There are actors whose presence in a movie or television show guarantees to make them just that much better. One such actor is J.K. Simmons whose early role as White Supremacist ringleader Schillinger in the HBO prison show “Oz” found him many loyal fans, followed by other long-running TV shows like “Law & Order” and “The Closer” with Kyra Sedgwick and roles in films by the Coen Brothers and Jason Reitman. Even so, what most people will probably know Simmons for is his brilliant portrayal of Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s three “Spider-Man” films, which may be the closest any comic book character has transitioned to the screen.
Simmons now has his meatiest film role to date in Jim Kohlberg’s independent drama The Music Never Stopped playing Henry Sawyer, a man whose estranged son Gabe (played by Lou Taylor Pucci) returns home after 20 years with a brain condition that doesn’t allow him to form new memories and how a therapist (Julia Ormond) uses music to try to get through to Gabe at the same time as Henry tries to reconnect with his distant son.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with the prolific actor last week to talk about the role and other aspects of his life and career including his fond memories of playing J. Jonah Jameson.
ComingSoon.net: So how did this movie come your way? It’s such a great role, a really interesting film. I was curious how you found out about it.
J.K. Simmons: Well, where I am sort of in my career, sometimes I get an offer, and more often I’m auditioning for significant roles in films. This one, I got the script from my agent. I was very busy in the middle of I don’t remember what, and he said, “This director wants to meet you tomorrow, if you can read the script tonight.” I was like, “No way, I’m just crammed, forget it.” I was in New York at the time. The director, Jim, wanted to meet me in New York, so I just blew it off. Then, that night I was having a hard time sleeping, so I opened up the script and read it, and just was absolutely floored by Gwyn and Gary’s script. I immediately emailed my agent and said, “Yeah, absolutely. Please, I want to do this. Let’s make a time to get together with this guy and see if I’ll do this.” Really, the meeting with Jim, it happened a week later when we were both in LA. It was really just kind of a “let’s sit down and have a cup of coffee and decide if we feel like the guy sitting across from the table is somebody I want to work with or not,” because he was already pretty much had made up his mind that he wanted me to do the part. I had already made up my mind that I was dying to do it because the script was just such gold. So, yeah, it just landed in my lap and I was lucky enough to do it.
CS: So its potential for a movie was really obvious from reading the script even with a first-time director?
Simmons: Yeah, I mean, I’ve done a lot of films in the last several years, especially with first-time directors, including Jason Reitman. Most of ’em are 20 something, and Jim was a guy who’s been on the planet almost as long as I have, so when I heard it was a first-time director I was expecting to meet some kid across the table. (laughs)
CS: This is obviously based on a real story…
Simmons: I mean, it is, yes and no, because Gabriel character and Julie Ormond’s character, the music therapist, are very much based on real people. All of the family dynamics that my character and Cara’s character and all of Gabriel’s friends, all of that is just total fiction that Gwyn and Gary came up with. So, it’s a combination of sort of based on two real characters. All the stuff about the Oliver Sacks case study and all the reality of that brain tumor and its effects and the effects of music therapy, those are all scientific and from reality, but the real core of this story of the movie is really well-written fiction.
CS: Did you want to do any research into any of the scientific stuff or did you really just need to your character and not worry about any of that?
Simmons: You know what? I didn’t. The first thing I wanted to do after Jim and I met and agreed that we really wanted to do this together, they were still looking for the actor to play Gabriel. When Jim emailed me, whatever, a week later, whatever it was, that said that “this kid Lou Taylor Pucci, and he’s great. He’s excited about it. I’m gonna hire him.” I asked him to send Lou my contact info so he and I could talk about it because I’m not the only guy in the world that doesn’t know Lou Taylor Pucci from all his Sundance hits in the last six years.
CS: You’ve been to Sundance a lot actually, so that’s surprising.
Simmons: Yeah, no, I got kids, I don’t get out much. So, Lou and I, we got in touch with each other, and we went out and sat, had a little coffee. Then I went and just hung out at his house a few times, and we just really hit it off, too. Of course, he was doing a lot of research because it was an absolute necessity for him. First of all, he’s never played guitar in his life, so he had to learn how to play guitar. Then he was researching all the realities – he was meeting with Oliver Sacks and reading books and going to hospitals and figuring out how to play that character. To me, I was really glad that I hung out with Lou before we started just to get to know him. Even though we didn’t even talk all that much about the script perse really, we just sorta hung out and bonded, I was real glad we’d done that once we started shooting. I didn’t research any of the reality of the medical realities, or the theories of music therapy beyond what I already knew because to me, from Henry’s point of view, Henry’s an engineer. He’s a dad. He was a pretty crappy dad for a long time. What’s important to the story there was his relationship with his son, and with his wife, and how damaged they were, and how to repair them. I don’t want to say the minutiae, but the fine points, the details, the medical details were less important to me than just the dynamics of the characters, although I did have to do some Grateful Dead research, of course. I wouldn’t be lying when I said I’d learned every Grateful Dead song, and then I’d have to be able to go sing along with them at the concert. So, that was as close as I came to doing a massive amount of research on this job.
