We caught up with Jim Parsons to talk about his new movie Home and all things Jim.
How did you get involved with the project?
I was approached about it and I had never done an animated film before, so I was very excited about the idea. Then once we talked about it, I just liked the little guy so much, even just the way he looked. I liked Oh from the moment I first saw a drawing of him, before I even knew the story. I held up the little guy next to my face and asked a friend: ‘do you think I could voice this character?’ He said ‘oh, yeah’ and I was like: ‘really? Okay. But he seems more likeable than I am.’ What a thrill it’s been to play him. I really hope people like Oh as much as I do. What a thrill to get to view our planet through his eyes, if you will, and to relate to Tip, the character Rihanna voices, in the way that he does. It’s turned into a very moving experience, which I did not see coming.”
How much do you identify with this endearingly fun and quirky little alien?
There is a certain sense of delightful wonder he has about everything on Earth that I have to admit I do understand, even though I can be as cynical as the next guy. The first thing I tapped into about him and that I feel every time I work on him, is that sense of easy delight he has about things that he hasn’t seen before, things that we all find commonplace. I really understand him for whatever reason. Maybe I haven’t matured enough!
What kind of things?
Well, first of all, I love the way the Boov delight at all the objects they find when they first land on Earth. They are like: ‘what is a hairdryer or a washing machine or a football for?’ They either eat things or ride in them or use them inappropriately. While all the other aliens are going: ‘is this useful or not?’ Oh likes to play with everything he finds. The use for him is about having a good time. He sees a cookbook in an apartment he takes over and he’s going to have a party that night, so he puts the book in the oven and he cooks it and it comes out charred and black. He says: ‘Yes!’ He has taken the word cookbook literally: he cooked the book. It’s lovely!
He has a wonderfully comical use of the English language and manages to mangle sentences. What was that like for you, it sounds like there were some tongue twisters?
That was honestly very challenging because of the odd way he talks. There are strange mutilations of the English language and he has a funny way of stringing words together. He says ‘doos not’ instead of ‘does not.’ He says ‘I has to’ instead of ‘I have to.’ Tip pulls over the car at one point and Rihanna says ‘I need a pee break’ and Oh says ‘oh, yes, I needs to break pee too’ … and it’s just delightful.
What was it like working with Rihanna? It’s her first big acting role and she is great as Tip.
She’s wonderful. She’s so smart and she has one of the most important things you need as an actor, especially with comedy and especially animation, and that is a sense of timing. Of course she has that as a musician. She has incredible timing, but she has much more than that. She has a real humanistic conversational timing, and that’s not the same as music. Working on scenes with her that we recorded together, I’ve discovered that she is instinctively a wonderful scene partner. She catches the ball. You throw it; she knows when it’s there.
What was it like recording together?
We had one long day together and we also recorded a lot of scenes solo. But it was very instructive to get to hear and play off the other human voicing the character. You don’t get that opportunity often making animated films. I think we both really took a lot from that day. It was very instructive.
Are you a fan of Rihanna’s music?
Yes, very much so. I was just thinking that when I was in my apartment listening to her first album, she was 18 or 19 at the time. I feel like a grandfather saying that but I’m a big fan of her music.
Steve Martin plays your scary boss, Captain Smek, what was it like working with him? Of course he is a comic legend.
Steve’s the godfather of comedy. It’s hard to have grown up in this country (America) or maybe any country, and not have grown up with Steve Martin. He is disarmingly nice. He’s also a very smart guy, but what a pleasure to spend time with him. A lot of people you run into who are great successes like that are very, very giving. He is giving as a person and as a performer.
The pair of you got to show President Obama some of the HOME footage at DreamWorks Animation studios I believe… Was that exciting?
Yes, we did a little skit for the President. That was insane. That ranks up there with truly one of the craziest things I’ve done and in fact, people asked me afterwards: ‘what did you talk about?’ But I don’t know! All I kept thinking was ‘the President’s standing right here. The President’s standing right here.’ I didn’t grow up thinking: ‘I’d like to one day meet a sitting President.’ You don’t think about that kind of thing and suddenly you’re meeting a sitting President and it was CRAZY and it’s Obama. It was amazing. I will say he was every bit as calm and in control of the situation as you would expect or hope a President to be.
