ENTERTAINMENT TELEVISION

'Big Little Lies' vet Iain Armitage enters the 'Big Bang Universe' with prequel 'Young Sheldon'

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’ upcoming comedy, “Young Sheldon.” It’s a fitting bookend to a meeting that kicked off with Iain, armed with a magician’s baton 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 says matter-of-factly while maneuvering into various positions on the rings. “I get my play time.”

Iain Armitage playing on the gymnastic rings at Beeman Park in Studio City.
Iain Armitage playing on the gymnastic rings at Beeman Park in Studio City. (Lee Armitage)

After making his television debut earlier 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.”

I’m still a kid ... I get my play time.

— Iain Armitage, who stars in CBS's "Young Sheldon"

But it’s the upcoming sitcom “Young Sheldon,” premiering Sept. 25, 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, 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.

FULL COVERAGE: Fall 2017 TV preview »

Fonda spoke of that duality: “When Iain and I first met … [he] was nervous and talked non-stop, 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 the way 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, says 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 says. “They were like ‘Iain! Iain!’”

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

https://twitter.com/Lin_Manuel/status/898260321655169024

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 says. “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 says. “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.”

FULL COVERAGE: Fall 2017 TV preview »

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 says. “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 says, is just playing young Sheldon as best he can.

“I try to put myself in his shoes,” he says. “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.

This story is part of The Times’ 2017 Fall television preview. Check out the complete coverage here.

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

Twitter: @villarrealy

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'Big Bang Theory' prequel 'Young Sheldon' is coming to CBS

For Shailene Woodley, shooting the painful, traumatic scenes of 'Big Little Lies' was nothing but fun

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