Young Sheldon, which premieres tonight on CBS, might be marketed as a prequel focusing on the early years of The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper, but it’s more about his mother, Mary Cooper, than the title would lead you to believe. While we can’t get enough of young Iain Armitage (charming as ever following his breakout role as Shailene Woodley’s son, Ziggy, on Big Little Lies), it is Zoe Perry’s Mary who grounds the Wonder Years-esque series with heart and compassion.
Perry modestly deflects any such praise—”It feels very much an ensemble piece,” she tell us—but she understands the integral role the Cooper matriarch plays. “We have the advantage of knowing what the future holds for Sheldon and Mary’s particular relationship—how close it is, and where the friction might lie,” she says. “It also deals with the tricky moments that crop up in families: tensions and frustrations, but also the love.”
Those tricky moments involve Sheldon’s struggle to relate to his peers and a complicated relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Cooper. (As Big Bang Theory fans know, George cheated on his wife, and Sheldon didn’t have the closest relationship with his father.) “It’s about creating empathy and compassion,” Perry explains. And just as The Big Bang Theory has evolved and taken on more adult issues, like pre- and post-partum depression and balancing work with raising a child, so will Young Sheldon. “What we’ve already shot has delved into subject matters where you see how my character, and all the characters, are successful or struggle with any new problem,” Perry says. “No one has a road map, and we all come with our own baggage and way of communicating. You’ll see difficult situations come up, with some softer and some harder moments. That’s the nature of reality, right? There’s comedy and tragedy in everything.”
Still, Big Bang fans shouldn’t hold Young Sheldon to every statement or timeline presented by adult Sheldon. As the executive producers have previously pointed out, a season on the show may not compute to an entire calendar year. This will also help explain why viewers should expect George Cooper (Sheldon’s father) to stick around for a while. (On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon revealed that his father passed away during his early teen years.)
“It’s interesting because I feel like a bulk of what we know is through Sheldon’s perspective,” Perry points out. “What we recall as children is a version of what’s happening around us. In this show, you see tension between Mary and George, but you also get a dose of what brought them together, how they can function well together in certain dynamics, and what their strengths and weaknesses are in different situations. It becomes a fleshed-out version—you get to really see it from everyone’s perspective, not just the child.”
But when it comes to that perspective, Sheldon once called Mary “a kind, loving, religiously fanatical, right-wing Texan.” So how true will that be to the character? “At this point, she’s not at that fanatical stage that he would describe it as. That’s also his perspective, which he is entitled to,” Perry says. “We all have opinions to what our parents really are, whether they agree or not. I’m sure they would feel the same the other way around.”
Speaking of parents, it’s a subject that is referenced in nearly every interview with Perry. In case you hadn’t heard, the role of Mary Cooper on The Big Bang Theory is played by Laurie Metcalf, Perry’s real-life mom. (Her father is Jeff Perry, who plays Cyrus Beene on Scandal; she appeared on nine episodes of the Shondaland hit last season.) Given who her parents are—and that she’s had roles on shows affiliated with them—it’s understandable why it comes up so often. But does she feel the need to defend her own success, even though she’s more than earned it?
“I feel like I’ve come to a stage where I embrace it more and value it,” she says. “I hold my parents in such high esteem for what they do, so that in and of itself is a very lucky position to be in. To be able to work on something [my mother] has also been a part of has become a really lovely experience. It’s easy to assume that nepotism is the reason, but I can’t separate myself from being related to her. I know there’s an advantage to that. I feel very lucky to have her and my dad as a model and also able to do such a fun part.”
And for those who think the role of Mary was handed to Perry, think again. She still had to audition and earn the role. “I knew of the role’s existence, and I knew I wanted to go in for it,” she explains. “But even from the outset, there might have been the possibility that the kids could’ve been older, and therefore I was too young, or any kind of scenario. I think when they found Iain, that made it possible for me to come in.”
Although Perry has known cocreator and executive producer Chuck Lorre since she was about seven years old, she admits she was “very nervous because I respect Chuck and [cocreator and executive producer] Steve [Molaro] so much and because I could potentially be filling shoes—rather large shoes—of my mother’s.”
She’s filling those shoes well: Having grown up around TV sets, Perry has easily taken on the role of mom to the three young actors on Young Sheldon. “I believe I actually started using the name Fake Mommy during the pilot,” Perry jokes. “Fake Mommy has her rules, just like Mary does! The kids get a kick out of calling me Fake Mommy. And when I see Jim Parsons, I definitely needle him and tell him I’m his mother as well. It’s fun watching all three of these actors [that play my on-screen kids] not only portray their characters, but who they are in life. I marvel at how smart and funny and engaging they all are. I’m proud of them!”
The same could also be said of Perry’s mom, who has been to the set to watch her daughter. “I think it’s surreal for both of us,” Perry says. “It’s been such a wonderful, positive experience. It’s kind of nuts. I don’t know how to wrap my head around it without bursting.”