The Boov have an interesting approach to life. Can you talk about their philosophy?
They’re extremely cowardly. And Captain Smek, who is giving the Boov their orders, is the biggest coward of them all. The Boov run away from everything; that’s what they do as a species. They are fond of running away and they run from planet to planet, which is how they landed on Earth. But Tip teaches Oh about bravery and heart, she teaches him hope, and she teaches him that sometimes it’s worth it to take a risk and be brave for people who you love, for situations you believe in. She teaches him that sometimes, even when the probability of success is very small; with the right amount of heart and effort you can still succeed. These are beautiful life lessons.
Oh has made himself a little unpopular, hasn’t he?
He’s not well-liked amongst the other Boov. He’s adorable to humans once they get to know him, but not to other Boov. He’s irritating. He is enthusiastic and maniacal about Captain Smek and his orders and he is very proud of being a Boov, but even that attitude is out of line. As a Boov, you’re not supposed to be that excited about anything. So by nature he is actually a bit of an outlier and a risk-taker because of his enthusiasm and zest for life and the fact that he wants friends. That is not how Boov were taught to behave and it’s actually one of his more human qualities. It is one of the ways he and Tip eventually connect. But by the end you see the rest of the Boov loosening up a little bit I think.
What do you think are the themes that come across in the film, related to these two outsiders, Oh and Tip?
Not only are they outsiders to each other, but they have both been taught through their own civilizations that the other people you run into are bad. From Tip’s point of view, Boov took over the Earth, they stole her family. She has definitive feelings about Oh from the moment she lays eyes on him. She wants nothing to do with him. He, on the other hand, was taught through his civilization that humans are all savages who have to be tamed and that they have foolish ways of doing things and need to be taught how to behave. So he has very definitive judgments about her too. He thinks she’s kind of stupid. When we first started recording I thought: that’s very funny, I like that relationship. The more we went through it though and the more I saw things played back once they were animated for me, I was really moved by the parable.”
What are the metaphors do you think?
It is about much deeper things in our world. I thought a lot about being a gay person while making this movie even though that has nothing to do with the story specifically. It is about how we all go into so many situations with pre-judgments about people and often they don’t get shaken away. The story reminds us how important it is to take people at a deeper level than that, get to know them a little bit and let them be who they are in their heart.
What happens to Tip and Oh?
They are forced to spend time with each other on the road, on the run, and therefore they are forced to reveal themselves to each other. They realize how much they have in common. In life, if you could spend some time getting to know the other person just a little bit, you would realize how much we all have in common.
Can you talk about the flying car Oh creates which becomes a character itself in a way?
Tip shows up and she wants nothing to do with him. Her car breaks down when they first meet each other and basically Oh bargains with her to give him a ride. He says he will fix it for her because he’s capable of doing that. He understands technology. He takes spare parts from the convenience store they’re in, including a ‘Slushy’ machine and he ends up making the car fly. It’s a flying spacecraft now. Tip is alarmed by it for about three seconds and then is immediately in good control of the car. They are able to fly through the universe and all around the Earth on it. The car is a childhood dream come true and it frankly allows the movie to turn into a really sweet buddy road movie, with me and Rihanna.
Do you believe in aliens, is there something out there?
To be honest, I really don’t know. One of my favorite movies growing up that I still love was CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). It is the charming allure of other life forms being out there that I connected with and I can still feel that a little bit, but I don’t know. I guess hope springs eternal – although it could be frightening if there really is something.
What does ‘home’ mean to you?
It’s where I feel unjudged; where whatever I do isn’t necessarily stupid or wrong. That’s it, that is home.
You have been compared to comedy greats such as Buster Keaton and you have won major awards for your hilarious work as Sheldon on THE BIG BANG THEORY. Did you ever expect that the show would be so popular?
No, I never expected it. When I first read the script for THE BIG BANG THEORY and we first started shooting it, I really liked it and wanted to play this character (Sheldon). I felt we were doing good work, but you have no idea what the general public will think. Even if they think it’s good, the question is: are they going to watch it? That is the key thing. So I never expected anything other than the chance to just keep working.
