Normal Heart's Jim Parsons on Coming Out and Why Larry Kramer Scared the Hell Out of Him

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25 May 2014

Jim Parsons
Jim Parsons

Best known for portraying Sheldon Cooper on "The Big Bang Theory," Golden Globe Award winner Jim Parsons opens up about the impact The Normal Heart had on his personal life, his professional career and what it has to say to young LGBT people.

Nearly 30 years since it premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in the midst of the AIDS crisis, Larry Kramer's impactful docu-drama The Normal Heart makes its long-awaited screen debut May 25 on HBO.

Parsons, who portrayed AIDS activist Tommy Boatwright in the Tony Award-winning 2011 Broadway premiere of The Normal Heart, returns to the role for Ryan Murphy's vivid screen incarnation, which Kramer himself adapted. spoke with Parsons about his connection to Kramer, the character of Boatwright and straddling the worlds of The Normal Heart on stage and screen.

The Normal Heart is a cry in the dark during a terrifying moment in history, and Larry Kramer turned that flashpoint into political theatre. As an actor, does that affect you at all, or add deeper urgency to your work? Or can it be a distraction from simply being in the moment?

Jim Parsons: Yes and no. The "no" for me is simply that I did not, foolishly or not, go into the play or the movie with any sort of feeling in my head of, "This is important! Gotta get this right!" It just wouldn't have behooved me at all. I wasn't naïve; I understood that it was hugely important. But all I could do with that was do my job, which was the acting of it. That being said, that importance did affect the work in a good way and did lend gravity to each and every scene and each and every character. As long as you can keep it from making you shrink in fear as an actor – "Am I doing a good enough job?" you can really utilize it. And it made things very real. It's always important, as an actor, to have your stakes be very high, as life and death as you can make them, and in this sort of situation, that was so easy. Both in a literal sense because what we're talking about is life and death, but in a less literal, more character-driven sense, in that these are real people, and this is about real lives that have been lost. More than you can count. And what we're doing here is important in that regard.

So much actually happened politically when you were doing this on Broadway. Marriage Equality passed here in New York while The Normal Heart was playing. People who attended The Normal Heart the evening it passed said it was a very special event.

Jim Parsons: That was one of the strangest events of my life. We finished the show, we did the curtain call, we walked offstage and somebody stopped us from going upstairs and said, "Hang on, if ya'll want to wait around, they're going to make an announcement." And one of the producers got up and said, I can't remember the exact words, but he brought all the houselights up and said, "I'm sure you were all good theatregoers and had your cell phones off, none of you probably know that New York State just passed gay marriage." And, like I said, the houselights came up, we all came back onstage to applaud everybody, just life, and each other… everything. I was just so moved. It was such a rare experience on so many levels from the silly, which was to have the houselights up on this packed theatre of people you just performed this very emotionally wrenching play in front of – you don't normally get to see all of them like that. And obviously much bigger than that – What are the chances to have had this passed in New York City as we perform Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart in New York City? What the hell?! It was intense.

And the only other thing I'd add to that is that it was one more way in which I looked back and with disbelief, that Larry had ended this play with a marriage in the early 80s. I was alive then. I was a child, but I was alive then – and even though I was alive at the time this was written and even though I've seen things move and progress in so many different ways, even I have trouble understanding how absurd it was, this notion that he ended this play with at the time. You have to really think about it and try to put your feet in a different era, which is very hard to understand how unbelievable it is that he put that in there because that's all we talk about lately; and in a good way for once! It's just more and more, it's just like, "Of course, well, why not?" I don't feel like in my life that I've seen an issue evolve, as you will, so rapidly and in front of our faces in my entire life.


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