of that. But it is like Annie Oakley [sings in ‘Annie Get Your Gun’], ‘I’m just doin’ what comes naturally.’”
Jim stressed that he was not an activist. He bows to Kramer (Mark Ruffalo’s character Ned Weeks in “Normal” is based on the playwright and fierce gay rights advocate). “If I am a leader, I am a quiet leader, unless I am raging in my own home. Getting to work on this project, and especially getting to meet Larry Kramer, which I did all through the play and then again through the movie, it clarified for me that whatever leading I do, whatever fighting I do, I am not an activist. The man (Larry) is an activist. If I do things that help activate things, it’s partly accidental. I simply come by organically.
“A lot of the men we are playing in this movie are activists. It did help define for me how different I am from that. I am fortunate enough to not necessarily have to be an activist right now, which is again why it’s important that some people get to see this movie, myself included.”
On his and other “Big Bang” characters seemingly finally moving on (this season’s finale involves Sheldon leaving on a train and heading off somewhere), Jim said, “We have been on seven years now. It’s one of the things I really applaud the writers for. They have managed to start an evolutionary process of these characters that doesn’t feel, to me at least, like an alienating process.
“Because this is what you tune in for every week—to see what these characters that you have grown to love or despise are up to. I do think the writers are straddling the fence very well of keeping up with longevity but moving things along at the same time.”
He claimed that he really did not know what was going to happen next in the show two or three days in advance. “The writers are continuously surprising me. I have truly never gotten a script with more than 24-hour notice. So, to say I know what’s coming next is a lie.”
“The Normal Heart” airs at 10 tonight, Sunday, June 1, on HBO Asia and HBO HD Asia.
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