Show Business Didn't Happen to Iain Armitage. He Happened to Show Business.
At ten years old, the star of Young Sheldon has already enjoyed a career filled with more prestige and starring roles than most adult actors might dream of having in their entire lives.
BY JOANNA ROTHKOPF | Mar 12, 2019 | Film & TV
I don’t spot Iain Armitage first; he spots me. I am on the set of Young Sheldon, waiting for him to show up to his photo shoot, when, from around the corner, he appears in a sensible grey half-zip sweater, like a middle-aged off-duty billionaire, only very small. He hides behind a door frame. We lock eyes. I move to say something when he holds a single, tiny finger to his lips. And so I hush, humbled.
At a dramatically appropriate count of three, he bursts into the living room set, where his mother, his tutor, a hair and makeup person, a CBS public relations rep, a production assistant, and photographer are chatting. The actor leaps into a sturdy pose with his arms outstretched and projects: “DID SOMEONE SAY, ‘IAIN ARMITAAAAGE?!’”
We all laugh and clap. The star has arrived. Obviously.
Iain Armitage, the moon-faced ten-year-old boy who stars as young Sheldon Cooper in CBS’s concisely titled The Big Bang Theory spinoff Young Sheldon (and who has likely made more money than I’ve seen in my whole life), doesn’t seem capable of giving less than one-hundred percent at all times. It's not because he feels some kind of professional obligation to do so, but because The Theater literally pumps through his veins. (His mother, Lee Armitage, who is with him practically at all times, is a producer; his dad, Euan Morton, is an actor; and he’s partially named after actor Ian McKellen.) That means he doesn’t just participate in conversations; he dominates them. He doesn’t act; he steals the scene. He doesn’t enter rooms; he bursts into them. If you momentarily forget that he’s a child who would technically be in fifth grade if he wasn’t already in the workforce, you would be forgiven for thinking that things don’t happen to Iain—he happens to them.
I spend time with Iain for two consecutive days in November in Los Angeles. On the first day, since Iain doesn’t have any scenes to shoot for Young Sheldon, he comes to one of the show’s various sound stages on the Warner Bros. lot to do a quick photoshoot. The next day, I get to watch him act, and later we sit down for an interview.
I expected to meet a plucky child, one whom I might charm with how different I was from other adults because I actually understood what it was like to be a kid; I remembered that horrible feeling of being condescended to and having your intelligence perpetually questioned, of crippling shyness that forced me to whisper into my friends’ ears that I wanted a Coke, rather than look their dad in the eye and order one. I wouldn’t make him feel like that. I’d talk about things he cared about (theater, rocks, and magic). I’d be his equal. Maybe he would open up to me about what it really felt like to be him. Who knew? I had never interviewed a child before.
Iain doesn’t just participate in conversations; he dominates them.
As it happened, I had massively miscalculated the confidence differential between the two of us.
For the forty-five minutes Iain has his picture taken, there are maybe five when he isn’t talking—and by talking, I mean holding court, which he does with the ease of a particular kind of theater professional who is usually well into their forties. “I love New York,” he tells me upon learning where I live. “I go there a lot. I’ve spent over a third of my life in New York.”
Iain Armitage doesn’t seem capable of giving less than one-hundred percent at all times.
“My name was nearly Lachlan, because I’m Scottish, and Lachlan is a common name in Scotland,” he says, slipping in and out of a shockingly good Scottish accent. “But no one would be able to pronounce it! They’d call it LACK-LAND.”
And then later: “I’m not sick,” he insists after a sneeze. “I’m not sick, I’m not sick, I’m not sick! I just sneezed. Mum, it’s my sun sneeze. I think it’s very bright. Hey! It’s a lot of artificial light [in here] and I have that sun thing.”
“Photosensitivity,” his mother suggests.
“Yeah, photosensitivity. Also, blue eyes does not help. I’m not a plant. I’m kind of a human, not a plant. Well, if I was a plant then I’d love having a lot of light,” he continues, following his own train of thought until he’s stumbled gently off the tracks. “Well, not artificial light because there’s no UV.”