CS: You’ve played a lot of recurring roles on TV shows but this is one of your bigger movie roles, so do you normally do a lot of preparation for something like this?
Simmons: It really varies according to what I perceive to be the demands of the role and also how much time that I have to prepare, and what access I have. Several years ago I did a movie called “The Gift” with Sam Raimi, and I was playing a Southern sheriff and they were able to connect me with a guy, and I had the time. I got to ride along with the Chief Deputy of that little county in Georgia, and do a fair amount of research and really get the vibe of the Southern sheriff thing. Even “Spider-Man,” when I got hired to do “Spider-Man,” I got hooked up to go hang out at “The New York Post,” and just sort of get the vibe of–even though we obviously worked in a terribly naturalistic or modern–first of all, I learned a little bit of the lingo, and then also just to get a vibe of the hectic nature of the big city newspaper.
CS: I thought you were going to tell me that J. Jonah Jameson was based on an editor at “The New York Post,” which would’ve been an enormous scoop if that were true.
Simmons: Well no, listen, all I did there was do my very best to rip him off the pages of the comic book.
CS: What about spending time with Cara Seymour beforehand, because obviously you two play characters who have been married for 40 or 50 years?
Simmons: Just barely beforehand because Lou at the time was living in LA. He’s out of Hollywood now, but Lou and I were the two Los Angelinos, so we were able to spend time together. I didn’t meet Cara until… we did do a little rehearsal in New York too, which was another smart thing that Jim Kohlberg, our director, did because his background, like mine, goes back to theater, so we did a few days of rehearsal. We did a table read, and broke down a lot of the scenes. We even rehearsed at the location of our house before we started shooting, so I did have that opportunity to just get comfortable with Cara.
CS: Did you actually shoot in White Plains or somewhere in that region?
Simmons: Yeah, we were shooting mostly in the Bronx. The house was in the Bronx, and actually, the assisted living facility where Gabriel was, was not in White Plains, but in Westchester County, in Hastings. Then, there was some other hospital stuff that was in Brooklyn, and the cemetery stuff was here. It was all around Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Westchester.
CS: In this movie, you have a lot of different looks and hairlines, since you’re basically playing the same character over the course of a good 40 years or so. Was there any kind of logical order to shooting?
Simmons: Yeah, I was talking to somebody about this today, a guy on the plane I was flying back in, and talking to a guy about just making movies. He was asking, “Do you shoot ’em in sequence?” I hope I’m not forgetting one, but I’ve never done a film that’s shot anything remotely like chronological order. For Cara and Lou and myself, there were a lot of different looks. With Lou, it was laying on a beard. For me, it was wearing wigs, and doing different makeups and stuff. Yeah, there were days when it’d be 1986 in the morning, and then it’d be 1957 in the afternoon. That’s just the way the schedule shakes out sometimes. I think I was happier when we were doing the 1980’s scenes because I didn’t have to wear hair. Lou was always happier in the 1960’s because he didn’t have to put that sticky beard on his face every day.
CS: Didn’t Lou also have a long hair wig in the ’60s?
Simmons: Yeah, but wearing a wig on top of actual hair, and compared to putting the beard on every day, believe me, the wig (Laughs) was nothing. That’s a painstaking process that the makeup department goes through to lay a beard on.
CS: It’s really amazing for a first-time director to tackle a movie like this with so many flashbacks and timelines and be able to manage it. Was it a pretty quick shoot you think, compared to other movies you’ve done?
Simmons: Yeah, I mean, it was as quick as it needed to be for the budget that they had, which I don’t know exactly, but I think it was five weeks, which is a pretty luxurious amount of time for a small budget movie. I just finished my wife’s first feature, which was a very small budget, and I think it was around 30 days.
CS: Generally, you’ve done a lot of smaller roles where you kind of just have to come in for a couple of days, and in this one, you’re in every single scene, so you’re gonna have to be there the whole time and five weeks seem like a decent chunk of time.
