Interview: Jim Parsons

The Big Bang Theory star and his imaginary rabbit friend take over the Great White Way in Harvey.

  • Photograph: Celeste Canino

  • Photograph: Celeste Canino and New York Daily News Archive

    New York Yankees' Derek Jeter pays tribute to owner George Steinbrenner and...

    Jim Parsons

  • Photograph: Celeste Canino

    Jim Parsons

  • Photograph: Celeste Canino

  • Photograph: Celeste Canino

  • Photograph: Celeste Canino

  • Photograph: Celeste Canino

  • Photograph: Celeste Canino

  • Photograph: Celeste Canino

  • Photograph: Celeste Canino

  • Photograph: Celeste Canino

Photograph: Celeste Canino

Jim Parsons is a hard-core geek—when it comes to theater, that is. The Emmy-winning star admits he needs to google many of the scientific and pop-culture references he spouts off as Sheldon Cooper on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, but the stage has always been second nature. Parsons studied acting at San Diego's Old Globe theater and initially got his start working the Off Broadway circuit in New York. He made his Broadway debut last year in the Tony Award--winning revival of The Normal Heart, and he'll return to his roots this May with a starring role in Roundabout Theatre's revival of Mary Chase's 1944 comedy, Harvey. Parsons will play Elwood P. Dowd, a grown man with an unusual imaginary friend. TONY quizzed him about giant rabbits, tennis and donating his DNA to a fan.

The first time I saw you was in Manhattan Ensemble Theater's adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Castle in 2002. You were funny even back then.
Oh my God, that was the very first thing I did out of grad school! It was, like, the first audition I went on. It was the greatest thing in the world to get to New York City and start working right away. Not in terms of the money—I made very little money on that show. But I met people and started feeling part of the theater community.

Has your stage training come in handy on The Big Bang Theory?
I think in any form of acting, you're always well served if you've done theater. Especially in the multicamera [sitcom] format, where you're literally putting together a little 40-page play in five days, and then taping it before a live studio audience. There's a core similarity that's undeniable.

How did you decide you wanted to return to the stage?
I've had this hankering for a while now. A little over a year ago, [my reps] and I were talking about what was going to happen over hiatus, and I said I really wanted to do theater. I said I'd even work for free! A couple of days later, they called and asked if I wanted to do The Normal Heart. I nearly fell out of my chair. It was a reiteration of that old lesson: Let the universe know what you want, and you just may get it.

Did working on The Normal Heart have a special resonance for you? Or did you take the part just because it came along?
It was the latter, but everything else was an added bonus. I feel so flippant saying that, because everything else in this case was so life changing. I've done so much theater, and yet I never had an experience like The Normal Heart. We could feel the reaction of the audience every night. It was visceral. It affected me very deeply as an actor. I'll never forget, as long as I live, the night New York's State Assembly passed the bill giving gays the right to marry. After the show, one of the producers went to the microphone and the house lights came up. We all came back onstage and he announced it. For this monumental thing to happen while we were doing this play about the inept and unjust ways the AIDS crisis affected the homosexual community...it was the cherry on top of the experience. It really walloped me.

It must have been quite significant to make your Broadway debut with a part in Larry Kramer's play about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City.
That's why I can't shut up about it! I was roughly 12-ish when [the events in the play] took place, so it really gave me an education. And being in New York, being able to walk by the now-defunct Saint Vincent's Hospital or Stonewall down on Christopher Street, really magnified the experience.

Are you a fan of the 1944 stage version of Harvey, or the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film?
I actually know the play better than the movie, which I've never seen. I find the situation fascinating. Everybody thinks it's a story about a man and his imaginary friend, who happens to be a six-foot-tall pooka, essentially a big rabbit. But there's more depth to it. Why is Elwood doing this? It's a sweet, human tale, and there are several lessons to be taken from it.

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