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Jim Parsons On The Science Of Sheldon, 'Big Bang'

Jim Parsons won the 2010 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his portrayal of Sheldon Cooper, the socially awkward theoretical physicist in the venerable CBS nerd-comedy. He joins David Bianculli for a discussion about playing the eccentric prodigy.

16:02

Other segments from the episode on September 28, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 28, 2010: Interview with Terence Winter; Interview with Jim Parsons.

Transcript

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Down On The 'Boardwalk' With Terence Winter

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for
Terry Gross.

"Boardwalk Empire," a new drama series about Atlantic City and organized crime
in the era of Prohibition, premiered this month on HBO. The first episode was
directed by Martin Scorsese. After it was televised, Boardwalk Empire was
immediately renewed by HBO for a second season.

Our guest today is Terence Winter, creator of "Boardwalk Empire." He's
comfortable with HBO and with TV mobsters: He wrote and/or produced some two-
dozen hours of "The Sopranos," including the classic "Pine Barrens" episode.

"Boardwalk Empire" is HBO's biggest and most expensive prestige project since
"The Sopranos." It stars Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, an Atlantic City
politician who sees the coming of Prohibition as an opportunity to make even
more money from illegal activities and kickbacks - and he's right. I spoke to
Terence Winter just a few days before the premiere of "Boardwalk Empire."

Terence Winter, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. TERENCE WINTER (Creator, "Boardwalk Empire"): Thank you. It's great to be
here.

BIANCULLI: You come from HBO's "The Sopranos," where you won four Emmys and
were nominated for lots more, for producing, writing or co-writing individual
episodes. And it's clear that HBO really, really wanted another organized crime
series.

If I understand this correctly, instead of you pitching a series idea to them,
they pitched one to you based on Nelson Johnson's book "Boardwalk Empire."

Mr. WINTER: Well, that's true. They didn't really specifically ask for or
necessarily, as far as I knew, want an organized crime series. They really just
gave me the book.

Nelson's book is essentially a history book involving the history of Atlantic
City from when it was literally a mosquito-infested swamp until the present
day. And, you know, all they said to me was here, look at this book. You know,
see if you can find a television series in there.

There were several eras in the history of Atlantic City that I found appealing:
the '20s, the '50s and the '70s. And I arrived at the '20s, and, you know,
naturally, you know, in the era of Prohibition, you are going to encounter
gangsters.

You know, I think I sing a few songs, and I sing them well, and one of them is
the mob genre, you know, as a writer. So that's material that's always
interesting to me.

And then the 1920s just offered this incredible, sweeping time in American
history, with a lead character at its center, that was just absolutely
compelling and a guy that I couldn't wait to set a TV series around.

BIANCULLI: Well, let's give a taste of all of that. Here's a very quick taste
from the pilot episode. It's a few hours before the start of Prohibition, and
Nucky Thompson, an Atlantic City power broker played by Steve Buscemi, is
addressing a private meeting with the mayor and city council. It's written by
you, and it's directed by Martin Scorsese.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Boardwalk Empire")

Mr. STEVE BUSCEMI (Actor): (As Enoch "Nucky" Thompson) Boys, boys, boys. Mr.
Mayor, friends, fellow members of the city council. As you know, in less than
two hours, liquor will be declared illegal by decree of the distinguished
gentlemen of our nation's Congress.

To those beautiful, ignorant bastards.

BIANCULLI: That was actor Steve Buscemi in a scene from "Boardwalk Empire," the
new drama series from HBO. My guest is the creator of the series, Terence
Winter.

In the nonfiction book on which "Boardwalk Empire" is based, you know, Nucky
Johnson, whom you call Nucky Thompson, is only in a few chapters in the middle
of the book. So why did you decide to start with his story?

Mr. WINTER: Nucky, the real Nucky, was an incredibly charismatic character. You
know, he was the county treasurer. He was the guy who ran the city. I mean,
automatically that got my attention. I mean, how does the guy who essentially
is third or fourth rung on the food chain, politically - the guy who's in
charge of everything? And it's all by design.

He was sort of the guy behind the scenes, but nothing moved in that city
without him. He was incredibly duplicitous. You know, on the one hand a really
beloved politician, on the other hand, incredibly corrupt and, you know, sort
of veering toward low-level gangsterism in the sense of, you know, white-
collarish crimes.

He had been the sheriff himself, at one point, election rigging, you know, that
type of thing.

So, you know, right off the bat, you know, it presented a main character that
was sort of equal parts politician and gangster, which was fascinating. Just a
really interesting backstory. He, you know, had grown up there, worked his way
up. As I said, he was the sheriff, ultimately gained control of the city and
just was beloved, I mean, even though he's clearly corrupt.

I think - I don't think he ever made more than $6,000 a year, legitimately, on
the books, yet his residence was the entire eighth floor of the Ritz Carlton
hotel. And they kept electing these guys in. And I said that, well, this is a
compelling character.

BIANCULLI: Why change his last name? It's sort of like "Ragtime," where, you
know, you have some real characters like Al Capone that remain correctly
identified and others who are given different names or who are created by you
out of whole cloth. How'd you decide what to do with whom?

