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J.K. Simmons: The friendly face behind this year's scariest villain

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Whiplash
Daniel McFadden

“I remember when I first met J.K. Simmons, I just sort of told him, ‘Remember how [frightening] you were in Oz? I want to make that guy look like the teacher in Mr. Holland’s Opus.” —Whiplash director Damien Chazelle

Terence Fletcher, the intimidating music teacher in Whiplash, isn’t a sadistic member of the Aryan Brotherhood, like Oz‘s Vern Schillinger. But for Miles Teller’s high-school drum prodigy, Fletcher is practically evil incarnate, a bully whose primary methods of motivation are tossing chairs and playing cruel psychological mind games. He wants his school’s jazz ensemble to be the best in the country, and woe to the student who thinks his best is good enough. There simply is no good enough for Fletcher.

J.K. Simmons has the gift of ease, which makes Fletcher all the more terrifying. You could imagine another actor overdoing it—ranting like an actor playing a madman. A caricature. But Simmons makes Fletcher even more real because of the coolness behind the cruelty. He has these bulging biceps and a bald head, but it’s those eyes—sometimes calculating, sometimes impassive—that are the most frightening. One inscrutable look from him, and even the audience will slouch down in their seats and hope he doesn’t call on them.

Since Whiplash debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, Simmons’ performance has been universally praised, and now that it’s officially Oscar season, he’s a leading contender for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. The 59-year-old actor has always been a standout character actor—Law & Order, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, The Ladykillers—and Jason Reitman had the wisdom to cast him in every film he’s ever made, including Juno and Up in the Air. But even though it’s technically a supporting role, Fletcher is a career-defining performance, and Simmons is thrilled by the film’s reception. Speaking to EW about the film, which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, he admits that he worried that he would never get the chance to throw a chair at Miles Teller’s head.

EW: Whiplash was originally a short film that played at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. How was the project first pitched to you: as a full feature that was going to be a short first, or a short that could possibly be turned into a feature?

J.K. SIMMONS: Well, it was created as a feature. Damien wrote the feature and then [producers] Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook, Couper Samuelson, they were talking about how to get it off the ground, and they suggested making the short as a device to generate a budget for the feature, which obviously worked out great. Jason sent me both scripts, the feature and the short, and said, “Obviously, this kid is really talented and we’re going to help him make this movie, and we’d be delighted if you wanted to jump on board.” I read it and it just knocked my socks off. And I said, “Sign me up.”

I think the initial encounter between Andrew and Fletcher might be one of the best character introduction scenes I’ve ever seen. You get everything—or almost everything—about these two characters from just their first few moments together. What were some of the things that went in to bringing Fletcher to life—like his wardrobe, for example, which is very striking.

Damien had written a different, very specific wardrobe for the character. It was more of white shirt, very crisp. Necktie. Very together. But sometimes, especially when it’s something that’s really well-written and something that I really feel connected to, I just get a visual image. [The black outfit] was more of a jazz version of it, and especially, as I’m going into my animalistic rants, it just lent itself more to the physicality of the character, being in that sort of Jack LaLanne t-shirt. It just felt like the right fit to me. So I pitched the idea of the wardrobe that we ended with for the movie. And especially when we were making the short, which we made for $74, literally everything I wore in the movie is stuff I had hanging in my closet. So that was maybe part of why Damien agreed: “Yes, sure, it won’t cost me $73 of my budget to dress this guy.”

But in terms of flushing out the character, honestly, we had no time for rehearsal, no budget for rehearsal. The only prep time for both Miles and for me was much more musical than dramatic. Miles was drumming and drumming and drumming and learning how to transfer his rock skills to be a believable jazz drummer. And I was learning those scores because I had to conduct, and learning my little piano ditty. There was very little discussion of how to play the character, where the character is coming from, or what the character wants, because it was just all so clear on the page.

There’s a great scene at a nightclub where you and Miles talk around the debate that is at the heart of the film, whether real greatness is born or forged. Do you have a side in that argument when it comes to acting?

