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A Conversation with Oscar Nominee J.K. Simmons of ‘Whiplash’

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Actor J.K. Simmons was born in Detroit, Michigan, raised in Columbus, Ohio and Missoula, Montana and after several years of treading the boards around the country went on to be a singer and actor on Broadway.   It was in 1994 when he received his first major film role in a comedy called The Ref.  Since then, the actor has gone on to become one of the most recognizable faces on both TV and the big screen, not to mention that for the past four years he’s been seen almost nightly as Professor Nathaniel Burke of the University of Farmers in a series of TV ads for a certain insurance company giving Flo a run for her money.

Last year’s performance as intimidating music instructor Terence Fletcher in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash has to date earned the actor both a Golden Globe in Los Angeles and a Best Supporting Actor BAFTA in London, plus a Best Support Actor award from both the Phoenix Film Critics Society and the Phoenix Critics Circle here in the valley, in addition to several other associations across the country.  If the pundits are anything to go by, we should be seeing J.K. Simmons up there on the stage next Sunday at the Academy Awards.

Talking from an east coast airport on Valentine’s Day, before we started our interview, I remarked to JKS – full name, Jonathan Kimble Simmons – that we had a few things in common; we both share a January birthday, we were both born in 1955 and we’re both huge admirers of Frank Zappa.  “Those are all true facts,” he replied, then added, “We actually share that with Kevin Costner as well, I don’t know if you were aware of that. He’s a January ’55 guy.”

J.K. Simmons as Vernon Schillinger in HBO's OZ.

J.K. Simmons as Vernon Schillinger in HBO’s OZ.

In your acceptance speech last week at the BAFTAs in London, you said that getting this role of Fletcher in ‘Whiplash’ was a gift. At what point did you know it was gift? Was it as early as a script read?        Absolutely.  It was in an e-mail from Jason Reitman that the script first came to my attention, and as soon as I read it I knew that if I was the one to receive it, it would be a gift.

Fletcher is like a drill instructor at Boot Camp. When you sat with director Damien Chazelle, is that how he explained he wanted the part to be played or did that approach develop during production?         There was very little in the way of explanation or conversation about how to play these characters ahead of time. It was really a case of Damien’s writing being so clear that Miles (co-star, Miles Teller) and myself and the other actors, er… at least, speaking for Miles and myself, you know, there wasn’t a lot of explanation necessary, it was just trying to lift it off the page and do justice to Damien’s words and take his direction as we went along for the shoot.

When conducting, you do that thing where you appear to yank something out of the air in order to stop the students playing. Again, was that in the direction or was that your own invention?       No, that was mine.  It was just something that happened organically very early on.   Actually, it was when we shot the short film fifteen months before we shot the feature.

J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

And you used it again in your monolog when you hosted Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago.        Yeah, that was when I first showed up that week to do my guest hosting stint.   Lorne Michaels said that, you know, I think we need to get the Whiplash jokes out of the way early on at the beginning of the monolog as the audience will be waiting for it.

Do you play an instrument?         I don’t play anything worth a darn really, no.  That kind of musical talent did not pass down to me.  My father and brother are both capable musicians and play multiple instruments.  My father did and my brother does, but my talent did not extend to my hands, so I’m a singer, a composer and a conductor, but I don’t play anything well.   I had to practice quite a lot on that simple little piano tune that I had to play in the Whiplash nightclub scene.

It must be a thrill to fly overseas and be invited to the BAFTA awards.  Is it a whirlwind weekend in London or do you get a chance to enjoy the city?          Unfortunately, yeah, it was a whirlwind.   I’m in the middle of shooting a film in Atlanta, so I didn’t get to spend as much time on the ground in London as much as I would have liked.  My family and I are going to make up for that by visiting there in June on holiday.

Does the recognition in another country surprise you?         It certainly has surprised me in the past.  It’s been happening enough recently.   I was at Cannes this year and at the London Film Festival and my family and I were over in Paris and London a year and a half ago on vacation too, so I’ve had enough experience over there recently.   I shot a film in Greece this past fall, so I’ve been over there enough to realize that I am reaching across the pond in terms of being recognizable.