Mr. WINTER: I had been a big fan of the show "Deadwood" on HBO, which was
created by David Milch.

BIANCULLI: Oh, me, too, me, too.

Mr. WINTER: And as soon as I heard that they were - all those characters were
based on real people, you know, the first thing I did was Google everybody. And
I read about it because it was interesting and fascinating to me. So I would
just Google all the different characters.

So pretty quickly, I became ahead of the story. Al Swearengen, for example,
who's played by Ian McShane, lived until the 20th century, I learned. And then
whenever I would watch "Deadwood," and if Al Swearengen was in a situation
where there was jeopardy, I'd say to myself: Well, he's not going to die. And
then I thought: I shouldn't know that. You know, it's really taking away from
my experience, and I'm sure David Milch doesn't want me to know that.

But because the show is so good, I was inclined to know more about it. So I
realized early on the same thing might happen here. You know, people start to
look at Nucky and then compare what happened to the real Nucky as compared to
our Nucky and know where the story's going.

We already have enough real characters on the show, or people based in real
life, that everyone knows what happened to Al Capone and, you know, maybe to a
lesser extent Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein. But if everybody is real, I
can't play – you know, I can't manipulate the story the way I want to.

So, you know, the other thing, too, is, you know, I don't know if the real
Nucky got involved in some of the things I may choose to have our Nucky do. So
I said, you know what? He's Nucky, but he's not Nucky.

He's based on Nucky clearly, but our Nucky can do any number of things, and,
you know, it sort of takes the handcuffs of being, you know, married to the
reality there. And I think it gives us the creative license to really go
anywhere we want to go.

BIANCULLI: Once you decide on having Nucky as your central character, you then
have to cast him.

Mr. WINTER: Yes.

BIANCULLI: And I love Steve Buscemi. Am I pronouncing his last name correctly,
by the way?

Mr. WINTER: Well, he pronounces it Buscemi.

BIANCULLI: Well, he's probably correct.

Mr. WINTER: But then I heard him say – he says he doesn't – he says actually in
Italy, it is pronounced Buscemi. So he doesn't correct people when they say
Buscemi. Most people say Buscemi, and I've sort of made it a personal cause of
mine to get people to pronounce it correctly.

It's also Martin Scorsese and Steve Buscemi. And I'm guilty of calling him
Martin Scorsese for the last 30 years, but he calls himself Martin Scorsese. So
I just, it's always in my head: Scorsese, Buscemi, Scorsese, Buscemi.

BIANCULLI: All right. I'll try to play by the rules.

Mr. WINTER: But we all know who we're talking about. It's almost impossible.

BIANCULLI: But anyway, whoever he is, we'll say Steve Buscemi, he is terrific
in this.

Mr. WINTER: Yes.

BIANCULLI: And just as he was terrific in supporting roles in "Fargo" and "The
Big Lebowski" and so many other films. But how did you and Martin Scorsese
choose him as a leading man?

Mr. WINTER: You know, originally, you know, in doing the research, we looked at
pictures of the real Nucky. And I had gone down to Atlantic City on, you know,
weekend trips, by which I mean to drink and gamble, and just informally polled
people who I would meet down there and ask them: Do you know who Nucky Johnson
is? And almost nobody knew.

So we realized early on he's sort of an obscure historical character. Nobody
knows what he looks like. It doesn't matter anyway. So rather than be wedded to
what the real guy looked like, and he was a big, booming, you know, barrel-
chested, balding guy.

You know, actually I've said, you know, had we wanted to cast somebody who
looked like the real Nucky, we would have gone to James Gandolfini, who had
just finished "The Sopranos," and that probably wouldn't have worked out anyway
because I think he was ready to take a little break.

So we said let's forget about what the real guy was, and let's just find the
best actor. And we started kicking around names and I'm pretty sure it was me
who suggested Steve at first.

And Marty responded immediately. He said I love him. I worked very briefly with
him on a film called "New York Stories" I did a long time ago. I would love to
work with him again.

BIANCULLI: Oh, that's right.

Mr. WINTER: And I said, well, I've worked with him on "The Sopranos." He's
terrific. I think he'd be great. And we kept batting around names for a few
more days, and Marty called me and said I can't stop thinking about Steve
Buscemi, and I said I can't either. And he said let's do it. And I said great.

BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, our guest is Terence Winter, creator of
the new HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."

Prohibition, can you explain how Atlantic City fit into the picture in those
days because if I've got this right, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were both dry
states on Sundays, you know, even before Prohibition, but Atlantic City just
didn't care. And how did it fit into the whole East Coast-Midwest crime scene?

Mr. WINTER: Well, you know, the happy accident for Nucky Johnson and our
fictional Nucky Thompson is that they, you have a corrupt politician who runs a
city that is actually on the ocean, and suddenly alcohol is illegal. And
alcohol comes in through that ocean. So it was really just a gift from the gods
to a corrupt person.

