Whether he’s portraying a newsroom editor, a hapless lady-killer or a sweet father to a pregnant teenage daughter, J.K. Simmons always has strived for versatility in his long resume as a character actor. When rookie director Damien Chazelle was looking for the right guy to play Terence Fletcher, the acerbic jazz band leader who turns Miles Teller’s green student into a testosterone-fuming drummer in Whiplash, it was director Jason Reitman and producer Helen Estabrook who pointed toward Simmons. It’s turned out to be a brilliant choice. Like Teller, who had years of drumming under his belt, Simmons originally had trained as a classical music conductor. And though he’s played tough before—an Aryan prisoner in HBO’s Oz, his stern administrative types in Up in the Air and Spider-Man—in Whiplash, Simmons busts through these archetypes, forging fierce scenes with Teller that have pundits predicting Oscar love for both teacher and pupil.
Anything can happen with indie films. They can wind up on video-on-demand or become Oscar contenders. When you got this script, did you smell something special?
Absolutely. It reminded me of when Jason Reitman handed me the script for Juno. There was that look in his eyes. I don’t want to sound like I’m full of shit, but I don’t read a script and think, “This is a nomination.” It’s either compelling to me, or I identify with it. Every time I turned the page, I got even more engrossed. To that end, it was like when the audience leaves the theater: I was exhilarated but also felt like I had the crap beat out of me. I had this internal debate and asked Damien about the ending—what were we supposed to think? He wants to inspire that debate with the audience and not tell them what to think. I felt like I immediately knew Fletcher, but not because of anything other than what Damien put on the page. Everything was so fully fleshed out, you felt like it was your job to bring it off the page and not get in the way, because the characters were there.
Since Whiplash won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance, what types of offers have been coming your way? Are they similar roles to Fletcher?
Definitely. Some doors are opened that were barely cracked before. I was a little frustrated a few months ago when we did Sundance. The movie was making a big splash in the industry, and I thought, “Where are all the big offers?” My agent told me it doesn’t happen until the film is released. I’m getting interesting scripts with notes: “They’re strongly interested in you for this part.” The whole thing is the joy of what I get to do for a living, the collaboration. I’ve done one TV series and a few little films where I’m number one on the call sheet, and that’s the good news-bad news, because I’m working 60 hours a week. But the higher up the food chain you are, the more input (you have), the more collaborative you are on a project. I did a small part this summer in Terminator: Genisys. Even though it was a small, supporting role, the producer, director and leading actors accepted me as a collaborator, as an equal. I recently returned from a small film in Greece with Christopher Papakaliatis, a director who is the Tom Cruise-Ron Howard over there… This was exactly what I was looking for because it was un-Whiplash, un-Fletcher-like. He had been sending a few scripts, and nothing was clicking. I told him that I wanted to do a sweet, innocent love story for a 60-year-old. A day or two later, a script comes—a triptych about a Greek character and a foreigner but set around a teenage love story, a thirtysomething love story, and a 60-year-old love story, all interwoven at the end. My character is a German expatriate who just moved to Greece and loves Greek culture and history and who meets this Greek woman.
So are you turning away Fletcher-like roles?
Only because it’s not interesting to repeat myself. I just want to do something that is good and speaks to me. There’s something I’m excited about now that is more of an alpha male part, but again, it’s intelligent, layered and would be exciting to do. If a part comes along that is similar to Fletcher, it would need to be truly extraordinary.
You’ve played a number of character roles. Looking back, are there a few that you attribute to the traction in your career?
Actors all still get angsty and wait by the phone. Tom Hanks still gets angsty. You never lose that… Oz was the first project I did that a number of people saw. My phone was ringing, and they wanted me to play the Nazi of the week. I said, “No,” and then Law & Order called and wanted me to be the shrink. This was perfect: I’m the psychopath and the psychiatrist, and both audiences and industry people are seeing two sides of me. I’m lucky to work with people like the Coen brothers, Sam Raimi, Jason Reitman and Tom Fontana, who’ve all perceived me in a different way or see me with a range.
Photograph of J.K. Simmons by Mark Mann