The Big Bang Theory star discusses his role in HBO’s The Normal Heart—one that he reprises from his award-winning turn on Broadway.
Actor Jim Parsons
Tavis: Three-time Emmy winner Jim Parsons is seen by more than 20 million viewers each week on the CBS comedy series “The Big Bang Theory,” but this coming Sunday we’ll see him in a very different way, a different side of his acting talent, in the HBO movie “The Normal Heart.”
This adaptation of the Tony-winning Larry Kramer play deals with the earliest days of the AIDS crisis in New York City, when denial, discrimination, fear, and falsehoods, for that matter, shattered a community. We’ll start with a look at a scene from “The Normal Heart.”
Tavis: So this is a reprisal of sorts for you, this character.
Jim Parsons: It is, yes. I did it in Broadway back in 2011. I think that was it – ’11 or ’12.
Tavis: It was ’11.
Tavis: My research says ’11.
Parsons: Thank you.
Tavis: When I saw it, it was ’11.
Parsons: Oh, did you really? (Laughter)
Parsons: Thank you.
Tavis: When you have the opportunity, when you’re presented a chance to play a character again – I’m not an actor, obviously – I would assume there must be something about that character you really like that allows you, that convinces you that you’re going to do this again. Because acting is all about doing something different.
Parsons: Yeah, that’s true, that’s true. Well in this case, the entire premise of taking this role and this story and getting the chance to present it in the film format instead of the – it’s so different from doing live theater that really the only thing I felt was comforted that I had as much knowledge, if you will, of things going on and the character in the story going into it.
Because I felt more able to easily respond to the new actors involved, the new director, just everything changes when you’re on the set as opposed to being in front of a live audience.
For me it worked out, but it’s a really rare position to be in. I think that in the past, a long time ago, a lot of plays used to be transferred into movies, but now it’s mostly the reverse.
A big movie will become a musical, maybe. So this was easily, for me, a once in a lifetime opportunity, although I didn’t look at it as that at the time. It’s more in retro – I just wanted to do it.
I loved doing the play, I loved telling the story, being a part of it, and I got to meet with Ryan Murphy, the director, a couple of summers ago and we talked about it before we, he asked me to do it, and I was very excited, the way he talked about it, to work with him on it.
Tavis: There are two or three things that you’ve said now Jim I want to go back and kind of unpack, or get you to unpack for me, if you would.
Tavis: In no particular order – and I hadn’t thought about it in that way, the dialectic of plays becoming movies versus movies becoming plays.
Tavis: What’s behind the contemporary notion, you think, of so many movies becoming plays?
Parsons: Oh, God, that’s all guessing on my part, but I do think that more showy, event-themed movies, which I think is why you see a lot of the animated features turned into musicals or whatever, it makes for – that’s what’s selling.
That’s not to say that there’s not deep artistic merit in these ventures, depending on which ones you’re looking at, but I do think that that seems to – I think that – my guess is that it’s driven by the almighty dollar a lot of the time.
Who would go to see a straight play, as it were, and then go, “Let’s make a movie,” although (laughter) it did just happen with “August, Osage County,” and I don’t know monetarily how well that did, but it did very well awards season.
It was all over the place and had a stellar cast that it attracted. So maybe it’s coming back into vogue. That was also a new play that’s now being done, and this is a 30-year-old play that’s finally made it to the screen.
Tavis: Speaking of cast, the cast in this thing is unbelievable.
Parsons: It’s a beautiful cast, yes. Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, myself, Joe Mantello, who was in the play version with me. It goes on. Everybody in it.
The thing that startled me most when seeing it, the screening of the movie for the first time, was how grounded every performance was in it. A lot of that credit goes to Ryan Murphy, obviously – the direction he gave, the direction he didn’t give, and just sheerly for casting it.
Tavis: This is one of those “Inside the Actor’s Studio” type questions.
Parsons: Yes, a little bit.
Tavis: Yeah, let me ask it anyway.
Tavis: Let me ask it anyway, though, which is whether or not there is some sort of nuance for you in playing this character on stage versus playing him on film. Did you – I mean, the character’s the character, but did you in any way change the way you played the character, for those who actually saw you play it on Broadway?
Parsons: I was forced by the circumstances to play it differently. There’s a couple of key things. The story didn’t change, and the trajectory of the character didn’t change. That all stayed the same.
If anything, it was just a little more, there’s a couple of extra scenes even written between Ryan and Larry for the character, which I was grateful for. But the story didn’t change, it just added to it.
What does change dramatically, though, is in the play version especially, but in the movie to a degree, the character I play, Tommy, he has a real, he can have a real light touch with some sticky situations and some interfighting between people that he can find the way out of.
A lot of times in the play, and sometimes in the movie, they end up in humorous moments because of that. So in the play, you had that very auditory, visceral reaction from the audience, when they were actually laughing.