They say Prohibition was only a rumor in Atlantic City, and I believe that the,
you know, the dry Sunday law was also just a rumor. Apparently, nothing changed
at all, which actually presented us with a little difficulty on the show,
because if nothing changed, and alcohol was served just as openly in Atlantic
City the next day, then we really don't have a lot of conflict because it's
supposed to be illegal.

So we actually probably fictionalized the fact that it's actually a little bit
of a problem, that they do have to go to some pains to hide things.

But, you know, I mean, it was just an unbelievable opportunity for a man who
ran a town on the seaboard because suddenly he had friends from all over the
country, people who wanted to get to know him and go in business with him. And
all that alcohol came, you know, down from Canada, up from the Bahamas - just
however they could get it there. And this was a safe haven.

It was a port. You could come in, and of course Nucky got a piece of everything
that came in, but suddenly he became friends with Arnold Rothstein, you know,
Johnny Torrio from Chicago, Waxey Gordon from Philadelphia, Lucky Luciano as a
young man. All of those guys wanted to vie for his attention and, you know,
certainly got off to a rocky start, but it was a pretty lucky break for Nucky.

BIANCULLI: And you kept them as with their real last names because this is
early in their careers, and so you're not really spoiling any surprises? Is
that the thinking?

Mr. WINTER: Yeah, you know, they're so well-known, unlike Nucky, that it would
be, you know, if I called them, you know, Sal Carbone, it would be pretty
obvious it's Al Capone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: Nucky, you know, people don’t really know.

BIANCULLI: I liked you – it took me a second to get that alias you did right on
the spot there.

Mr. WINTER: Thanks. Yeah, you know, those guys are so bigger than life, you
know, I wanted to present them as honestly as possible.

And then for me as a writer, you know, the idea of being able to portray Al
Capone as a bumbling, you know, third banana of the guy who's running Chicago
at the time, was just irresistible.

You always see Al Capone at the height of his power, you know, when he's
Scarface. This is the kid who's a little unsure of himself and doesn't quite
know how to handle situations, and is vulnerable and actually has a wife and a
young son who we'll get to meet in the series. And it's just such a great
opportunity to see how this guy formed into the Al Capone we know. Same with
Rothstein, same with Luciano and others that all appear on the show.

BIANCULLI: Well, I've seen six episodes, and it seems from the very start, that
the generational war is as important to you as the territorial one. Is that
fair?

Mr. WINTER: Yeah absolutely, and, you know, it's sort of the old story in
organized crime or probably in any business endeavor. You know, the young guys
are hungry and want to come up, and the old guys are a little fat and placated
and don't want to, you know, rock the boat. And certainly Prohibition, you
know, offered this huge opportunity to make a ton of money.

And, you know, as you see in the series and, you know, is borne out by history,
Big Jim Colosimo in Chicago wasn't really interested in illegal alcohol. He was
making a ton of money running whorehouses and trafficking in other areas of
crime. And he felt like it was more problems, more trouble than it was worth.

And of course, the young guys say him leaving millions of dollars on the table,
and as usually happens, they moved him out of the way. And it happens all the
time. It's sort of the way it works. When the young guys see an opportunity, I
think if you're in charge, you better go along with that or start seriously
thinking about cashing in the retirement plan.

BIANCULLI: Terence Winter, creator of the HBO period crime series "Boardwalk
Empire." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, our guest is Terence Winter, creator of
the new HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."

In the '20s, you've got two movements going on at the same time. One is
Prohibition, and the other is suffrage, you know, women's rights. And yet
somehow those two movements went hand in hand or certainly helped each other.
How did that work?

Mr. WINTER: Prohibition was a long time coming. I mean, it didn't happen
overnight. There were anti-saloon leagues. You know, from the mid-19th century
on, you know, there was a movement to outlaw alcohol. And that's one of the
things we took some pains to explore on the show.

A lot of times, in the 1920s, in the Prohibition era and the women behind the
temperance movement are sort of depicted as a bunch of killjoys and party
poopers, and, you know, they want to prevent people from having a good time.

There was a real reason for Prohibition, a real reason for wanting it. There
weren't social programs set up in the older days when – you know, if dad was an
alcoholic, and the breadwinner was not making money, families were destroyed.
Kids didn't eat. Kids went to orphanages. Women were destitute. And, you know,
even though the experiment of Prohibition failed miserably, there was a real
reason for it.

But it, you know, in passing Prohibition, I think, you know, it gave women
power. I mean, it really showed that when they banded together, and the
Prohibition, the temperance movement was pretty much made up of women, when
they banded together, they could get things done.

So the, you know, getting the vote, you know, coming in the same year was sort
of, you know, just obviously the next level of power for women. And we get to
explore – I mean, both of those things happen in the same year, which is just
incredible.

BIANCULLI: On "The Sopranos," you worked under David Chase, and one of your
writing partners was Matt Weiner, who went on to create "Mad Men." What did you
take away the most, you know, about creating characters and about, you know,
the pace of "The Sopranos," the patience of it was so unusual and the way
characters wouldn't say what they thought all the time. I mean, what did you
learn while you were there?

