There’s usually that all-important moment in an actor’s life when they caught “the bug.” Maybe, growing up, they watched classic movies on Sundays with their parents and realize, “I want to do that!” or they were staging elaborate theatrical productions in their backyard before they even started kindergarten. For Simon Helberg, that moment happened in high school when he tagged along to a friend’s audition and wound up pleading for a role of his own.
He doesn’t have to plead anymore.
As Howard, the girl-crazy aerospace engineer on the hit CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, Helberg has created a character that is both funny and relatable. He was a regular on the sketch comedy show MADtv, and he’s appeared on Arrested Development, Reno 911!, Undeclared, and, on the big screen, he’s worked with directors like Judd Apatow, the Coen brothers and George Clooney.
SSN spoke with Helberg about keeping his character fresh, the dynamics between cast and writers, and the most ridiculous audition he ever endured.
SSN: When did you know you wanted to pursue acting?
SH: I played music in high school … I was in lots of bands and was going to study music. Growing up in L.A., you’re surrounded by Hollywood. My dad was in The Groundlings, and I was hanging out there. I always had it in my bones, but I didn’t think about it until 11th grade when my friend Jason Ritter auditioned for the play The Children’s Hour, and I decided to audition too. It’s a very serious period piece and a very transgressive play. Jason got the lead because—look at him. There was a role for a delivery boy with three lines, and the kid who got it didn’t end up doing it. I marched into the director’s office at school, and I gave this whole speech about how I was born to play the delivery boy, and I got the part. I hammed it up. I entered a period piece as Jerry Lewis. I got a round of applause as I was leaving, and I got the bug.
SSN: You went to study at NYU but things started taking off for you before graduation. After your stellar performance in The Children’s Hour, when did your first break come?
SH: I came back to L.A. between sophomore and junior year. A friend introduced me to their manager, and I auditioned for Judd Apatow’s Undeclared, and I guess I started making fans in those rooms. They kept “putting a pin in” me. The casting director Allison Jones called Endeavor, this was about 12 years ago. She told them to find me, and they signed me. Within about four or five days of meeting this manager, I had these big agents. I ended up not getting either of the parts I auditioned for, but Apatow wrote a part in Undeclared for me. I got my SAG card. I was a host in a restaurant and was living at home, going on 12 auditions a week. I was pretty lucky though, because work begot work.
SSN: Going to that many auditions must require a thick skin.
SH: When you’re not getting parts and you’re getting rejected 15 times a week, it’s hard, but it invigorated me. It is tough, but being young and driven helped.
SSN: Do you have any crazy audition stories?
SH: Commercials were the most degrading auditions, there’s no comparison. A lot of them are cattle calls, and you’re auditioning in front of seven other guys, and you’re talking about the smoothness of toilet paper, and you’re fighting to the death for this toilet paper ad. Once, I was holding a mini xylophone, and I asked what scene we were reading, and the casting director went on a tirade and tore me to pieces and then she told me to, “be funnier, like Pee Wee Herman.” There’s nothing like being emasculated, holding a xylophone and wearing a short tie.
SSN: You’ve been playing Howard on Big Bang Theory for six years. Does it get easier as time goes by, as opposed to working on a feature where each character is new?
SH: Certain aspects become easier: The homework and figuring out relationships and the points of view of the character. Those are the things I don’t really have to work on anymore. Still, after six years, I can’t just roll through this. It’s a lot more like doing a play because you’re finding new ways to look at scenes, and you’re trying to be present. The great thing is that the writers are so fantastic that it’s never stale, and they keep peeling the layers off of it and adding dimensions.
SSN: Do the cast and writers collaborate at all, or is it pretty separate?
SH: No one would kick us out of the writers’ room, but it’s not even necessary. We’ll speak up and the writers will speak up, but generally those are 10-second talks because there’s kind of shorthand. The writers do the writing, and the actors do the acting.
SSN: You’re an actor playing an aerospace engineer. Did you do any crazy research to understand Howard’s world?
SH: I believe in doing whatever research is necessary. Some actors may have felt the need to go to space and experience weightlessness or something. I did float around in a pool to try and figure some of that out. I didn’t familiarize myself with the entire canon of physics though.
SSN: If you hadn’t gotten that life-changing role as the delivery boy, what other profession do you think you would have gone into? And if Howard never went into his field, what would he be doing?
SH: If I weren’t acting, I would be playing music for sure. Howard, an engineer/astronaut … he would be working in a kiosk in a mall, selling iPhone covers. He’d dart out in front of girls and try to sell them sequined iPhone cases. It would be a bad situation.
Luckily (for both him and the rest of us), Helberg did land that role as the delivery boy, and despite a few brief, brusing moments (remember that xylophone audition?), his career has been steady upward trajectory since he took to the stage. You can also check out his work on Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog alongside Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day. Look for more from Helberg when season seven of The Big Bang Theory premieres this September.