Interview: J.K. Simmons
Picture a boss barking comically profane orders from behind a desk and it’s likely that J.K. Simmons springs to mind. An actor whose presence looms large even when his screen time runs short, Simmons has played his fair share of entertaining hard-asses over the years, from the blunt tobacco lobbyist in Thank You for Smoking (2005), to the cigar-chomping newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies (2002, 2004, 2007). Fueling a surge in attention for the screen (and theater) veteran, his performance as the maniacal band teacher in Whiplash puts a volcanic talent center-stage.
With a gleaming bald head, deepening lines in his face, and a naturally authoritative voice, Simmons tends to be cast in roles that are either fearsome or fatherly. He’s played a neo-Nazi in the TV series Oz (1997-2003), a no-bullshit psychiatrist on Law & Order (1994-2010), a blind divorcee on the recent NBC series Growing Up Fisher (14), and, of course, the deadpan professor in the Farmer’s Insurance commercials. On the “nice guy” end of the spectrum Simmons is perhaps best known as the patient patriarch in Juno (2007)—in fact, he’s acted in every single one of Jason Reitman’s films, and it was Reitman who recommended him for the role of Terence Fletcher in Whiplash.
As he hazes wannabe drum-phenom Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), Simmons’s Fletcher is well aware of the power he holds over his students, and his pedagogical methods are perverse at best. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’” he explains to Andrew. Yet even if we despise Fletcher as a human being, we believe that he believes in what he’s saying, and the film operates almost entirely in this gray zone Simmons creates between mentor and monster.
FILM COMMENT recently spoke by phone with Simmons, who was open, funny, and notably road-rage-free whilst driving in Los Angeles (where he lives).
You tend to play characters on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. When people meet you, are they bracing themselves for Schillinger from Oz or are they expecting the nice guy from the Farmer’s Insurance commercials?
I tend to get both of those. People come ready to defend themselves if they just saw Whiplash, or they’ve been watching Oz. And some people just want to give me a hug if they’ve just seen Juno with their 13-year-old.
How do you feel about the term “character actor” that’s so often applied to you? It’s kind of a superfluous qualifier when you think about it.
To me that kind of just means, he’s not as good-looking as George Clooney. He’s not number one on the call sheet, and he’s not the leading man. It is, as you said, superfluous in a way.
Is it a compliment that characters are now probably described in scripts as “a J.K. Simmons type”?
Sure, I guess I’m at that point now. I actually went to a voiceover audition for a commercial in New York—this was 15 years ago—and they were looking for a guy who sounded exactly like the guy from the Budget Rent A Car commercial. Of course, I was the guy on the Budget Rent A Car commercial, and I auditioned for a part to sound exactly like myself… and did not get the job. So, you never know.
You’ve said in past interviews that you don’t need to like the character you’re playing but do need to understand him. Does Fletcher actually see talent in Andrew? Or does he recognize a vulnerability that he wants to manipulate?
He sees talent, and I think he also sees vulnerability. But he definitely sees at least the potential for that kind of drive and focus that he’s looking for that he saw in Sean Casey, and that something he would define as the factor that could make a Charlie Parker some day. So it’s all of the above, really. Because he’s so single minded in his pursuit, if the vulnerability is what ends up being the most prevalent characteristic in Andrew, and this destroys Andrew, then tough luck.
We see moments of Fletcher’s life outside of teaching: he gets a phone call that obviously upsets him in some way, and we see him interacting with his friend’s daughter in a very gentle manner. Did you work with Damien Chazelle on a backstory for the character or did you just go with what was on the page?
Damien and I never talked about a backstory. I generally have some version of a back-story for anything I do just for myself, and we actually did shoot some hints at a backstory: we saw a lot of Fletcher at home alone, and traveling through the city on the subway and there were other moments where we saw different sides of him. But at the end of the day Damien decided it served the story better for Fletcher to be more enigmatic and for us to see him only from Andrew’s perspective. We lost a few poignant moments but I think it serves the film better.
Whiplash (the short)
Some of Fletcher’s best lines are as hilarious as they are painful. Were there any insults that were particularly fun to deliver, or conversely, awful to say out loud?
They were mostly both fun and awful at the same time. There’s one line in the finished cut where I say “I will eff you like a pig” which actually was supposed to be in the script: “I will gut you like an effing pig.” When we were shooting the short, I just said it wrong, and Damien found it so hilarious that he kept in the short and wrote it that way when we were shooting the feature. I said: “Dude, I’m not going to do it like that. This is stupid. Why would I say that?” [Laughs] So he said, fine, fine, say it how you want. I said it the way he [originally] wrote it—and then as he was editing, he went back to the short and stole it and put it in the damn movie anyway when we were cutting away to Andrew’s face. It’s just another little lesson that the actor really is not in control of what happens in the movie. [Laughs]
If Dr. Skoda, the psychologist you played on Law & Order, were to observe Fletcher, would he have him committed or would he understand where he was coming from?