Starring in one of the biggest shows on broadcast television, Iain is arguably at the top of his industry.
It is the kind of sweet babble that’s fairly typical to ten-year-old boys who are incredibly precocious and clearly very smart. The only difference is that as he speaks, a full entourage is looking after him to make sure that, as he’s climbing on top of counters and bouncing on chairs on the set of his own CBS sitcom well into its second season, he doesn’t slip or bonk his head. And every few minutes, a woman rushes over to him with a little comb to correct any flyaways, which he lets her do without flinching.
The whole thing seems like an awful lot of entourage for a child—which, of course, it would be if Iain weren’t a professional’s professional, seemingly aware that a years-long mini-economy rests squarely on his small, sensible sweater-clad shoulders. But in his one decade of life, he’s already enjoyed a career filled with more prestige and starring roles than most adult actors might dream of having in their entire lives. As he made his breakout as Ziggy, Shailene Woodley’s son in Big Little Lies who may or may not have bitten his classmate Amabella, he was also starring alongside J.K. Simmons and Mandy Moore in a drama called I’m Not There and Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in the Netflix movie Our Souls at Night.
Now, starring in one of the biggest shows on broadcast television—for the week of February 18, 2019, Nielsen ranked it at number five, with 11.4 million viewers, behind only the Academy Awards and the Oscars red carpet special, The Big Bang Theory, and NCIS—he is arguably at the top of his industry. And he doesn’t even have his own wallet yet (he told me).
In 2008, Obama was elected president; Miley Cyrus did her Vanity Fair Annie Leibowitz cover; Iain was born.
Just four years later, months before Obama’s re-election, Iain posted his first video to YouTube. Well, he didn’t—his mother did. It shows him in the bathtub, hair slicked messily back with water and a single tooth sticking out of his little mouth, dramatically singing “Stars” from Les Miserables with a heavy speech impediment (he’s three). Occasionally, he stops and demands, “Line!” His mom supplies it.
“Stahs in youah multitudes, scahce to be counted, fiwwing youah dahkness, with order and liiiiiight!
Two years later, in March 2014 (the month matters, since he’s only been alive for 127 of them), he (his mom) uploaded his first theater review, of Hairspray at the Signature Theatre, that he actually recorded, according to the video, in 2011. He reports in a toddler’s drawl: “I loved this one, and it was great, and the singing is pretty, and I loved when they put [incomprehensible], and I loved everything, and I loved all the stuff.”
This was the first in a series of reviews which would eventually lead to his being discovered, but also, if watched in succession, shows in incredible detail the process of language acquisition and development. As he reviews shows like Beaches and Waiting for Godot and Gypsy, his face thins out, he grows teeth, and he practices using words in sentences, like “fantastic” and “showstopper.” For some sexually explicit shows, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, he reports that he would’ve told you how great the costumes and actors and makeup was, but he can’t. “I wish Hedwig was appropriate for kids my age, because I want to see Hedwig,” he cries. “I saw it on the Tonys. I don’t get why it’s not appropriate!”
As he continued reviewing theater, he also began meeting and posting photographs with mega-celebrities, whom he addresses with a formal Mr. and Ms.—e.g. Mr. Lin (-Manuel Miranda) and Miss Rosie (O’Donnell)—and getting invited to do red carpet interviews for the Tony Awards. In fact, I first became aware of Iain when I was reporting on the Tony Awards red carpet in 2016 and people like Justin Guarini and Andrew Lloyd Webber kept studiously avoiding eye contact with me, instead choosing to grant an interview with the child—Iain—beside me.
In 2008, Obama was elected president, and Iain was born.
“I was lucky to be the only six-year-old interviewing people on the red carpet,” he says when I tell him that story. “Actually, I did it a few years in a row, but the first year I did it I was six.”
“For a few people, I got the great pleasure of getting to be backstage at their shows. And since I’m so tiny, I can be like hi and scuttle in. If we’re really lucky, sometimes we get to go backstage and I get to meet these incredible people and it’s just so awesome. You’re in the presence of the almighties. All the almighties? That sounds weird. The all-mighties.”
