J.K. Simmons has a lot going on. With Kung Fu Panda 3 on Blu-ray and DVD this week, the Whiplash Oscar winner looks back on his time amongst Po (Jack Black), Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), and the Furious Five warriors (Angelina Jolie as Tigress, Jackie Chan as Monkey, Lucy Liu as Viper, David Cross as Crane, and Seth Rogen as Mantis), and ahead to Justice League, La La Land, The Accountant, The Snowman, and I’m Not Here.
Read on for what attracted him to his upcoming projects, details on his roles, and his reaction to the hysteria surrounding the photos of him totally ripped at the gym.
Kung Fu Panda 3
In January, Simmons made his Kung Fu Panda debut, playing a bull named Kai, who is the first supernatural villain of the series (read about the decision to go otherworldly with his character here.) “It was fun, especially joining something that I was a big fan of, and given that it was the same creative team I had confidence going in that I was in good hands,” he says about what stands out to him about his experience on the film, which sees Po reunite with long-lost father Li (Bryan Cranston) and teach his panda community the ways of kung fu to fight off Kai. (For more about Simmons’ interest in his big bad and how he brought humor to the role, head here.) Simmons has a number of other voice credits, including Mayor Lionheart in Zootopia, Lennie Turtletaub in BoJack Horseman, and the yellow peanut M&M. “There’s a level of freedom in that kind of work,” he says. “You basically have no limits in what you can draw on to create characters.”
Simmons still has one more trip to London to go to wrap his work as Commissioner Gordon on the action-adventure flick (due Nov. 17, 2017), but he says his time on set with Ben Affleck (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Ezra Miller (Barry Allen/The Flash), Gal Gadot (Diana Prince/Wonder Woman), director Zack Snyder, and more has already “been a fun experience, and knock wood, if it continues, then I’ll hopefully get to play Commissioner Gordon in a handful of movies.” Fingers crossed for that, but more immediately, what’s in store for Simmons’ take on the familiar Batman ally?
“People of my generation remember Commissioner Gordon as this jolly, ineffectual Santa Claus type, and I think over the years in the comics there’s definitely much more of a badass side to him,” Simmons explains. “One of the things that’s interesting to me is investigating hopefully a little bit more of that badass [side]…You’re living in a universe where it’s pretty tough to be a badass compared to somebody like Batman, but in the universe of non-superheroes I like the idea of Commissioner Gordon as a guy that can take care of himself, a guy that’s a real partner to Batman, not just a guy that turns on the bat signal and goes, ‘Help! Help, Batman!’” (For more from Simmons on Gordon head here.)
La La Land
A musical set in modern-day Los Angeles telling the love story of a musician (Ryan Gosling) and actress (Emma Stone), La La Land (Dec. 16) reunites Simmons with Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle…well, briefly. “It was absolutely brilliant working with Damien again, and what you can expect from my character is about 45 seconds,” Simmons details, his role being that of Gosling’s character’s boss at a nightclub of sorts. “I did it because I have great respect, admiration, and affection for Damien and I had a great time, but I shot less than a full day, so I think that’s one of those things where the first guy reported that I was joining the cast and it was like, ‘Chazelle and Simmons back together again!’ and at the end of the day it was just a little cameo.”
As for what to expect from the film, Simmons says it’s “going to be absolutely brilliant, and I think it’s such a bold move on Damien’s part. He could cash in on Whiplash and do whatever he wanted, but he’s making a creative artist decision to do something risky. It’s a full on singing-dancing musical and I hope it finds an audience because I think it’s going to open people’s eyes in a lot of ways, not just for Damien, but also for Emma and my other good friend, what’s his name, giant movie star dude…” He’s, of course, referring to Gosling, with whom he shares his couple of scenes and says was “really fun” to work with.
In the Oct. 14 release The Accountant, which also stars Affleck — here in a business suit rather than a winged one — as Christian Wolff, a freelance accountant for some very dangerous crime organizations, Simmons says it was in what was on the page. “The Accountant was all about the script, and I had a great meeting with [director] Gavin O’Connor, who I immediately was drawn to as a really passionate, creative force,” he explains. “It’s a great piece of casting for Ben, and Jon Bernthal is also great in the movie, and my dear friend [Anna Kendrick] is just wonderful in it.”
“The short version is, I really love the script, not just the characters but the puzzle nature of the script. I found [that] really compelling and smart and interesting,” continues Simmons, who assumes the role of Ray King, a leader at the Treasury Department’s Crime Enforcement Division that’s after Wolff. “I just saw the film for the first time and was really pleased with the way Gavin ended up putting it together, even though I gave him a hard time for cutting my favorite joke. You have to accept being the actor and not the director; it’s out of your hands.”
For The Snowman (Oct. 13, 2017), which follows Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) in his investigation of a missing woman whose pink scarf is discovered wrapped around a snowman, Simmons was especially drawn to the cast and crew. “I was a fan of Tomas Alfredson and also of Rebecca [Ferguson] and Michael, and the character actually was a work in progress when I first signed on to do it,” says Simmons, who mostly worked with Ferguson and didn’t actually meet with Fassbender on the film. “I didn’t really know the source material at all, but friends of mine, who are much more literate than I am, were excited about…[Jo Nesbø’s] novels that it’s based on. Again, at the end of the day it’s a combination of an interesting script and good people to collaborate with.”
I’m Not Here
Simmons worked with his wife Michelle Schumacher on redemption tale I’m Not Here, which doesn’t have a release date yet. She directed and co-wrote the film with Tony Cummings, with Simmons playing “a guy kind of at death’s door, drinking himself to death.” Schumacher, Simmons explains, started making short films more than 10 years ago, and the pair have collaborated on most of her projects, but this is her first full-length dramatic feature.
“It’s really cool being on the set with her as an actor and as a husband, just watching her be in charge of her domain and the captain of the ship, [watching] all the hard work that she’s put in learning about all aspects of film production coming together, and watching the crew just jump on board and follow her,” Simmons says. “Then when I’m doing my own scene work obviously we have a level of intimacy and communication that you don’t usually find with a director, which is nice when I’m playing scenes where I’m naked and puking and crying and bleeding.”
Bonus: Simmons Lifts
The recent photos of Simmons completely jacked at the gym were taken as the actor was trying to put muscle back on after slimming down for I’m Not Here. He would not confirm if the bulking up had something to do with his part in Justice League (though that would make sense now, wouldn’t it?), but he did address the hysteria surrounding the photos.
“I’m not going to lie, the inner 12-year-old is very gratified,” he quips. “I feel like — this is a reference that only the 60-year-olds are going to get — but on Leave It To Beaver, Beaver’s big brother would often be in his bedroom by himself flexing his arms in the mirror and Beaver would walk in and bust him, and so I’m glad that the photos of me seven or eight years ago when I weighed 250 pounds,” a weight he went up to for a couple of films, and then lost for Whiplash, “were not circulated as widely as those photos.”