Emmys 2011

09.07.11

Johnny Galecki, Geek Star

Television fans loved Johnny Galecki as a love-struck teen boyfriend on ‘Roseanne.’ But his turn as the lovable straight man on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ has earned him his first Emmy nomination and more fan admiration than he ever imagined. He tells Maria Elena Fernandez why the cast stopped vacationing together and why fandom intimidates him a little.

The days of strangers stopping Johnny Galecki in the street to ask, “Where’s Darlene?”—a reference to his sensitive Roseanne character, David, who trailed after Sara Gilbert’s Darlene for years—are over. Now, the question for the 36-year-old star of The Big Bang Theory and first-time Emmy nominee is either “Where’s Penny?” or “Is Sheldon really like that?”

“It’s a wonderful Champagne problem,” he says, to be approached by fans of the CBS sitcom—even if it means not being able to leave his Rio de Janeiro hotel because of crowds chanting “Big Bang Theory! Big Bang Theory!” outside the front entrance. Galecki never imagined that playing a lovable geek would ascend him to TV-rock-star status, but that’s exactly where he and his costars find themselves.

After two decades of living and working in Los Angeles, Galecki is in an interesting position—nominated alongside his Big Bang buddy Jim Parsons, who won the Emmy for lead actor in a comedy last year for his convincing portrayal of the brilliant, socially challenged Sheldon. Galecki’s Leonard is the straight man, an experimental physicist who provides much of the heart of the comedy, which also received its first outstanding comedy nomination this year.

On a recent afternoon, The Daily Beast’s Maria Elena Fernandez met Galecki at Chateau Marmont, where the actor relaxed over iced tea and pinot grigio and opened up about his lengthy career (he had his first TV role at the age of 12).

Is the cast still taking vacations together?

How pathetic was that. It was very sweet, but just pathetic … No, I think there was a bit of a shift when we got picked up for two seasons at once. We realized, “I’m going to be seeing plenty of you. I think I will vacation with my family instead.”

I was outraged that Penny slept with Raj in the season finale.

So was I! I know. Simon [Helberg] and I got angry about it when we read the script. He came to my dressing room. We were protective of Penny (Kaley Cuoco). It was so odd. We are oddly protective of these characters and we find ourselves angry at Raj (Kunal Nayyar).

Did you protest?

Oh, no. We weren’t angry about the writing of it whatsoever. We were angry at the behavior of the character, which is just absurd.

Is there still hope for Leonard and Penny someday?

I have great hopes. I do. I don’t know if right now would be the right time. I think they have so much to learn that it would probably be premature for them to take another stab at it at this point. I think they are the loves of each other’s lives, and I really like them together.

What’s the Big Bang efficiency secret? Many sitcoms take double or triple the amount of time to tape a show than yours does.

There’s a lot of green tea involved for me. We have 300 live-audience members, and they really govern a scene in many ways. It’s a different, palpable, tangible energy in the room. They’re really another character. And still in the fifth season, at least half a dozen times during each taping, there’s a reaction from the audience that I did not perceive during rehearsal all week long. It’s really interesting. They govern the timing of the scene and often even the point of the scene. You have to be open about it.

You’ve been a hard-working cast from the first day.

It’s a true ensemble. That’s how I always saw it. It reminded me a lot of Taxi. There was a sweet sadness to these characters and these stories and a vulnerability to these people. It reminded me of Taxi a whole lot, which is one of my favorite shows of all time.

Galecki orders another glass of wine and points out, “This is my first afternoon that I’ve had because I’ve been traveling on the weekends. Please don’t judge.”

Congratulations on your first Emmy nomination. How exciting for you and Jim to be nominated as well as the show for the first time. Are you and Jim fighting about this?

We haven’t even discussed it.

He’s got one already. He doesn’t need another one.

He does? Well, then I agree. You’re actually right. No, this sounds like such a rehearsed PC thing to say. But a win for Jim is a win for me and everyone else there and vice versa. I think Sheldon is such a wonderful character, and he’s so brilliant at playing it. And I think the attention he’s gotten and so richly deserved—I think many of us, including myself, thought the show’s accolades would be funneled through Jim, which we were all perfectly comfortable with and excited about. So the fact that we have five nominations total this year means that the Academy and the critics are taking a closer look at the show and all the very different elements of it, and that’s terrific. But, no, we’re not fighting. We’re not even discussing it.

