J.K. Simmons on Whiplash” & Acting Advice
- K. Simmons
- Summer Theater in Montana
- Don’t Bring Bad Characters Home
- How to Start an Acting Career
- No Time for Rehearsing in TV & Film
- Picky with Roles
- Staying Connected to the Character
- Advice for Young Directors
- From Juno to Spiderman
- Conclusion & Goodbye
Eric: Hi I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode we bring you Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons.
— Not quite my tempo. It’s all good. No worries. Here we go. Five, six, seven.
Spiderman. He doesn’t want to be famous then I’ll make him infamous.
The average human male is about 60 percent water far as we’re concerned that’s a little extravagant.
As mayor of Zootopia I am proud to announce ZPD’s very first rabbit officer, Judy Hopps.
When I kill a man it’s because he’s standing in the way of my constitutional rights. I kill to protect what’s mine.
I’ll be honest. We’re throwing science at the wall here to see what sticks. No idea what it’ll do.
Were you rushing or were you dragging?
All right let’s get started. —
Eric: He’s a guy who’s scared the heck out of me on Oz. But then was like the most perfect dad ever in Juno. He’s taken on the Terminator teamed up with the Justice League done voice work for multiple cartoons and he’s the yellow M&M.
— So you think Santa will like these red and green M&Ms. – I don’t know I never met the guy. – Santa? —
Eric: Then, of course, there’s his performance as the brutal yet brilliant Terence Fletcher in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. But before all that Mr. Simmons got his first professional job in a theater production two thousand miles away from Broadway.
Summer Theater in Montana
J. K. Simmons: My first experience really doing theater outside of a couple of things in school was it a little summer theater in Montana the Big Fork Summer Playhouse and the first six weeks or so we were rehearsing a play and then we open it then we rehearse another play musicals mostly. Rehearse another one open it added into the rep and then you’re doing two shows a night rehearsing a third show during the day and we’re all you know pounding nails or sewing costumes or doing this or that or the other thing and and working hard and being a team and collaborating.
I had taken a quarter off from school because I had a professional engagement playing Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro with the Great Falls Montana Opera Company for tens of dollars. And I came home and my little brother was doing a musical with a local theater company they’re doing a production of Oliver and the guy had just dropped out. Who played the knife grinder and the director said Does anybody know a guy and my brother said I mean my brother might do it because he can sing. And I went and joined that production and there was a scene where we’re all in the chorus and we’re having fun and doing whatever we’re doing and then Bill Sykes comes in and he’s scary as hell and you know there’s this really charged moment of him just inspiring fear in everybody and we were rehearsing that number for the first time and I was actually having fun with whatever girl I assume I was goofing around with in the chorus and then the music changes and Michael Morris and my buddy comes in and he’s Bill Sykes. And it was like one of those goosebump moments where I was like “god! he just scared the shit out of me” and I thought “This is awesome!” This is what I want to do. I want to be able to move people. And one of my first things at the big fork Summer Playhouse in Montana. I played the lead in Brigadoon mostly because I could sing not because I was a brilliant actor. And at the end of the first act it’s this real cliffhanger. And then our production it ended with this sort of striving moment behind a scrim and blackout and intermission and everybody goes and you know has an orange soda. And I would spend the entire intermission lying on my back behind the scrim staying in that moment for 20 minutes and smoking a cigarette because I was learning how to do this. I knew that I wanted to inhabit this character and stay in the moment and I was learning how to do it and I think if I hadn’t gone through that level of commitment as a sort of naïve and as it was I think it was an important process for me to go through. I don’t take it any less seriously and I hope that I don’t work less hard at it. I just work more effectively on it.
Don’t Bring Bad Characters Home
Eric: Similar to Bryan Cranston in our previous episode, J.K. Simmons explained the importance of not bringing an unsavory character back home.
