JK Simmons gets a shot at being a leading man

Actor J.K Simmons stars in Whiplash. Picture: Contributed

Actor J.K Simmons stars in Whiplash. Picture: Contributed

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FOR YEARS JK Simmons has been stealing scenes as a bit player, but with Whiplash he finally gets his shot at carrying a movie – to terrifying, startling effect, writes Alistair Harkness

It’s the day after the Golden Globe nominations and JK Simmons is pondering his newfound status as an awards season front-runner. “Obviously I’ve been involved in other films that have had awards attention, but this is the first time I’ve had a significant enough part that I’m getting the individual attention as well.”

On the phone from Los Angeles, Simmons is referring to his Golden Globe-nominated performance in jazz drama Whiplash. Twenty years as one of Hollywood’s most versatile character actors may have seen him play everything from a white supremacist in HBO prison drama Oz, to the caring father of a pregnant teen in Juno, to Peter Parker’s über-brusque editor in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, but in Whiplash, this noted scene-stealer has been gifted the role of his career as a jazz band leader who becomes a monstrous mentor to a young conservatoire student (Miles Teller) with a masochistic desire to be the greatest drummer since Buddy Rich. Indeed, since 29-year-old writer/director Damien Chazelle’s second feature debuted at Sundance a year ago, critics and commentators have been figuratively banging the drum for Simmons’ performance as its fearsome antagonist, Terrence Fletcher, indulging in all sorts of premature Oscar speculation along the way. Although the Academy Award nominations aren’t actually announced until Thursday, Simmons is refreshingly up front about enjoying all the hoopla when we speak. “It’s fascinating because my work was done over a year ago and I’m not going to do anything that changes that at this stage, so it’s just about going along for the ride.”

What makes Whiplash such a striking and welcome awards contender, though, is that far from being blatant Oscar bait, it shows what an actor like Simmons can really do when given the sort of screen time normally reserved for a movie star. And it’s not just critics who think this either.

“Paul Thomas Anderson once said about Fargo, ‘I wanted to be the guy that directed Bill Macy to that performance,’” says Juno director and frequent Simmons collaborator Jason Reitman. “I look at JK in Whiplash and go: ‘I wanted to be the guy who directed JK Simmons to that performance.”

As a producer on Whiplash, Reitman can take comfort in the fact that he was instrumental in helping his “muse” land the part. As Simmons notes drily, financiers weren’t exactly lining up to throw millions of dollars at a movie about a jazz drummer, so Reitman encouraged Chazelle to turn part of his script into a proof-of-concept short starring Simmons to illustrate the destructive dynamic at the heart of the film. The short – which didn’t yet feature Teller – debuted at Sundance in 2013 and generated enough heat to raise the budget. Or, at least, a “modest budget to allow us a whole 19 days to shoot the feature” deadpans Simmons.

Even by indie film standards that’s a tight schedule and while Simmons is too modest to mythologise the enforced method approach to the production that ensued, he does admit that a few of the 18-hour days meant “no one had to pretend they were dragging their ass” while filming some of the intensive practice scenes Chazelle had designed to expose how physically and emotionally draining the pursuit of excellence can be. That side of Whiplash also makes it a rarity among movies of this sort. Dispelling the myth that talent alone begets genius, it homes in on the militaristic discipline required before artistry and greatness even enter into the equation, which is also why Simmons opted to play Fletcher like a drill sergeant, right down to his ripped frame, black fatigues and curt way of delivering inventively emasculating insults to anyone who can’t quite keep his tempo. “I definitely saw the character as someone who uses everything at his disposal to intimidate so I wanted to have an intimidating physical presence and have that be part of the character.”

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Such authenticity extended to the musicianship in the film. Simmons is a trained classical singer and musician – something Chazelle wasn’t actually aware of when they first met. “One of the first things Damien tried to do was reassure me so I wouldn’t be intimidated by the musical aspect of the film,” laughs Simmons. “He said we’ll have technical advisors to help you with the basic conducting technique and if need be we’ll body-double stuff. So I said, ‘Well, actually, I studied conducting in college…’”

For the record, Simmons never had the kind of student-mentor relationship depicted in the film, which is worth reiterating given his father was also a musician, conductor and a music teacher. In fact it was actually his father’s occupation that got him into music in the first place. “It was something I resisted at first, but once I got over my youthful rebellion and need to be different, I really embraced the classical music world.” Born in Detroit, Johnathan Kimble Simmons spent his teenage years in Ohio before going on to study music at the University of Montana, where his father was the head of department. “I thought maybe I’d want to be an opera singer or an orchestral conductor. That was my first dream.”

Instead he landed a post-college job as the musical director of a local theatre company and was soon roped into performing in a production of Brigadoon. “I was the best singer for the part,” he says of his musical theatre debut, “but I was far from the best actor.” Fortunately he was playing the Gene Kelly role so didn’t have to master the Scottish accent, but Brigadoon did spark a passion for acting and he spent the next 20 years or so honing his craft – “painfully at times” – on the stage. Eventually making a conscious decision to pursue screen acting in the mid-1990s, he did so at a fortuitous moment: his six-season run as a neo-Nazi inmate in Oz helped lay the ground-work for the current golden age of American television, and he landed the Spider-Man man films (after a couple of small roles in previous Sam Raimi movies) at the moment superheroes started dominating the box office.

Both were huge career boosts, but just as important has been the luck he’s had with young directors like Chazelle and, especially, Reitman. He became fast friends with the latter while making his debut Thank You For Smoking and Reitman subsequently fought to cast Simmons in Juno when financiers began suggesting bigger names after Diablo Cody’s future-Oscar-winning script started picking up traction in Hollywood. “That was the case with Whiplash too,” reveals Simmons. “Once the short started garnering attention, people kept saying, ‘What about these better-known actors to play the leads?’”

That seems incredible now. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role – and harder still to imagine this kind of second-guessing happening in the future. “Well, hopefully not,” chuckles Simmons. He already has an enviable slate of movies lined up, including the new Terminator franchise, an upcoming thriller with Ben Affleck (The Accountant), a slew of indies he doesn’t want to jinx in case their financing falls through, and a “significant role” opposite Tom Hiddleston in King Kong reboot Skull Island. “There have been some really nice offers and interesting scripts coming my way,” he surmises modestly of his suddenly raised profile. “I’ve certainly been feeling the Whiplash effect.”

Whiplash is on general release from Friday.

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