For more than a decade, Jim Parsons portrayed theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper in the runaway hit Big Bang Theory. Every day the show airs in constant reruns and it’s hard to imagine that the iconic show is gone. As some TV actors suffer the fate of losing their career by being typecast as the very character that earned them fame, Parson’s career continues to thrive and though he looks back affectionately at Sheldon, his focus is on the future. This season sees the premiere of Spoiler Alert, an emotional roller coaster of a film that will no doubt garner headlines that read “Jim Parsons, Like You’ve Never Seen Him Before!” Indeed, this is Parsons at his most intimate, his most vulnerable. Sheldon is clearly a figure of the past.
Parsons was raised in a suburb of Houston. His dad owned a plumbing business while his mom was a teacher. Parsons’ personality developed early. He recounts his early childhood as being a good, sweet, and obedient kid, although not the greatest student. Even in his middle-aged adulthood, he still feels the need to be that good kid.
The acting bug bit Jim early at the age of six, playing the role of the Kola-Kola bird in a school production of The Elephant’s Child. His journey to becoming a nine-time Emmy Award nominee (winning four), four-time Golden Globe nominee (winning for Big Bang), and one of the highest-paid actors in television, had begun. His parents would be his first fans.
They were incredibly supportive, and they loved me doing theater. They certainly weren’t stage parents. We didn’t have many audition opportunities, or we didn’t know about them. And I wasn’t even curious about them. I didn’t know myself when I first went to college I was going to really venture, full throttle into it. I thought it was an iffy career choice and obviously risky. I went to college for one year, not majoring in theater, and I was like, “nope, I think I need to try this.” My mother was rightfully worried about it and it was really my father that kind of told her, “We have to let him try. You know, why did we bother to send a kid to college if we’re gonna say, don’t do what you wanna do?” Thankfully he did that. She wasn’t unsupportive. She was just scared for me.
Parsons would go on to appear in a number of plays while getting his degree at the University of Houston and graduate school would bring him to Southern California. Classical theatre would be his muse, and he was one of seven students accepted into a special two-year course in partnership with San Diego’s Old Globe Theater. Who knew that his training in Shakespeare and the like would serve as the foundation for his success in a sitcom?
Classical text can be very dense. Having these wonderful instructors and taking their classes about how to break that down and to learn how to make it believable and just to understand it, really paid off dividends for me. With Big Bang there was some denser, or at least complicated, dialogue that sometimes referenced scientific terms and things like that. Not that I played any sports, but I think of it like practicing with a heavy baseball bat. And then when you swing with a regular bat in your hand, it really just flies. It was like that. Once I had honed myself with this dense material, a little less dense felt comfortable.
It was also during his college years that Jim would start to consider his burgeoning sexuality. His coming out would develop over time in his personal life, and even longer in his professional one.
There was this one guy in our theater department who I just had such a crush on. And I always say it was the moment of realizing that my feelings for another person, in that way, could be in full color. It wasn’t black and white. I don’t mean to imply insincerity with the affection I felt for my girlfriend – we were very close, but it was just different. There was a real rainbow connection as it were. It just felt like there was that aspect in my life that I’d never seen in color before. Then I started coming out to my friends and coworkers, but it was many years later before I came out to my family. And that was really when I met Todd, who would eventually become my husband. I was out in so many aspects of my life that the family seemed just easier to keep at bay. And I thought, who cares? Until I met somebody that I was like, “oh, I’d like them to know him. While I think of him romantically, I also think of him as family, and he should know my family.” And that’s when I took that step which was late in life, certainly later nowadays.
Jim’s success did not happen overnight. He has recounted auditioning anywhere from 15 to 30 times for pilots during the early years, and those in which he was cast somehow never came to fruition. His outlook in a sea of “noes” remained optimistic. Talking to Jim is refreshingly positive, the optimism that got him through his early career seems to permeate how he looks at life, often from a unique perspective.
