TORONTO—He’s the dad in Juno, or the police-chief dude from The Closer. Maybe he’s J. Jonah Jameson from the first Spider-Man movies or the Aryan Brotherhood leader in Oz. It’s possible you know him best as the voice of the yellow M&M or from those Farmers Insurance Group ads. Everyone thinks of something different when they reference long-serving character actor Jonathan Kimble (J.K.) Simmons. That will change soon enough. Once the year is out and Simmons is nominated for an Academy Award, everyone will bring up Whiplash.
The acclaimed film (opening Friday [October 24])—which won the Grand Jury and Audience Award prizes at Sundance and played to rousing effect at both the Toronto and Vancouver international film festivals—has Simmons as Terence Fletcher, a borderline-psychotic music instructor at a prestigious school where Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is trying to realize his dream of being a great jazz drummer. The cat-and-mouse game between Fletcher and Neyman is mesmerizing and the direction by young Damien Chazelle is inspired. But the film lives on the ferocity and fire of Simmons.
If this does culminate in an Oscar for Simmons, it’s been a longer journey for him than for many others. The most obvious reminder is his Whiplash costar. “My career has been very different from Miles’. When I was Miles’ age I maybe just got my equity card in Seattle doing theatre,” he says in a hotel-room interview with Teller at his side. “I had no idea this is what I wanted to do until I kinda woke up and found myself doing it in my early 20s when I was doing theatre. The only thing I feel that I did that was hard was just hanging in there, and when I was living in New York and starving and looking all over the neighbourhood and couldn’t even get a job waiting tables and a buddy of mine comes over to visit and leaves 20 bucks under my answering machine because he knows I can’t pay the rent—you know?”
According to Chazelle, who spoke to the Straight in a separate interview, it was executive producer Jason Reitman who pushed for the veteran to be cast as Fletcher. Though Simmons hadn’t played a character of this intensity lately, Chazelle had seen his work in Oz and knew the actor had it in him. “Immediately, I liked the idea of J.K. The reason I liked it was because he had been in these kinds of more ‘nice person’ roles, and I wanted my version of Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, where it’s like, ‘Oh my God, Gandhi is fucking crazy.’ ”
From some actors, talk of their early struggles can sound a little exaggerated. But with Simmons there’s a desperation in those big blue eyes that conveys how hard he’s worked to get to this point, and how easily it could have gone in a different direction. “If I had any other talent or a salable commodity, I probably would have gone to it,” he says earnestly, his monotone voice never breaking, even when he goes for the punch line. “I mean, aside from the modelling, yeah.”