Can Iain show you what he's proudest of? This friendship. It is ALWAYS a thrill to see Mr. Lin. When Iain was 6 and first saw @hamiltonmusical in previews at the Public Theatre, he was astonished. After the show, Lin tweeted about seeing Iain, saying he was nervous the critics were already in the house. After the show, Iain said, "I can't believe you WROTE the show, STAR in it and also you have a brand new baby!" Mr. Lin replied simply, "I'm SO tired!!!!" Iain adored him instantly and has always been treated with such incredible kindness by every single person involved with the show. Thank you so very much!
Jamie Pillet, an agent at Abrams Artists Agency, also became aware of Iain through his videos. The thing that caught her eye, though, was his performance of “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George, which he sang with the added touch of drawing with colored pencils on a sketchpad.
“It’s one of the most difficult Sondheim songs that there is out there,” Pillet says. “A lot of older actors can’t even handle that type of material, and he pulled it off pretty flawlessly.” After that, she reached out to his mom, Lee, who initially declined Pillet’s offer to represent Iain. Lee was finally convinced after meeting Pillet in New York a few months later.
It took about a year and a half for Iain to book—which is, in the scheme of things, unbelievably quick. “Before that his [audition] tapes were so good, even at that young age. I think he was, like, four at the time, but his tapes were incredible,” Pillet says. “And then Big Little Lies came around, and it all fell into place. It’s been kind of nonstop ever since.”
“He's one of those kids that was built to do it. In his genetics is show business.”
In 2016, Iain submitted to play a younger version of Jim Parsons’s character on The Big Bang Theory for a spinoff he didn’t know very much about. He sent a video of himself performing a three-page monologue—which the show’s co-creator and co-executive producer Steve Molaro says included a William Shatner impression—in his grandmother’s living room. “He was the first kid to really make us laugh,” Molaro told me in an email. “We flew him and his mom to Warner Bros. to have him audition in person, and he nailed it again.”
“He is exceptional as a young actor, as a performer. He's one of those kids that was built to do it. In his genetics is show business,” says Lance Barber, who plays Sheldon’s dad, George Cooper Sr., on Young Sheldon. “Intellectually, he must be exceptional, I think, to do the amount that he does and the hours that he does. And you spend time with the kid and he's very bright and very smart and has a maturity that is beyond his years.”
“I’m amazed on a daily basis that he can do what he does,” agrees Zoe Perry, who plays his TV mum, Mary Cooper. “I think back to my being that age, and I was so shy in most settings where it wasn’t just my family. His gregariousness and his talent level is frankly astonishing. I think it takes a unique talent to be able to pull off what he pulls off, but his emotional intuitiveness and his ability to center things and understand the scope of what Sheldon might be going through is very advanced.”
Iain’s life has rapidly transitioned from that of an unusually dedicated theater kid to that of a television star.
Since booking Young Sheldon, Iain’s life has rapidly transitioned from that of an unusually dedicated theater kid to that of a television star. He’s gone on international press tours; he’s done the late-night shows; he’s read clues on Jeopardy. He also works a full-time job and goes to school, all while growing up. If that’s hard for him, he doesn’t tell me.
“As long as you try your hardest and try to have a good work ethic and know that you’re very lucky to be here doing whatever you do, whether it’s working at some office job or being on the set of a show like Young Sheldon—whatever you do—you’re lucky to have it,” he says when I ask what it takes.
“There are some jobs that are considered, like, not a lot of people want to do. Like, for instance, janitoring. Or jani-TOR-ing? Being a janitor. But as long as you come into your workplace with a smile and be super happy and be the best janitor you can be, you’re gonna have a great life and a great day and a great everything.”
There are several legal protections child performers have in order to prevent exploitation, most famously the Coogan Law, which mandates that a portion of the child’s earnings be protected and set aside for the child until they become an adult. Plus, children are only allowed to work nine-and-a-half hours a day, including a lunch break, and a required three hours of school work. That means Iain will shoot some scenes for the show, break for twenty minutes of school, shoot a bit more, and go back for twenty more minutes of studying until those twenty-minute breaks add up to three hours. To me, it feels like such a set up would make it nearly impossible to focus on either school or scenework, but he doesn’t mind, largely thanks to his tutor, Miss Maura, who he met on the set of Big Little Lies and whom he adores.
