Iain Armitage never sought an acting career, but — like the perfect hand — it found him. How perfect that primetime’s most sure- fire spinoff, CBS’s Young Sheldon, should spotlight the most inevitable star.
Midway through an hour-long interview in a spare office on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Iain Armitage is growing antsy.
In the past year, the nine-year-old has wowed audiences and critics alike with a string of remarkably instinctive, acutely natural performances opposite Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley (as the outcast Ziggy Chapman on HBO's Emmy-winning Big Little Lies), not to mention Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson and J. K. Simmons.
Now, as the titular star of The Big Bang Theory spinoff Young Sheldon — the number-one new series, averaging more than 16 million viewers a week for CBS — he is arguably the breakout talent of the season.
Sitting on a nondescript sofa in mauve jeans and a gray T-shirt, his eyes bright, his cheeks rosy, his russet hair neatly combed, the young actor has remained poised and professional while discussing his acting influences, colleagues, Hollywood agents and on-set schooling. Then, without warning, he tucks his knees to his chin, clasps his hands over his signature red sneakers, executes a proper somersault and lies on the sofa, grinning.
"I get restless sometimes," he explains as he sits up again. "It's weird — I was born to move. Sometimes it's like, 'One second. Quick somersault break. Now I'm good.'"
It's a refreshing reminder that — despite his inexplicable show-biz savvy and uncanny sensitivity, and a skill level not seen in a juvenile TV actor since a pre-Doogie Neil Patrick Harris or maybe even freckle-faced Ronny Howard circa 1960 — Iain Armitage is still primarily a third-grader who enjoys acting like one.
"I love having fun," he says with age-appropriate conviction. "And if it's not fun, I don't do it."
As if to prove his point, he reaches into the cardboard Build-A-Bear box he lugged in with him, which is sitting on a nearby table and "contains a lot of things I like."
These include a bag filled with rocks and a bunch of stuffed animals that were recent gifts. (His family has rules about gifts; his mother, Lee Armitage, opens them first to make sure they're safe, and only then may he play with them — or give them away "to people who might need it more than I would.")
Beyond gymnastics, Iain is on a whole other kind of roll. And he is probably too young to realize how rare a moment this is — or how uncommon he is. "He's a bit of a unicorn," says Annie Potts, the TV veteran who is having a field day playing his badass Texas grandmother, Meemaw. "You can't take your eyes off him."
Laser-focused one minute, all over the place the next, he is surely the only actor in primetime who is first on the call sheet and also known to say unabashed comments like "I love to play; I love to go outside and run around like a lunatic. I love to roll across the floor for no reason at all [and] jump up and down as if I had just won the Hamilton lottery."
This musical theater shout-out is very Iain. His father, Euan Morton, is a Scottish actor-singer known for his Tony-nominated turn as Boy George in the 2002 musical Taboo; he is currently playing King George in Hamilton on Broadway. Iain's mother is a theater producer (and the daughter of former naval officer Richard Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush).
Raised in Arlington, Virginia, Iain saw his first show, a Signature Theater production of Hairspray, at age three. "My babysitter was in it. And my godfather was directing it — Eric Schaeffer. I call him Uncle Jewel," he says.
The young boy was so excited by the show that his parents shot a video of his review. "It was like three seconds long," he says. "And I just went, 'Yay, great job, I loved it a lot.' My dog was barking in the background." He rolls his eyes, like a seasoned actor judging his early work.
"Iain always loved watching shows from the time he was tiny," recalls Lee Armitage. "I thought I was raising the most appreciative audience member, and I was content with that. Then he started to enjoy acting out scenes he'd seen, or singing songs he'd heard. I still didn't equate his interest with talent."
At four years old, Iain fearlessly warbled "Stars" (from Les Misérables) at a Signature event, dressed in short pants, untucked white shirt and striped tie. He continued to enjoy "watching shows" so much that he stacked up more video reviews, and his parents posted them on YouTube at the request of friends. "We didn't want to use Iain's last name," his mom says. So IainLovesTheatre was born.
It's often assumed that child actors are pushed into the spotlight by ambitious stage mothers, but that was hardly the case here. Iain, who has never taken an acting class and has been devotedly home-schooled by Lee, was spotted by Jamie Pillet, a talent agent at Abrams Artists Agency, when his reviews appeared on her Facebook feed. She contacted his parents, who were surprisingly reluctant.
