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'Young Sheldon': Small lead, with a big bang

By YVONNE VILLAREAL • Sep 12, 2017 at 2:00 PM

LOS ANGELES (TNS) — It’s not every day that an interview subject finishes a conversation by hanging upside down from a pair of gymnastic rings at a park. But here we are.

Just past the swing set and plastic slide at Beeman Park in Studio City — where kids on summer break frolic happily on a clammy day — Iain Armitage dangles and squirms from the metal hoops during a day off from shooting CBS’ comedy “Young Sheldon,” which premieres Sept. 25. It's a fitting bookend to a meeting that kicked off with Iain, armed with a magician's wand and several decks of cards, demonstrating his stealthy illusion skills under a lush tree for a half-hour: “Watch very closely,” he'd say again and again.

This is what it’s like, spending the afternoon with a budding veteran actor who just turned 9.

“I'm still a kid,” he said matter-of-factly while maneuvering into various positions on the rings. “I get my play time.”

After making his television debut this year on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” playing a missing boy with a troubled home life, Iain's big break came just weeks later with a role on HBO's high-profile limited series, “Big Little Lies.” In it, he played the son of Shailene Woodley”s character who sets off some of the mommy tension after he’s accused of bullying a classmate.

Since then, his career is showing no signs of taking a recess. Iain played a role in this summer's Brie Larson-led family drama “The Glass Castle” and later this month stars opposite Jane Fonda and Robert Redford in the Netflix movie “Our Souls at Night.”

But it's the sitcom “Young Sheldon” that has Iain front and center. The series, a spinoff of the CBS ratings powerhouse "The Big Bang Theory," focuses on the childhood of Sheldon Cooper, the egotistical and socially awkward theoretical physicist character portrayed by Jim Parsons. Iain is young Sheldon.

“I hardly knew what ‘Big Bang Theory’ was,” Iain says. “It really isn’t appropriate for me. But I watched some of the episodes that my mom said were OK just to see what it was about.”

Iain's demeanor is a mixture of carefree kid and astute thespian. He encourages a reporter to hop and skip during their journey to the park's baseball bleachers. Then, minutes later, he is talking about the “professional thrill” of headlining a TV series and the "incredible experience" of working with such Oscar-winning heavyweights as Fonda and Redford — or, as he calls them, Ms. Jane and Mr. Robert.

Fonda spoke of that duality: “When Iain and I first met ... (he) was nervous and talked nonstop, recounting fantasies he played out with his toys and told countless stories. The director then had us improvise several of the scenes we would be doing together and I realized that Iain was very talented. There was no 'acting' apparent. He knew how to just go with the scene intuitively.”

“He radiates fearlessness” is how Parsons describes Iain. “That sounds so pat in some ways to say, but with him it's absolutely true. I wasn't like him as a kid at all.”

For Iain, who lives in Arlington, Va., when not shooting the show, the road to rubbing elbows with Hollywood's elite came after he made a name for himself as a theater critic, offering reviews of productions such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Annie” on his YouTube channel, IainLovesTheatre. Parsons, who recently attended a production of “A Doll's House, Part 2"”with Iain, said it was a surreal experience.

“I have never gone to the theater where more people couldn't have cared less I was standing there,” Parsons said. “They were like “Iain! Iain!’”

And before you ask, yeah, he's friends with “Hamilton” powerhouse Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Despite his high-profile extracurricular activities, Iain says he is a normal kid _ though he has willingly been on a sugar detox for months. He notes that he has a pact with his parents, actor Euan Morton (Broadway's "Taboo") and theater producer Lee Armitage, about this whole acting thing.

“As long as I stay the kind of boy that I am and keep my end of the bargain, I can do it,” Iain said. “We do have talks sometimes. I have a great mother, she's good at reminding me how to be a good person.”

Lee, who was present for the interview and is with Iain when he's on set, says the idea of her son headlining a TV series was an overwhelming thought initially.

“That amount of time is so much of his life,” she said.:But he was so excited about it. So we made a pact that as long as he likes doing it — and as long as we see it's not negatively affecting him — he can do it. If it doesn't work for our family, we'll talk.”

In the meantime, the image of Iain as young Sheldon — with his fingers plucking a bow tie around his neck — is plastered on billboards and bus broadsides all over town.

“I texted his mother when we got out of the publicity meeting,” Parsons said. “I was like: ‘prepare.’ I suddenly saw his face on all these materials. And in a lot of it, it's just his face. They’re both so smart about the world. That all being said, this business is such trial by fire, and in that way you can only help prepare so much.”

Iain’s main focus these days, he said, is just playing young Sheldon as best he can.

“I try to put myself in his shoes,” he said. “By the way, his shoes are super awesome. They are the exact kind of shoes I would wear. He’s like an awesome person. He has a kindness about him. He’s like a floating cloud.”

Before long, Iain was floating ... on those gymnastic rings.

___

(c)2017 Los Angeles Times

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