J. K. Simmons: That was a process for me learning to not take it home with me. There was a reference to Oz earlier. That was one of my very early on camera things and it was a lot of theater guys really on that show and a lot of us kind of had trouble shaking that off at the end of the day. I mean I’m literally wearing my swastika tattoo home which my wife was really not pleased with. By the way she was doing Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. And I was playing the head of the Aryan Brotherhood during the day. But you know in my case it was really just part of the journey has just been learning how to put it on and also how to just shake it off at the end of the day so I’ve gotten to a point now where if I’m working with actors who find it necessary to you know stay in it and that’s great I can do that too. But over the years it’s just an ability that I developed not taking it home.
How to Start an Acting Career
Eric: Mr. Simmons views his early years of constant auditioning and doing small roles as a necessary step for any working actor.
J. K. Simmons: It’s so hard to be a not yet successful actor. Whatever – it’s as it should be. It’s like being an athlete or even just being fit and taking care of yourself. I mean if it was easy everybody’d be doing it. So I think it’s important to go through those trials and tribulations. But certainly auditioning god, it just blows. And a couple of years ago I was auditioning a lot still and may audition again. The most important two things that I learned in those situations audition after audition is just having some sides and having 30 seconds or a minute to make an impression on somebody was don’t make the choice that you hope is what they’re looking for. Make the choice that you get from the writing and again even if you only have two pages I mean whatever I come up with a backstory. Use yourself and do your take on it because trying to do what you think they want is you know I mean you’ll get a job once in a while but people are looking for you to bring something so bring it. I look back and it almost seems like I had a plan but I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and doing what I really enjoyed doing. And fortunately when I was scraping by and barely making ends meet I didn’t have a wife and kids and any responsibilities and so yeah, I mean in my case the level of success, acclaim, attention that I’ve been receiving because if that had happened to me when I was 25 years old I would not have been prepared creatively, personally in any way.
Eric: Though he’s careful not to call those early days a struggle.
J. K. Simmons: I wouldn’t use the word struggle you know, there were many years when I was barely paying the rent. But you know I loved that time I had a great time doing non-equity summer stock. You know, where I first really fell in love with what I do. And. There were times when I went a while between acting jobs but I don’t know “struggle,” I think there are so many people on this planet whose struggles are for real that I wouldn’t use that word. I’ve loved my whole journey every step of the way.
Eric: Even when the roles became more frequent Mr. Simmons realized just how much more he still needed to grow.
J. K. Simmons: I had sort of gotten to a point on stage where I kind of felt like I know what I’m doing. I did my Montana time I was in Seattle at the Rep I was “Joe Pro” theater actor and I’m going to walk out here and do my thing. And I came across a director David Traynor who’s now directing multi-camera sitcoms really well who just wasn’t buying it. He was just like “yeah that’s you know that’s alright that’s fine. But is that what we’re after or are we looking for fine?” You know dig in you know if a B minus works for you you know great but he just recognized that I wasn’t working as hard as I could. You know that I wasn’t digging deep that I was just doing sort of whatever was easy whatever was obvious. He and a guy named Jerry Zaks who was a great theater director in New York is another example. And Jason Reitman I’ll put in there too as guys who are able to really direct and really communicate and keep a disparate group of actors you know actors who are more and less experienced who are maybe more from comedy maybe more from drama maybe more from improv or whatever to just keep everybody on the same page and to learn how to both express yourself and listen to what is being expressed and treat each individual as an individual and communicate with each person the way they need to be communicated with and that to me is what separates an adequate director from a really wonderful director like a Jason Reitman.
No Time for Rehearsing in TV & Film
Eric: When going from theater to TV and film he discovered that being on set is a lot of waiting and very little rehearsing.