"[She said] I had an 'on-camera personality' and asked, 'Do you want us to represent you?' And we said no, because we didn't think it was right for our family," Iain says, glancing at his mother sitting nearby. "But [they] were like, 'Can you come in and tell us why you don't want to?' And they had super good answers for everything, so what could we do? We signed on."
At age eight, he played a kidnapping victim in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (costarring Tony nominee Raúl Esparza, another godfather, whom Iain calls "Pumpkin"). That was quickly followed by his break- through role in Big Little Lies as Woodley's misunderstood son.
Film work followed: The Glass Castle with Harrelson, Larson and Naomi Watts; I'm Not Here with Simmons and Mandy Moore; and the Netflix movie Our Souls at Night, which reunited screen legends Fonda and Redford.
"It's really weird," Iain says. "I go from being this innocent and almost kind of creepy kid Ziggy to this super child prodigy who doesn't understand basic emotions."
What's most impressive, though, is how well he grasps the different rhythms of his characters and delivers beautifully shaded, nuanced performances. He explains his acting method this way: "I guess what I do is, I keep a little bit of myself in my character, but then it's almost like [working in] a bakery.
:I take a little bit of flour and butter and milk and eggs, and mix it all up to make different cakes. Some cakes are bitter, and some are kind of sweet. Some make you want to laugh and laugh, and some make you cry and cry." When the kid is not speaking in metaphors, he's gushing about his colleagues (before and behind the camera) — how "nice," "kind" and "sweet" they are.
And though he's a wide-eyed fan of so many stars he's now meeting, two of them make him lose his cool: "Mr. Lin-Manuel Miranda. And Miss Ellen [DeGeneres]. If you were to have asked me [who I want to meet] a few weeks ago, I'd have said Ellen. I'm like Ellen, Ellen, Ellen, Ellen. But I did meet her, and she was so incredible."
Young Sheldon may seem to have been inevitable now, but no one had considered the idea until 2016. That's when Jim Parsons, who plays the adult Sheldon, and his production company were developing a series that revolved around a Sheldon-like nephew in Texas. Instead, Parsons thought, why not make an origin story about Sheldon's childhood and explore how this antisocial scientific genius came of age?
That fall, he brought it to Big Bang creator and executive producer Chuck Lorre, who took it to CBS boss Leslie Moonves.
"Les calls it the fastest pitch in history," says Julie Pernworth, the network's executive vice-president, comedy development. The show, she adds, is the only one of Lorre's many sitcoms (Two and a Half Men , Mom , Mike & Molly) to be picked up for 13 episodes even before the pilot was produced.
"It was just the idea of Sheldon as a child in Texas," says series co-creator and executive producer Steven Molaro, then the longtime showrunner of Big Bang.
"I hadn't thought of it. But we had been discussing Sheldon's childhood in back story for the last 10 years on Big Bang Theory. We knew Sheldon's mom [played by Laurie Metcalf, the real-life mother of Zoe Perry, who now plays the younger Mary Cooper on Young Sheldon], his Meemaw, [and] his sister, and heard stories about his dad. Without realizing it, we were building the foundation for Young Sheldon."
But everyone knew the casting would be essential. Or, as Molaro puts it, "If we did not have a convincing Sheldon, we were doomed."
Lorre's casting agents considered hundreds of kids before forwarding about 20 audition tapes. "Nothing had really blown us away," Molaro says. "Then one day we got another one, and they said, 'Check this kid out.' That was Iain. He was eight at the time. And the audition was recorded on an iPhone.
"I don't even know if we knew he was in Big Little Lies yet — or even what that was. But we watched the audition — Chuck, Jim and I — and we all had the same reaction. It was the first audition that genuinely made us laugh out loud."
Plus, they genuinely believed Iain as Sheldon. "He wasn't just a kid saying words. He was saying [the lines] with intent," says Molaro, who had worked with a lot of young actors on Nickelodeon shows (iCarly, Drake & Josh, The Amanda Show). "I don't want to compare him to other kids," he says. "But Iain is incredibly intelligent and a truly thoughtful actor.