Mary (Zoe Perry), George, Sr. (Lance Barber) and Sheldon (Iain Armitage) pictured on the set of Young Sheldon. | Cliff Lipson/CBS
When I visited Iain, he was focusing on writing a two-to-four-page essay on the life of William Shakespeare. “The hard thing about Shakespeare is that a lot of the stuff we have is guesses,” he says, and I nod.
But Language Arts and writing, mostly, is his “kryptonite.” His favorite subject is history. Right now, he’s learning about Ancient China.
“We just learned about Kubla Khan and Genghis Khan. Before I knew anything about them, I used to think that Khan was his last name, but it’s not. It’s the position.” He explains for me: “So, basically, they were Mongol warriors, nomadic Mongol warriors, and the leader of each separate tribe is called the Khan. So basically it’s their name, and then Khan. So Genghis Khan, his name is Genghis, and then he was a Khan, so his name is Genghis Khan. I guess it sorta automatically becomes your last name. But thankfully we’re in 2018—HA HA!—and not the 1300s.”
What many people don't understand, his agent Jamie Pillet tells me, is that children who work in television and film are doing two jobs. “They’re doing the job of an actor, but they’re also going to school simultaneously … I think it’s often not really understood by their older counterparts, and sometimes even the producers of the show, how difficult that balance is. At the same time, they’re developing still and they’re growing up and they’re learning hard lessons—and they’re learning them very publicly.”
Pillet says that she and her partner at Abrams, Victoria Kress, are focused on two things: advocating for their young clients to make sure they’re being sufficiently paid and given proper resources to feel comfortable on set, and educating the families about what it’s like to raise a professional child.
“We talk to the families and we explain that growing up in the public eye—and there is an element to that you can’t control—but what you can control is things like how you describe everything, how you explain things to them, and not let a child grow up too quickly,” Pillet says. “That’s what people have seen in the past, when child stars go bad, if you will.” She doesn’t say exactly who or what she’s talking about, and I don’t bring it up, because it doesn’t feel good or appropriate to compare Iain, now ten, to the long and dark history of children who aren’t children anymore.
But Iain’s mum, Lee, is just one of the “best in the world,” according to Pillet. “She just stresses kindness to him and she really keeps him a grounded, sweet boy,” she says, “which is what he started out as, and it’s sort of their deal together that he remains that way.”
Among Iain's role models are his mum, his grandmother, Mr. Lin-Manuel Miranda, and “the almighty” Meryl Streep.
“You hear some of these nightmare stories about showbiz children, and the feeling entitlement or something that comes with it,” Lance Barber says. “These children [referring to Raegan Revord and Montana Jordan, Iain’s TV siblings] have wonderful parents that are keeping their feet on the ground, that's for sure. And they are genuinely sweet kids.”
If routine makes for a stable child, Iain has nothing to worry about. Usually he wakes up around 7 a.m. and leaves for set with his mother at 7:30 or 8, depending when call time is. But when he does get up, he gets dressed, eats his breakfast—he used to be vegan, but now he’s integrating more eggs and cheese, so that increases his options—then he’ll brush his teeth, tidy his bed, open his window, turn off his Himalayan salt lamp, eat his two vitamins, and put on lip balm.
His favorite food is miso soup with glass noodles and rice. He doesn’t watch much television, but he does love reading—he recently started a book called Max Einstein: The Genius Experiment. Among his role models are his mom, his grandmother (who he tells me has hyperthymia, meaning she’s wired for happiness; its underreported because nobody ever goes to the doctor because they’re too happy), Mr. Lin-Manuel Miranda, and “the almighty” Meryl Streep, who he worked with on Big Little Lies.