Mr. WINTER: Well, just that. You know, if you're truly depicting human behavior
in an honest way, it is a lot of miscommunication, non-communication, paranoia,
passive aggressiveness. People don't finish sentences. They don't say what they
mean. They lie to each other. They take credit for things that are actually
other people's ideas.

I mean, all of this stuff is just delicious when you're creating characters
because – and "The Sopranos" was one of the first places I ever saw where it
really felt like real people, I mean, completely honest. And, you know, people
don't always have the right words.

They don't have the ability to stand up and eloquently state their case. They
fum - or they backtrack, just as I'm doing now, and that's more real, and
that's what David – David taught us trust that. It's okay. You know, it's
actually better that way.

And David, the biggest lesson I learned from him, and this is very simple, but
it seems like it should be obvious, but it's not, he just said be entertaining.
That's your job: Be entertaining. That's what this is. And I just, that's the –
you know, it's not written on a sign in my writers' room, but it should be, you
know, those two words.

BIANCULLI: So if the biggest lesson that you learned from David Chase was to be
entertaining, what's the biggest lesson you learned when you finally got to
work with Martin Scorsese?

Mr. WINTER: It was very different. You know, in TV, writers generally are the
show runners, and they have enormous control over everything. In feature films,
very often the writer will turn in a script and never be heard from again.

Marty was incredibly collaborative and solicitous of my opinion with things,
which was just incredible. I mean, really, he approached television completely
differently because it's something he didn't really know about necessarily. He
didn't really watch TV, just really is a cinema buff, obviously. And television
was something new.

So even early on in the process, I had to describe how the TV season worked,
and early on, he started reading some of the early scripts for the show, and he
called me up, and he said God, this is great. You get to see what happens to
the characters after the movie is over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: So for him, the pilot is the movie, and then everything else is
after the movie. So I thought well, that's such a – of course that's how he
sees this, the movie and then later...

BIANCULLI: That's funny.

Mr. WINTER: ...endless number of sequels. So it was again a whole different
thing for me. I mean, obviously I defer to him creatively whatever across the
board. I mean, he set the template for what the show looks like and feels like
and the tone visually and in so many other ways.

But again, you know, he was enormously collaborative, and it was great. So, you
know, I think one of the things I took away from that was that here's a man who
is, you know, an icon of cinema and is just, you know, one for my money the
best American director ever.

And if he's comfortable enough to come into a situation and surround himself
with people who may know more about that medium than he does and ask questions
and actually be inclusive, that's something to take away is that you can be
confident enough – certainly, he knows he's Martin Scorsese, and he knows he
knows what to do, but he's comfortable enough to let you actually take part in
that, and it was great.

BIANCULLI: Writer and executive producer Terence Winter, creator of the new HBO
series "Boardwalk Empire," which airs Sundays. We'll continue our conversation
in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

Let's continue our conversation with Terence Winter, creator and executive
producer of "Boardwalk Empire," the new period drama series from HBO. The show
takes place in Atlantic City in the 1920s, and to recapture that era, one of
the things the production team did was build a two-block full-scale recreation
of the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk.

HBO threw so much money at this thing. If the estimates that I've seen in print
are true, it's like $20 million for the pilot. Is that anywhere near?

Mr. WINTER: That's fair.

BIANCULLI: That's fair?

Mr. WINTER: Yeah. That's a fair estimate. Yes.

BIANCULLI: That's like twice the pilot for "Lost," which made headlines for how
much that cost just a few years ago.

Mr. WINTER: I don’t think it's twice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Okay.

Mr. WINTER: I think "Lost" is about $14 million.

BIANCULLI: All right. So how is it spent? I mean I know you have a set in
Brooklyn, and I want you to describe that, but what was important for you to
get on the screen and why?

Mr. WINTER: Well, I kept a lot of that money. HBO doesn’t know this but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: ...we funneled it into a bank account in Queens. No I...

BIANCULLI: How appropriate for an Atlantic City sort of history story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: No, seriously, I mean this obviously, the expense of this endeavor
was something that was very apparent to me early on. Even reading the book and
looking at pictures of what the old Atlantic City looked like, it doesn’t -
it's not there anymore. And I, you know, I was kind of disheartened because I
started to really get interested in doing this and I thought there's no way we
can afford to do this. I mean we - on a television budget we cannot afford a
boardwalk or an empire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: And it's ludicrous to do a series about Atlantic City and never go
to the Boardwalk. I mean we would have characters just refer, oh, I was just on
the Boardwalk, it looks great, and just hear music and the sound of the ocean
and never see it. So this is insane, you know, why are we doing this? And I
thought my pilot script is going to be one of these things that people read and
say yeah, it was really fun and great, but, you know, we really can't do this.
And I was watching "John Adams" on HBO, the miniseries, and they did a behind
the scenes segment and I saw what they were able to do digitally.

There's one moment in particular, they showed Paul Giamatti riding a horse
across an open field and then suddenly, digitally, in the background, the City
of Boston circa 1774 appeared. And at that moment I said, we can actually do
this. This is possible. It's still going to be expensive, but it's doable. Now
we could put it in a framework of a TV series that actually might work. And you
know, it’s fair to say it’s akin to the show "Rome," in terms of budget and
scope and also a massive period piece. But that's in the business model. We
might be able to make this work.

