Actor J.K. Simmons just won the New York Film Critics Circle's award for Best Supporting Actor, and it's not likely to be his last this season. The veteran character actor has made a real splash with his work in Damien Chazelle's “Whiplash” as a sort of drill sergeant jazz conductor who torments a student with vicious methods, but naturally, there's a complexity to the character that makes him more than just an antagonist. The entire film's subtextual philosophy is rooted in his very being, and that wasn't lost on Simmons as he set out to portray him.
You'll read more about this in detail below, but there's a notion in the film about what encouragement really is, what it should be and what it means. There's also a very interesting dynamic about external perception of this country's breed of exceptionalism slithering under the surface, which is just one of a number of elements that make it one of the year's very best films. I asked Simmons about that philosophy and if he shared it at all. His answer might surprise you.
We conducted this interview back in early October. Simmons had his beloved Detroit Tigers on mute in the background, just to give you some context. So it's been a little while. The film has gone out into release and hasn't really caught a stride, though it never did land on more than 420 screens. But hopefully with more notices like this morning's, people will wake up to the fact that one of 2014's gems is in danger of passing them by.
“Whiplash” is now playing.
HitFix: So director Damien Chazelle originally took a slice of his “Whiplash” screenplay and filmed it as a short in order to raise funds for this film. And he has Jason Reitman to thank for recommending you for that, which of course carried over. What were you able to work through in the short that helped you out when you guys set out to make the feature?
J.K. Simmons: Probably screaming and still being able to have a voice the next day. There actually was, you know, some little technical stuff like that. And then also the level of sort of self-confidence that Damien exuded a year later on the feature shoot was interesting, too, because – you get a script like this and you realize, you know, this is obviously a writer who really has a gift, but you just sort of take a leap of faith with him being the director as well. I mean if they'd have sent me this script and said, “Yeah, this kid wrote it and, you know, Jason's going to direct it,” it would have been like, “Wow,. All right. Awesome.” You know, “Perfect.” So you take that leap of faith that the kid is going to be able to put it on the screen. And he did, between the way he shot the short and the way that the short was edited. And I know Jason won't put it out there, but he was sort of mentoring the project all the way along. It was so brilliantly assembled, that short. I then, when we went into the feature, had complete confidence in Damien's ability to deliver on every aspect as a filmmaker. With another year of confidence under his belt, it was fun to sort of get a second chance to play the stuff that I had played a year earlier.
Damien mentioned to me that you brought a lot of ideas forward regarding the look of the character, the clothes and just kind of the overall vibe. Is that something that hit you when you were reading the script or is that something that you kind of worked through in the short. How did all of that evolve?
It was actually exactly the same in the short. And he'd written a very specific look for the guy and really the look that I envisioned was, you know, thematically similar. But it was just a slightly different, specific look. The elements of the guy being sort of impeccable was the thing that we had in common. I just had a different take on it and I suggested it to Damien and, you know, he immediately went with it and agreed that was a good way to go. Also, because we were making the short for like a dollar and 75 cents, it was literally shit that I had hanging in my closet. So, you know, it was a money-saver.
Maybe you've been asked this a lot but did you have somebody you knew that you were kind of molding this character around or basing him on?
Not at all. It sounds overly simplistic, but it was just there on the page, you know? And then with Damien being receptive to my input about little things like the wardrobe and this and that. It literally never occurred to me to draw on something else outside of what I brought to it and what Damien had put on the page. And then once you get on set, you pull from what you're getting from the other actors.
This performance for you is obviously is just hugely buzzed and people start talking about award season and things like that. I think of you as just such an in-the-trenches kind of character actor. I've been a fan since “Oz,” probably. But to have that kind of to-do around your work, I guess maybe the answer's obvious, but how does that sensation feel?
Well I mean it's a beautiful thing and, you know, any kind of buzz that we're getting, whether it's me or Damien or Miles [Teller], it all serves the greater good for the movie and that's what we all want is to get this movie out there and get it seen and be able to tell this story to people. And between all the buzz and between the guys at Sony, Michael [Barker] and Tom [Bernard] doing such a good job of getting us out there in the marketplace and all that business end of the business that I don't really pretend to know much about, you know, I feel like we're in good hands on every aspect of this film. Awards buzz is great. There's nothing wrong with that. I'll take it.
