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Jim Parsons talks theater and the 'charming' 'Merton of the Movies'

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Jim Parsons

Jim Parsons took to Broadway in 2012 in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Harvey, and now he’s taking on another role for the company: He’ll play the title role in a benefit reading of George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s Merton of the Movies Dec. 1 at Studio 54.

The 1922 play follows a small-town man who moves to Hollywood to pursue his acting dreams. Those dreams become a reality, but with a catch: Merton gets his break in comedies, which he doesn’t realize are such. Parsons, whose deadpan is weekly on display in the Big Bang Theory, will be joined in the reading, directed by his Harvey director Scott Ellis, by the likes of Jane Krakowski, Tracee Chimo, John Cullum, Katie Finneran, and Peter Scolari.

EW talked to Parsons about choosing Merton how it relates to his experiences as an actor.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You picked Merton of the Movies. Why did choose it?

It was literally on a list that was presented to me, so I didn’t pull it out of a hat. In fact, I’d never even heard of it before I saw it on the list. I just find it extremely appealing, and part of it is personal identification reasons. It’s a young person starting out, who has dreams of making it as an actor. This is obviously a little more outlandish than my own visions as a young man, but at the same time there’s a real commonality there. I think that unless you grow up with showbiz parents or relatives or something that would show you the true nature of the workings you’d definitely go into it, even if you’re well meaning, quite delusional in a literal sense. You don’t know how things are created. I found that very charming. I thought it was very sweet the way he stumbles into his great success—which again, while outlandish because it’s a piece of fiction and done to heighten for the stage—is also a very common thing with any type of performer. You aim at something, but quite often, the point of aiming is so that you will hit something else which will satisfy you. It’s very hard, especially in a career like this, to predict where your ultimate meal ticket will come from, assuming you are able to get one at all. I just found it very charming.

It’s a complete truism in my opinion the best comedy comes from the people who take it deadly seriously. There’s not an ounce of quote-I’m joking about this, it’s all done with the highest of stakes, and I think that’s what makes for the best comedy.

Were all of the plays presented earlier works?

They were all of the earlier nature, which I kind of liked. The Roundabout takes real joy in doing some of the older pieces and they do them very well. My particular relationship with Roundabout started with Harvey, which is a very, very old piece too. It felt like a good match if nothing else.

What do you like about doing older plays? With Merton you are talking about the world of silent film.

It’s funny, I feel like my appeal to it is a certain romanticism. It makes me feel very romantic for a much older period of time both in Hollywood and the theater. It really helps illuminate the history again and give life to a history that’s there. One of my favorite things about being in the theater in general is, especially in New York, all the theaters that you go into and if you’re fortunate get to play on the stages of have such history about them and so many great actors and authors have been presented on that stage, long before you were even conceived. It’s a very full feeling. I’m not sure if that’s a descriptive enough word, but that’s how it makes me feel to feel a part of an on going tradition like that. I enjoy doing new works equally as much. I just haven’t had as much opportunity to yet. But this is a very visceral link to the past as it were. A very literal one.

What are you looking forward to for the actual reading? Scott Ellis directed you in Harvey and there’s a great cast lined up.

It’s a combination of all of those things. It’s what makes doing play readings so enjoyable, it’s such a fraternal feeling to be a part of one. I’ve always enjoyed doing readings. It’s especially gratifying when they, like we’re going to do with this one, take the time to rehearse it before we actually go do it. You get to spend time with everybody. It’s just very joyful. There’s something very home base to me about the theater. I think for a lot of actors, definitely for me, it’s where all of this nonsense began as it were, whether it be elementary school or community productions or whatever. The stakes may change as far as your career goes and the intensity of the spotlight may change as far as if you’re performing in New York and critics come, but there’s an essence about it that remains the same. No other medium has that exact kind of feel to me, as much as I enjoy doing any TV work or film work that I’ve done. It’s just a very different animal. Theater to me is more of a bare necessities type thing and I just revel in it.

You said something interesting when you were talking about Merton about how, as an actor, you aim at something but quite often you can never predict from where your great success will come. Do you feel that way with Big Bang?

Without a doubt. I still feel this way to a large degree—obviously times and fortunes have changed for me—but the goal really was to, and I mean this quite succinctly and literally, do what I had to do to earn my living as an actor. There are a lot of different ways that dream could have been realized. This one has been very fruitful in that way obviously. However, it could have been a million things. I had been doing theater obviously, but commercials and smaller films and guest parts on TV before Big Bang ever happened. I really had no idea what would be this both intense, but lifetime-wise temporary landing spot that I’ve come to. The funny thing is too, TV is extremely unique in an actor’s life for anybody who ends up on [a show]. Plays end, movies end, anything else ends. Eight years working on anything for an actor is a very strange proposition. I have really enjoyed it and reveled in it, but there are ways in which it goes against the grain of what your DNA told you you were aiming at. Most people didn’t get into acting for stability. I happen to enjoy the flavor of stability that I have achieved with this TV show, partly because I think every week it’s different. It’s the same character and I work with mostly the same people every week, but different stories, different situations, different things to play, so still something changes. It would be impossible for me to imagine what life’s going to look like when the show is over. It’s even hard for me to imagine every summer hiatus that we have. It’s obviously different in some ways, but it’s funny how fast the old feelings return of what now, what now? The eternal question no matter how much work you put into things for an actor.

What is it about the Roundabout that you enjoy supporting with projects like Merton?

I didn’t get to work with them at all before I had moved to LA to do the TV show. Harvey was my first chance to work with them. I had enjoyed work that they had done before, and I knew people who had worked there, but I didn’t know them personally. Then it really was getting the chance to work with Scott and [Artistic Director] Todd Haimes. It’s a wonderful group of people. It felt like a very natural and organic fit and I was so grateful to play that role in Harvey and to get to spend my summer doing that. Because of TV it’s not always easy for producers to work around a schedule. It’s hard booking theaters and spaces for limited times, but they were willing to and we just had a great time doing that. It feels very good and natural to give back in any ways that I can for them. If nothing else for selfish reasons to make sure they’re going strong for the next opportunity I have to work.

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