So, yeah, I mean I knew building - we needed a boardwalk. We had to build it
ultimately, and we scouted locations, starting in the real Atlantic City to
Asbury Park. And then ultimately, it became more cost-effective to build a
replica that is literally the size of a football field in Brooklyn and then
augment that digitally. And that was the work of our amazing production
designer Bob Shaw.

And then everything else, just the, you know, we decided, you know, and this
was again, the choice of Mr. Scorsese, was are we going to try to depict the
reality of what Atlantic City in 1920 looked like or is it going to be a
stylized version of that. And we opted for reality and which meant great pains
had to be taken to get things right, hair, makeup, clothing, details of every
kind, the props, every set was really fine-tooth combed and really did
incredible amounts of research, so and that all, you know, it all cost money.

Just to do a street scene in Brooklyn requires two days of prep to get the
street, and this is, you know, you say oh, all the buildings are from the
correct period, but air conditioners, streetlights, pavement, mailboxes,
there's any number of things that have to be removed, covered up, taken out,
cleaned up, dirtied up, as the case may be.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TYLER: So it's a real - everything costs money, of course, and I think it's
all up there on the screen now.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Terence Winter, creator of the new HBO series
"Boardwalk Empire."

The story of how you got into show business is a great story but I'm not even
sure I believe it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Can you tell it briefly? I mean I know that...

Mr. TYLER: I will.

BIANCULLI: You know, just go for it.

Mr. WINTER: Okay. Grew up in Brooklyn, blue collar family, went to a very blue
collar vocational high school, studied auto mechanics, had a high school
teacher who told me I had a knack for writing, didn’t really plan on going to
college, ultimately I did, went to NYU, studied journalism, political science,
worked my way through school. I was a doorman and when I graduated, I found out
that journalists made half the money that doormen make.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: So even though I was...

BIANCULLI: Oh, ow.

Mr. TYLER: ...maybe...

BIANCULLI: Yeah, keep going.

Mr. WINTER: Yeah, initially, yeah, certainly, and I said well, I want to make a
lot of money. So the only two jobs I knew that paid a lot of money were doctor
and lawyer. So I went to law school, and went to night school, worked my way
through, was miserable, absolutely not the career for me. And I spent two years
as the world's worst lawyer in Manhattan and finally did some soul searching
and said I want to be a writer. That's really what I want to do. And I packed
up. I had never been west of Chicago. I had never written a script either but I
just, I knew instinctively that this was something I could do.

And I showed up in Los Angeles, got a job so I could pay my bills during the
day and started writing spec scripts at night. Spec scripting is sample script
that you use as a calling card to get on a show.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WINTER: And, you know, up until that point in my life I was pretty good at
getting to be where I wanted to be. I was always able to achieve what I wanted
and meet my goals. And finally I'm - I finally identify the thing I really want
to do and I just cannot break into this business. It’s, the Catch-22 in writing
or in Hollywood is that you can't get a job unless you have an agent and you
can't get an agent unless you have a job.

BIANCULLI: Right. Right.

Mr. WINTER: So, even though I had scripts people loved, they said well, you
know, you need an agent and I just could not, I would cold call agents and have
great conversations, and then inevitably weeks would go by and they'd say, who
are you again, and it was just impossible. So I went down to the Writer's Guild
and they had a list of agents who would take unsolicited material. And one of
the names on the list was a guy I went to law school with.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: And I call him up in New York and I asked him, are you an agent
now? And he said no, I'm a real estate attorney but one of my clients wrote a
book on real estate and I use my fee to get bonded as an agent, but I don’t
know anything about it. And I said I don’t know either but I need an agent and
guess what? You’re my agent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: So he said okay. I said here's the deal: I'm going to create an
agency. I'm going to - will come up with a phony name, I'll get a Mailboxes
Etc. address, I'll get letterhead. I’ll get a voicemail system. I’ll submit my
scripts under your name. If we get anything I'll give you 10 percent like a
real agent, and he said, all right, great.

So anyway, I photocopied all my scripts and I took a day off from work and I
literally hit every sitcom office in L.A. And I gave my scripts and I told
whoever was sitting behind the desk, I said yeah, hi, I'm the messenger from
the agency. This is - these are those scripts you wanted. And the kid behind
the desk would say oh, okay, and so at least my scripts now were theoretically
in buildings where people could hire me and they would read them because they
did come in from an agent.

So a couple of weeks went by and it was a Friday afternoon and our voicemail
had a message. And I listened and it was the executive producer of the "Fresh
Prince of Bel-Air," a woman named Winifred Hervey Stallworth. And she said,
yeah, hi Doug, this is Win Hervey of "Fresh Prince." I read Terry Winter's
scripts. I think they're really good. I'd like to maybe have him in to pitch
some ideas.