Not even once? Not even to say congrats?

We were on hiatus, and he was in New York and I was here. I was asleep. I knew the nominations were coming out, and I figured somebody will call me if Jim or the show gets nominated. And I didn’t remember to charge my phone, so it took them two hours to track me down, and I think I’m a bit still in shock. It’s never been something I’ve thought much about. That morning is the morning that will remain in my memory. I wasn’t considering the awards that day, and I’m still not in many ways. I will once the day approaches.

It’s crazy to think about where we started from—a failed pilot.

What does the nomination mean to you then?

I’m not sure that I can exactly articulate it. The show is such a collaboration that I can’t wrap my mind around being singled out in any way, shape, or form. It just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t compute. I suppose the only way I can digest it at all is that it’s about the relatively long career that I’ve had and the spectrum of the characters that I’ve played. Because if I make it all about Leonard, there’s so many hands that go into that character—the writing, the directing, and acting off the other actors. I can’t own that. I can see and accept the picture of the whole show being nominated. [Pause]. Do you think I’m full of shit?

No, I don’t. But I do see why you would be singled out. Just like I understand Jim being singled out, too.

That’s true. I can see it when I’m talking about him. I suppose it’s just my Midwestern modesty.

What do you think of your other competitors?

I’m a huge Louis C.K. fan. And [Matt] LeBlanc I’ve known since I was 14, so my first week out here. He took me under his wing in a lot of ways. And [Steve] Carell’s work on The Office is inspiring to all of us. And [Alec] Baldwin is Baldwin. To be mentioned in the same paragraph in print with these people is mind-boggling to me.

Well, but you guys are rock stars in Rio.

I know. I’d sit in my hotel room and think, “Who doesn’t want this? Who doesn’t want to be treated like rock-star royalty?” And the answer was …

Me?

Yeah, the answer was me, and that’s OK. Because there’s a certain amount of projection, even if it’s positive, that’s uncomfortable because it separates you, and it can make you feel somewhat isolated after a bit even if people are saying good things.

So when an Emmy nomination comes in, or there are people outside a hotel chanting the title of the show that you’re on, it’s always a little shocking to me. It’s crazy to think about where we started from—a failed pilot.

And even when you redid the pilot, a lot of critics wondered who would want to watch it.

I think that initial tagline—the quick summary of the show early on didn’t seem all that appealing. Two nerds live across the hall from a hot blonde. That doesn’t seem like anything I’d rush home to tune in on. So people were judging it on that sight unseen. And I can’t necessarily blame them. I also think people had the misconception that it was a show that poked fun at smart people. And I think it’s a show that more often defends intelligent people.

Galecki mentions discovering The Good Wife while visiting his family in Chicago. He watched an episode with his mother and was hooked in 15 minutes, which probably makes his on-screen mother, Christine Baranski, very happy.

I spent a lot of time in Chicago this summer. I have a new niece.  He takes out a photo. That’s Lulu. She was born April 27, just a few days before me. I got sent this photo from my sister, and it bothered me for two weeks because I couldn’t figure out what it reminded me of. And then I figured it out last night! He takes out his cell phone and points to a composite photograph.

She looks like Orson Welles! She’s a young Orson Welles. You don’t see it at all? Well, she’s just as brilliant.

And now you’re a fan of The Good Wife and your Big Bang mom is nominated for that show.

Yes, it’s great! And my buddy Walton Goggins [of Justified] is nominated for the first time, too. I’m godfather to his child. He’s such a talent. We’ve known each other a long time. He’s a great guy. I’m lucky to call him my dearest friend. The fact that we have our first nominations this year is great. So we get to do all these big functions and parties together. Maybe we’ll wear matching tuxes. Right now we’re starting to figure out how to smuggle our godson into the awards. Walton and I are crafty and resourceful. We’ll figure it out.