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Under the Influence: How J.K. Simmons prepares by not preparing

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Jk Simmons
Michael Tran/FilmMagic

His jaw-dropping performance as a brutal music teacher in Whiplash earned him his first Golden Globe, and an Oscar may soon follow. To get into character, Simmons leaned on instinct rather than research. EW asked about his other memorable roles and learned his one rule: Never overprepare.

Whiplash, as Terence Fletcher, abusive music instructor, 2014

When I first met [director] Damien [Chazelle], he wanted to alleviate any fears that I had about the musical aspects of the character. He assured me that we’d have a technical adviser on set who could help me. If we needed to use body doubles for some of the conducting, we could do that. I said, “I actually studied conducting, and I got a college degree in music.” That was just a pleasant surprise to him. Once I had signed up, I worked my butt off just learning the music. I spent a lot of time listening, but also reading through the scores and just knowing the music.

Once we were on set, we were playing live almost all the time. All the guys playing musicians in the movie were real musicians. It was really cool that first day on set when one of the guys said after an early take, “Man, you must have done a lot of research for this.” I was like, “Yeah, starting when I was 19.”

I knew classical conducting. I hadn’t studied jazz at all. The good thing about jazz is there’s a wide range of style of conducting. Some guys count it off and stand aside and tap their toe. Some guys are very animated and very involved. I felt like I had total freedom in creating the conducting style for Fletcher. Again, it was great to have done the research 30 years before that.

Thank You for Smoking, as BR, tobacco lobbyist, 2006

Didn’t read the book! I did later. We actually talked about not reading it because there’s much more intricate plot stuff in the book that wasn’t going to be in the film. That, to me, would have confused was motivates the character specifically in the scenes [director] Jason [Reitman] wrote.

The Ladykillers, as Garth Pancake, demolitions expert, 2004

Here’s what an idiot I am. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie to prepare for a role. In this case, I was sitting in my trailer, reading the days sides—Joel and Ethan always have storyboards along with the sides—and I was literally laughing out loud just reading the sides and looking at the storyboards for what we were going to get to do that day. One of the ADs knocked on the door. It was time to go do something, and I commented on what a brilliant, hilarious story this was. The AD said, “Oh, and I love the original so much.” That was when I found out we were doing a remake. I did not even know four days into shooting. That’s when I found out we were doing a remake. And I never saw the original film because I wasn’t playing that character. I was playing what Joel and Ethan wrote. That’s just my own ignorance. I’m not recommending that.

Spider-Man, as J. Jonah Jameson, Daily Bugle editor, 2002

I actually did more research for that than people might think. First of all, the nice folks at Marvel sent me virtually every J. Jonah Jameson comic book that he appeared in. I pored over those.

There was an editor at the New York Post that arranged for me to come spend a few days a fly on the wall, just to get the general vibe of a big city newspaper. That helped create the Preston Sturges rapid-fire energy that we ended up with in those scenes, that [director] Sam [Raimi] wanted to create.

I wasn’t a comic book aficionado at all when I was a kid, but my cousin Weed* was. Every time we went to visit him on the far, he had two really fun things: comedy albums and comic books. Spider-Man was his favorite. I think he’s planning to retire on what he’s going to get for his Spider-Man comic book collection. We also had Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos.

Oz, as Vern Schillinger, imprisoned neo-Nazi, 1997-2003

I don’t often do a lot of that kind of research, but when it’s something specific like Oz—which I fortunately did not have a lot of experience with—I will. I read The Hot House, about being on the inside at Leavenworth prison. And I did read about the Aryan Brotherhood and how it began. A lot of the stuff about white-supremacist groups was very family-friendly: “We just love our people.” One the surface, you go, “Gee, what’s wrong with loving your people?” But when you love your people to the exclusion of everything else that’s remotely different, that’s when you get into trouble.

Law & Order, as Dr. Emil Skoda, 1994-2010

I didn’t do any research—just read the scripts.

*Yes, Weed. Real name: Ron Jensen.

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