A few years back, before she was cast on “Young Sheldon,” actress Zoe Perry made her Broadway debut opposite her mother, Laurie Metcalf. When her father, Jeff Perry, came to see a performance, he felt a twinge of jealousy, and not long after he and Zoe co-starred in a play, as well, this time in Los Angeles. Some of his colleagues from “Scandal” came to see that show, and that’s when she started booking TV jobs — including an extended run on “Scandal.”
Among longtime Chicago theatergoers, the names Laurie Metcalf and Jeff Perry are synonymous with Steppenwolf Theater, where they are original ensemble members. The company was just gaining national recognition when Zoe was born. The couple split a few years later but remained committed to the theater and Steppenwolf in particular, which meant Zoe spent many an evening backstage.
Fast-forward a couple of dozen years and she’s carved out her own path as an actor, starring in the CBS comedy “Young Sheldon” as a younger version of a character originated by her mother on “The Big Bang Theory.” There is a strong physical and vocal resemblance.
Although her schedule is TV-centric at the moment, Perry would like to return to the theater and would “love it to be at Steppenwolf.”
Q: Was “Young Sheldon” just one of many auditions you went on, or did the show’s producers seek you out because of your similarities to your mom?
A: I don’t know the specifics on their end, but I know that my reps were working to get me in there. First [the network] had to find their Sheldon and, depending on who they found and what age that child might be, it would determine the relative ages of the rest of the family. So it worked out in my favor for sure that Iain Armitage — who plays Sheldon and is so wonderful — was cast.
He’s 9 in real life and 9 on the show. So I was at least age-appropriate to play the mom. I was lucky enough to get the audition, and they knew I was Laurie’s daughter going in because one usually does. … I think I had maybe auditioned for [executive producer] Chuck Lorre in the past, but this was such a unique audition to play a part that’s already established by someone I know fairly well. …
I’ve obviously got genetics working in my favor — our voices are similar; our mannerisms are even pretty similar. And I’m also granted this leeway because we’re being introduced to the character at a stage of life that’s unfamiliar to us, so she can be a different person in her own right.
Q: She’s still no-nonsense but maybe a little softer or more tender.
A: She has a pretty strong and maybe rigid sense about how things should or shouldn’t be, but I think what’s sweet about this show is that you see how a parent’s love for their kid can outweigh their rigidity. She has to grapple with the fact that she’s raising a young scientist who doesn’t have faith like she does.
Q: Because you grew up around acting, do you think it gives you any insight into working with child actors?
A: I don’t know. I think what’s pretty remarkable about each one of those kids is, they’re all still kids. They enjoy acting, so that makes it really fun to watch them and engage with them while we’re doing a scene, but also just watching them be their ages as soon as “cut” is called. Because, you know, they’re kids! They play and joke and they’re just so funny.
It’s wild to be thrust into a parental role because I don’t have kids myself, but I have younger siblings and my survival jobs over the years included a lot of babysitting, so I just immediately felt such a sense of protection over all three of them and it created a really strong bond. It’s nice to just have that on a personal level, and I think it also plays out on the show.
Q: Have you ever done a scene on “Young Sheldon” and afterward been like, “Ugh, that felt like I was doing my mom instead of playing the character”?
A: Weirdly, no, I’ve never felt that way, and I think what frees me up the most is knowing that I don’t have to try to be like her. When I talk about genetics, it’s just there. We all have parts of our parents in us, right?
When I’m acting in something — and it could be anything — if I hear myself sound like my father or sound like my mother, I think, “Oh, God, that’s funny.” But I also know that’s probably a good thing, you know? … It’s a great benefit and luxury that I know that they’ll pop out in me and that’s such a surprising gift I’ve been given.
Q: And in this case, a useful one.
A: Totally useful. I mean, when I knew I was going to audition for this, I definitely went back and watched all her scenes [on “The Big Bang Theory”] because I wanted to just make sure I was living in the same space as her. [Actors hold] themselves differently in body and voice depending on the character they’re playing, so I just wanted to make sure I was in the same ballpark. But once I kind of got that, I didn’t really have to think about that part of it anymore.
Q: I’m curious how much Steppenwolf felt like a presence in your life growing up.
A: I was born in Chicago, and that’s where we had been living — between there and New York — until my mom booked “Roseanne” when I was about 4. But because my parents had such a passion for Steppenwolf and that’s the home of their first love, yeah, it definitely carried a weight in our household and also in my mind. I would spend a lot of time backstage as a kid, either at Steppenwolf or whatever theaters they were working at. I would play solitaire on one of the computers down in the Steppenwolf basement. And I think I would even play some version of tennis ball hockey down in the hallway and I would get reprimanded for making too much noise.
But generally I think it was easy to just be entertained by all the adults around me. I found them so interesting and their stories so fascinating and they were all really funny and engaging. So I think to an extent, that was my introduction to actors — or acting as a profession. I was still too young to really see a play, but I knew the people who made the thing, both on stage and behind the scenes, and I was really drawn to them.
Q: You’ve been in a few plays at Steppenwolf. Did you feel like you had to prove yourself?
A: I think my feeling about being the child of actors and potentially compared to them — or trying to live up to a quality and an esteem that they’ve garnered over their careers — has morphed over the years. I used to be incredibly intimidated by it and had a level of self-criticism that wasn’t particularly helpful or healthy.
I think it’s interesting now, playing a character that my mom has played and knowing that the crux of it is comparison on a certain level, that’s something that really probably would have shook me to my core in my 20s! And now I’ve come more to terms with it and I feel so lucky to have both parents as role models in this profession. I look up to them so much as actors. And whatever hangups I used to have about it, I’ve kind of embraced.