How has the show changed your life
It is sometimes hard to nail down the way it’s changed my life, partly because it’s still going on. We are in our eighth year now and so it would be nice to get a moment to reflect and see how things are changing. But it all happens very organically. One of the things is that it has given me the chance to work on a project like HOME and spend so much time with Steve Martin and Rihanna and with Jeffrey Katzenberg (co-founder and CEO of DreamWorks Animation). All that is directly related to the job with BIG BANG.
It’s interesting that Sheldon is such a popular character isn’t it, given his faults?
It’s a little weird, isn’t it? He’s got a ton of flaws. I guess it’s his saving grace that he’s so flawed. Some of his flaws are really unpalatable like the severe narcissism and cockiness and lack of even wanting human contact a lot of the time, but it’s the other flaws that are relatable: a complete lack of knowledge about how to handle certain situations in the world and therefore, a complete dependence on other people to help him. He doesn’t even drive. I think those are the balancing factors that help to make him an appealing character for the audience.
Of course it is a show about geeks. Were you geeky as a kid?
Well, I guess I was sort of geeky in my own way, only in that I wasn’t overly cool. I wasn’t smart/geeky and I wasn’t ‘sciencey’ /geeky. I was into theatre, not into sports. I wasn’t really an outsider but I wasn’t completely mainstream at the same time and so I do get that aspect of it.”
Are you naturally funny?
I don’t know how funny I am. I did generate a decent amount of laughter in the classroom but it wasn’t overly funny, it was more commentary, if that makes any sense. It was easier for me to riff off a situation and just throw in some comments here and there. I would never have called myself the class clown I guess is what I’m saying. I wasn’t a great student either but I was a pretty obedient child.
Who do you find funny?
Well, I grew up admiring Steve Martin; he is a huge one for me. I was a huge TV watcher when I was young and I loved everyone from John Ritter to Michael J. Fox. Somebody who really affected my comic timing was Marla Gibbs. She played the housekeeper on THE JEFFERSONS (TV series). I really feel like I learned a lot from her, as funny as that may sound. She has impeccable timing. Also, the movie TOOTSIE (1982) was very big for me.
Are you planning to do more stage work?
I have done a lot of theatre, I love doing theatre and I would do it tomorrow if I had the chance.
Are there any specific goals at this point in your career?
Whatever the format, I’m interested in doing very different character work, whether it be playing a serial killer or whatever, just the most diverse things I’m capable of. I want to make the work believable and I want to do more movies. I’ve got to do a couple of little things here and there; I really enjoyed working on them and I would like to get to do some meatier stuff in live action movies and hopefully that’ll happen.
Finally, what do you think that people can look forward to with HOME?
I think it is just a well-made movie. It’s entertaining and in the process you get some valuable lessons and I think you can still be moved by it. I feel very, very grateful and proud to be a part of something that is telling this tale. I feel certain that people are going to love this movie, kids are going to watch it repeated times and it is a film you can watch with the whole family.
You must get offered a lot of film roles. What made this story stand out?
I was really excited at the prospect of doing any animated film at all, because I’d never done one. It was just the opportunity in and of itself; that part of it was very appealing. The first thing I saw of it was a rendering of the character Oh, and I loved him. In fact, I liked him so much that I thought, ‘Oh! They can’t want my voice for this. He’s so cute!’ He’s got that adorable, curious quality about him.
But then the other thing that’s so appealing, and that has only intensified as we’ve done it, is it’s such a beautiful story about learning to let other people be who they are, and letting their true self shine through, and finding how much you end up loving that person. It’s about not prejudging, and not coming in with too many assumptions about other people. I think it’s an important lesson at all times of life, but really important right now.
In that case, changing the film’s title – it was originally ‘Happy Smekday’ – seems like a good decision, because it captures that idea about finding your people.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s funny, I think necessity is the mother of invention in some ways. One reason the change was made is probably that it’s an easier sell, quite frankly. You don’t want to confuse people with the title, like ‘What does that mean?’. Home says something so simple, and for that very reason it makes a lot of sense for this film. It’s all about finding what defines your home. Is it four walls in your home town, or is it an ever-changing place with the people you find who make home?
