Iain Armitage was 9 when 'Young Sheldon' began. Now, he's saying goodbye to his biggest role yet

If this story began with a narrator, it would go something like this: Seven years ago, just a few weeks from making his debut as the face of “Young Sheldon,” the prequel to CBS’s blockbuster comedy “The Big Bang Theory,” Iain Armitage was a spirited, baby-faced 9-year-old dangling upside down on a pair of gymnastic rings at a park in Studio City during a break from his very grown-up gig.

That’s how this reporter first met Armitage. He was a kid who skipped and hopped across the park pavement and carefully set up a deck of cards to finesse a magic trick. But even at this tender age, he already had a list of credits that included HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” where he played the son of Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) who sets off some mommy tension after he’s accused of bullying a classmate, as well as the Brie Larson-led family drama “The Glass Castle” (2017) and the Netflix movie “Our Souls at Night” (2017).

But Armitage’s career-making turn in “Young Sheldon,” the coming-of-age sitcom focused on the childhood of Sheldon Cooper, the egotistical and socially awkward theoretical physicist memorably portrayed by Jim Parsons in “Big Bang Theory,” is coming to a close. The series premiered in fall 2017, becoming the No. 1 new comedy that season, and remained one of the network’s strong performers throughout its run. It even spawned a spin-off, “George & Mandy’s First Marriage,” which will launch this fall. (The series centers on Sheldon’s brother, George Cooper Jr., a.k.a. Georgie (Montana Jordan) and Mandy McAllister (Emily Osment) as they build a life together in 1990s Texas.)

Now, Armitage is a couple month’s shy of his 16th birthday, his voice is deeper, and he’s swapped gymnastic rings for pilot lessons. And he’s saying goodbye to Sheldon, a character he’s played for nearly half his life, with Thursday’s series finale of “Young Sheldon.”

The final two episodes of the series, which aired back-to-back and are now available to stream on Paramount+, followed the Cooper family as they grappled with the death of their patriarch, George (Lance Barber), and prepared for his funeral; and Sheldon making the move to California to attend Caltech, where he’ll meets his “Big Bang Theory” pals Leonard, Raj and Howard.

Over a video call from New York, Armitage discussed his growth as an actor, watching Sheldon reach Caltech, and life after “Young Sheldon.” This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

“Young Sheldon” was not your first professional onscreen role, but it’s been your longest. How do you feel you’ve grown as an actor across the seven seasons?

It’s funny to think about because, especially with this show, I’ve fallen into such a rhythm with this character. I’ve been doing it for seven years, so it doesn’t really feel that much like a massive acting challenge anymore because, up until three weeks ago, I was doing it every day, for five days. I go through hair and makeup, I slip on those shoes and I’m in character. The more interesting thing, to me at least, will be when I next act. How does that look?

Does this feel like the right time for you to say goodbye to Sheldon?

Yeah. For so many people on our set, myself included, it was very hard to say goodbye. But I think it would have been hard to say goodbye if it had happened tomorrow or in 10 years. I don’t necessarily think that for me it was this massive letting go where I was so mournful it was happening right now. At the end of the day, as much as I love it, and as fun as it has been, it is a job. And all jobs like this do come to an end. I’m looking forward to what happens next.

What was the reaction like at the table read for the finale? When you got that final script, did you want to read it right away or did you put it off?

We don’t do table reads, because we’re cool. I think we did three table reads in the first season and then we stopped. Everyone was trying to kind of get the first copy of the last script just to have said, “Oh, I’ve read it. Oh, it’s really hard.” I didn’t buy into that game. I think I was one of the last people to read it, not because I was trying to put it off, but more just because I waited to get the scripts at the normal time. Reading it definitely was strange. And it did feel like an ending. But there’s going to be an incredible new spinoff with Georgie and Mandy [the characters played by Jordan and Osment, respectively]. It’s not really an ending, it’s a beginning in a way.

Fans of the original series know that a pivotal turning point in Sheldon’s life was the death of his father, George, who died of a heart attack as we see in this show. How was it to face that moment as Sheldon?

It was interesting the way it hit me because it wasn’t how I expected. I expected to be sad or kind of touched by how long we’ve gotten to know this character. But for me, it’s less about George and more about Lance. Lance is such a wonderful guy. It was more hard having him not be on set for the finale for certain scenes. We had that dinner scene without him. He brings such a light to the set … and he’s got such a big personality.

Sheldon is someone who’s very literal and matter of fact, not really likely to express emotions or know how to deal with social situations or relationships. What struck you about how he was processing his father’s death?

In the scene where the family gets the news that George has died, I was very impressed with myself that I managed to keep my cool because everyone was crying. It was very hard. We love Lance so much. He made it better; he was on set that day and for one of the rehearsals, he peeked in through the window. He had a very fun time with his own death. It was interesting because, for one of the takes, I tried to sink down the chair and not quite cry, but start to get emotional, and [“Young Sheldon” co-creator] Steve Molaro very quickly was like, “No, don’t. Not even second. It’s almost more heartbreaking if we don’t see any emotion on your face. You’re completely lost.” When I watched the replay on the monitors at video village, where the writers sit, I instantly saw what he meant. There was one take where I did it the way he wanted; I think he [Steve] started crying a little bit . I understood it after seeing it.

Obviously, Jim Parsons and Mayim Bialik are featured in the episode and we see deeper into their future. He’s writing about his memories of this time of his life, not really interested in his son’s imminent hockey game.

