Bing, Bang, Boom: an Interview with J.K. Simmons

You know J.K. Simmons. Even if you don’t know the name, you probably know the face, and you definitely know the voice.

That punchy rumble, at once blustering and commanding, has echoed down the syndicated streets of NYC in Law and Order, plumbed the depths of human depravity in Oz, and rattled our collective spidey-senses in a handful of Spider-Man adaptions. The quintessential character actor, Simmons is something of an institution. He’s a safe bet to elevate even small roles, often making his performance more memorable than the film he’s in.

You’re about to know him a lot better. The role as Terence Fletcher, a Machiavellian band leader in this year’s Sundance Grand Jury winner Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle), looms large, and Simmons fills out the additional space with the forceful energy of the film’s title. With an imposing physicality to match his booming baritone, Simmons keeps aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) pinned down under a tense barrage of 50-caliber consonants and negative reinforcement. But there are enough (just enough, mind you) shades of Ellen Page’s gruffly supportive dad from Juno carefully amalgamated into the performance to lure both Andrew and the viewer into point blank range.

In reality, one would be hard-pressed to find a more approachable and humble performer than Simmons. There is no greater testament to his powers of transformation than the generosity with which he dispenses praise for his collaborators (Simmons, after all, played Fletcher in Chazelle’s original “Whiplash” short), and his gratitude for the prolific career he has conducted to date.

Copy of Short

Simmons plays Fletcher in the short “Whiplash” (2013).

Kerry O’Conor, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you find out about “Whiplash?” Did it find you or did you find it?

J.K. Simmons (JS): It found me. I don’t like stuff. I don’t actually pay that much attention to show business, unfortunately. Thank god for Jason Reitman. He and Helen Estabrook, his producing partner, had been hooked up with Damien [Chazelle], with the script, and Damien had been writing it with Miles [Teller] in mind. Jason and Helen were the ones who suggested me for Fletcher and Damien agreed. They sent it to me and bing, bang, boom.

MM: How long did it take to make?

JS: The feature we shot in 19 days, which is insane.

MM: How was that?

JS: We could’ve spent 19 days just doing the music scenes. Not only was it a quick shoot, but in order to get it ready for Sundance last January, Damien had to get the whole thing delivered in less than 10 weeks of post-production. So we were under the gun from the beginning.

MM: What are the logistics of shooting a film with so much kinetic energy? Were you fairly static while the camera moved a lot, or was the blocking pretty involved for you?

JS: There was a lot of both. One of the amazing things about Damien as such a young filmmaker, and Miles and I talked about this at the time, is that we never had the feeling that the camera was right in our face, even during close-ups. There was never any pressure. Whether it was a sequence with a lot of camera movement around us, or whether it was a sequence where I’m throwing stuff at Miles, or circling like a predatory animal around him, Damien managed to split it up brilliantly. There’s always a good amount of camera movement and a good amount of actor movement. It’s partly because he storyboarded everything in the movie, so he went in with a vision of the finished product. So he wasn’t just throwing stuff at the wall; he wasn’t just doing coverage to make sure he was covered. In fact, there were many scenes where there was no coverage. Like, “For these four bars here, I have this shot that I need, so that’s what I’m going to get. And I don’t need to get all the coverage, how this guy or that guy feels about it.” Which is fortunate, because he didn’t have time for that anyway.

Simmons circles co-star Miles Teller “like a predatory animal.”

MM: This story is at least semi-autobiographical. How much direction did Damien give you as far as developing Fletcher based on a real person?

JS: There was none, really. We spent a couple minutes talking about this character that Fletcher was sort of based on, but we weren’t making a biopic. I was playing Terence Fletcher, and for me what Damien had put on the page was all I needed on order to play this character.

MM: You’re known for playing these characters that are at once intimidating but also very funny. How do you balance those two energies?

JS: There are some adjustments you make based on the style of the film and what the director is asking you for, but at the end of the day, the intention is really the same. Whether its a blustery blowhard like J. Jonah Jameson or a tyrant like Fletcher, you approach the character as a human being who has reasons for what they’re doing and what they want and feel.

MM: Do you see Fletcher as a bad guy?

JS: Well, he’s the antagonist. And I certainly think he will be largely perceived as the bad guy. But I didn’t approach it thinking I’m playing the bad guy. Even when I was doing Oz I always approach it from my character’s point of view. But in my own personal philosophy, I perceive him as a bad guy. I think the difference between me and Fletcher is his philosophy of that single-minded focus. That everything else in life is chaff, and that if you really want to be great you need to only focus on one thing in your life. I have kids, I have friends, I have Tigers baseball, I got other stuff to spend my time on. I’m blessed to be able to have my career, to express myself and make a nice living, and still have all the other stuff in life.

MM: Do you enjoy working on indie projects?

JS: Absolutely. I did several indies in the last couple years, I have a bunch of them coming out in the next few months. But then I did a big blockbuster, a small part in Terminator: Genisys. What I really enjoy is doing good stuff with good people, and you can do that on any level. The thing about indies like this, and certainly Whiplash is a classic example, is that you know everybody’s there for the right reasons. Nobody’s there just for the paycheck, because the paycheck’s not that big. There’s a shared creative vision. That’s really the fun of doing indies.

MM: What was it like to work with such a young director and such a young co-star [Chazelle is 29, Teller 27]?

JS: [Laughs] Well, at this point, everybody’s young to me, so it’s kind of par for the course. But I’ve worked with several first-time directors, including Jason Reitman. With a writer-director like Jason or Damien, you obviously go in knowing that they know how to write, and hopefully you get to meet them ahead of time and try and feel them out a little bit. But then the rest of it is just sort of a leap of faith. And then even after you’re done shooting, the ultimate leap of faith comes, that this guy is going to be in the room assembling the movie. At that point it’s totally out of my hands. And in both of those environments, both on set and even more so in the editing room, which is ultimately where a movie is really made, Damien is certainly wise beyond his years.

MM: What about him helped you make that leap of faith?

JS: First of all, he had the Jason Reitman seal of approval. But just meeting with him and getting a sense of how thorough and complete his vision was for this movie. I’m not that interested in talking to a director up front about his visual style or the kinetic energy, or this and that. That’s his job. It’s my job to do my best to contribute to that. We talked the first time we met, not only about the musical aspect, but the philosophy and thematic aspects of the film. We talked very specifically about what exactly he’s saying here, the themes of whether Fletcher is a bad guy or a good guy, whether Andrew’s journey is worth it. I developed a level of confidence in him before we met, but still, you don’t really know. He could talk a good game and not be able to deliver. You find that all the time in this business. In this case, my confidence in his ability was borne out.

Chazelle (center) on set with Simmons and Teller

MM: You and Miles had a really strong and immediate dynamic. What was it like to work with him?

JS: It was awesome. He’s the ideal combination to me. This kid’s a movie star. He’s got more stuff in the can now. He’s doing big Hollywood comedies, he’s doing action movies, superhero movies, he’s got a big bio pic coming up, he’s doing Damien’s next movie. So when you’re working with a guy who’s a real star on the rise like that, you’re not necessarily working with a guy who’s a really solid actor, who has the chops and the training, a guy who got into the business because he wants to be an actor. Miles wants to be both—let’s be honest, who doesn’t—but his main thing is about the work. And he is capable of backing that up between his training, his natural talent and his ability to be present in the moment and pass the ball back and forth, which I really appreciated. And we had a good time too, just goofing around and giving each other a hard time between shots. We just relaxed, cut loose and had fun. MM

Whiplash opens in limited theaters October 10, 2014, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. “Whiplash” short still courtesy of Damien Chazelle.

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