ABOVE: J.K. SIMMONS IN WHIPLASH. PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
In January of this year, J.K. Simmons turned 59. A week later, he premiered the best performance of his career at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was Whiplash, the second feature from a relatively unknown, young writer-director named Damien Chazelle. The role was that of Fletcher, a professor at the most prestigious music school in the U.S. (a fictional cross between Berklee and Julliard) who rules over the school’s jazz ensemble (and in particular over a student named Andrew played by Miles Teller) with an unrelenting, insidious perfectionism. Whiplash won both the Audience and Grand Jury Prizes at Sundance, and was immediately scooped up by Sony Pictures Classics. Critics whispered of an Oscar Nomination for Simmons. This week, the film comes out in limited release across the U.S. After successful runs at Cannes, Toronto, and most recently, the New York Film Festival, Simmons remains a critical favorite for an Academy nomination.
Simmons has been working for many years, first on stage and then in television shows such as Oz and The Closer. He has a prolific career as a voice actor, and has appeared in every single one of Jason Reitman’s six films, including Men, Women, and Children, which is currently in movie theaters. Reitman has half-jokingly described Simmons as his “muse.”)
EMMA BROWN: I know you studied music while you were at the University of Montana. Did you come across anyone like Fletcher?
J.K. SIMMONS: I can’t say like Fletcher, no. I certainly knew some guys who studied under some really brilliantly musicians who were perfectionists. But nobody who was as borderline psychopathic and abusive as Fletcher.
BROWN: Are you a perfectionist?
SIMMONS: No, not really. In my work I try to get things right, to do it well, and if there are specific skills involved—like in this case conducting or playing the piano, or in this film I have coming up where I play a character who is German—I’m very meticulous about learning accents and dialects and those kinds of things. That’s probably the closest I come to being a perfectionist.
BROWN: You’ve been acting for a long time now. What was the role that got you your SAG card?
SIMMONS: I got my card for a job that I ended up not doing. I was in New York. I had been doing theater for many years and then I got hired to a little part—they weren’t calling it an extra, but I didn’t have lines. It was a “featured” part. I was going to be in a locker room, walking around naked or wearing a jock strap or something. It was a scene with Michael Douglas in a locker room in Wall Street (1987). Don’t ask me how I got hired. [laughs] I didn’t have to go into some casting and take my clothes off. I have no idea why I got that job. I was like, “Okay, I’ll go get my SAG card” and pay the 1,500 bucks that I couldn’t really afford. Hopefully I’ll get the residuals. I went. I got my card. As happens in the world of movies, the schedule changed that scene got pushed back, then it got pushed around again. By the time they ended up shooting that scene I was up in Pittsburgh doing a play and I didn’t get to do it. It was a couple of years of paying SAG before I was ever in a SAG production.
BROWN: When did you switch from music to acting?
SIMMONS: That was a sort of gradual transition. I was studying music in college. I was singing, I was doing operas and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and then I was offered a job as the music director of the Bigfork Summer Playhouse, in Bigfork, Montana. I got up there and also ended up playing the lead in one of the four musicals that summer—I played the lead in Brigadoon, ’cause I was sort of the best singer for the part. I worked with a few really, really good directors up there, during that summer and over the next few years, and they began to teach me how to be an actor and respect for the craft—how to take what I was feeling inside and translate it into a character.
BROWN: When did you feel like, “Okay, this is going to be my full time job?”
SIMMONS: Not for a long time. When I got out of college I moved to Seattle because it was the nearest big city and still didn’t know if I wanted to be a composer, conductor, singer, actor. I just got day jobs and auditioned and took what came and the theater doors were the ones opening the most. I got to work with some really good actors and directors in Seattle doing plays, musicals, and Shakespeare and learning by doing. I think in a way when I got my Equity Card I sort of felt like, “Wow, I’m going to be able to pay my rent by acting.” Only for six weeks until the play closes, but I really felt like that made a dent. Obviously there were other steps, other rungs on the ladder since then. Fortunately, for the first 20 years in my career, I didn’t have any other responsibilities outside of myself. I didn’t have a wife and kids, so I could afford to sort of barely scrape by, to do theater. I moved to New York and did regional theater and I finally got a big hit Broadway show. That definitely felt like, “Wow, now I’ve really made it. I’m on Broadway. I’m in a new production directed by Jerry Zaks. It’s going to be a hit and run forever.” For theater, that’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Then, a few years later, Oz (1997) comes along and that was like another, “Wow, I’m actually on HBO.” A couple years after that I was doing Spider-Man (2002) movies. There have been a lot steps along the way that felt like major accomplishments—or half-accomplishment and half stroke of luck.
BROWN: Does Whiplash feel like another step?
SIMMONS: Yeah. So much of my career as a screen actor has been in smaller and supporting roles and this is certainly a supporting role as well, but people refer to this as a two-hander even though there are wonderful characters in it. It’s a very meaningful part that’s a bigger part of the script than a lot of my characters tend to be. I still go in and read for directors and meet directors, but it’s nice to have somebody just offer me a part like this out of the blue. In that way it’s sort of another level of accomplishment/luck. The movie obviously hasn’t opened yet, but with the festivals we seem to be getting a lot of buzz and people are enjoying the movie and hopefully that’s what it’s all about.
BROWN: Have you ever auditioned for a role where they described it as a “J.K. Simmons?”
SIMMONS: Yeah, there were a couple things. Actually the first time I heard that it was for a commercial voice-over in New York and I went in. I literally went in and auditioned and got the part of “sounds like J.K. Simmons.” I’ve heard people say a “J.K. Simmons type, but younger” or “J.K. Simmons, but with hair” or “J.K. Simmons but Mongolian.” It’s often “J.K. Simmons but…”. You think you’re on top of the world and they’re asking for a “J.K. Simmons-type” and then, before you know it, they’re asking for a “J.K. Simmons only younger.” The next step is for a “J.K. Simmons-type…Oh, you mean he’s still alive?”
BROWN: Damien [Chazelle] mentioned that he was unaware of your musical background when he cast you as Fletcher.
SIMMONS: Yeah. We had lunch in L.A. and it was one of those meetings where I felt going to try and pitch myself for the part, and he was going to try to pitch the part to me because Jason Reitman had suggested me for the part. The first he said was, “I don’t want you to get nervous or feel overwhelmed by the musical aspect and conducting. We’ll find a conductor who will be a technical advisor and teach you how to do all this stuff.” And I I said, “Let me stop you right there. I’ve got a degree in music— not jazz, I was never a jazz conductor—but I led pit bands and was a classical conductor and composer and singer so I am one lucky step ahead on that. And it was the same with Miles, too. Miles had been playing drums since he was 15 years old.
BROWN: But he still had to practice for four hours a day to prepare.
SIMMONS: Oh, yeah because he was some slob rock drummer like most people are and to translate that to jazz…I had to do a lot of things differently because jazz is a different world—for drummer as least as much as for a conductor. So you’ve got to basically take your left hand and throw everything you know out the window and learn it all over again. That was a real challenge for the both of us, to translate our musical background to jazz.