I love it. Throughout our earlier seasons, they would sprinkle some older Sheldon lore throughout the voice-overs of certain episodes. And Miss Mayim, she also guest voiced at least one of them. I love getting to see that because it’s a really nice reminder that this older Sheldon that’s narrating this history that we’re seeing has grown so much and come such a long way and is a dad now and kind of has a softer way of looking back on his own dad and of growing up and his family. He’s still Sheldon, but he’s definitely very different from himself as an 8- to 14-year-old in the show. No one’s the same as when they’re that age. So I liked that.

In the finale, Sheldon decides he’ll get baptized for his mom’s peace of mind. What did that moment reveal to you about Sheldon?

That wet suit they had me wear — they had me try on about 10 of those things and I was so mad. It took like four hours, never mind. But about the actual scene: I really like it just because it was Sheldon being emotionally intelligent without realizing or knowing it because all he was doing was something for his mom, … it just shows his love for his mom, at the end of the day. They went through a couple iterations of that moment. I haven’t actually seen the final episode yet, but she said something along the lines of, “Are you gonna leave too?” You could just see her face was so devastated. It was such a beautiful moment. I loved her [Zoe Perry’s] performance so much.

There’s that moment just before Sheldon sets out to California where he’s taking in his childhood home one last time. He says he’s doing it so he can remember it when he’s older. Did you do the same? Were you wistful about taking it all in one last time?

A little bit, but at the same time, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t think I have the mental capability to keep track of all the different lasts. Because every single day on set for the final three months, everyone was like, “Oh, this is the last …” and it’s this random thing. The funniest was when it would be something that we’d never done before. Like Miss Emily Osment held a party at her house on Sunday, which was wonderful. And somebody’s like, “This is the last time we’re gonna be hanging out at Emily Osment’s house on a Sunday.”

People always pay attention to the final words of a series finale. Sheldon has the final words, as he’s arrived at Caltech, and someone asks if he’s lost. He says, “No. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

I think it’s nice because it was definitely an on-the-nose scene, in a way; he’s at Caltech very much setting up what’s to come with “The Big Bang.” He has a long way to go. There’s an episode of “Big Bang,” where Leonard’s talking about when he first moved into the apartment and how the elevator broke and Sheldon being so much worse off than now in “Big Bang.” I like seeing that because it kind of shows that, no, he wasn’t exactly where it needed to be. I think the people that he has with him in “Big Bang” will really help them out. It’s a really nice line, but he’s definitely got a long way to go.

Was that actually the final shot you did?

That was not. By design, the final scene we shot was the dinner scene, unfortunately, without Lance, although he was there on set. We went around the table and wrapped everybody one by one. They wrapped me last. That was the first time I cried about the ending. And I sort of just sat there. There were a lot of people in this little dining room. I just looked around and was like, “Wow, I’ve known these people for seven years.” Some of them are newer additions to our “Young Sheldon” crew family, but it was pretty wonderful to get to look around and see everyone and that was the kind of first time I really felt emotional about the ending. I was a bit late to the party. But I was like, “OK, I’m at peace with this.

I imagine the next day it didn’t feel like it was completely over yet because you’re still in the press bubble of it all.

Yeah, it sort of lingered on. The next day, I got to go to Warner Bros. [studio lot] again. I gave a tour.

Wait. What?

I’m not even joking. I have an entire tour guide outfit, complete with Warner Bros. baseball camp. I gave a tour and now I have the Warner Bros. tour guide book of information that I’ve been memorizing. When we go back there in a few weeks, I hope to give another tour or a few.

With the series finale, the question is always where do you hope your character goes from here? This being a prequel, you have an idea of where things go. Did having that sense of Sheldon’s end game make the process of saying goodbye to the character any easier?

It was odd because, unlike with a lot of shows like this, if there was no “Big Bang,” that would feel like a very unsatisfying ending, because, what does that mean? He’s at Caltech, his dad’s just died, and his family is no longer moving to Houston, probably. George is sort of the breadwinner of the family. There’s so many unanswered questions that end up slowly over 12 seasons [of “The Big Bang Theory”] getting answered and made reference to. It’s really beautiful that we have that.

How about how are you feeling about this next chapter?

I’m excited. I’m getting my student pilot’s license in two months, maybe. On my 16th birthday, I’ll be able to solo fly legally. And I’m doing a bunch of fun extracurricular stuff. I’m learning languages and doing a lot of travel. I do want to continue acting very much. And I do want to go to college very much. I have a lot of fun things that I’m looking forward to. But right now, I have the luxury of at least feeling like I have all the time in the world, which is nice.

Are you thinking about the kind of projects you would like to do?

I love an action movie or maybe a superhero movie. It’d be fun to do something with martial arts. I’d like to do something physical for once. “Sheldon” is so mental. I’d love to do a drama too. And, of course, on this spin-off, all the cast has been sort of offered some sort of role or place on the show — there’s the possibility, at the very least, of maybe coming back, which would be really fun. But I’m also just excited to sit back and watch Montana [Jordan] and Miss Emily [Osment] do their thing. They’re both so talented.

It’s been reported that a third season of “Big Little Lies” is on the horizon. Any talks of you being in that?

I’d love to so much. I haven’t formally received any offers yet. But I know that myself — and I’m sure all the other people involved — would be so happy to do another season. I think the main thing for me is that our incredible director, Jean-Marc Vallée, unfortunately passed away the Christmas before last, in the prime and peak of his life, so unexpectedly; he was very much the beating heart of the show. I’m interested to see how they’re going to do a third season if they do one.

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