That was different, to know somewhere deep inside you that this might be a moment of levity for a movie-going audience, but we weren’t dealing with that right here and there.
So that was a little bit different, just changing the ear as far as that went. Then the other thing, it sounds very basic, but different people playing the different roles in the movie changed, again, not the story, but it did change your approach and your replies to that other actor or that other character, as it were, because they were asking of something in a different tone, in a different, just a different flavor.
So the conversation took on a different color. But again, Larry’s story is so strong and the characters are so well delineated in who they are and what they want that those through lines remain the same.
Tavis: I think art – this is my own assessment – I think art is at its best, Jim, when it empowers us, it informs us, inspires us, entertains us, without proselytizing in the process. That’s when I think it’s at its best.
Yet there are going to be a lot of takeaways, I think, for the audience when they get a chance to see this HBO film, not the least of which is a comparative analysis between HIV and AIDS were treated or maltreated then, and the way it’s treated today. In so many ways, one can make the argument that a lot has changed.
Tavis: The flip side of that argument is that one can make the argument that not much has changed.
Tavis: I think now specifically of the comments of Donald Sterling lately.
Tavis: About Magic Johnson, his -
Tavis: – HIV/AIDS diagnosis back in the day. What’s your sense – I’m moving now beyond the art to your own personal view -
Parsons: Yeah, yeah, right.
Tavis: – of the way, of what you have processed as you have done the film, acted in it, and live in the real world about how things have changed or not changed.
Parsons: Well I do think that – and this is one of the astounding things, even for me working on it, who was alive at this time, but I was a child, but especially getting to see it through the eyes of a younger audience who perhaps weren’t even born at the time that this was all taking place in the early ’80s.
But even for those of us who were, I think it’s astounding to look back and see the level of sometimes blatant ignoring of a problem, and it was pretty clearly happening because it was an uncomfortable topic, or it was a segment of people, gay men in this situation, who we’re allowed to ignore.
We’re allowed to – it’s just not – that’s why all the screaming and yelling went on. It was like, stop ignoring. But that was, it seems to me in a greater swath, a more acceptable way to treat the issue back then, or that group of people back then.
To your point, there are still people around who would be fine with that type of treatment, I’m sure, or that level of non-treatment, as it were. But it’s no longer right now as acceptable to be such a, a loud ignoring, a loud silence, as it was then.
That’s what’s progressed too far. There’s too much attention, there’s enough power in the hands of this minority group that you’re not allowed to ignore it to that level anymore.
But you’re right, and I didn’t see the Sterling interview with Anderson Cooper, but I did -
Tavis: You didn’t miss much.
Parsons: Well that’s why I didn’t choose to watch it. (Laughter)
Tavis: I didn’t see it either, I just saw the transcript. I couldn’t take it (unintelligible).
Parsons: Somebody told me that he brought up the fact that – he didn’t say that Magic has HIV, he said he has AIDS, and if I understand correctly, he said “the AIDS,” which is all the more odd.
But it shows so many levels of ignorance. First off, unless there’s something that we don’t know, Magic Johnson doesn’t have AIDS, he has HIV. Even that I don’t, with medication the way it is, I’m not sure what you call anything anymore, the different levels of having diseases and not.
But the biggest point was what the hell does that have to do with anything that we’re talking about. But that it was so readily at his mind to bring up, I don’t know what it says, but it says something, and it says that there are people out there who still tie stigmas and judgment calls based on something that that’s what this work has been for.
Tavis: In the context then, Jim, of the stigma and the judgment and the ignorance that still does exist, is there a takeaway from the film, at least a takeaway that you hope the film will provide us, again, not being preachy, but – yeah.
Parsons: No, no, no, I do – my favorite thing about being part of the play and being part of the movie was that the more I worked with it and the more I talked to people after it and saw audience reaction, I was like in my opinion, the great success and life of this story, the reason it goes on 30 years after he first wrote it, Larry did, and it’s so powerful, is because while it’s specifically about a specific group of people and a specific disease at a specific time, it is not – it’s about something much greater than that in the end.
It’s about a humanity and a problem like this that’s happened before and will probably sadly happen again. So in my opinion, the takeaway is we must try to appeal to our better sides in situations like this and realize ignorance and literally ignoring things only makes a problem like this worse and is unacceptable, an unacceptable way to deal with our fellow human beings.
The takeaway, I would think, would be that probably as many people that died didn’t need to die. But because of prejudice, because of ignorance, because of – I don’t know the myriad reasons this problem went undealt with for a very long time.
Tavis: Yeah. “The Normal Heart” is the new project from HBO that stars Jim Parsons as part of an all-star cast that you will want to see. Jim, I’m always happy to have you on this program.
Parsons: It’s nice to be here.
Tavis: Good to see you again.
Parsons: You too.
Tavis: Nice socks, by the way.
Parsons: Thank you very much.
Tavis: Yeah, appreciate those socks. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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