I was much more fed through the “yeses” which were fewer. I even think of very early on getting asked to do directors’ projects when I was an undergrad. I just felt like even one other student saying, “I trust you to come in here and be able to do this and help me with this project.” Those are the kinds of things that just really added up more than the “noes” did for me. There’s somebody out there who wants to work with me! By the time I was out there auditioning I had a decent grip on the fact that I wasn’t going to be the right choice for everything.
I understood that there were a million reasons why or why not somebody gets cast. And, I also have to be honest, overall, I typically enjoyed auditioning. I really did. I enjoyed that little chance to play that role, even if only for those two minutes in the room. The only thing that scared me was just, oh God, money. I mean, of course, everybody’s afraid of not having enough money to eat or pay rent.
While reading the pilot for Big Bang Theory, Parsons was taken with the language and rhythm that was to become the signature of a character that would launch his career to stardom. Show creator Chuck Lorre was skeptical that Parsons could recreate his first audition as it was so spot on. Needless to say, Parsons nailed his callback. In September of 2007, the nation was introduced to Sheldon, a nerdy, socially apathetic, odd man who had a penchant to insult people using science. How did such a character who, on paper, seems less than likable become so beloved?
I can’t fully claim to know why anything would click for an audience, but I do suspect that they’re not dissimilar from what clicked for me which was that there was a certain level of broken. Maybe that’s a key for every character is to kind of find what you might call broken in them, or a little off-kilter, askew. With Sheldon, it was very much that he didn’t have a great ability to communicate with other people either to express himself or to fully understand what they were expressing. Looking back, I can see that was the major headline for me of what both was the clue into who he was and also the thing I ultimately always enjoyed most about playing him all through 12 years – that misdirect of information and not quite getting it. I really do think that was it. It wasn’t science I’ll tell you that, because I didn’t know diddly squat and I left not knowing much more, but the science was a brilliant comedic hurdle is how I looked at it. And a shield – there were a million reasons why he was using science.
The show was a hit. Nerds across the nation felt cool as the show blended pop culture, comedy, and science fiction into a perfect recipe. Everyone was watching. With Big Bang in heavy syndication, does Parsons ever feel overshadowed by Sheldon?
Not as an actor and not really as a person. Although, since it’s been a few years now since doing the show, I have noticed a funny phenomenon of walking into a crowd of people who I don’t know and I can see a lot of them recognize me from that show, and that’s been true for many years now. But what I realize has changed is that since we’re not doing the show anymore, it’s not as much at the forefront of my mind. And so, I can’t tell you exactly in words what that change means, but it feels different to me. I don’t feel like I’m carrying it quite as much with me anymore. That is something with time and the chance to do other work, which I’ve been lucky enough to do, can give one perspective. It feels like healthy growth. We’ll see. Time will tell.
As the award nominations started to pile up, so did the media frenzy around Parsons. The media wanted to know about the man behind the character. Despite having been with his now-husband about five years before the Big Bang success, he was still not publicly out. What was it like skirting the subject?
I was anxious about it in a way that I was anxious in any situation for the first few years, which was just like, “how did I sound?” Suddenly you’re talking and you just look back on it and say, “Did I sound like an idiot?” I was anxious about the fact of one day I’ll be talking about my more private life in this way and I don’t know exactly how it’ll come out. I’m not exactly sure it’ll be received. Once it was addressed, not only was it a relief in the terms I was just saying it, but I felt ownership of my life experience that I hadn’t realized I was missing.
Not unlike coming out to my family when that finally happened, it was just something that didn’t seem the biggest deal to me. And then once I was officially out in the press, I felt very happy. I felt very part of a group. I felt very supported. I felt proud, not of myself, but just to be who I am and to be part of a segment of the human race that I’m part of.
Parsons came out in 2012, without pomp and circumstance, in an interview for the New York Times for a stage show that he was doing where the interviewer casually talked about his identity as a gay man.
I believe the question was something like, “did doing The Normal Heart mean more to you as a gay man?” I was never asked, “Are you gay?” I was told. I still feel very thankful to him that he handled it that way. It felt very right because I didn’t so much feel like I was an actively hiding person. It was really the most non-newsy way to make some news I had ever been a part of.