Has name recognition changed here in the States since Whiplash?       Yeah, it has definitely taken another step towards not just being another familiar face but a familiar name as well.  (Laughs)  As a matter of fact, I’m encountering that even as we speak at the airport here.

Marlon Wayans and J.K. Simmons in The Ladykillers

Marlon Wayans and J.K. Simmons in The Ladykillers

The majority of critics have praised you as Fletcher but every performer gets bad reviews from time to time. Do you read critics or do you tend to ignore them?         I wouldn’t say either of those, technically.   I don’t seek them out.  Certainly, much has been called to my attention during this whole process with Whiplash.   People don’t send me the negative ones, but I’ve certainly seen a number of positive ones.   Actually, I just got a lovely e-mail from Liam Neeson who I’ve still never met, but he and I have been communicating electronically, and he was quoting a review from one of the English critics that said my portrayal of Fletcher – I’m gonna try and remember this exactly – makes Vin Diesel look like a flower arranger.  That was one of my favorites that I’ve heard recently.

Your first movie was back in ’94 in The Ref with Denis Leary and your character was called Siskel. Do you recall if that was ever meant to be a dig at film critic Gene Siskel?         It absolutely was, and I didn’t find that out until later.   It was my first feature film. I’d done very little camera acting until that point.   I’d done seventeen or eighteen years of theatre.   I was actually doing Guys and Dolls on Broadway at that time and they were nice enough to give me a couple of days off to get my movie career started. I found out after I was cast and after I had been on set a couple of days that Gene Siskel had given our writer a bad review at one point in the past and so when he was writing this sort of unsavory character that I played who was the subject of blackmail due to his extramarital shenanigans, and – you know, my first appearance in the film was a still photo in my boxer shorts – he definitely put that name in there on purpose.   Now, I did not know that at the time when I accepted the job, so… so (laughs) I wanna be clear that I was not part of consciously making fun of Mr. Siskel.   I’m honestly not a big movie buff but I did really, really enjoy At The Movies with Siskel and Ebert back in the day.

If I recall, Roger Ebert praised the film and gave it three stars out of four.         Yeah, well, I’m sure he did enjoy the joke at Mr. Siskel’s expense.

How about the dailies when filming?  Again, there are those who never watch themselves.  Are you among them?        I don’t watch dailies. I rarely watch playback at all.  There are times when I have in the past, and if there’s some specific something that a director wants to show me in the video playback then I’m happy for just technical reasons, or whatever it is, I’m happy to watch, but I … I tried watching it early on in one of my early films, For The Love of the Game in 1998.   Kevin Costner was the star and he was watching playback and I just started watching it because, you know, that’s what the movie stars were doing, but I found it wasn’t really helpful for me at that stage of my career.   It sort of made me self conscious and I’ve never got in the habit of watching them since then.

J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man 2

J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man 2

You’ve sung with the Houston Grand Opera in a revival of Carousel and you were on Broadway in Guys and Dolls.  Your resume runs the gamut of genres.  Have you ever sung in a movie musical?         I have not and I would be happy to.   You know, Damien Chazelle’s next project is a fully fledged movie musical and, you know what – this is just occurring to me now as you ask that question – he asked me if I’d be amenable to doing a cameo in the film, and he sort of described what the character would be, but he didn’t mention if it was a character who sings or not, so, er…but that would be fun.

Do you know whether it’s based on a Broadway show or it is a film original?        It’s completely original and it’s a contemporary piece.    It’s sort of in the style of the old musicals.

Since filming Whiplash you have, at last count, at least eleven different projects already under your belt, not to mention the insurance ads. Do you give yourself any time off or has it literally been a case of going from project to project?         No, I give myself as much time off as possible to do what’s most important, which is to be a husband and a father.    I’m actually headed for a little Valentine’s rendezvous with my wife right now and then next week after the Oscars I’ll be home for a month and, you know, driving the kids to the school bus everyday.

And finally, in addition to the Oscars, will you be attending the Independent Spirit Awards the day before?        Oh, absolutely, yeah, that’s a really fun event.    I’ve only been there once.    That was when we were doing Juno many moons ago, seven or eight years ago, and I enjoyed it greatly.

BAFTA and Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actor:  J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher in 'Whiplash.'

BAFTA and Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher in ‘Whiplash.’

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