"Not only can he be convincing as Sheldon, but he can still make the character his own, because we're not just writing adult-Sheldon words and handing them to Iain. Sheldon at age nine is more innocent, more hopeful and more naïve than adult Sheldon — and that comes across well with Iain.
"He can be really funny, but when we need him to react in a dramatic situation, then it's just like, stand back and let this kid act. He really is making choices. It's incredible."
At the beginning, Parsons (who is also an executive producer on the show) helped Iain wrap his brain around the character. "This is one of the many things Mr. Jim said about Sheldon: If there are two paintings, and one is wild and super splotchy and the other is neat, orderly, rainbow-colored, Sheldon would like the neat, orderly one," Iain says. "That explained a lot. It got me in the mindset of Sheldon."
There are also times when being nine means he doesn't get a joke. He'll ask about it, and the producers will explain. Other times, they'll need to have Iain tone down his natural exuberance. "We have to rein that in," Molaro says. "Iain is a fun, really energetic, very animated kid, and Sheldon is not. There are times where I'll say, 'That was a little too much Iain; we need more Sheldon.' And he'll get it."
Potts, who joined the show in the third episode, compares Iain's gift to having perfect pitch. "The director will say take that down by half, or up by half. And it's like — snap! — he hits whatever note they ask for. The talent, the precociousness — one is kind of used to that [in kids]. But what you don't count on is all the layers, and all the depths and all the sweetness. It's really something."
The actress, who has been renting a house near the one Iain and his mother live in while shooting in Los Angeles, adds, "We've been taking a lot of walks, going to the park. You can hardly have more fun in the world than taking a walk with Iain Armitage. And that's the truth. It's his sense of wonder, his sense of interest and his utter sense of play.
"His imagination is locked in with his intellect, and he's on fire all the time. I can only tell you that, next to Jeff Bridges, he's my favorite leading man so far."
Iain is now sitting on the arm of the sofa in a cross-legged position. Again, he topples over sideways onto the cushions. When asked to demonstrate his "Sheldon voice," a flat, nasal affectation that in some ways mimics Parsons and adds a comic pompousness to any punchline, he says, "Want to hear me put it on super thick?"
He turns it on instantly, then adds, "But this is not how I do it on set because it's too thick." He repeats the same words, a little less Downton Abbey this time. "I'm channeling my inner self," he says, and giggles.
While Iain understands that this acting business is serious stuff, he is clearly also having more than his share of fun. According to Molaro, "He and Raegan [Revord, who plays Sheldon's twin sister, Missy] have fun like two nine-year-olds. And Montana [Jordan, who plays jock brother George Jr.] is like a protective big brother to them."
"Once we spent time on a set and I saw how much Iain truly loved this, I think I realized that the thing to do was to just give in to it a bit," says Lee Armitage, who carefully monitors her son's well-being without seeking the spotlight herself. "I went from thinking, 'Why would I let my kid do that?' to thinking, 'How could I deny him these opportunities?'
"We've been lucky and have had incredibly protective people around him, and we've had only wonderful experiences. I am well aware of the drawbacks of this kind of life for a child, but it's certainly comforting to know that there are people like Shailene Woodley and Neil Patrick Harris who grew up in this business and are great people who contribute to society."
Still, what's it like for a nine-year-old to process the flood of attention he's receiving — specifically, seeing his face on giant billboards and the sides of buses? "This is more than I would have wanted for him," Lee admits. "But Iain has always been a confident, outgoing kid. He has never, ever been shy."
They met Iain's on-set teacher, Maura Gannett, when he shot Big Little Lies, and she now keeps his schooling on track. "I don't think this would be possible without her," says Lee, who still home-schools him, too. "This is an exciting time for us, and there is nowhere Iain would rather be. As long as he remains kind and wants to do this, and as long as this works for our family, he can do this.
"If he ever wasn't grounded, then we'd really have to think about whether this was right. But he's kept his end of the bargain. We talk about people who've had problems with it. We talk about a lot of things. He gets it."
So does young Iain want to make acting his life's calling? "I would really honestly love to," he says. His mother looks surprised and notes, "That's not what you said yesterday." Her son rephrases with Sheldon-like certainty: "I'm sorry. I want to be a magician, too. Some people are magicians and actors."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 1, 2018