Come Monday night at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time, we will get a chance to see the debut of Young Sheldon on CBS. It’s the story of how a young Sheldon Cooper eventually becomes Dr. Sheldon Cooper, and the characters who influence his life along the way. We will get to experience so much more of his family dynamic, and at the center of that is Lance Barber as Sheldon’s father George Cooper Sr., a character never before seen on The Big Bang Theory.
On the flagship show, Sheldon’s father is described as an obnoxious Southern man with a habit for drinking, and he didn’t always have the best relationship with his genius son. Meanwhile, we also know that George passed away years before the Big Bang Theory pilot took place, so there’s some mystery with this show regarding who this character is and what his relationship with Sheldon is really like. We were fascinated to speak with Barber (known for The Comeback, Faking It, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and more) about his role, and learn that there’s so much more to George Cooper Sr. than first meets the eye. (Below this interview, you can also watch the full trailer for the show.)
CarterMatt – Going into the show, what information did they give you about the role? Did they tell you to go watch what was already out there or give you a condensed version of the character?
Lance Barber – Like with most jobs, I did a scripted audition and then used that to make my choices. I did my research on the original series and the fandom that follows Big Bang, and there was a lot of information mapped out on George Cooper Sr. online. I did look it up and it was helpful, but there wasn’t a lot and most of it was punchlines to jokes on the show. There was a little backstory but it wasn’t deep. It was just set-ups and punchlines for jokes about Sheldon’s past, and what they painted was almost a cartoonish character. They left open a lot of room to discover more.
It’s almost like they gave you an outline to a picture and allowed you to fill that in. Through playing this role, what have you discovered about him that wasn’t in some of those punchlines?
I think the intent of the writers and producers’ is to show a real family. It’s a comedy, and we’re going to see some comic angles on real-life situations. I found out that George was human and he wasn’t just, as it was put online somewhere, a redneck Homer Simpson. He’s not a cartoon, and nobody is on Young Sheldon. They’re comedic characters and flawed characters, but nobody is a cartoon. It was nice to see that George is a real human being with his own set of struggles. They’re fairly obvious struggles for any parent who has to deal with a child like a Sheldon, and these struggles are even harder for a guy like George. He’s a good-ol’ boy who doesn’t have the parenting tools in his toolbox to begin with, and he also has to deal with an exceptional child. I think that makes for an interesting dynamic, and it also leads to him being sympathetic. I was really interested in doing that; I didn’t want to be a punchline to a joke. I wanted people to feel sympathetic to George and understand his relationship with Sheldon. He’s going to be a flawed character and not a great dad, but he is a man who is trying his hardest with what he’s got.
For you how much did the geography inform you on how to play the character? I grew up around the same time as Sheldon in Texas, and I remember many football guys who were kind of like George in many ways.
I think he’s based on real people; for me, [many roles] as an actor are based on people I grew up with or people I knew. I have family from the south, and I’m basing some of his cultural upbringing on what I know about my family and others from the south. Not Texas necessarily, but near there. My dad’s side of the family is from rural Southern Missouri, the foothills of the Ozarks as they say. I’m using some of that, and perhaps some archetypes of coaches, and masculine men of a specific area. Hopefully it’s not too cliché, but I’m using some recognizable types in my choices for George.
How much did some of the younger cast look towards you as a father figure in your own way, given that you have have worked on many different shows and genres over the years? Did they look towards you for how to tackle a comedic or dramatic scene?
I think that Zoe Perry, who plays Mary Cooper on the show, and I have happily taken on a role of mom and dad here at work. We’re more than happy to offer any acting advice that comes our way from the kids. I think they’re getting a lot of help and they’re all naturally talented, as well. It certainly comes up because it’s newer to them than it is to us.
I’m hoping that we have some good direction for them, but frankly they’re all pretty talented and they don’t need a lot. I’ve enjoyed the dynamic in a lot of ways; I’m a father of two myself, and they’ve been really receptive to anything that Zoe and I are offering them.
I feel like this is the question that you’re probably asked the most, but I know there’s still some curiosity out there. George is dead by the time we get to The Big Bang Theory, so are you concerned about what could happen to him in the event we get to a season 4 or a season 5 here with Young Sheldon?
Oh, this is a great job in that I know I have an out at some point (laughs). If it just goes on and on I’d be thrilled to do it forever, and I’ve been relieved to hear the producers answer this question in a way where they’ve said they can do what they please. If they so desire, a season doesn’t have to equal a year in the life of Sheldon. They could spread things out longer if that’s what America wants. We’ll see.
We all knew about [George’s eventual death] going in; not to be corny, but I’m just thrilled to be here today. This is great work for me if that’s all it is. I have hopes, but no expectations.
We’ve seen The Big Bang Theory have these moments where they feature Bob Newhart as a voice in Sheldon’s head, even after the character died. Do you have any interest in ever doing that?
I’d be tickled to death to be a part of anything that goes on in this world. That might rattle some fans, though — it’s already rattled some that I played a different part on The Big Bang Theory in the past. I was lucky enough to get a role on the show some years ago as Leonard’s high school bully [Jimmy Speckerman] and from the little that I’ve looked online, there are some people who have a difficult time suspending belief with me taking on a different role in this world. I don’t know if the fans can handle it, but I’d certainly be happy to.
Clearly these fans have never seen Doctor Who, since this sort of stuff happens all the time there!
That’s right! (Laughs.)
So is there anything that you can speak to regarding what is coming up beyond the pilot episode?
I’m just thrilled to see it. Right now we’re filming an episode that involves George, Meemaw, and brisket; working with Annie Potts has been a delight. I’ve been getting to do some work with Annie and Zoe Perry, and I’ve had to eat a lot of beef the past couple of days.
What do you want to see on Young Sheldon, and are you excited to see George Cooper?
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