For Jim Parsons, taking part in Ryan Murphy’s HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s Tony-winning play, The Normal Heart, was a no-brainer. Parsons could’ve gone on collecting Emmys for his superlative work on The Big Bang Theory—he has three so far for outstanding lead comedy actor. And he had already played acid-tongued AIDS activist Tommy Boatwright on Broadway. But it was important to him that he reprise the role for the telefilm. Here, Parsons reveals the confusion that followed his first meeting with Murphy, his reaction to his new scenes and the significance that his first Emmy nomination for a dramatic role would hold.
AWARDSLINE: How did you get involved with this project?
PARSONS: I’m pretty sure Ryan saw (me in) the stage production. But I have to admit, I’m not exactly sure whether he had the idea to approach me, or if jointly with Larry he had the idea to use me, or, if completely pushed by Larry, he had the idea to use me.
AWARDSLINE: I actually spoke to Ryan and he said Larry pushed to have you play this role.
PARSONS: That does not shock me. I was very fortunate with my experience doing the play with Larry. He was around a lot, (and) he happened to really like what I was doing. He was always a big, big supporter.
AWARDSLINE: But it was Ryan who reached out to you, correct?
PARSONS: Yes. It was shortly after I’d returned from doing the play that summer (in 2011) that I got a call from my manager saying Ryan would be interested in meeting with me about playing Tommy in the movie. I went to his office (and) adored him immediately. He had such gravity, such intelligence. I remember leaving there (thinking), “He’s going to make a beautiful film.” What I didn’t know, though—and this is so Hollywood—was whether I was playing this part or not. I think he asked if I would be interested in playing it, and I’m sure I said yes, but I came home and told my manager that I didn’t know whether I just got the part or what the hell happened. It was really a few weeks that went by, and (my manager) was like, “Apparently, it’s yours. That’s what that (meeting) was.” So I was very relieved.
AWARDSLINE: Actors tend to say they never want to repeat themselves. Did you have any trepidation about playing the same role twice?
PARSONS: No. I just considered it its own beast. In retrospect, having done the movie, I’m very, very grateful for having gotten to spend so much time with the play (first). I would have never had that much time with this role otherwise. And I brought that with me (to the film).
AWARDSLINE: Larry beefed up the role of Tommy for the film, which meant that there were a lot of new scenes for you to play. That must have been exciting.
PARSONS: It was very exciting. As a participant in such an important piece of material, the more of it you can be a part of, the happier you are. It wasn’t scary, the idea of, “Oh Lord, what other scenes will there be, and will I be able to master them?” I think I have a good enough grip on (the character) that I would relish the chance to try out new situations with him.
AWARDSLINE: One of those new scenes was a eulogy Tommy gives at a memorial service. How did you approach that scene?
PARSONS: So much of the time, in both Larry’s play and in the movie, it’s a situation where Tommy is trying to run damage control between two warring parties or trying to lighten the mood. So it was very different tonally in that there was no attempt being made to take the pressure off a situation. It was very much a completely fed-up moment for him . . . I really spent a lot of time on the memorization (and making sure I had) all those words in the right order, because I thought it was so beautifully constructed.
AWARDSLINE: Do you feel like you were at a real memorial service?
PARSONS: Yes. Everybody was dressed in their funeral finest, we were in this really beautiful church, there was a coffin sitting right there, and the actor playing that role was in it the whole time . . . I wasn’t unaware that we were acting, but it was one of several moments that (was really) grounded in realism. It would catch you off guard sometimes… and take it out of the intellectual. You’d go, “Jesus Christ, this is depressing. This is hard.” Those moments are fleeting, but they are instructive as an actor, as a performer, as a human. And that scene was one of them.
AWARDSLINE: Obviously, you’re known for comedy work and have a mantel full of Emmys to show for it. What would a nomination for a dramatic role like this mean?
PARSONS: Oh God, it’s really hard to say. I don’t even know. If the fates decide that I should get to continue on this journey through an awards season, I can only imagine that would feel like a great extension of this. I enjoy being associated with this project, and the other people with it, so much that anything that extends that time where you get to attend events together in support, or in celebration, of the project would be very meaningful.
Original photograph by J.R. Mankoff