The Big Bang Theory's Johnny Galecki on privilege, Penny and playing the underdog
Let's make one thing clear: Johnny Galecki is no geek.
"The magazine wanted to do a 1960s rock ‘n' roll theme," the actor says of the 12-hour-long cover shoot he's just finished shooting for Watch! "And my first question was, ‘Can I throw a TV out the window?' "
As Galecki sips on a glass of sauvignon blanc in Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental in London's chic Knightsbridge neighborhood—dressed casually in jeans and a pale blue woven scarf, dark mane swept off his face—the Emmy-nominated actor could not be further away from gawky Leonard Hofstadter, the bespectacled character he plays on CBS' monster smash The Big Bang Theory.
"I'm not like him, but there are some things in the show that come up that really hit home and I have an emotional reaction to," Galecki admits. "Playing the geek, the underdog, is cathartic and it's not my sad story—everybody's felt like the outsider at some point, and it's been those storylines that really affect me," he says. "Growing up in Chicago, you don't do community theater to be cool. First it's the athletes who are the cool guys, then the musicians, and somewhere far down the line are the musical theater kids. Then you go to Manhattan or L.A. and it's different—you're like, ‘Whoa, I can be cool now.'"
STAGED FOR SUCCESS
And cool is the resounding vibe that Galecki gives off. When the actor walks into a room, all twinkly eyes and wide grin, cracking jokes, you can't help but be drawn to him. And those exotic good looks? All thanks to his Polish father and Irish-Italian mother.
Galecki can also thank his mother for his early interest in acting. "She was Gladys Knight's assistant, so we had a lot of Motown albums and only two that weren't," he laughs. "One was West Side Story and the other was Jesus Christ Superstar, and from the age of 5 I would play them on the record player after dinner, leaping over the couches and singing every part."
Those aforementioned theater classes in Chicago, which happen to be the extent of his formal training, proved to be an outlet for the soon-to-be actor.
"It was kind of innate for me," he admits. "The hardest part to being an actor is being able to behave in such an unnatural way, but that somehow came naturally.
"I think it comes from growing up in an uncomfortable and sometimes unhealthy home environment. I was the sibling that kind of kept it all on a level when life at home got tough. I did it through comedy, sarcasm and distraction. All families are complicated, but my home life was glaringly uncomfortable much of the time, and it was me that took the onus. So I guess that may have made it easier for me to have a one-on-one intimate conversation onstage or shoot a bedroom scene on camera in front of a hundred people than it might be for other people."
Now that the show is hugely popular on a worldwide scale, how does Galecki cope with the fame and recognition?
"I find myself in a privileged position and it's not because I can get a table at a restaurant, but because it's allowed me to meet new people every day," he says. "When you read the news and you see all this bad stuff happening, there's a tendency to lose faith in humanity. But I meet so many people who restore it and realize that actually, 99 percent of people are great."
And then with a wink he adds, "But of course there's always one jackass in the room. And if you can't find him, then it's probably you."
It's this happy-go-lucky charm that makes the actor so appealing. He loves people and experiences. He's a keen traveler, a joker who's not afraid to laugh at himself; a self-deprecating actor, which may sound contradictory, but Galecki is living proof that they do exist.
Three years ago his co-star Kaley Cuoco, who plays his onscreen girlfriend Penny, surprised many by revealing to Watch! that they'd had an intimate relationship, which they kept silent to protect the show and each other. "We're dear friends, still. Kaley's not just an ex, she's a part of my life," Galecki says, getting a little misty-eyed.
The actress is just as fond of him: "Mooks—I'm not sure why, but we have acquired this as a nickname for each other—and I have a very special relationship," Cuoco told Watch! "We are two of the few who had an intimate relationship and came out of it as even closer friends. We have been on an amazing ride together with Big Bang and both know how lucky we are. He will always have a huge chunk of my heart and continue to be my partner in crime."
NO END IN SIGHT
The friendship has grown stronger, but Galecki doesn't want details to distract from the show.
"I just don't like to speak about it," he says. "And not because I'm trying to be enigmatic; I just worry that it will conflict with people's acceptance of Leonard and Penny. I get the curiosity but I don't want to distract from the story."
The one aspect that cannot be denied is the chemistry between the onscreen couple, as evidenced in their "will they, won't they" relationship.
"I think every great show has that dynamic," Galecki says, modestly. "It's a love story and that's the thing that attracted me to the part, that inspired me to ask if I could play Leonard."
It's not as if this is the first stellar sitcom the actor has starred in. He got his big break playing the boyfriend-then-husband of Sara Gilbert's character on Roseanne, a role he had for half a decade. "But when I started it was already No. 1, and I had nothing to do with the growth of that show," he points out, again with that Midwestern lack of hubris. "With Big Bang, I was a part of it from the very start and it's been an incredible ride, a slow healthy climb to the top.
"It's hard not to get too emotional," Galecki says, on the verge of welling up. "The next time we do a taping we'll be in our seventh season, in the realm of Taxi, Friends, The Cosby Show and I Love Lucy, all those great shows that paved the way for us.
"I don't see an end right now. I'm sure it will happen and history tells us that we're probably past our halfway mark, but it still feels exciting and fresh and new. We've barely scratched the surface with these characters. There are so many more stories to tell."
Check out all the photos from Johnny's Watch! shoot.