THE BIG BANG THEORY ’S favorite geek takes us back to his beginnings with YOUNG SHELDON
Ifyou’re looking for Iain Armitage—the star of the new CBS series Young Sheldon— just put your ear to the sidewalk and listen.
“His favorite things to wear are his tap shoes,” says actor Jim Parsons, the original Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, who serves as narrator and executive producer of the spinoff, which debuts Sept. 25. When Armitage and his mom visited New York, Parsons says she liked “hearing” where he was, so “she let him wear tap shoes.”
“Not only is he, like, ‘ kk-kk-kk-kk, kk-kkkk-kk’ next to me the whole time, he would tap-dance in the middle of the sidewalk, sometimes in a restaurant and, very often, fall into the most perfect splits you’ve ever seen,” Parsons says. “It always got gasps from people—as it should! He is insanely special.”
Of course, Armitage, 9, would have to be special to earn the role of beloved Sheldon Cooper, whom we first met when Parsons, now 44, debuted the character in 2007 on The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon is a brilliant theoretical physicist with painfully awkward social skills who hangs out with his equally genius—and nerdy—scientist friends.
The Big Bang Theory has become the No. 1 comedy show on American television, and is now headed into its 11th season this fall, having already been renewed through 2019 for a 12th.
Flashback to the ’80s
Young Sheldon will take viewers back to
1989, when boy-genius Sheldon (Armitage) enters his freshman year of high school in Galveston, Texas, at age 9. In the pilot we meet his family: Mom Mary is played by Zoe Perry, from ABC’s The Family. Dad George is played by Lance Barber, who appeared in HBO’s The Comeback and FXX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The young prodigy also has a twin sister, Missy (Raegan Revord), and an older brother, George Jr. (Montana Jordan), who’ll join him in the ninth grade.
“There’s a quality reminiscent of The Wonder Years or A Christmas Story—‘ You’ll shoot your eye out,’ ” says Parsons. “There are echoes of that.”
The idea for the show began when Parsons was looking at his own life for ideas that might merit a good TV show for his production company, That’s Wonderful Productions. And that’s when he thought of his 11-year-old nephew, Michael— his sister’s oldest child—“who is for sure unique insofar as his mental capability in our family,” says Parsons.
He recalls when Michael asked his parents for Walmart stock for his birthday and the time he suggested to a man at a family wedding that he read an article in Forbes magazine before making investment decisions.
Parsons felt that he was on to something with the story of a supersmart kid from the South and, realizing it was a major echo of Sheldon, the spinoff idea was born.
Young Sheldon is essentially an origins story, like ones the characters on The Big Bang Theory love so much—like the origins of Batman, the origins of Superman, Parsons says. “You know, this really is the story of the origins of—in his own weird way—a superhero.”
They just needed that right little superstar to play their young superhero. And they found him in Armitage, who already has plenty of credits alongside Hollywood heavy hitters. He played Ziggy, the son of Shailene Woodley’s character, in the HBO hit Big Little Lies. He was “younger brother” Brian in this summer’s movie The Glass Castle alongside Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson. And in the upcoming Netflix feature Our Souls at Night, he plays the grandson of Jane Fonda’s character.
Armitage was born in Arlington, Va., to theater producer mom Lee Armitage and Scotland-born dad Euan Morton, an actor who earned a Tony nomination for his role as
Boy George in Taboo on Broadway in 2004. He was taken to so many theater productions as a child, he began reviewing them on camera for his own YouTube channel, IainLovesTheatre.
Besides theater, Armitage has a long list of hobbies. “I’m a magician. I do mind reading, I do card tricks, all kinds of things,” says the home-schooled third-grader. And of course, he loves to tap-dance.
Although young Sheldon is “way smarter” than him, and much less social, Armitage says he could relate to the character in other ways. “We both like science; he’s a very good friend; I like trains, he likes trains,” he says. And he loves that with Sheldon, “I get to learn a bunch of new science and math and cool big words: banal, diaphanous, salmonella. Those sort of words.” And he can now recite the formula for how linear kinetic energy works.
When it came time for Armitage to prepare for the part, there was one hitch: He couldn’t actually watch Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory! “Well . . . you see, the show’s not quite appropriate for me,” he says. But he did view as many “approved” clips as he could and had conversations with Parsons—whom he calls “Mr. Jim”—about the role. The pair also bonded while attending a number of theater shows in New York together. “He’s a very kind man. I like everything about him,” says Armitage of Parsons. “He’s just so awesome.”
As for Parsons’ years growing up as “Young Jim,” he insists he was no Sheldon. He hails from Texas—Houston—but says that’s about where the similarities end. Parsons’ dad, Milton, was president of a plumbing supply company, and his mom, Judy Ann, was a firstgrade teacher.
“Oh gosh, I wasn’t ill-behaved in any way,” Parsons says of his younger years. He liked playing the piano, didn’t like sports and loved talking to adults. “I remember enjoying conversations with adults because they knew things that I was curious about.”
Parsons caught the acting bug in high school, dove into theater at the University of Houston and earned his master’s in classical theater from the University of San Diego. He moved to New York City to try his hand at acting in 2001. By 2004, he was performing off-Broadway and had roles in the film Garden State and the TV series Judging Amy, followed by the 2006 movie School for Scoundrels. Then came The Big Bang Theory, for which he has already won four Emmys.
And now, he’s working on building his production company along with graphic designer Todd Spiewak, whom he married last May after being together for nearly 15 years. Despite his many years of experience, Parsons says that stepping onto the set and observing Armitage’s curiosity and joy in his world “kind of serves as a re-taking of Acting 101.
“For me, watching Iain work, being around him, going to see Broadway shows with him while we were both in New York, reminds me of all the wonderful things that are right in front of us,” Parsons says.
As for young Sheldon, he’s eager to play the role Mr. Jim has laid out so well before him. “I have some big shoes to fill,” Armitage says, “and I can’t all the way fill them, but I hope I can do my best.” And he might just add some taps to the bottom of those shoes while he’s at it.
Iain Armitage & Jim Parsons