Four-time Emmy winner Jim Parsons will grace the big screen this year in Theodore Melfi’s “ ,” about a trio of mathematicians (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe) working at NASA in the late 1960s. Parsons, best known for playing Dr. Sheldon Cooper on “the Big Bang Theory, plays another genius in the film — an engineer who resists working with Henson’s character.
You seem to find yourself in great ensembles, from “The Normal Heart” to “The Big Bang Theory” and this. Do you seek that out?
Maybe subconsciously. I do find again and again that the most rewarding things for me have strong ensembles. “Hidden Figures” reminds me a lot of doing “Normal Heart,” in a way. Part of it is that they’re both based on true stories and hugely important moments in human history. And part of it is feeling the job of being an integral part of a machine telling the story in the ensemble. The funny thing about “Hidden Figures” is when we shot it, I was in my world with Taraji and Kevin [Costner]. But when I watch it, I feel just as connected to all the other stories. Which I think is a testament to Ted.
There are several stories going on and each is interesting.
You have four huge storylines; each woman gets a storyline and they as a group get a storyline. I can’t believe what a seamless, joyful ride it gets to be. And you reflect on everything that’s been covered and go, “Good God how did he do that?” It really reminds me of exactly why you go to the movies. It feels like a big screen event you want to share with an audience. When I saw it, I just loved it. And towards the last 10 minutes you could feel it building inside … I went to the bathroom and sobbed. I can’t really pinpoint why —it’s not sad.
How did the role come your way?
Ted directed me in a couple of the Intel commercials. They were looking for a director and they’re always good about showing me a list and asking me about my thoughts. My manager said, “It has to be Ted Melfi. He’s a brilliant director, he’s doing good things, and we need to get you together.” And sure enough, a couple months later, Ted sent the script and wanted me to play the part. I was like, “Hell yes!”
What was it like to play someone in this time period?
It took me a couple reads to accept what my role in this story was. You really don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, even in a movie. And this may sound odd, but one of the ways I felt a better focus on what my role in the story was by looking at Kirsten Dunst’s story in her storyline. They’re not the same thing, but we serve the same purpose: we’re an embodiment of hurdles and attitude of the time. By reading her storyline and seeing what her role was, I really got it. Plus, it’s really fun as an actor to be in conflict — that’s where the joy is, a lot of the time. The scenes that look fun where people are laughing can be fun. But a fight is just so much more fun to sink your teeth into. Especially with Taraji. It’s a fun dance to be a part of.
Taraji is a great scene partner.
She’s amazing in this movie, and what she’s doing is so drastically different from anything I’ve seen her do before. And certainly different from what she’s doing on “Empire” right now.
Speaking of typecasting, have you ever want to play a dumb person?
Yes! I used to get cast frequently as dumb people. Or rather, they were either not bright or had a certain idiot savant quality about them. There is great joy in playing someone who doesn’t know what the hell is happening.
Is it nice to be associated with someone so smart?
If I’m recognized, people are very polite. They’ll call out to me: “Sheldon!” But I’m more amazed when people know my name, when I hear “Jim.” Even at this late stage in the game, I’m not used to it, I always wonder how I know them. Because people are so sweet and I’m only that sweet to people I’ve met before!