So I was really excited. I called Doug in New York and he was gone for the
weekend. It was 4 o'clock in L.A. and it was a Friday night in New York, and I
thought oh God, he's gone, he's gone. I got to wait until Monday now. And then
I thought, well, you know, he doesn’t really know anything about being an agent
either, so I can just call and say I'm him and cut out the middle man. So I
called and I said I was him and she said yeah, you know, we're having Terry in
- yeah we'd like to have Terry in to pitch ideas. And she said, you know,
"Fresh Prince" is sort of a teenage-oriented show. Does he have one more script
that, you know, maybe is kind of teenagey(ph)?

And I said yeah, he's got, he just finished a great "Wonder Years" spec, which
was a lie. She had had everything I'd written at that point. And I said but,
you know, Terry's out of town for the weekend. I can probably get it to you
like by Tuesday. So she said yeah, great, Tuesday's fine. So I hung up the
phone and from Friday night until Tuesday afternoon I cranked out a "Wonder
Years" script.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINTER: Then I threw my baseball hat back on, went as the messenger again,
yeah, here's the message from the agent.

BIANCULLI: So you’re the messenger, the agent and the writer?

Mr. WINTER: I'm everybody, janitor, every, yeah - full service agency. So I
gave them the script and they had me in to pitch ideas and that was sort of my
first foot in the door. And it was great. And shortly thereafter, I got into a
program Warner Brothers runs, which is a godsend for writers called the Warner
Brothers Sitcom Writers Workshop. They also run a show for drama writers but at
the time I wanted to be a sitcom writer.

And at the end of the show they call - the end of the program rather, they
called me in at the end of the 10 weeks and they said we have an interesting
situation. We have a show. It's not a sitcom but it's a drama that has a lot of
comedy in it. And I said well, why me? And they said well, it’s about a blue
collar guy who becomes a lawyer for a stuffy white collar firm. Do you think
you could write that? And I said if I don’t get this job I'm leaving.

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

Mr. WINTER: I'm getting on a plane. And that was my first job. It was a show
called "The Great Defender," co-created by a guy named Frank Renzulli...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WINTER: ...who then later on went on to be one of the writers on "The
Sopranos."

BIANCULLI: All right. Well, Terence Winter, thanks very much for being on FRESH
AIR.

Mr. WINTER: Absolutely my pleasure. Thank you, David.

BIANCULLI: Terence Winter, creator of the new period drama series, "Boardwalk
Empire," which is televised Sundays on HBO.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Coming up, actor Jim Parsons, who plays geeky Sheldon on the CBS
sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory." This is FRESH AIR.
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Jim Parsons On The Science Of Sheldon, 'Big Bang'

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Our next guest, Jim Parsons, recently won the Emmy as Outstanding Actor in a
Comedy Series. He's a star of "The Big Bang Theory," a CBS sitcom co-created by
Chuck Lorre, whose other credits include "Two and a Half Men" and the new "Mike
& Molly."

Jim Parsons has appeared in regional theater and in bit parts in a few movies
and TV pilots, but "The Big Bang Theory" was his big break. He plays Sheldon
Cooper, a physicist who is brilliant at math and other things but baffled by
what most of us would consider basic social situations. He does have friends,
though. Johnny Galecki from "Roseanne" co-stars as his equally bright roommate,
Leonard. And Kaley Cuoco plays Penny, the beautiful girl who lives in the
apartment across the hall.

This season, Jim Parson's Sheldon, has a girlfriend of his own. She's a fellow
genius named Amy, who’s just as geeky, as you can tell from last week's fourth
season premiere, when he got a text message from her.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Big Bang Theory")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JIM PARSONS (Actor): (as Sheldon) Excuse me. Oh, Amy is at the dry cleaners
and she's made a very amusing pun.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) I don’t care for prochloral ethylene and I don’t like
glycol ether.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) Get it? She doesn’t like glycol ether.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) Sounds like either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Jim Parsons, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. PARSONS: Thank you for having me.

BIANCULLI: First of all, congratulations on your recent Emmy for Outstanding
Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.

Mr. PARSONS: Oh, thank you.

BIANCULLI: And the setup of the show almost threatens to make fun of nerds or
brainy people but the show doesn’t really do that at all.

Mr. PARSONS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: Can you talk about the authenticity of both the characters and the
science?

Mr. PARSONS: Well, the science part is extremely easy. We employ David
Saltzberg, who is a physicist who teaches at UCLA. And he not only fact checks,
he supplies a great deal of it. You know, it’s like we need Sheldon to talk
about, you know, something or other that somehow applies to teaching Penny
whatever.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PARSONS: And he'll come up with something, you know. And he sends over this
diagram, you know, on this whiteboard and he'll throw in little inside jokes
that, you know, I don't find funny because I don't know what the heck he's
talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: But and then as far as the more geek culture, I guess you'd call
it, between the gaming and the comic books and "Star Trek" and whatever you
have, I think that we just have a fair amount of writers employed who totally
know it and I don’t, and every once in a while you'll hear a verbal
disagreement break out.

But, you know, the setup does - would lend itself you would think, and we got a
lot of buzz that are they just going to poke fun at geeks for, you know, a few
episodes and hopefully we'll be rid of this show - whatever, when we first came
on. And it was such a more affectionate embrace of these characters than ever
that, and I think that's what is one of the major keys to this show working is
like I say, that affection on the part of everybody working on it for these
characters. And I think that engenders affection, hopefully, from the audience.

