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When Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart debuted in 1985, the AIDS crisis was at a fever pitch. What do you feel the play has to say now?
There are some things that are jarring to hear; you go, Wow, you were talking about it then, and we're still talking about it now. For one thing, it's a disease with no cure—there are medicines, but this is still very much with us. And then there are comments [in the play] about, "Why didn't you fight for marriage?" I don't want to say that's a new issue, but those seem to be buzzwords from the past several years—not something that someone wrote 25 years ago. But we haven't changed anything; that's the original text.
How does the passage of time affect your approach to the play?
[I have to] keep mentally peeling away layers of today and [reminding myself], Oh, they don't have cell phones. They don't have computers. Here you are in the midst of a horror story: There is a killer on the loose, and we're trying to warn people. But you can't tweet your message out. You can't blast an e-mail. There we are in the first scene, licking envelopes and putting out mailers that we have to schlep to the post office. And it's not like things like that don't happen anymore, but it's simply different now. It's become a lot easier to get a message out to a vast group of people in a short amount of time in a way that, in this play, you wouldn't have even dreamed of. You know, you do a period theater piece from the 1800s or whatever, and in some ways it's oddly easier because it's so far away. This is just far enough away that it doesn't seem like that far away. And yet so much has changed in the last 25 to 30 years.
Is it possible for people to have the same kind of impact on politics and culture these days?
I have never been an activist for anything. It's not that I don't have beliefs or give to charity or anything, but [look at] Larry Kramer. That's somebody who's out there doing things. And this goes to the point about the Internet. It's made it easier to communicate important issues, but I wonder if connecting with millions of people online is ever as arresting to someone's attention as one man standing and screaming in front of City Hall. It's so easy to make snide comments online anonymously as opposed to saying, "I am me. I am standing here. You can see me. You know my name, and if you don't, you can find it. I'm exposing myself to all the elements here and making my case."
Was there anything about the specific character that grabbed you?
The very first thing I think anyone would notice is simply that Tommy has a very optimistic, proactive outlook on things. It's one of the things that unifies it for me. Everybody's being proactive in their own way, but Tommy sees them getting bogged down with in-fighting. And what's difficult about being judgmental against the other characters is that they all present such thought-out arguments. In a personal sense, Tommy, to me, represents someone who's more confident in his abilities, who's more courageous in his efforts than I am as a person. I have areas in my life in which I'm courageous and confident, but there's something forward about Tommy—in a very flirtatious sense, certainly—where he's just not afraid to go out and say, "I like you and I have a hunch you like me." And I've never been like that, so I really admire it. There's just this willingness and need to get in there and get dirty in a way that I don't experience in every aspect of my life. I don't feel that fearlessness. Maybe as an actor I do, in rehearsal at times, but even then, I find myself thinking things through more than Tommy does.
That's very different from The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon.
It's been such a nice change of pace after playing this character on TV for four years who literally won't touch people [Laughs] and is always in his head and thinking all the time.
Both Tommy and Sheldon are problem solvers, but Sheldon is cerebral, whereas Tommy seems to be very motivated by his relationships and emotions.
Very much so. And it's funny how I feel the difference in my body as an actor. I feel my body wanting to move differently—almost in a more fluid manner than I do when I'm doing Sheldon. Part of that is the flirtatious nature of Tommy, and part of it is that he enjoys being in his own body, and Sheldon is very disconnected from his. For me, personally, I feel much more in between the two as a human being. I'm certainly not as odd in my own physical presence as Sheldon is, but in many ways I don't identify with Tommy. I'm not quite as comfortable in my own skin as he is. I think he's just responding more naturally and, frankly, probably leads with his loins [Laughs] in a way that I don't think I do on a day in, day out basis.
You and other characters remain onstage—sitting and listening in the shadows—when you're not directly in the scene. What's your take on that?
The biggest, most specific direction I ever heard about it was, "When you're back there, you're a human being watching this play." And it's been very funny to execute that—and I mean this in a good way. Sometimes I can tell I'm definitely viewing it in character as Tommy. I don't know how to help that because you'll be participating in a scene and then you simply walk back, sit down and start watching the next one. And there's an inevitable carryover from the attitude and feelings you felt as a participant in the scene. But I think it's a stroke of genius in making us do that because these are real people we're playing. While they've been renamed, every one of us is based on somebody Larry knew and worked with, and we're participating in and observing events that actually happened. So I think it really serves the story to have us floating on the edges of these scenes. It drives home the emotional point of this play in a way that maybe wouldn't be as powerful otherwise.
You tape The Big Bang Theory in front of a live audience. Is theater similar?
In both, the audience is the missing character. Certain things hang in the air until the audience is there—and you're like, Oh, I get it! But the other thing about theater is having to present this same material, the same words every night—due to your own mood or due to the audience, it changes every day. It's never the same.
The content is so intense. Have you built up a resistance to it?
Just when you think you're immune to some of the emotional effects, something else changes—an actor does something slightly different. It can be the tiniest little thing, and it simply rips your heart out. It takes you by surprise, and it can be heartbreaking or it can be illuminating.
What about the audience's reaction?
One of the things with this play specifically, with the live audience, is that as soon as I think, "I'm doing okay. I can take in the information of the play. It's not killing me emotionally to hear certain parts right now," I'll suddenly start to hear the audience cry, and it's a wonderfully powerful experience. But the hard aspect of it is that in a play like this, when it is "working," it's tough—because it's not happy to hear that many people upset. It's a beautiful experience to be going through those things with that large of a group of people—I really believe that—but it ain't lollypops and rainbows every time.
The Normal Heart is at the John Golden Theatre through July 10.