J. K. Simmons: The first time I was on a set was a TV movie called Popeye Doyle and then it was my first feature was a little part of the movie called the ref and they called me to set for rehearsal for my first sort of big scene go to the set. After waiting around of course for two hours which you’re not used to when you were a theater actor and then we’d go rehearse and they go OK you knock on the door. He comes to the door you stand here okay. Rehearsals over now we’re going to light it and you will see you in an hour you know. And I was in shock. I was like when are we going to rehearse. I mean there was no we didn’t rehearse. We blocked. And I was felt horribly underprepared. I mean I’d learned by lines I did my thing but I was used to theater where you’d go over and over and over and over and over and it’s a different kind of more sedate leisurely process of exploring the characters. Since then I’ve really very much you know in 20 years got to the point where I prefer as little rehearsal as possible. I like to work with actors who are just on their toes and spontaneous and people who can listen. It’s so it’s so it’s so important and so difficult. And God knows I couldn’t do it for many many many years as an actor to just be there and actually be able to listen to the other person and respond to the other person whether you’re improvising or speaking Shakespeare exactly as it is on the page. The ability to listen is devoutly to be wished.
Picky with Roles
Eric: Early on even when he was trying to make ends meet. Mr Simmons didn’t take just any role that came his way.
J. K. Simmons: I’ve been driving my age and crazy for years because I’ve always been picky about it doesn’t always show. I mean I’m not saying there aren’t some clunkers in my past but you know I mean even when I was from hunger I was you know I only wanted to do things that were interesting to me and you know the few times that I took a job just to have a job you know and pay the rent were usually the jobs that I found unfulfilling and even just irritating and annoying and that’s a good thing to remind yourself of from time to time. And you know I mean right now I’m in a position where obviously I’m you know a very popular guy all of a sudden and. Lots of offers and you know big movies and little movies and I’m trying to make the same choices for all the same reasons. One of the reasons that I have continued to work all the way you know whether I was doing regional theatre in the 70s and 80s or Broadway or what I’m doing now it was just showing up being on time and being able to do my job whether I was the best actor in the world or not I would try. And I did my best and I wasn’t a pain in the ass and you know that goes a long way.
Eric: With the TNT drama The Closer Mr. Simmons trusted the creator so much he didn’t even need to read the pilot.
J. K. Simmons: I don’t think about results and certainly commercial results or audience acceptance of something. When I read anything I had done a show with James Duff the previous year. A show called the DA which was four episodes and just knew that he was a guy who knew how to write interesting plots and believable characters and knew how to meld those into a procedural cop show. TNT was relatively new at doing that at the time so as far as the commercial aspect of it I just thought James wrote it. It’s a great character and he actually wrote it for me based on our experience the year before and as a matter of fact when he called me about it he said that he sort of laid out the basic idea of the show and said and I’ve written a part for you you know would you like to read it. And I said I don’t need to read it because it’s you and I know I want to do it. So sign me up. First of all and then send me the script and let’s see what happens. And you know seven years and it was a great ride and it was awesome too because I worked like two days a week on that show. So I got I coached my kids’ baseball team for six years and never missed a practice because it was a part-time job which was you know awesome.
Eric: Mr. Simmons took a similar leap of faith when working with a 26-year-old Damien Chazelle on whiplash.
— I’m sorry. I’m sorry. – You know who I am? – Yes, sir. – So you know I’m looking for players? – Yes, sir. – Then why did you stop playing?
You know Charlie Parker became bird. Because Jones to a symbol at his head.
I was there to push people. Beyond what’s expected of them.
Why do you suppose I just hurled a chair at your head Nieman? Were you rushing or were you dragging? Answer. – Rushing. – So you do know the difference. If you deliberately sabotage my band I will f–k you like a pig. Now, are you a rusher or are you a dragger or are you going to be on my f–king time?!
You are a worthless friendless piece of s–t whose Mommy left Daddy and who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a nine-year-old girl.
There are no two words in the English language. More harmful. Than Good job.–
Eric: Whiplash‘s Fletcher is the professor of everyone’s nightmares.
— That’s a cut you were rushing a little on an that one. —
Eric: Whiplash’s Fletcher is the professor of everyone’s nightmares.
