J.K. Simmons is capable of chewing delicious scenery (J. Jonah Jameson is the role that he’ll hopefully play until the sun burns out), playing a gentle everyman (Juno) and a demanding tyrant (Whiplash), and offering subtle variations on a parade of authority figures. It’s with his versatility in mind that one specific quote from our interview with the Oscar-winning actor stands out: “You try to get these little things right.”
In The Front Runner (which is now available on DVD/Blu Ray and digital services), the Jason Reitman-directed political drama about the downfall of Gary Hart (and the more genteel way that politicians used to be covered), Simmons leans on those little things, capturing bits from the life of the man he’s playing, former Hart campaign head Bill Dixon. In I’m Not Here (out on March 8 in select theaters), a film about time and loss and guilt, the little things are more tied to the movements of Simmons’ body and how he conveys certain emotions. Two very different films and two very different performances. Both filled with the so-called “little things” and choices that we lingered on in this process-focused talk with Simmons because such things are chiefly important to our understanding of what we’re seeing on screen in both works.
How aware were you of the 1988 Gary Hart campaign and politics, in general, going into this?
JK Simmons: I am only peripherally aware of politics in general ever. I decided, as a young man, that I did not have the motivation to be well enough informed about politics to feel like my opinion would be particularly valid. So, I pretty much just steered clear of politics, which is unlike anybody else in my family. My parents, and both my siblings, were heavily invested, and big Gary Hart supporters, during both the ’84 and ’88 campaigns.
I’m very politically engaged, and sometimes I wish I wasn’t. So a little bit of envy right now.
It keeps my blood pressure under control.
Exactly, yeah. What was it about this role that appealed to you?
Well, Jason Reitman, really. At the end of the day, when Jason asks me to do something, I say, yes. And really, it’s just a question of working out the details. So, I’m happy to jump on board anytime he’s doing anything. And then not just because we’ve become pals, but because I’m confident that he’s always gonna make interesting, thoughtful, sometimes funny, really well-crafted films. So really, yeah, it wasn’t the subject matter that appealed to me particularly.
I didn’t know Hugh [Jackman] at all. I mean, I knew obviously, of his work, and was a fan, but… Yeah, going in, it was just, “Yeah, Jason’s making a movie. He wants me to be in it, so where do I sign?” And then as the shoot evolved, I got to really appreciate how good, and hard-working, and dedicated an actor Hugh is. What a prince of a guy he is. He’s the star of the show, but he acts like he’s number nine on the call sheet, and that was a long call sheet. That campaign team, and I mean, really, all the different stories that were going on. There’s so many actors coming and going. He was an ideal co-worker. I mean, for a lot of the younger actors, he’s almost a father figure. For me, whatever, a little brother figure, I guess.
You say, work out the details with Jason. When you come aboard, do you have a chance to really shape this character a little bit, or is it mostly just on the page when you walk on the set?
There was, especially as I got to be in touch with Bill Dixon, the guy that I portray. I had some more opinions, and Jason was very open to that. It’s a different kind of animal. This was really the… well, technically, the third time, I guess, that I’ve played a real character, an actual person, and one where he’s still alive. The second time that it’s been a guy that I’ve actually been able to interact with and speak with directly. So, once I got a little bit of Bill’s take on the overall thing as well as just some of the minutiae of the who the guy is, Jason was really open to incorporating that kind of stuff. Having said that, Bill and Gary Hart are very much contemporaries. I mean, I’m, whatever, 15, 20 years older than Hugh. The real Bill Dixon, he’s about the same age as Gary Hart, and I look nothing like him. In fact, he looks a little more like Jason’s dad [director Ivan Reitman, you know, from Ghostbusters] than anybody else I could think of. So it wasn’t important to Jason.
I mean, that was my first concern. I was like, “I’m 20 years too old to play this guy, and I look nothing like him.” And Jason said, “Look, this guy… After this campaign, he walked away from national politics, hasn’t been seen in the public eye. The only people [where] I’m interested in having them look like the characters are the Harts and Donna.” The rest of the characters are more behind the scenes guys who were less well known.
I’m curious about two moments in the film and if they were informed by conversations with the real Bill Dixon. One is the really tense exchange between Gary and the Bill character near the end. And also, Bill seems to see where this is all going before anyone. That scene when he is on the phone with one of the aides, and he’s just watching TV. Those are really interesting scenes for the character, and I’m curious: how rooted in reality were they?
Yeah, those things you’re referring to were very much rooted in reality and partly based on my conversations with Bill. Some of this was stuff that Jason, Matt Bai [who co-wrote the screenplay and wrote the book that the script was based on], and Jay Carson [had], and some of it was stuff that I gleamed from talking to Bill on the phone, and emailing, and stuff. Yeah, I mean, he really was the first guy, even though he was not my age. He was, whatever, a 40-ish guy, who had been around the political game. He really was the first guy to realize, “We’re done, we’re sunk. It’s over.” And, in fact, that scene at the end of the film where I am back in my apartment in Denver, watching TV… I’m watching a ball game. I don’t remember if they ended up piping in the sound, but the way we were playing, I was watching the ballgame, although not paying a lot of attention to it, and drinking the kind of beer that Bill drank. You try to get these little things right.
The scene in the last montage, where we see me, we see Bill, walking out of the office, handing out envelopes, that was not in the script. That was directly from the conversation with Bill, where he said that once the campaign clearly was a dead duck, he wanted to make sure that those people who had been working their butts off for all that time, that he referred to in the impassioned speech/argument with Gary… He wanted to be sure they at least go their final paychecks before the vultures swooped in and the campaign account suddenly disappeared.
Turning the page to I’m Not Here, that’s such an interesting and gut-wrenching performance. I was surprised. I didn’t know anything going into this. I’d just seen the trailer. That must have been such a commitment, I imagine, to do something like that onscreen where you’re not using words. It’s just all physical. Can you talk a little bit about just the appeal of taking on something like that?
I mean, I loved the idea of the story before I saw the script. And then once Michelle [Schumacher] and Tony [Cummings] had it at a place where they wanted to me to read it… because it’s such a raw and deep and complex story and character to play. I’m so hesitant to talk about the details of it because what I love about the trailer is that it gives you a sense of it without telling you, really, what the story is. And that’s the way I always prefer it, both as an audience and as an actor. I love movies to be experienced that way.
There are levels in this movie that I know I don’t understand still, the sort of metaphysical aspects of all of us. But at the end of the day, it’s a story about a guy, who we see at three stages of his life. And at the stage that I’m playing him, he’s full of regret, and shame. And it’s really a story and a journey that he’s on to maybe find forgiveness for himself.
How much direction was involved in terms of the way you played those scenes? I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s so much going on onscreen without words. I’m curious, how much of that was just you in the moment, and how much of that was scripted out in terms of your actual physical movements and the things that you experience?
It was a real mix of both — the way a good collaboration is with a director and actors and writers, and especially the writer/director in this case [Michelle]. My whole story was one week of the shoot. It’s one location, basically. And we shot, not for 100%, in story order, but we were able to shoot more in story order than you usually are able to, so that really helped the overall arc. There were… I’m gonna try to think specifically now. There were very few times when it was necessary for Michelle to say, “You need to be moving this way, or behaving that way.” Because it was so well crafted going in.
The Front Runner is out on Blu-ray and digital on February 12. I’m Not Here will be out in theaters on March 8.