Simmons: Yeah, and it was different for me to look at number one on the call sheet, and there’s my name, and to be going to work virtually every day of the shoot, yeah, it was a different experience. I am usually the guy that flies there and does a week or two, or even just a couple of days, and do my thing, and hit the road. But, it was great. I mean, and it was such a collaborative experience with Jim and with Lou and Cara and Julia and everybody. It certainly, the difficulties that I have sometimes coming in, but like the film I just finished. I just wound up doing a film with Mark Wahlberg where I went in for three days, and then I was home for three weeks, and then I went back and shot for a week, and then I came home, and then I went back and shot, one of those kinds of parts. In “The Music Never Stopped,” it was great to just have the continuity of just being there every day, working almost as many hours as the crew, which is unusual for me. (Laughs)
CS: There was a time when you were doing two TV shows at once, so I’m always surprised when I see you in movies because I wonder, “How does he have time to make these movies?” Obviously, you have the summer break and stuff like that, but still, it seems like to balance all that stuff, it’d be very hard.
Simmons: It’s a real juggling act sometimes, but God bless my agent Stephen Hirsh has always been good at making it work and being able to squeeze things in where there’s space, and be understanding of reality when things don’t squeeze in. I’ve been ridiculously lucky in the opportunities I’ve had for the last 15, 16 years or so since I started doing films and TV.
CS: Oh, I want to ask about the Grateful Dead concert in the movie, which you shot at the Hammerstein Ballroom, which is pretty amazing. I was really blown away by the fact that you were actually recreating a Grateful Dead show, so what was the experience like shooting there?
Simmons: Yeah, it was really beautifully put together by Jim. I mean, as the actors play in those scenes in the audience, those scenes always have their intrinsic difficulties because most of the time you’re not actually hearing the music that you’re acting like you’re reacting to, so you’re just jumping around like a couple of idiots, and it presents its own challenges in that way. But there were scenes too where we actually did have the music blaring, and we were able to just play it live. Yeah, all those guys, that wasn’t like a Grateful Dead tribute band that does this stuff. Those were all just different individual guys that Jim and the casting people. The guy that played Jerry Garcia was–I’m not going to get this right–but he was like, a math teacher from Brooklyn or something, and not even a musician, you know? They just really did a great job of finding the people. (laughs) Then the Hammerstein Ballroom was the perfect place to have it, and the word got out, and most of the extras–at least all the ones that were around us that I was talking to when we were shooting–they were all Dead Heads. The guy that was over my right shoulder that sort of is in a lot of the shots, it was a very sort of straight-looking guy. He said he’d been to 75 Grateful Dead concerts in the late 70’s to the late 80’s. It was a trip. Oliver Sacks came by that night.
CS: Is he a Grateful Dead fan, too?
Simmons: I don’t know for a fact whether he was a fan or not, but he certainly lived through the 60’s.
CS: That must’ve been a thrill for those Dead fans to be there for that experience even it was just a fake band for one day.
Simmons: Yeah, yeah, and all the other tunes – I mean, the Grateful Dead is obviously the really pivotal band in the movie, but there’s so much other great music from that area, Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan, and The Stones.
CS: Is that the kind of music you generally listen to and like?
Simmons: Yeah, I mean, my real favorite artist at that time – well, I was born in ’55, so I was not that far from growing up when Gabriel did, so the same generation basically. I was into Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and when I was feeling mellow, it was more James Taylor, Crosby, Stills and Nash, that kind of stuff. Although, I will say Bob Dylan, the very first song I ever learned on the guitar, like probably half the people in America at that time, was “Blowing in the Wind,” so Dylan connects with me.
CS: So basically part of playing this character is pretending you didn’t like the music you actually do like?
Simmons: Oh yeah, yeah.
CS: So, obviously you and Jason Reitman have had a great run. Have you had any time to do anything for “Young Adult”?
Simmons: I actually will not unlike “True Grit” with the Coen Brothers, you will not see me in “Young Adult,” but you will hear me.
CS: Nice. I actually got excited that I recognized your voice in the voice-over for “True Grit.”
Simmons: Yeah? Cool. I had friends who were writing and texting me and saying, “I was waiting for your character to show up for the rest of the movie and you never showed up. What the hell? Did you get cut out of it?” I said, “No, I was never in it. They just asked me to do the voice-over when they were in post-production.” Then Jason asked me to do the voice-over in “Young Adult” just because at this point, I’m his good luck charm. I’ve been in every feature he’s directed.
CS: Also, you were in “Jennifer’s Body,” which Diablo also wrote.
Simmons: Right, yeah, which Diablo wrote and Jason was a producer. That’s a nice little club to be a part of.