Well, I think the whole nature/nurture thing, you can make an argument for both. And ideally, I think it is a combination of both. As far as the argument of, does the ends justify the means and do you need to go to the extent that Fletcher goes to and demands of other people—philosophically, I basically agree with everything the character says in that scene. But pedagogically, that method is something I have a hard time wrapping my brain around, and in my experience can be antithetical to creating artistic genius. But I love that the movie inspired that debate. That’s what Damien wanted to do with this story, is have people talking about that. And to not spoon-feed that to the audience, to not decide for the audience how to feel about the whole journey.

People might be more familiar with your kinder-gentler roles, like the father in Juno, but you’ve played some intimidating characters in the past, notably Vern Schillinger in Oz. I even learned that you played the Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men on stage. Do you prefer these characters, who are meaner, for lack of a better word?

The real answer is I just like doing great writing, and I have been lucky enough to bounce around during my career, when I was doing theater all those years before anyone knew who I was and now with television and film, to be able to play a variety of kinds of parts. I was an understudy in the Broadway production of A Few Good Men and had an opportunity to play the Colonel for several performances. Still, to this day, that’s one of the best pieces of writing and one of the best characters that I’ve ever had the pleasure of bringing to life. And there are definitely similarities between that [character] and this one. But when I first started doing Oz with Tom Fontana, I was actually concerned that I would get typecast for my whole film and television career. [Schillinger] was another sort of great character, but even more extreme… because he kills people. Tom and I talked about that going in because even though I realized it was going to be a great project creatively, it was going to be the first thing that would sort of put my face in front of the public. Then, just another stroke of luck, just as we finished the first season of Oz, I got the call from Law & Order asking me to play the shrink. So I ended up with the ideal yin and yang as people were seeing me on screen for the first time.

So are you worried that you’re going to get a phone call from the Farmers Insurance people a week after Whiplash opens, with them saying, “Yeaaaah, you’re too scary for us now”?

[Laughs] I think they’re smart enough, as the campaign has evidenced, that they can separate that and give people enough credit to separate that. But yeah, those are definitely too different approaches to education.

In the original Whiplash short, Jonny Simmons played the drummer—

Yeah, we’re both named Jonathan Simmons, actually, which is interesting.

But for the feature, Miles got the role. Damien has said that deep-pocketed people had floated some big names to replace you as well, specifically Kevin Kline, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Daniels. Were you aware or worried that that could be the case?

I was blissfully unaware of any of those specifics but I was kind of sweating it out and there was a little angst about that. It reminds me, actually, of Juno where Jason knew from the moment that he read the script that he wanted Ellen Page, and he wanted me, and he wanted Michael Cera, and Allison Janney, and Olivia Thirlby. And that was another situation where the studio, the people with the money, were suggesting people with box-office clout, and Jason stood fast and ended up getting what he wanted. Believe me, I’m very glad that I had Jason and Helen and Miles in my corner fighting for me to be the guy to do the feature and bring this character to the screen, because it’s been, obviously, on every level—personal and creative and even in the business—it’s been a real blessing for me.

I’ve met Damien and it’s impossible not to be impressed, so I have no doubt that the script was amazing. But what’s it like to go all-in with a 28-year-old director with relatively little experience?

Well, that was a real leap of faith. Obviously, you read the script and you know the guy’s a talented writer, but I had no idea if he could bring this thing to life, if he could run a set, if he would know what to do in the editing room. I knew that Jason had faith in him, so that went a long way towards giving me a level of confidence. But in just meeting Damien and talking to him about his vision for it and how he planned to go about it, [I was impressed]. His level of calm at the center of the storm and maturity on the set was a happy surprise.

You and Miles have some really tense confrontational scenes. How are those to film? Do you hear “Cut” and then everyone’s chuckling about it, or is it an intensity that’s difficult to turn on and off?

In this case, it was the former. Damien said “Cut” and we immediately started goofing around and just dropped the intensity. I’ve certainly been on sets where the opposite was the case. It just depends on what works for people. Miles and I, without even really talking about it, we settled into a rhythm of working together where as soon as he yelled “Cut,” it really was just lightening up and having a good time in between takes.

But it’s always good to be able to hit your costar every now and then.

Oh, it’s beautiful. Smacking Miles around was a joyous day on the set.