For 'Young Sheldon' Star Zoe Perry, Playing a Version of Her Mom Wasn't Easy

Perry had to audition to play the younger version of Mary Cooper, the same role that her mother — Laurie Metcalf — scored an Emmy nom for portraying on 'Big Bang Theory.'
Courtesy of CBS
Zoe Perry on 'Young Sheldon,' with Laurie Metcalf on 'Big Bang Theory' (inset)

Zoe Perry grew up hanging out on the set of ABC's Roseanne, which starred her mother, Laurie Metcalf, and was exec produced by Chuck Lorre. As luck would have it, Perry — the daughter of Metcalf and Scandal star Jeff Perry — would come to work for Lorre as well. And Metcalf, who originated the role of Sheldon's (Jim Parsons) mother, Mary, on CBS' The Big Bang Theory had nothing to do with her daughter landing the same role in CBS prequel Young Sheldon.

As part of THR's Hollywood Legacies issue, Perry opens up about having to audition to land a role that her mother originated.

When was the first time the idea of Young Sheldon came up?

I heard about it in the ether but don't recall where that seed first landed. I remember it became a bit more concrete when I heard that they had cast Iain Armitage [as the titular young Sheldon]. My mom said, "You better go in for this." It was an exciting and surreal turn of events.

You grew up around Chuck Lorre when your mom was on Roseanne and even played a young version of her on Roseanne. Did you speak with Chuck ahead of your audition?

I know the casting directors and they were aware of the parental connection, and [Young Sheldon co-creators] Chuck and Steve Molaro were as well. Chuck was aware that I had become an actor but not of anything I'd done. I went in knowing that I had this odd connection on my side. Odd meaning that I am my mother's daughter and there was a character already established by her. I knew I had to prove to them that [casting me] would be a good idea and showcase what they were envisioning in this character in a different stage of life.

Did you ever feel like the fact that you're the daughter of the actress who originated the Emmy-nominated part helped you get the job?

I don’t think there's any way to negate that because, why would you? We have lots of similarities when it comes to our voices and mannerisms, and I'm lucky that I have that at my disposal — not only for this part, but in general. When I act, if I stumble upon something that reminds me, unintentionally or unconsciously, of either of my parents, I'm grateful for it because I respect them so much for what they've done. I know if something comes off or sounds like them, I've stumbled upon something good. it's a nice thing to have in my arsenal, whether I know how to harness it or not. Being an actor, I never think I'm going to get the part. It's always a thrill when things go the way you hope they will. With this, because of the unique nature of it, I did feel like it could be a cool kismet thing, but at the same time, I didn't want to get my hopes up about it because you never know how things are going to shake out. I didn't put too much stock in the idea that this could be a slam dunk because you never know. Even when something seems to make sense on the page, there's always stuff you're unaware of.

How far along in the process did the producers see you?

I don't know. When you talk to people in retrospect, they always say the casting was a no-brainer, but nothing really is. You have to have so many things line up. I'm very grateful that it worked out.

How did it feel that it wasn't automatic that you would get the part of playing the younger version of your own mother?

I would never want to be offered something like this because I want to know the people in charge want me because of what I do and not for some other reason. With Chuck and Steve, I never had a doubt that they wouldn't get what they wanted.

Did you feel like there was any disadvantage going into audition?

I wouldn't claim a disadvantage in the general scope of things. The disadvantage could be of my own making in my own head. It's been a process of not being too overly critical of myself when knowing that there are going to be obvious comparisons made between myself and my parents. I'll play bias, but I think they're both incredible actors. When I was younger, I found it incredibly intimidating to audition for anything. As I've gotten older and had more experience and gained more confidence in myself, I'm able to quiet some of those demons a little more successfully. Then you just let the universe deal with the rest. I can only do what I do and if people respond to it, great and if they don't that's what that is.

What did you have to do for the audition?

I had some sides from what would be the Young Sheldon pilot. I went into a room with just the casting directors, Chuck and Steve and did both of the scenes. I got some good notes from both of them and tweaked it a little bit. It was simple and straightforward. They laughed and said, "Great, thanks!" And that was that. Then I waited. After that first audition, the tape of my audition was sent forward and I waited a week to two. When I heard, I was gob smacked: "Really?!"

Did you go back and watch what your mom had done on Big Bang Theory?

Yes. I went back and rewatched all of her scenes. I wanted to remind myself and make sure I was living in the same ballpark as she was, in terms of how she carried herself and what the accent sounded like. Then, because I had these new sides, it was a nice experience to get to explore the character on its own. What's been fun about playing it thus far has been that she's at a different stage of life than the character is on Big Bang. Her priorities are different and the way she thinks about things is different. That's allowed a nice leeway to fill in those blanks.

Does it feel weird playing a version of your own mother?

I feel so lucky that I have certain things at my disposal when it comes to my mannerisms and naturally sounding and looking like her. I never felt like I had to play her. I always felt at liberty to trust that that stuff was going to work for me and then I could just play the reality of any given scene and know there's enough there for potential Big Bang fans who want to draw the comparison. That's a great luxury for me; I've never felt that burden.

Did your mom give you any advice for the role?

She's too good and empathetic an actor to give another actor any notes! She's been really supportive through the whole thing and I feel lucky that I get to share this with her in that way. At the end of the day, she's a parent and she's happy to see that her kids are OK.

Have you gotten any comments from your family on your portrayal of your mom?

They've gotten to see me in all the things I've done for the last 12 or so years since I graduated college and they're used to me doing things like them. I don't think they see it in the way that other people or even the way that I even see it. They're supportive and say really sweet things.

Is there any one particular thing your mom does that you wanted to include in your performance? 

It's easy to tap into what she's done when events harken forward to things that have been established in the present on Big Bang. When I'm reading any script and working on it and what I'm doing sounds like her, I think it's probably worth keeping.