— And now you’re dragging. —
Eric: Thank goodness I never had a teacher like you. He first played Fletcher in the short version of Whiplash only after he saw the potential of Chazelle’s feature length screenplay.
Staying Connected to the Character
J. K. Simmons: I got both scripts at the same time so I was able to read the feature before we did the short. Great writing leaps off the page whether it’s Shakespeare or Arthur Miller or Damien Chazelle in this case it was just such a brilliant and complete and thorough piece of writing and that’s great. And I’ve read a lot of scripts that I’ve thought this is really really good but it just doesn’t connect. And if there’s nothing organic going on I sort of you know I’ve learned how to do what I do for a living and I can make things work you know and sometimes your job is to make writing that’s not all that good work. So much of an actor’s job is almost done for you. If the writing is really good bad writing is really really hard to act and really the transitions can be the most glaring or the most obvious. I think it’s just staying connected with the character the material with what it is you’re after. And sometimes you need to provide that yourself with good writing or bad writing you know sometimes you need to find your own way to get from point A to Point B if it’s not a straight line. But when you have the combination of a piece of writing where every syllable is just perfection and it’s a character that you oddly connect to. it It was just whatever Kismet.
Eric: Mr. Chazelle cast J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller without even knowing just how perfect they were for their roles.
J. K. Simmons: One of the many either happy coincidences or pieces of fate when Damian and I first met after I’d read the script and was dying to do it one of the first things he said to me was I don’t want you to be too concerned about the musical aspects and the conducting and don’t let that be intimidating to you because we can you know we’ll have a technical adviser who can show you the basics and we can fake it we can use body doubles and you know blah blah blah I said well I’ve got a degree in music. I thought I was going to be Leonard Bernstein when I grow up and I took a few left turns and I was doing opera I was singing I was doing conducting composing Singing I was doing opera and operetta and you know segue Segue segue. And there we are he didn’t know that Miles Teller been drumming since he was 15 years old either and he wrote it for. Miles Yeah. Yeah I was just it was all meant to be.
Eric: Whiplash was filmed in only 19 days. Now that’s a schedule even Steven Spielberg would have been intimidated by.
J. K. Simmons: Damian managed to create a very sort of unselfconscious set despite the ridiculous pace and the lack of experience and everything else. So oftentimes you know it’s a scene where there is crying going on or there’s just like really intense emotion anger you know whatever it is. People often will sort of tiptoe around and let the actors prepare and everybody must be silent because he’s going to cry now you know and it’s just counterproductive. And I’ll tell you what. The thing that worked for me well a couple things. First of all we didn’t have time to do 11 takes I don’t know that we did more than three or four takes of any specific shot. Maybe the slapping. That was fun. Because I just kept wanting one more. But what was awesome in that particular scene was the times that I had to do it more than once was that I’m looking out at this band and some of these guys are musicians that had almost no acting background at all. But I’m saying what I’m saying and I’m saying it to these guys and they were all just there and giving and that helped. You know I could have done another eight takes and picked a different guy to go to and they were all there for me and that’s when the work is rewarding and beautiful you know when you feel like you’re on a team when you’re working hard. When the cameras on them.
Advice for Young Directors
Eric: Mr. Simmons stressed that young directors can serve their cast best by not trying so hard to prove themselves.