I think a lot of people would be rooting for you if they saw your name tossed into that hat finally.
Maybe that's partly because I've been bouncing around for a long time and I'm generally not a pain in the ass, you know? So that's why people like Reitman and Sam Raimi and, you know – I get to work with them repeatedly because, just like in any business, you show up and do your job and try to collaborate and be a good guy and be the guy that your mom and dad raised you to be, and that happens to go hand in hand with being a guy that people want to work with again and again.
And let me ask you this. There's something at the center of this movie, embodied in a line from your character: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'” Do you share that philosophy at all?
Yeah. You know, that whole scene in the jazz club where I'm sort of espousing that philosophy – and of course, it was longer on the page and then I made it even longer because I was adding all my own bullshit to it. I mean I really philosophically largely agree with that and I think, and I'm as guilty of it as most. I have two teenagers at home and one of the really good things about dads of this generation is that in general, a lot of dads are sort of prioritizing being around for their kids more. Whereas in my grandfather's generation and my father's generation there was, you know, dad went to work and dad brought home the bacon and mom raised the kids. I mean in my case my dad was more present than most – I'm really going to work all the way around this question – but I think that children now, young people now, are being sort of overpraised for very moderate, modest, pedestrian accomplishments. Like your 3-year-old slides down the slide at the playground and mommy and daddy are down there clapping saying “good job.” It's like, you know, the kid just slid down a slide. I do think the words “good job” are overused and potentially even harmful and certainly, you know, when your kid slides down the slide you can say, you know, “Yippee! Whee! Wasn't that fun? Let's do it again!” But I do agree with that philosophy and I do understand [my character] Fletcher's motivation. That was part of what appealed about the script, was that this is a guy you can understand where he's coming from and his passion for the art and his unwillingness to accept mediocrity or compromise. And obviously his methods are extreme and I don't agree with that. But yeah, it was a philosophy that I could definitely get in line with.
It becomes even more fascinating when I hear Damien talk about it in kind of the macro, as far as just how people view this country from the outside at this point.
Uh huh. Yeah. Yeah. Well, and – I mean, God, you know, he's such a deep thinker and such a thorough thinker and just such a complex, beautiful mind and heart, you know? And ultimately that's what I think shows. That's what I appreciated about the time that I got to spend with him, and now I get to spend time with him on this trail, the festival circuit and the press and all that. And that's part of what's making this whole thing that I'm usually either reluctant to do or just not a part of [worthwhile]. That's one of the things that's making this whole thing fun is that Miles and Damien are both just really fun guys to hang around with.
And this has been a long one. I mean from Sundance to Cannes and New York and now released finally. That's always a long row to hoe.
Yeah, yeah. Well, and starting with the short, you know”
Yeah, going even further, yeah.
Over two years ago. For the feature it's really a pretty quick turnaround. We wrapped less than a year ago. And I mean we had 19 days to shoot it, which is crazy.
Wow. I didn't know that.
I mean it was crazy. Especially for a kid filmmaker. And then if we wanted to get it into Sundance he had I think 10 weeks or less to get in the editing room and deliver a finished product.
Did that kind of help the energy at all, to be that kind of pressure-cooked in a way?
Yeah, you know what, I think so. And also, he was so immaculately prepared. I mean he had envisioned – because he is a musician in addition to being a visual artist and a writer – he really had every beat storyboarded in the movie. There was no, like, “Oh, well, we better cover this.” I mean I never heard that on this set. “We might need this,” you know? It was just like, “This is what's happening. This two measures of music is going to live here,” you know? “This dialogue scene, I don't need to come in for this coverage.” He didn't even use the word “coverage.” He knew where it was going to live, and of course things change on set and things change in the editing room, but he did so much of his work ahead of time and Miles did with the drumming and I did with my preparation with knowing the music and, you know, playing the piano and the conducting and all that, that once we got to work, we just hit the ground running. They turned on a camera and Miles and I did our thing.
(For even more from Simmons, check out our separate video interview with the actor embedded at the top of this post.)