While fans of J.K. Simmons may think they know the full range of what he can do as an actor, they have not seen him (or any actor) play a character quite like Terence Fletcher in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.
Fletcher is a music teacher at the (fictitious) Schaffer Conservatory of Music in New York and conductor and leader of the school’s highly-competitive studio jazz band. They play the toughest charts and arrangements and Fletcher requires absolute perfection from every single musician and he will resort to the harshest insults and even throwing things to make it happen.
Along comes Miles Teller as the ambitious drummer Andrew Neiman and even though he’s clearly good enough, Fletcher decides to go harder on him than anyone else, not realizing that Andrew is ready to take on any challenge to prove to Fletcher that he has what it takes to be one of the greats.
Whiplash is not like any other movie you’ve seen this year, taking a fairly simple idea set in the world of music academics and instilling it with two characters who are at such odds with each other that it’s increasingly entertaining to watch things build to a number of explosive climaxes.
For those who enjoyed Simmons’ work as Vern Schillinger on HBO’s “Oz” or J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy, Terrence Fletcher takes what we know the actor can do to another level. That makes Simmons possibly one of the first sure things of this year’s awards season, because no one who watches Whiplash can walk away not realizing that it’s far past time that Simmons gets noticed by those that hand out awards every year.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Simmons last week to talk about what is turning into the role of his career. (And if that isn’t enough Simmons for his fans, he’s also appearing in his sixth movie with director Jason Reitman Men, Women & Children, which he briefly mentions at the end.)
ComingSoon.net: We last spoke for “The Music Never Stopped,” which I guess was about two years ago? I guess it was a while ago.
J.K. Simmons: That was like four years ago? And about 60 pounds ago, too.
CS: Oh, really? It was that long ago? Well, I hope that weight was gained for a role at least.
Simmons: I gained it for a previous one and was having a hard time taking it off for “Music Never Stopped” and actually it kind of worked for that character to be a little bit heavy, but it works a bit better for Fletcher to be a little more fit.
CS: Fletcher’s such a great character. Unfortunately I never saw the short, although I know you originated the character in that short. Is it safe to assume Jason was the one who introduced you to Damien or vice versa?
Simmons: Jason was the one who sent me the script. Jason and Helen (Estabrook) had just recently come forward as producers on this. I actually don’t know how or from whom they got the script, but they recognized the potential. They were talking about casting and the first name that Jason and Helen tossed out there was mine and Damien said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” He sent me the script and I obviously responded to it, we got together and bing-bang-boom, I was doing the part.
CS: I know that the short was basically one specific scene in the movie. I guess it’s the first time Andrew is playing drums in Fletcher’s band, or was it more than that?
Simmons: Yeah, it’s basically Andrew’s first day in the studio band.
CS: When you heard it was going to be a feature film were you at all wondering where it goes from there? How much did you know while making the short about what Damien wanted to do in terms of a feature?
Simmons: When they sent me the script, they actually sent me both scripts. Damien wrote it as a feature and then the idea of doing a short, I think also came from Jason and Helen, and maybe also with input from Jason Blum, as an idea to raise funds for the feature, because shockingly, no one was throwing millions of dollars at Damien to make a movie about a jazz drummer. I knew it was a fully fleshed-out script before I even signed on to do the short. I didn’t know whether or not I would have the opportunity to do the feature. I just go where the good work is, and in this case, all the stars aligned and here we are talking about it, because the film was beautifully made and now it’s getting some attention.
CS: I didn’t see the movie at Sundance although I heard about the buzz for it. I finally watched the trailer and I was just blown away, because I had played in high school jazz band myself, and it reminded me of my own teacher, not to that extreme of course, but elements of him. Was it very obvious from the screenplay, this would be a character you could sink your hooks into?
Simmons: Yeah, to me it was. I recognized that this kid was an uncommonly talented writer when I read the script, and not only that–and I’ve said this before in other interviews–every time I get a script that’s very good, that doesn’t mean that it’s really good for me. It doesn’t mean that I’m the actor to make it work. Sometimes I read a really good script and I just know that it’s not a good fit. I understood what Fletcher was about and felt like it was something that I absolutely wanted to be a part of. The short went to Sundance and made a big splash there and they had a bunch of money coming in to make the feature. A lot of the money people were throwing around other more well-known actors to play the part, people that had more box office clout, and fortunately for me, Damien and Jason and Helen and all the producers said, “No, we found the guy we want and that’s the movie we want to make.” Miles was actually the guy that Damien had in mind as he was writing the screenplay and he came on board for the feature and then things took off from there.