His hobbies include rocks (“I am drowning in rocks. I love rocks… I have three bins full.”), stuffed animals (he brought two to the photo shoot, a unicorn named Terracotta and a fox named Muchmuladen, which he says is the German word for “marmalade,” though I’m not sure that’s right), dressing up and fashion (his favorite designers are Brooks Brothers and Appaman, a children’s clothing brand, and “anything having to do with a three-piece suit and tie”), magic, Tae Kwon Do (he’s a “high second brown belt”), and music. His favorite artists are David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. I ask him impulsively if he’s seen Bohemian Rhapsody, completely forgetting where I am or who I’m talking to. “I have not,” he replies patiently. “I think it’s, like, PG-13. I guess I’m gonna watch the appropriate parts.”
Iain's hobbies include rocks, stuffed animals, dressing up and fashion, magic, Tae Kwon Do, and music.
Our interview takes place in a producer’s trailer after Iain’s wrapped for the day. He sits on a rolling chair in the middle of the small living room; I sit across from him with his mother on the couch, while a PR rep and a production assistant squeeze themselves next to the door, pretending not to be supervising. I meant for the interview to be more of a conversation, but inescapably, I keep asking questions and he keeps answering them.
Shailene Woodley with Iain on the set of Big Little Lies. | HBO
Spending a short amount of time with Iain is fundamentally disorienting, because he deftly operates on two completely different levels: eminent showbiz professional and ten-year-old boy. I notice his usually bright and professional eyes occasionally fill with nervousness, like when I ask him who his friends are (“Oh God, my brain is rushing… Like, gotta go to Part A: Section Three to get this file,”) or what his favorite Broadway musical is (“I love them all. I can’t pick a favorite. They’re all so incredible. Even if my life depended on it, I can’t pick a favorite.”) And after a while he starts to get tired, deferring more and more to his mother to fill in details he can’t quite remember, like how old he was when he auditioned for Young Sheldon, or what the word for “break” is.
Still, he also often manages moments of extreme poignance and insight. Like when I asked him what it felt like living the dream so many children (and adults) have.
“I think it is really fun, and I also think it’s seen a bit differently than it is,” he says. “It’s seen as a lot of people who work in the movies live in these big, glamorous castles of houses, like, high up in the hills, and have several fancy cars. But I think you do work a bit harder than that, and we definitely do not have several different fancy cars. We have one rental Nissan Ultima.”
One thing Iain is looking forward to most about growing up is being allowed to have a fire wallet.
“It’s almost like a prank,” he explains. “Like, you go up to a cashier at some place, and you can have two wallets with it. You take out your fake fire wallet, it looks like a real wallet, and you open it and you can push a button on the side that makes it set on fire.” He says his mum will get it for him when he’s eighteen.
“Did I say eighteen or twenty-one?” his mum asks to his outrage. I offer that eighteen and twenty-one are pretty similar ages.
“Eighteen, twenty-one, same thing. We’ll say eighteen,” Iain bargains. “Maybe seventeen. But I’m very excited, because that means in eight years I’ll be getting the fire wallet. Also, that’s usually when people start having their own wallets.”
I ask what else he’s excited to do when he gets older, and he says college, although he’s also really dreading it.
“I think it is really fun, and I also think it’s seen a bit differently than it is,” Iain says about Hollywood. “We definitely do not have several different fancy cars. We have one rental Nissan Ultima.”
“I just really wanna stay with my mamma. I love my mamma and I think she’s awesome,” he says. “I’m excited for college because I get to make a lot of new friends and learn a lot of stuff, but I’m not excited for college because…”
“I’ll go with you!” his mum says.
“That would be very creepy. I don’t want to do that,” Iain says. But when I offer that he could maybe go down the block, he doesn’t seem to mind the idea. I also remind him he has a long time—basically the amount of time he’s been alive—before he has to go.
“Like eight years? I get the fire wallet then, so I’ll just do it whenever I get my fire wallet. Once I get my fire wallet, then my life’s work is complete,” he says. “Then I can go to college; I can do whatever. I’m gonna save all my weird things that I want to do, like skydiving, college, eating lemons while eating pickles, for after I get my fire wallet.”
Photographs by Julian Berman
From: Esquire US