Parson’s latest film Spoiler Alert, based on the biographical novel, is a romantic drama following the final 11-month period of photographer Kit Cowan’s life, from his diagnosis with terminal cancer to his death, through the eyes of his 14-year partner, and later spouse, Michael Ausiello. Parsons plays Ausiello, joined by actors Sally Field, Bill Irwin, and Ben Aldridge. The film covers it all – coming out, open relationships, relationship struggles, and, ultimately, the terrifying end to a relationship. Parsons also produced and was involved in the film a few years before Big Bang even ended. Having been absorbed in making the film, his sitcom role is far in the rear-view mirror, even though audiences and critics will still compare the two performances. For them it may be a surprise performance. For Jim, it all seems very natural. He is an actor first and foremost. What affected him most that made him want to do this film?
Number one was really that a human being, in this case, Michael, took this incredible journey, God willing once in a lifetime. It’s something that fortunately a lot of people don’t have to go through. That’s what really made me interested and what was so breathtaking to me as this journey he went through, with this person who was so important to him. On the heels of having gone through a very similar journey with his mother before that, but he was a much younger man then and didn’t have nearly the resources or the autonomy to help or do anything. I don’t know that he was making amends for his mother, but I think there must have been a part that made him feel so helpless as a child losing his mother to cancer. And I think there was definitely an aspect of like, “I am not letting them go down without a fight on my end this time.” Just the way those super tragic events like that can break open your heart and there is a gift to them, as awful as they are, you see life in a fuller and deeper way going forward and that is a reward. But it doesn’t make the journey easy. So, I would say that was it. I was really super drawn to this person, fallen down a rabbit hole and just whisked one way and the other and spit out on another side with these things that I’ve learned, and these people that I’ve lost and, and this life still ahead of me, and what am I going to do with it?
I also really, really enjoyed getting the chance to explore on-screen a very intimate, and if I may say so, realistic, take on a relationship between two men – a romantic relationship in that way. Not that I haven’t been in this area in some way before, but this was just so intense. And to get to take this journey with another gay actor was very moving. It was incredibly fun and exciting. But it was very emotional much of the time. But honestly, I have to tell you, usually laced with joy, even the hard parts. I felt so grateful to have the chance to go on to mimic going on that journey to just taste a little bit of what it was like and almost steal from his harrowing experience to glean some things from myself about it.
Does Parsons think this is a gay film?
Yes, but I don’t think it’s the headline. I think it’s a secondary factor. I think it is a love story, and maybe that’s what it is more than anything. It’s just a love story. It’s a story about what it is to be a human and be vulnerable and risk having your heart broken, and can you even live a full life without having your heart broken? A lot of me believes after working on some of the answers that no, to live a full life means not only to risk getting your heart broken, but knowing it will be broken. It will be broken if you allow yourself to love and to be loved in whatever form that means to you. Then right after that, I do think it’s a story of a gay couple. We assume at the price of admission that you are completely okay, as it were, with a gay relationship. We’re not dealing with instructing or introducing you or bridging a thing. That’s the given. It’s kind of ironic to say it’s not a gay film first and foremost when that’s also the given.
The film is for sure a tearjerker and will undoubtedly join the ranks of Beaches and Terms of Endearment. Playing this role and the emotional journey has changed Jim in his own life.
It has for sure awakened me. It has made me hungrier to explore more things. I don’t even know if I can get more specific than spending time with certain friends of mine that I have not been with in several years. It’s not a feeling I’m completely unfamiliar with, even though it’s a completely different circumstance in its own way. I lost my father when I was in my twenties. He passed away in a car accident. There was no journey like they go through here, but there was, and is, the continuing journey of once you’ve seen someone leave life early like that, it’s close to you. It changes your perspective on whatever time you’re fortunate enough to still have on earth. And that is something for me that I learned more and more about as my own years go on.
Spoiler Alert is now in theaters.
Last modified: December 1, 2022