For anyone who is yet to see the film, tell us about your character, Oh.
Oh is an extremely friendly, curious, enthusiastic being who, by his very nature, is not one of the crowd. Nothing would please him more than to fit in and conform with his fellow aliens in the Boov race – but he doesn’t, and he can’t help himself. Therefore he feels like an outcast, and his attempts to fit in end up causing trouble for him, to the point where he has a very big mistake he makes that could get his entire alien race in trouble. He’s on the run; he’s a fugitive from the rest. That’s when he meets this young human girl [Tip, voiced by Rihanna] who feels like an outcast in her own way and the two of them find all these things they have in common. But for him in particular, he’s an extremely optimistic hopeful character. He has an irresistible curiosity and enthusiasm for life in general that is just beautiful.
There’s something about unquenchable optimism that always makes you love a character.
Yes! I feel like everybody feels that part in them, everyone can feel that inside themselves. I have an optimist inside me too. And it’s really easy to lose sight of that and get caught up in the drudgery of daily life and trying to get through things. I think – as with any character that connects with people – Oh’s quality that connects is a mirror of what’s inside them. It’s that hopefulness. To get to see the world through his eyes for a little bit reminds you that you can apply that to your own life.
In terms of the relationship between Oh and Tip, did you get to record your dialogue with Rihanna?
A little bit, not a lot. It was wonderful. She’s an excessively warm person, a very funny and quick-witted person. We had never met before, and I was taken aback at what a wonderful sparring partner she was, both in conversation and to work with, immediately. I think she’s a beautiful fit for this part because she brings two very opposite qualities to this character, of strength and maturity, and this real sad loner quality at the same time. It’s very moving, and very vivid, what she’s brought.
There was a picture online of you recording alongside Steve Martin as the Boov’s leader, Captain Smek. Please tell me that he was as fun to work with as we imagine.
That was beyond fun! It was like taking a class. He was like you would think he is, but even more impressive in person. He is so creative and so brave. We would be doing a scene and… it’s not just that he does improv or anything like that. It’s just that he knows natural ways to take a scene and play with it, and these rhythms and noises and things that are really awe-inspiring. It’s because he has a real fearlessness about him, and it makes it tremendous fun to work with him.
And President Obama visited while you were both recording. That’s amazing!
Yes, he was at the DreamWorks site to give a speech that day. He and Jeffrey Katzenberg went around; he got a tour of the facilities. Steve and I were there and we were recording, so we met him.
Did they warn you he was coming?
Of course! Are you kidding me? There are Secret Service agents everywhere! You know what’s going on.
But did he reveal the secret plans to fight an alien invasion should one occur?
No, not a lick.
So what are you like in the recording booth? Are you quite physical?
I am very physical. I almost always left somewhat drenched in sweat, which surprised even me. You think of it as something where you not only don’t //need// your body, but you don’t even have it to use! There’s nothing you can do with your body that’s going to show in the final product. Maybe that’s all the more reason I used my body so much to get whatever noise or sounds out of it I could. When we needed to keep the energy up I found myself almost running in place! It was very physical.
And Oh has a very distinctive way of speaking, with things like “For what are you doing that?” or “Can I come into the out now?”. Did you find yourself using his grammar when you left the booth?
No, but I did find myself correcting it in the process. We would have to retake lines because I would self-correct his broken English as I was saying it. ‘No, it’s not “does,” he pronounces it “doos”,’ all manner of mistakes he was making. The only thing he says that we all began to say was ‘Thanking you’. It was always ‘Thanking you’. For some reason that was easier to catch on to. And sometimes ‘Can I come into the out now?’
Did you get a key piece of direction on playing Oh? Was there one thing that really helped you?
That’s hard to say. I will say that the direction in general was so crucial. Having no set and frequently no other actors to work with, it was really all about what Tim Johnson, our director, said. He was sort of my everything in that way; I couldn’t imagine it until he would say what it was and dictate what it was going to be. He was always a big proponent of that curious energy that Oh has, and that hopeful spin on it. That was the most consistent thing that came up again and again, and that’s very catching. Once you key into that, it’s a lovely place to be, so you find yourself wanting to reside there and talk from that place. It’s a nice break from the world.