BIANCULLI: Some people have presumed or suggested that Sheldon is borderline
autistic or has Asperger's syndrome. I know you’ve asked the writers and
they’ve told you no.

Mr. PARSONS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: But the way that you play him, is that a possibility in your mind?

Mr. PARSONS: I did not know enough about Asperger's to be utilizing any
Aspergian traits, as it were, early on. And I still didn't know what it meant
exactly to have Asperger's or what those qualities were in a human with that,
until we were being asked about midway through the first season after being -
having aired several episodes - you know, does Sheldon have Asperger's? And
that's you know, my first question like you said, was I went to the writers and
asked, they said, no.

And then I began a very slight foray into just researching like, what is this?
And, you know, then I read and was like, oh, well, okay, they say he doesn’t
have Asperger's and they wrote it and so I trust them, but good grief, he
certainly has a lot of the traits. So I've looked no further into that as far
as trying to get any guidance from that. For one reason, whatever they're
writing, the way it's being filtered through me and the way I'm doing it
apparently is leading us in that direction anyway without having to think about
it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: Who knew? But the other thing is and I think they were very smart
when they said nope, he doesn’t, is that that's not what they wanted to do. You
know, not that they’ve ever told me this, but it seems to me it’s such an
original reaction to the world through a filter like that - to look at the
world through those eyes.

But I think that they, you know, for how ever long we're lucky enough to keep
doing this show, I don’t think they wanted to saddle us with a responsibility.
I don’t think they wanted to, I would assume, claim something that we were -
suddenly had to make sure we upheld to the letter for 10 years, if we're lucky,
you know, or whatever.

I certainly am relieved as an actor that I'm not constantly having to fact
check. Look, trying to figure out what - that the Spock sign - the Vulcan
salute is every time we do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: So I can only imagine what I’d be doing going, now is this
actually what an Asperger's - you know, somebody with Asperger's would do or
autism? So I feel like they’ve made my life freer in that way by not doing
that.

BIANCULLI: You had a really interesting challenge last season when one episode
was built as a lengthy flashback to show how Sheldon and Leonard first met.

Mr. PARSONS: Oh yeah.

BIANCULLI: To play Sheldon pre-Leonard, what adjustments did you make and why?

Mr. PARSONS: Basically they said, you know, we have, we're going to flashback
and whereas the other three guys are going to have physically changed, Sheldon
will look identically the same and only his dealings with people and the world
around him will have evolved. That's what has changed about him, which is a
wonderful conceit. But it's very hard after working on something for nearly
three years at that point to go: And now I don’t talk like this anymore.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PARSONS: Now I talk - I don’t look at people and I don’t blah, blah, blah,
whatever.

BIANCULLI: Well, let's play a clip from the flashback episode.

Mr. PARSONS: Okay.

BIANCULLI: The plot has Sheldon, this is the less-socialized Sheldon,
advertising for a new roommate. But he's got very tough standard, as Leonard
learns when he knocks on Sheldon's door. So you have Johnny Galecki playing
Leonard, and our guest, Jim Parsons, playing Sheldon.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Big Bang Theory")

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of knocking door)

(Soundbite of door opening)

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) Yes?

Mr. JOHNNY GALECKI (Actor): (as Leonard) Yeah. I'm Leonard Hofstadter. I called
you about the apartment. You said to come by and...

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) I know what I said. I know what you said. I know what
my mother said on March 5th, 1992.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) What is the sixth noble gas?

Mr. GALECKI: (as Leonard) What?

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) You said you're a scientist. What is the sixth noble
gas?

Mr. GALECKI: (as Leonard) Uh, radon?

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) Are you asking me or telling me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALECKI: (as Leonard) Telling you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALECKI: (as Leonard) Telling you.

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) All right, next question. Kirk or Picard?

Mr. GALECKI: (as Leonard) Oh, uh, well, that's tricky: Original series over
"Next Generation" but Picard over Kirk.

Mr. PARSONS: (as Sheldon) Correct. You've passed the first barrier to roommate-
hood. You may enter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: That's Johnny Galecki and our guest Jim Parsons in a flashback
episode of the CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory."

Jim, you’re 37 but you look and play so much younger.

Mr. PARSONS: Thank you, God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: And you seem to really get this character. I know you grew up in
Houston.

Mr. PARSONS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: But what was your own childhood like? What could you draw from that
would make you understand Sheldon this well?

Mr. PARSONS: I was a very shy child. I remember being very - early in, I think
it was kindergarten open house or whatever and being with my mother, and
children saying hi to me or other children that were in my class and I still
remember feeling this way, but I don't know why. I wouldn't even say hi back. I
was that shy. And I remember her gripping my hand and saying, you say hi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: I'm sorry, Mother. She's not a tyrant by any stretch. But this is
just like in my DNA. This is who I was. And the reason I do start there is that
I think there's something I understand about his lack of understanding about
what is it that other people want to hear? What is it that they want me to
answer? I feel like, you know, when I've been asked this question in this
conversation, mm, I don’t know that what I'm about to say is what they - is
normal, is what they're expecting or...