CS: Absolutely, so what else have you been working on? Are you pretty much done with the TV shows for now or are you still shooting?
Simmons: No, we’re actually going back on “The Closer” in three weeks or so here for Season 7, which it’s gonna be a longer season. We’re doing 21 episodes instead of the usual 15, so that’s gonna be my next nine months. I just finished two different features. One was a film called “Contraband,” which was the thing I was doing in New Orleans with Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster and Lucas Haas and all kinds of really cool actors, Caleb Landry Jones, a really great cast.
CS: Have you shot in New Orleans before?
Simmons: I had never shot in New Orleans, no. I’d only been there once 20 years ago for just a few days. Yeah, we were there around Mardi Gras time, so it was insanity. When actual Mardi Gras weekend came, I just got on a plane and came home and took four days off. If I had been there 30 years ago at Mardi Gras it would’ve been fun, but now I’d rather be home with my kids. Then, the other thing that I just wrapped is a film called “Geezers!” with an exclamation point like “Oklahoma!”, which is a very sort of whacky, raunchy, mockumentary comedy with a tiny, tiny budget. It was my wife’s (Michelle Schumacher) first feature as a director. That’s how I got the job, sleeping with the director. So yeah, I was bouncing back and forth between New Orleans doing “Contraband” and home in LA. Literally home, sometimes we actually shot a few scenes in our own house given the budget constraints. (Chuckles)
CS: I was reading about that and saw that it’s already being dubbed as “Cocoon meets the Hangover” which sounds completely insane.
Simmons: It’s a very improv-y mockumentary kind of feel. I don’t want to compare it to Christopher Guest, but that kind of feel to the movie, but it’s set in an old folks home where an actor played by me is doing research because he’s got a movie where he has to play an 88-year-old guy. He’s going out to hang out with 88-year-old guys and finds out that these particular 88-year-old guys pretty much act like oversexed 14-year-olds. I mean, as with anything, it’s hard to… “Cocoon” meets “Spinal Tap” meets “The Hangover” meets “Porky’s” meets I dunno.
CS: Sounds pretty cool. I guess she’ll be doing post-production on that for a while, and the maybe we’ll see it at a festival down the road?
Simmons: Yes, literally she just started editing yesterday, so yeah. I mean, who knows? The future of that hopefully will be whether they’ll just find a distributor, or whether it’ll hit some film festivals or whatever, but hopefully one way or another it’ll get out there in the next year.
CS: Now, I know a lot of people were kind of disappointed to hear you weren’t going to be returning as J. Jonah in the new “Spider-Man.”
Simmons: Well, I certainly was. I was at Sam’s birthday party, and we were talking about story ideas for J.J.J., and then six weeks later, they pulled the rug out from under all of us. So, yeah, I wish the new people all the best with it, but I sorta felt like those films were iconic, and Sam was such a great director for that–I’m finding myself using the word franchise, which I hate– but it was a big disappointment that we weren’t going to get to play again because those were just really, really fun.
CS: I always felt that your J.J.J. would be like Judi Dench playing M in “Casino Royale,” because you can’t really have anyone else play J. Jonah Jameson. You’re loyal to Sam so you wouldn’t do another movie if they wanted to have you come back? I don’t think they have J. Jonah in this new movie at all, as far as I know. I’m not sure, though.
Simmons: That’s what I heard recently, too; they just decided not to have the character be in the movie. Obviously it’s going to be a very different take on it. I hope it does – I’m not sure what I hope. (Laughs) I just know that the movies that Sam made, especially the first two… strangely he was sort of less on his own in the third film and it kinda felt like there were a lot of cooks stirring the pot in that third film.
CS: I’ve heard that happens a lot. I’ve spoken with directors doing the third film in a series where the first film you’re doing your thing, the second film, there’s more people involved, and by the third film, you literally have every single person at the studio in the room throwing out ideas, which is crazy.
Simmons: Everybody’s looking for their share of the credit. I think Sam’s gonna be okay.
CS: I think so too. I heard you’re voicing the character in the upcoming “Ultimate Spider-Man” animated show, right?
Simmons: Yeah, I just started doing that. I don’t know when the show’s gonna be out, but yeah, J.J.J. lives on in my career at least (Laughs) for a while with the new cartoon show, yeah.
CS: That’s great to hear. Listen, thanks a lot J.K. I really appreciate the time, and again, I really enjoyed the movie and I’m thrilled to see you in such a nice, big, juicy role like this.
Simmons: Yeah, thank you. It was really enjoyed, a wonderful film, and Lou Pucci is just awesome in it.
The Music Never Stopped opens in select cities on Friday, March 18.