How much recording time did you do in total?
It was spread over about two and a half years, but I did, I think, 31 or 32 sessions. They varied in time. The shortest I did was probably two hours at once, but I would do four hours at a time. They said it was a lot, but it never felt like a lot. It just felt like I worked on it over a very long time. I think that he had a lot to say in the film, is the bottom line, and that’s really all that mattered.
Will there be deleted scenes that you recorded on the DVD?
Oh, I don’t even know! That’s so funny. There’s nothing I know that was cut out yet, but I haven’t seen the full film yet. I hope to see it soon.
Have you recorded any other DVD extras yet?
Tell us about the Boov and the Gorg, because there are two alien races here.
The Gorg I don’t know as well, because I wasn’t one. But the Boov are a very conformist society. They delight in being the same; you don’t want to stick out as a Boov. And they are on the run, always, from the other alien race called the Gorg. We hear about them being just terrifying, and the Boov aren’t sure why they’re chasing them. We find out in the film why they’re being chased. But that is why the Boov are moving from planet to planet, and why they finally find themselves on Earth. That’s their latest conquest, and they think they’ll stay here and the Gorg won’t know where they are. But of course the Gorg find them again.
One thing that is very cool about the Boov is their technology. Is there a particular gizmo that you’d like to have in real life?
I love the fact that Boov know how to create flying cars out of regular cars. In fact, with one car and a Slurpee machine, Oh is able to make a contraption that can literally fly all across the Earth. They’re very good. They don’t understand some of the more simplistic things like hair dryers and ovens like we have on Earth, but they have a much higher intellect with more complicated technology like that. They’re admirable in that way.
I’d quite like a flying car.
I would too! It would be very useful.
The central cast of this film – yourself, Rihanna, Steve Martin, and J.Lo as Tip’s mum – are all very gifted musically. Was there ever any talk of just making this a full-on musical?
No. But I did offer up that I would sing with Rihanna any time they wanted, and literally no one ever took that a step further. Isn’t that insulting? (laughs)
Oh that’s outrageous! But it’s interesting that J.Lo is in the film because, in the book, Oh’s character actually took the name J.Lo as his human name. Do you know how she got involved?
I know that they just wanted her to play the mother, which she did. I don’t know why they changed his name. I think there were copyright issues with her name. It’s funny: Oh ended up being such a wonderful name for him, and the way they incorporated why he’s called Oh is so beautiful. But right before we got to that, I was crushed that he wasn’t going to be called J.Lo, because it was very fun to keep saying, ‘My name is J.Lo’. I enjoyed saying that very much. But I really do think it worked out for the best.
The explanation for his name being Oh really is perfect.
It ended up being such a character-defining moment, and that simply wasn’t there before. He was called J.Lo because he thought that was easy for humans to understand.
Now your Instagram account is full of pictures of your adorable dogs. Did you have problems relating to Tip, who is a cat person and has her cat, Pig, with her?
No, not at all! In fact, when I first saw the little cat, Pig, animated, I was like, ‘Oh! That’s the star of the film right there, that stinking cat!’ It’s a very cute cat, and kind of has the body of a dog if I’m being frank. She looks very sturdy.
You’ve done a lot of theatre work in the past, and you have another play coming this summer. A lot of voice actors say that the process is a little like theatre; did you find that?
That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but I do think that’s why I enjoyed it so much, now that you’re saying it. I know that’s why I enjoyed doing it, because it required so much mental creativity and commitment. You’re absolutely right; the theatre is a wonderful training ground for something like that, where so much is left to your imagination to create the world around you like that. It’s really the essence of what’s so fun for, I think, many people when they first start to want to be an actor, is that they realise they enjoy making up a world around them to exist in, a whole situation and a whole way of being. And even more so than theatre, animation requires that because there’s just nothing to go on. It’s in your head and your heart or it’s not there at all.
DreamWorks Animation’s HOME is out on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD on 20th July
Thanks to Jim for taking the time to share his thoughts with us.