Now, I think for Sheldon it's different, you know, he's more obtuse than I.
He's not even thinking that far into it normally, like oh dear, I don’t want to
hurt their feelings. In fact, that's one of the keys to him, I think as a
character is that he says things all the time that could hurt someone's
feelings. But the reason he gets away with it is because it wouldn’t occur to
him. He didn’t check it through a filter and go, oh, they'll be fine with this.
No, skip that barrier completely. He just says it.

But in that there's something I understand about maybe feeling like you haven't
understood the question exactly.

BIANCULLI: How early did you go from being a shy kid to being a kid who wanted
to be up on stage and acting?

Mr. PARSONS: What's funny is that if my - if that open house where I was so
painfully shy that my mother was upset with me was in kindergarten, my first
play was in first grade and...

BIANCULLI: So your trauma didn’t last very long.

Mr. PARSONS: You know, I don’t think it ever went away. I still feel pretty -
I'm not the best social person. It's a matter of comfort, I think. And for
whatever reason, the same way I don’t know why I was so painfully shy at the
age of five, I don’t know why I was so comfortable playing the bird in the
first grade show and doing a little solo in yellow tights, which I did
willingly, happily, you know, caught the bug, as it were.

And, but it's a matter of comfort and it's a matter of understanding the
situation you’re in. And there's still something about walking down a hall and
people saying hi, that can throw me. But if I have the script and I understand
where we're going with this story and what story I'm helping tell, then I'm
very comfortable because I can see what's - there's something about knowing
where the end is. And maybe that's all it is, is I don’t know outside of the
script where the rest of this life leads and that makes me a little more
anxious. I don’t know.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Jim Parsons, the star of "The Big Bang Theory" on
CBS. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: If you’re just joining us, our guest is Jim Parsons, star of "The
Big Bang Theory" on CBS.

Tell me if this is too personal a question.

Mr. PARSONS: Okay.

BIANCULLI: I know that your father died in a car accident about 10 years ago.

Mr. PARSONS: Mm-hmm. Yes.

BIANCULLI: At what point in your life were you then professionally, personally
and looking back on it, how did you react and what did that mean to you?

Mr. PARSONS: I was in graduate school for acting at that point. I was, it was
about 10, so I was 27 at that point. And my father was really the one who was
very eager that I explore this desire to be an actor. Not that I got a lot of
flack from anybody. You know, my mother didn’t call me and say, what are you
do, you know, nothing like. But it was, I did find out in retrospect, he was
certainly the voice who told her that they needed to let me try, you know. And
there's no repaying the gratitude that I feel on that level because I've been
around too many people who weren't supported as much as I was, say, at home in
that way.

And I don’t mean just financially, although there was some help but not, you
know, we weren't rich, but more emotionally, just like I say getting no flack
from them, like this needs to stop. Instead, they would pose questions to me
like, what are you doing to make a real financial go of this? You know, what is
your next step? What's the whatever, which kind of led me to grad school,
etcetera.

I had one experience in grad school that was very important where,
coincidentally, I was an understudy for a very big part in one of the main
shows at the regional theater where we were studying, the Old Globe, and the
guy who I was understudying, his grandmother passed away and he had to go to a
funeral for her and I had to go on for him and purely coincidentally, my
parents were visiting me that weekend at school.

They got to see me go on and it was a wonderful experience, this adrenaline
rush of a moment with this full-paying audience at a, you know, an equity
regional theater and it was just a professional thing going on. And I will
never forget that getting to spend that one day with them when they got to
watch that and got to be around everybody else watching it. And, you know,
while he, my father hasn’t seen, you know, from Earth at least, with us, he
hasn’t seen anything that's gone on in the regard of the past 10 years, he did
see the first tow into the water of making a real professional go of this, I
feel.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Jim Parsons, the Emmy-winning star of "The Big
Bang Theory" on CBS.

Are you used to that yet, Emmy-winning?

Mr. PARSONS: No. This is weird, but that night a couple of people said, how do
you feel? I said I feel like I'm kind of dreaming and they're like, give it a
week, give it a week and I thought how weird to have a timeline on your
acceptance of an Emmy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: What a ridiculous thing to say. But it was very accurate. And here
we are, I don’t know, four weeks, five weeks out, whatever, and what's changed
is not that I've accepted it and become comfortable with Emmy-winner, it's that
now it feels less like it happened.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARSONS: Now I look back and go, I can't believe that really happened. So
it’s gone from being unreal to as if it just didn’t happen. Such an odd thing.

BIANCULLI: Well, it did happen.

Mr. PARSONS: It did. I know. I know. I was there. I hugged LL Cool J.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Well, Jim Parsons, thanks so much for being on FRESH AIR.

Mr. PARSONS: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Jim Parsons, Emmy-winning star of the "The Big Bang Theory." The CBS
comedy moved at the start of this season and now airs on Thursdays.

(Soundbite of music)

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
..COST:
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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