Esquire, Jan 2015
That guy from Oz on the role of a lifetime.
Also at Esquire
You know his face. J.K. Simmons is one of those actors. He’s “that guy from Law and Order”, or the newspaper editor from the Spiderman movies, the Sam Raimi ones. Some of us still remember him as Vern Schillinger, the head of the Aryan Nation, in Oz, the HBO prison drama from the late 90s.
But not anymore. Lately, wherever he goes, Simmons is recognized as Fletcher, the sadistic jazz band conductor in Whiplash, a small movie that has made a big noise since it debuted at the festivals this year. He calls it the role of his career, a new era, even. There’s been Oscar buzz ever since Cannes in May.
It’s an intense movie and expertly crafted, but with a somewhat odd vision, that of emerging movie savant, the writer-director Damien Chazelle, who’s only 28. He reimagines big band jazz as a sport, a near-Olympic arena of ruthless competition, where all that matters is speed and precision. And in this world, Simmons cracks the whip. In his drive to push a young drummer played by Miles Teller, to greatness, he subjects him to a kind of torture – he bullies him, hurls chairs at him and screams florid abuse in his face. Part drill sergeant, part sports coach, he’s electric every time he appears on screen.
In person, Simmons betrays none of Fletcher’s cruelty, at least today. Sipping a Diet Coke at a golf club in Burbank, he’s rather tickled that at 60, his career should be reaching such new heights. He says he stumbled into acting, starting as a theater guy in Montana, then Seattle and New York, often waiting tables to make ends meet. And now look – splashy interviews, talk of awards and the juiciest movie role of his career.
“Fletcher was fun to play,” he says. “All that anger, it felt good to get it out. Even if did involve slapping Miles Teller repeatedly. But seriously – who doesn’t want to slap a 25 year old movie star?”
ESQ: You’re a musician too, right?
JKS: I’m doing a little conducting the day after tomorrow actually. Tim Simon, one of the composers for the film, asked me to conduct one of his tunes. It’s the perfect title too – “Too Hip To Retire”.
ESQ: Let’s hope they don’t screw up.
JKS: I’ll have a stack of chairs to hurl if they do.
ESQ: Did you ever have a mentor like Fletcher in your life?
JKS: Not really. The closest was a high school football coach. But if you look at what they did, with today’s sensitivities, it’s all abuse. They were screaming at us, denying us water. I got literally kicked in the ass repeatedly and called all kinds of names.
ESQ: The abuse in Whiplash was wonderful. Very politically incorrect. Was any of it improvised?
JKS: The best stuff was already on the page. But I did called Miles a self-righteous little prick once.
ESQ: How would you have dealt with a mentor like Fletcher?
JKS: At 19, I would have cowered. But a little later in life, the response might have been to say “fuck this, you can’t treat me like that.”
ESQ: So you were a rebellious younger man. And yet, you’ve played a lot of authority figures.
JKS: Yeah, it’s ironic. And I continue to have issues with authority for authority’s sake. It has gotten me into trouble, into jail even. Like, a couple of times, for making a ruckus. For… wanting people to be human beings.
ESQ: Talking back to cops and stuff?
JKS: For just being… stupid. Kind of a hot head. Not smart enough to back down in certain situations. But not for many years.
ESQ: Not since you were 55.
JKS: Haha! No no, not since I was married and had children.
ESQ: He’s so tightly wound, Fletcher. Was it hard summoning the rage for the shoot?
JKS: Not after driving through LA traffic. Honestly, it helps provoke that kind of anger.
ESQ: Do you lose your shit in the same way? Screaming and throwing things?
JKS: Well I’ve hit people. Men – not women or children. And not particularly well. Yes, I’ve had my ass kicked. But that level of bile, screaming out of me? There was one time, I was doing some handiman thing at home, and it just wasn’t happening. It got to the point where I was yelling, “God fucking dammit fuck!” just as my wife and two toddlers walked in the front door. I don’t know if I was more angry at myself or the inanimate object I was dealing with.
ESQ: The trouble with inanimate objects is they don’t listen.
JKS: I have taken a hammer to cellphones and answering machines. Couple of times actually. I think it’s a pretty healthy way to get that shit out.
ESQ: People call you JK – was it always the way?
JKS: Well, my full name’s Jonathan Kimble, but my parents didn’t want to call me either. So for a while, I went by Kim which is a name for a girl or a Korean person. But as an actor, Kim Simmons was already taken by the theater union, Equity. Jonathan Simmons didn’t fit, because I wasn’t comfortable answering to Jonathan. And that was taken too by the Screen Actors Union.
ESQ: You never thought of making up a whole new name, like Troy or Dexter?
JKS: Oh yeah – Rock Groin, nice to meet you!
ESQ: And the Oscar goes to… Speaking of which, how do you feel about Oscar buzz.
JKS: Oh I encourage it. Are you kidding me? I’ve got some big movies coming up that I can’t talk about right now. It’s all the Whiplash effect.
ESQ: OK corny question, but – if you could mentor your younger self what would you say?
JKS: Oh easy – live in the moment, be here now. It’s easy to say that, but much harder to do. And I’m 60. Enjoy the struggle, you know? It’s the best part.
ESQ: I read that Miles got you back for the slapping. There’s a scene where he tackles you, and he cracked a couple of ribs.
JKS: Yeah, and he took such pride in it too. Like, dude, you’re going to be all proud about busting up a 58 year old guy’s ribs? That’s fucked up! We only had two more days of shooting, luckily. It fucking hurt though.
ESQ: You kept shooting though. That’s pretty hardcore for an old man.
JKS: Oh that’s nothing. On Oz one day, I got a chunk of a camera embedded in my head, and I was passed out on the floor, geysering blood. The set medic standing over me, freaking out. No help whatsoever. I ended up going to the ER, get 9 stitches in my head – real Frankenstein stitches. And I went back to set, and they shot me from the other side for the rest of the day. That’s hardcore.
ESQ: Where’s the scar?
JKS: That’s the thing. No scar. Not even a line. You see? Things heal. Bad stuff happens, but you go on. Life takes care of it.