CS: You’ve played a wide range of roles but the ones that people love, like Schillinger and J. Jonah Jameson, they both have different kinds of tempers. Schillinger is more of a slow burn to Jameson who is just full-on, but Fletcher falls in between, because you never know when or where Fletcher is going to flip out.
Simmons: Yeah, where Jameson is a blowhard who hollers at the top of his lungs, Schillinger is more likely to kill you then yell at you, but this guy to me those are certainly valid comparisons and then I would throw in another role that I did on stage. Briefly, I got to play the Colonel in “A Few Good Men,” which is another incredibly juicy bad guy part that I got to do on Broadway as an understudy, but the thing that those characters have in common, aside from being quote-unquote “the bad guy”–although Jameson is not a bad guy, he’s just a pain-in-the-ass guy–they’re just really well written and each in their own way really fun part to play in a very different way than playing Juno’s Dad, which was fun to play, or playing the dad on “Growing Up Fischer” was fun to play last year. I’m just first of all looking for a part that’s well written and speaks to me.
CS: You sort of mentioned Fletcher as being in the “bad guy” role and some actors–Christoph Waltz in particular–he will never say that his character is a good or bad, because in everyone’s head they have “good” reasons for everything they’re doing. Do you have to just ignore all ethics and morals you’ve built in life to play a character like this?
Simmons: No, no, and I never think of a character as a bad guy while I’m doing it. You’re always coming at it from your character’s point of view with your character’s motives and objectives and desires, so I completely understand what Christoph Waltz is saying about the way to approach a character. I think we probably totally agree on that. If you go into a job saying “I get to play the bad guy” then you’re likely to be making a cardboard character, but at the end of the day, I’m just talking about the way people perceive the movie. I would have people come up to me when “Oz” was airing and they would go, “Really good show, I love you. You play the bad guy on Oz’?” and I’m like “Are you kidding me? Everybody on that show is a bad guy. They’re all mother rapers and father rapers and murderers and drugdealers.” But at that point, I just considered that high praise.
CS: How do you get into a character like Fletcher? Is there some part of him that you can relate to or a part of yourself that you can tap into? Do you know people like that? Where do you even begin?
Simmons: It may sound overly simplistic, but this is a character that was so well-written and so well put down on page that his motivation and his objectives were clear. The fact that his methods are, by most people’s standards, out of whack, was just a testament to his passion and dedication. But yeah, to me, it was a very natural character to latch into; I just understood where he was coming from.
CS: You’ve been in Hollywood a long time so have you ever met people like this who play mind games with others? You don’t have to name any names.
Simmons: People in my past or mentors or people I’ve worked with?
CS: Any of those. I’ve had teachers in my past that if you put them all together, they might create a Fletcher
Simmons: (chuckles) I definitely have had a director here or there. I had a football coach or two, but that was par for the course when I would play football in high school. I mean, brutality was part of the theme of the game back then, but in terms of people who were really manipulative, yeah, I definitely found myself dealing with directors or other co-workers who would work that way, but not anywhere near the abusive level of Fletcher. In my case, not that’s going to work really well with me. I’m a collaborator and again, that was one of the joys of this project with all those days on the set with Damien, Miles and Sharone (Meir) the DP and Helen who was there every minute of every day on set from a production standpoint. It was a great collaboration with none of that drama, none of that bullsh*t.
CS: Did you rehearse a lot or did you want to try to keep some of it spontaneous for the day of shooting?
Simmons: We didn’t rehearse almost at all. Miles did a lot of prep on the drumming and I did a lot of prep learning the scores, reading the music, listening to the music, practicing piano, all those kinds of technical things. We did a lot of practice on our own, but in terms of playing the scenes, because of the tight budget–we shot the film in 19 days–there was no time or money for full-on rehearsals. In this case, I think it worked really well. The way Miles works, the way I work, like I was doing theater 20 years ago, working this way I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off, but having been a screen actor for quite a while now, it’s actually the way I prefer to work. Everybody does their homework and we all come together and just knock it out. There are adjustments to make and if you have actors who are collaborators and who really know how to listen and be in the scene together than it works out beautifully. When we have a director like a Jason Reitman or like a Damien, you develop a faith in them and a shorthand with them and they actually direct, and you move in the direction where you’re being directed. How’s that for a sentence?
