Iain Armitage hates wearing socks while walking on carpet. So when a scene in Young Sheldon, the hit CBS show on which the 14-year-old Arlingtonian plays the title character, called for him to rub his socked feet on carpet before touching an anti-static chair, Armitage hedged.
“I try to be as not-annoying as I can on set in terms of asking for things,” Armitage says, “but I actually said, ‘Could I put plastic bags over my feet and then put them in the socks so I can’t feel the material?’ Our sock lady, Ms. Monica, gave me this look like, ‘What?’ but we did it, and I was able to get through the scene with my life.”
It may be one of several quirks he shares with his character, Armitage says, as he realizes he is wearing a Star Trek shirt very much in line with Sheldon Cooper’s style during our interview. Armitage is also partial to studying physics, just like the title character of the coming-of-age sitcom, which is a spinoff prequel to The Big Bang Theory.
“I’ve always identified with Sheldon,” he says. “I think he’s kind of the universal nerd in such a fun and cool way that people can connect to.”
Connections are much more Armitage’s strength than Cooper’s: The character is a scientifically gifted prodigy who doesn’t have the most finely tuned social skills. “I love being around people,” he says. “I get my energy from hanging out with friends. I think a lot of people recharge or get their energy by being alone or taking some downtime. I’m the opposite. My favorite place in the world is Times Square in New York, so that tells you a lot.”
Another place he loves to be is at home in Arlington. Since he began acting on the show in 2017, he’s spent nine months out of the year living in Burbank, California, near Warner Bros. Studios, where he films. When he’s in Arlington, Armitage, a lifelong vegetarian, makes a beeline for Elevation Burger and Doña Bessy Pupuseria — two of his favorite eateries.
He also heads to Jhoon Rhee Tae Kwon Do, where he began taking martial arts classes when he was 4. The exercise calms and grounds him, and he can even take classes via FaceTime or Zoom when he’s away.
“I’m actually by nature an overthinker, and I tend to second-guess myself a lot,” says Armitage. But with tae kwon do, “you’re doing this really, really hard stuff and pushing your body to the limit. Sometimes you’re in pain, sometimes it’s really tough, but you go to this place where you are completely zenned out, and you’re not thinking about anything.”
He earned his black belt this past June, which is something only about 10 percent of students achieve, says Francis Pineda, Jhoon Rhee’s co-owner and head instructor. Although it requires expertise in sparring with specific patterns and movements, reaching that rank takes much more than physical capability.
“The big meta of being a black belt is not necessarily the prowess of kicking and punching, but it is the ability to be a leader,” Pineda says. “In order to do that, we have them come and assist classes, they help teach … Iain loved leadership because he would come in, and he would help with the younger kids, and even some of the older kids also.”
A third requirement is honor roll–level grades. Armitage, who’s homeschooled, was a straight-A student when he received his belt.
“This same group of teachers, we have taught him since he was 4, so we have literally watched him grow in his character, mentally, physically,” Pineda says. “He is absolutely one of the most polite, most caring, most empathetic people I’ve ever met. He is always eager to help. He is very goal-oriented. He’s just such a pleasure to be around outside of martial arts [and] in martial arts. He has such an infectious personality that regardless of who he is as a celebrity, he is the kind of person you want to be around.”
The discipline and focus inherent in tae kwon do is also apparent in Armitage’s professionalism, Pineda says. “In any professional career, you can use the focus, you can use the discipline, you can use the confidence, you can use the goal-setting, the work ethic, the leadership,” Pineda says. “He has found ways to translate all the best parts of martial arts into his professional career. He has got an amazing ethic, and then on top of that, he’s a very caring person.”
Armitage was born in Georgia on July 15, 2008, to actor Euan Morton and theater producer Lee Armitage, daughter of former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
His love of theater began early, when he saw his first play — Hairspray — at Arlington’s Signature Theatre at age 3 or 4. His babysitter was in the cast, and he recorded a short video as a thank you. “I was just saying, ‘I really liked this show,’” Armitage says, using a high-pitched baby voice. “It was honestly 30 seconds long, and you can hear our dog barking really loud in the background.”
Amateur as it was, he was hooked — both on seeing plays and reviewing them in videos, which he posted on his YouTube channel, Iain Loves Theatre. That got the attention of some agents, including Jamie Pillet, whom Armitage calls “the nicest person in the world.” (Like many of us, he’s prone to such hyperbole, only from him, it doesn’t sound exaggerated.)
Pillet persuaded Armitage’s mom to meet with her about getting him on stage. Lee Armitage was hesitant, her son says. “You hear all those horror stories about all the terrible things that happened in Hollywood with children who had gone crazy from being there.” But she let him start going on auditions in 2014 and remains at his side. For one, it’s illegal in California for children under 16 to be without a legal guardian on set, but more than that, “Mom is just so cool and so kind and always so grounding,” Armitage says.
Also in his favor: being good at what he loves. He made his acting debut at age 7, starring as Ziggy Chapman alongside A-listers Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, and Meryl Streep in HBO’s Emmy– and Golden Globe–winning Big Little Lies series.
Other screen credits include The Glass Castle, which starred Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts, and Our Souls at Night, a drama with Oscar winners Robert Redford and Jane Fonda — or Grandma Jane, as Armitage calls her.
“Ms. Jane Fonda was just the kindest and most cool and awesome lady in the world, who’s taught me so much about protecting our environment, protecting the Earth, being kind to everyone, always being good and [being] on your feet during scenes,” says Armitage, who never forgets to use an honorific. “She’s such an all-around amazing lady. I feel lucky to be able to call her Grandma Jane, and she calls me Grandson.”
Despite sharing the screen with so many famous folks, he still gets starstruck: “Ms. Chita Rivera has to be a big one. I’ve met her before. I know her, and even then, whenever I see her, I get really starstruck. She’s Chita Rivera!” Others that weaken his knees include Patti LuPone and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Young Sheldon started as a sitcom but has in the more recent of its five seasons become more of a “dramedy.” Season six, which premiered September 29, promises to continue that trajectory — just, fingers crossed for Armitage, without more socks-on-carpet scenes. But he’s as much in the dark about how it plays out as the rest of us. The cast gets the script for each episode a day or two before filming.
The show has already been renewed for a seventh season — a success that Armitage attributes to the crew. “If literally one department didn’t show up on any given day, we could not film,” he says. “Having lighting in a show just seems natural, but we’re filming inside of a dark, completely closed-off soundstage. It’s soundproof and lightproof, so every light you see on the show, unless we’re actually filming outside, is artificial, so if lighting didn’t come in one day, we would be filming in the dark. If costumes wasn’t there, I would be filming in my Star Trek T-shirt, which honestly is kind of appropriate.”
That focus on others is typical of Armitage, Pineda says. “I don’t know if he knows how famous and how big he is because he doesn’t think [about] that,” he says. “He just thinks in the moment and he talks to the person who’s in front of [him], and he just takes the time to appreciate and thank everyone for everything that they’ve done. He knows and he understands that there are other people that have helped him along the way, and he always appreciates them.”
Even if Armitage doesn’t toot his own horn, plenty of others will. He’s been nominated for a Teen Choice Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award, and a Critics’ Choice Award for best actor in a comedy series.
With comedies and dramas on his IMDB filmography, Armitage says he’d like to one day be part of an action movie or historical film. “I mean, 1990s is historical in my lens because I was born in 2008,” he says, referring to the decade Young Sheldon is set in, “but I would love to do something like 1800s or 1700s. It would be so cool to do a historical-fiction type of show.”
This story originally ran in our November issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.