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.