CS: From what we’ve seen, Damien is a very visual director, so what’s it like working on that set. Is there a lot of time spent on getting close-ups or different shots to capture that?
Simmons: That was one of the leaps of faith because I hadn’t seen any of Damien’s work. I had no idea that he would be a genius in the editing room and a genius of a shot-maker. Based on a couple discussions and Jason and Helen’s word and this and that, I believed in him. People are definitely going to be lauding him and rightly so, as a visual artist and as a visionary and as a guy who really knows how to paint a picture. But he also is a really talented and empathetic director of actors, which is a whole different skill set. That’s a whole different aspect of storytelling that he has with all the best directors. He has the whole kit–there’s a little drum metaphor for you there. He has it all, and the only way to know that is to go in on blind faith and work with the guy.
CS: Having seen the movie with an audience, are you surprised by some of the things that Terence does and says that people find funny? In the real world, people would be horrified to hear about this behavior but people find it entertaining.
Simmons: I think it’s one of those things where I think a lot of the dialogue, the insults that are thrown around, are hilarious. At the same time, he’s despicable and heinous and abusive and awful and that’s one of the many lines that this movie steps all over both sides of. I think sometimes the laughter is that kind of nervous laughter of “Oh my God, that’s so horrible, so brutal” and sometimes it’s a really clever insult. Then again, 95% of the dialogue is what Damien wrote, but he was also comfortable enough to give Miles and me a little room to breathe, so stuff that we would bring to the table, whether it was a little improv or ad-libbing or a different take being used, he was always amenable to “collaborate” is the word I keep coming back to. He was able to listen and not have his ego hurt if somebody said, “Here’s an idea, how about if I try it this way or paraphrase it this way?” or whatever. But again, most of the streams of epithets were straight off the page and straight out of the twisted mind of Damien Chazelle.
CS: Did you ever find yourself having to apologize to Miles for anything your character or said to him?
Simmons: You know, that little brat pretty boy deserves everything he got. Mr. Big Time Movie Star, if he can’t take some old ballpark yelling at him he better get out of the business, I guess. I hope that sarcasm plays in print.
(At this point, the interviewer is laughing so hard he has a coughing fit that takes him a few seconds to recover from it.)
CS: I was curious about how your relationship with Jason Reitman works in terms of being in his movies. Does he tell you early on that he wants you to play a certain part in the movie and you come up for a couple days? “Juno” is a bigger role but the last few have been smaller.
Simmons: Yeah, it’s weird. The more I work with him, the smaller parts get. What does that say? I’m not sure.
CS: But he got you involved with “Whiplash” so that makes up for it.
Simmons: No, absolutely. That’s also a reverse of the relationship that people think it is, because Jason grew up in the business obviously in such an all-round knowledgeable guy–writing, directing, producing. It’s almost like he’s a mentor to me even though I’m about as old as his Dad. The first time I met him, I auditioned for him for “Thank You for Smoking” and we saw that worked out and we had really good time on that together. At this point, it’s an unwritten rule of showbiz that if Jason is directing, there is going to be a part for me although in “Young Adult” it ended up being only a voice-over, but I was in it and it kept our string intact. I just saw “Men, Women & Children” last night and it’s a devastating movie in a lot of ways, but it’s so well done, so well acted. I love that one of things that is great about Jason is his ability to take a disparate group of actors and keep them on the same page telling the same story, including this movie. About half of the movie lives with high school kids, so it’s another real achievement for him.
CS: I’m talking to him on Friday so I’ll make sure to throw in a hint to give you a bigger role in the next movie.
Simmons: (laughs) There you go.
Whiplash opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, October 10. As mentioned, Simmons also appears in Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children now playing in New York and Los Angeles, which will expand into more cities over the next few weeks. (And you can look for our interview with Jason later this week.)