Well, I think Skoda’s seen a lot. Fletcher is not homicidal or suicidal—he may be borderline psychopathic and certainly abusive, but I think Skoda would find him…
A lovely coffee companion?
Well, an interesting guy to be in a room with. [Laughs]
Burn After Reading
One of my favorite roles of yours is in Burn After Reading (08). What was it like working for the Coen Brothers? They’re known to be quite precise in terms of dialogue and blocking.
I actually just saw both of them at a holiday gathering and it was delightful as always. What’s wonderful about the Coen Brothers is that they’re the most low-key filmmakers and human beings that I’ve worked with. Very dry and very funny, but absolutely no drama, no BS: they’re just there to have a nice time and to do the work. They’re immaculately prepared with what they have in mind—if it were other directors, it might feel really constraining to have to stick to the script exactly as it’s written the way Joel and Ethan want you to. They do have everything storyboarded, but they don’t put you in a straitjacket as far as the blocking goes. They just have such a clear idea of what they want from the time the first word goes on paper to the time the final cut is made in the edit. So it’s a different experience working with them than it is working with a director that wants you to bring more of your own ideas to it, but it’s a completely joyful experience.
Whiplash was shot in something crazy like 19 days—and you can see from the finished product how precise the shooting must have been. Was there room for improvisation on set at all?
It was both really. Damien did have the whole thing storyboarded and he knew ahead of time, in this two measures, I’m going to be on the trumpet section. He had a very clear idea of what he wanted. So there was that kind of precision, and that was cool because then we weren’t wasting time doing obligatory coverage just for the sake of doing the coverage. If he knew he wasn’t going to be on my face for three seconds and the camera was just going to live on Miles and his reaction, we didn’t waste time turning the camera around to cover me just because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But at the same time, because he had such a clear vision of what he wanted he also was very open to Miles and I and all the actors—Paul [Reiser, who plays Neyman’s dad] and Melissa [Benoist, as Neyman’s love interest]—everybody was free to moderately paraphrase or even improvise. I mean, hey, it’s a jazz movie, you’ve gotta let people improvise.
I saw this film at Sundance last January and just re-watched it, and the final scene, the stage performance, was even more spellbinding the second time around. What was it like shooting that?
It was the better part of two days and, of necessity, the shooting itself was very chopped up. We didn’t get a lot of long runs at playing that scene—you see the final product and how precise and rhythmic it is. I have no idea how many cuts there are in that scene but it’s a lot. So we really didn’t have as good a sense of how that final sequence was going to ultimately be like, whereas all the other stuff—the scenes in the studio band room, or in the jazz club—I felt like I really knew what it was going to be. When I saw the final sequence with the drum solo come together, I was blown away by the level of exhilaration and tension and emotion.
Do you prepare differently for a TV role versus a film role? Is your preparation medium-dependent or character-dependent?
A little of both. With episodic TV all of your character preparation is leading up to shoot the pilot and then once you’re up and running, frankly, it can be somewhat tedious because you’re doing a lot of the same kind of thing over and over again. Certainly film work really depends, too—the closer the character is to yourself in terms of backstory and everything else, the less prep there is. Most of the prep I end up doing for film roles, including for Whiplash is really as much about the psychology of the character as it is the minutiae of the character’s daily life. If the guy is a sheriff, then I want to go do a ride-along with the sheriff in the county where the guy exists. If the guy is a musician, then I go back to my music-school roots and I study the scores—I listen to big-band jazz and I try to create a character so that somebody who does that for a living is going to believe what I’m doing. I talked to jazz musicians, and I believe that Damien and Miles and I accomplished that goal. That to me is a prerequisite of making a really good film. That’s just the jumping-off point: you need to get everything technically right first, and then you have the chance to make something special.
You acted in the theater for 20 years before you came to film and TV. Is there any role that might tempt you back on stage?
There were two things that led to the conscious transition to film and TV. One of them was just that I wanted to get paid and the other one was just I was doing Broadway shows and it was great, but I was doing the same thing that week over and over and it was testing my attention span. Now that I’ve been exclusively doing camera acting for as long as I have, there are a few elements at play. Going back to the stage, honestly, is a little bit intimidating because those muscles haven’t been exercised in a while. And I have a kid in high school and a kid in middle school. Maybe when they’re both in college, I’ll find myself on stage again.