J. K. Simmons: I think oftentimes with young directors they kind of have their ideas of how they’re going to motivate their actors or how they’re going to explain something to their actors or how they’re going to ask for an adjustment from their actors. And you know you’re young and you’re smart and you’re nervous and you want to establish some credibility. And young directors sometimes tend to say stuff that’s like dude I just did that because they sort of feel the need to say something. Oftentimes what directors need to do. Assuming that you have the vocabulary and the knowledge to be able to communicate with an actor I think the best thing you can do sometimes is just say let’s try it again. And that was the leap of faith because you know I mean he was young he was 26 when we met and very inexperienced you know film school and I had no idea about him as a director. One of the things that he did best was like you know shut up and get out of the way but I really really really like collaborating with a director and a dialogue with a director and being directed you know having a director who knows what he wants A and knows how to get that across B and knows how to get that across to a wide variety of kinds of actors. By far the most important skill a director has as a human being is just the ability to communicate with a vast range of people. And in Damien’s case it was just a real leap of faith and I saw such growth in between the time we did the short and the feature and not just in knowing when to back off. But you know it’s one of those things you can’t really know until you do it. You know you can’t swim until you’re in the pool. You know you learn that you get as fundamentally sound as you can you watch you learn you study and then you do. And as you do just try to keep your wits about you and keep your ears open and communicate.
From Juno to Spiderman
Eric: Mr. Simmons has been able to jump back and forth from smaller indie films like Juno to massive blockbusters like Spiderman. When I watch his performance says J Jonah Jameson. For me it was like I was watching the character I used to read in the comic books as a kid literally jump onto the big screen.
— I don’t pay you to be a sensitive artiste. I pay you because for some reason a psycho Spiderman will pose for you. – You’ve turned the whole city against him. – A fact I’m very proud of. Now get your pretty little portfolio off my desk before I go into a diabetic coma. – Boss your wife’s on the line she says she lost the checkbook.- Thanks for the good news.
I want that wall crawling arachnid prosecuted. I want him strung up by his own web. I want Spiderman. —
J. K. Simmons: I really felt my job as J John Jameson was to bring that guy off the pages of the comic book and I think and this is the way the films were directed and written and acted. Was that those scenes in the Daily Bugle were really the most comic booky scenes of the movie and the most sort of almost anachronistic Preston Sturges kind of vibe to them which was my first take on it and which Sam completely concurred with. So I had done two movies with him before the Spiderman movies. He and I developed a report on a mutual trust where he gave me the freedom to create and I guess that freedom has come back in the cartoon series and without really being aware of it I guess I’ve sort of made it my own more in the cartoons and that’s that’s cool that’s fun.
Eric: J.K. Simmons has always sought projects that excited him. But now that he’s got more options than ever he doesn’t want to lose sight of what matters most.
J. K. Simmons: I’ve always tried to be picky. I’ve always tried to only do things that I found interesting and that there have been exceptions to that. And there have been choices that I made that were bad and stupid and wrong but just the sheer volume of stuff that’s coming at me. Not just since the awards but really since the movie came out really amped up a lot. So now it’s largely a question of trying to maintain the balance between work and life because as much as I love the work people use workaholic like it’s a great thing. And I strongly disagree. Work hard prepare hard but have a life. So I’m not trying to book myself 52 weeks for the next year. Having said that there are a lot of opportunities coming and because I do this for a living and money is a helpful thing in the world. Money is part of what motivates choices so my goal now is to try to find a balance between doing big movies but still finding the little scripts that are out there. You know that somebody is struggling to get made and now because I have a trophy I’m able to attach myself to it. And not only can I help them get their funding and help them get a movie made for two or three million dollars but I can say I want to do this in L.A.. And they go OK.
Eric: Though he is still finding time to enjoy his celebrity.
Conclusion & Goodbye
J. K. Simmons: Honestly the coolest thing about being famous now I’m throwing out the opening day pitch in Detroit. I had lunch with Justin Verlander a couple of months ago and I’m looking for him to have a big year. So there’s your answer.
Eric: We wish the Detroit Tigers all the best. Thank you to J.K. Simmons for his words of wisdom and to all of you for listening. This episode was written by me Eric Conner based on the guest speaker series produced and moderated by Tova Laiter. The episode was edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden produced by David Andrew Nelson Kristian Hayden and myself. Special thanks to Aeriel Segard Robert Casnahan Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple podcasts.
Eric: See you next time.