AT FIRST GLANCE, SHELDON COOPER, PHD — Jim Parsons’s character on CBS’s runaway hit The Big Bang Theory — appears to be your average neighborhood hipster. He’s got the lanky frame, the long-sleeved shirt layered under a cool logoed tee — the whole shebang. But as soon as Sheldon opens his mouth, you realize a hipster he isn’t. In fact, he’s an awkward, geeky überscientist who easily earns a spot among TV’s least socially skilled characters in history.
Parsons, 36, so completely inhabits the character that it’s hard to believe a conversation with him would be easy. Luckily, he’s just that good of an actor. (We should have guessed that — Parsons was nominated this year for his first Emmy for the role.) The real Parsons, a true Southern gentleman who hails from Houston, loves a good chat.
In some ways, I can’t believe where we are with the show, how long we’ve been working on it now. At the same time, it all happens so day-by-day. I did feel special about it when I received the material, because you’re doing so many auditions, and this was the rare one that came in that I was like, I think I would put me on a short list of people who should bring this character to life. You don’t know if [the casting directors] will agree, but luckily for me, they did.
Sheldon’s an interesting guy. Do you like him?
I would say that yes, I am fond of him. It’s not anything necessarily that I’ve done. It’s as much the writing. He’s such a nonmalicious character. He comes by his faux pas so honestly. He’s just so methodical, and he’s so scientific in mind. It just stops him from engaging in social niceties. He doesn’t have time for it, and frankly, it doesn’t occur to him. There’s some version of arrested development in his brain socially, dealing with people. He’s just really busy doing a lot of other things, and nobody ever asked that of him. One wonders how capable he is of actually ever getting there. Perhaps that’s season seven, God willing.
Does your body hurt after you finish playing him? It seems like you have to be kind of contained.
You couldn’t be describing this better. No, I don’t hurt, and honestly, I don’t really consciously think about it. I’ve rarely made many conscious decisions on how he should move or how he should sound. One thing I always say is that I’m amazed at how much the sound of this character, if you will, is simply affected by how many consonants and words are coming out of his mouth.
Has any of the Sheldon containment slipped into your regular life?
I’ve always had a certain way of moving awkwardly. There’s been great fun at the expense of imitating my walk throughout my life at different times. There’s something both that I have control over and have no control over about my physicality. I will either have a very healthy body at a ripe old age, or I’ll be the first person in my peer group to break a hip at 60. I can’t tell where that goes.
This is your second go-round playing a character fluent in Klingon, the first being in Garden State. Are you okay with that?
It is very odd. Well, no it’s not. Who knows why somebody who has never watched Star Trek — who had no idea what the Klingon language would sound like — has been asked twice in his adult life to play somebody who has an intimate relationship with this Klingon language. But, and this is an easy example, why would somebody who’s asked to [agree to] play a murderer? What fits naturally about that? What looks right? Yes, he could kill someone?
What’s your fan base like?
It’s all over the map as far as gender, age range, type of person. I’ve had fan mail from prison. I don’t know what the crime was.
Jim Parsons’s The Big Bang Theory alter ego, Sheldon Cooper, is far from the slickest guy in the room. We’ve mapped out the spectrum of TV characters’ social competence to see where Sheldon ranks.
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