One of the most prolific actors of our time, J.K. Simmons never seems to slow down, with a resume far too long to list here, but which includes everything from Juno to La La Land, to The Closer, True Grit, Justice League, and an Oscar and Globe-winning turn in Whiplash. His latest incarnation in Starz’s Counterpart sees him take on not one, but two roles: Howard Silk and Howard Prime–two spies living on opposite sides of a parallel dimension.
“The Howards” may be identical in appearance, but are very different in character, at least at first. When we meet protagonist Howard Silk, he is meekly going about the mysterious cubicle-bound United Nations job about which he has asked no questions for some 25 years. Then comes Howard Prime, his literal counterpart, and the product of a different reality. When they find each other, the duo has almost opposite personalities, only to slowly take on each other’s characteristics as the action unfolds.
Now, part-way through shooting Season 2, Simmons discusses how he keeps his two onscreen selves in order, his journey from musician to actor as a young man, and how he’s just as happy in supporting roles as leads.
When I first started watching Counterpart, an interview I did with Sarah Paulson came to mind. When she played conjoined twins in American Horror Story she said it was the hardest thing she’d ever done in her life. What did you think about that when this was first proposed to you?
When it was first proposed to me, it wasn’t proposed that way. It was just a script that I started reading and thought, “Oh, this guy Howard is interesting,” and I didn’t realize until I got to whatever, page 19, whenever that first is revealed, that it was, in fact, two characters. It was a complete bombshell, really. The whole concept of the parallel world. I finished the script and then, immediately, I went back and read it again from the other character’s point of view just to wrap my brain around whether I wanted to get involved in something like that. I’m thinking about Sarah Paulson now, who I love. I don’t know that it’s harder than playing conjoined twins, but I haven’t had to play that. So, what do I know?
Do you film all of Howard Silk in one go? Or are you doing Howard Silk and Howard Prime in the same day multiple times?
Yes. Actually, less of that this year. In the first season, there was a lot of this one in the morning and that one in the afternoon. Then, obviously, the scenes where both characters are together where we’re going back and forth. This year, thus far, it’s been a little–I’m always wary of anything remotely spoiler-y–but, thus far, it’s been a little simpler this year in terms of that. Usually, when I show up to work, I’m playing one guy all day, which sort of simplifies things.
Of course, that makes me want to ask you things about this next season, which I know you’re not going to tell me.
No, I’m not [laughs].
Towards the end of the first season, the two Howards converge and take on each other’s characteristics to some degree. To me, that seems like it added even more difficulty to your job. How do you keep them separate?
Well, yeah, the degree of difficultly goes up a little bit. It’s more complex, which is more challenging and more fun. When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, it’s nice to have new challenges thrown at you. There are ways in which we continue to examine that in Season 2. We just really got our final two scripts, which we’re going to start shooting in a couple of days.
I really appreciate how powerful the female characters are in Counterpart, and how, ultimately, the wives are really in control. Was that an element that appealed to you?
Yeah, it was one of the many elements that appealed to me initially, and that’s an element that is more emphasized in our second season, for sure, where we introduce Betty Gabriel’s character, who is a very powerful character. And we see more from Emily (Olivia Williams) and Clare (Nazanin Boniadi).
It’s so interesting to watch the tough Howard Prime be made vulnerable by heartbreak and the loss of his wife.
Actually, the way you described it just reminded me a little bit of Oz (1997-2003). My first real foray into television acting really. I was always campaigning Tom Fontana to find me a moment of humanity for this irredeemable bastard. Although, Prime, the tough guy Howard, I’ve always viewed as essentially an ethical guy, certainly not an evil guy, and certainly not a head of the Aryan Brotherhood. The comparison doesn’t go that far. But, the moments when Prime is a little bit vulnerable or when Howard [Silk] has a little dose of testosterone are really interesting moments for me as an actor. I look forward to those kinds of things in the writing as it developed last year and this year.
I feel like it’s a great commentary on society’s expectations of men because we see Howard Silk, this nice guy, and then Howard Prime comes in and sees Silk as a disappointment of a man.
Yeah, no. The kinder, gentler, the mushy guy is…does he get the fuzzy end of the lollipop? I don’t know. It reminds to be seen. I’ve loved playing both the guys from the beginning and there are so many places you can take these two versions of this guy that I can’t imagine, if we’re fortunate enough to be working on episode 57, I can’t imagine I’ll be bored at work.
I’ve heard some comparisons between this show and The Wire in the sense that you have to be paying attention. It’s a complex story. Are there ever time, especially considering your dual roles, where you’re like, “Wait, what’s happening?”
Oh, absolutely. Yeah, there are absolutely times. And it’s interesting having different directors come in in television. Directors are like everybody else. They have different styles, and a couple of our directors this year always come, every time you come to set, regardless of whether it’s a two-people scene with two regulars or five people, whatever it is, they go, “Okay, so, the last time we saw you, you were blah blah blah, and the last time we saw you…” because this is such a complex world. There are times when I go, “Oh, right. Yeah, yeah. No, I knew that. Yeah.” [Laughs.]
This feels like a 10-hour feature, and I’m assuming that’s how the second season’s going to feel too?
I think so. I hope so. I mean, I think whatever we call high-end TV, or this golden age of really interesting smart television is really a hybrid between feature land and TV land, and with us starting out with Morten Tyldum as our initial producing director, it’s had very much of a feature kind of feel. Like everything, there are good aspects and kind of complicated aspects of that. I mean, there are things that I prefer about features, and things that I prefer about episodic television after having done a lot of both. When I find myself getting frustrated with some of the complications or just the logistics of this, I just remind myself that, “You know what, we’re lucky here. We really have the best of both worlds in most ways,” and it’s a pretty great environment to be working in.
Let’s go back in time a bit. What made you want to do this in the first place, and what gave you this intense work ethic?
I mean, initially, it was just chicks [laughs]. Well, I mean, I was just a young guy. I sort of played a little guitar and this and that, and then started singing. I thought I was going to be James Taylor. Then I got into classical music and thought I was going to be Leonard Bernstein, and then I kind of stumbled into musical theater and fell in love with that. Pretending to be somebody else, and a really interesting combination of creative outlets.
I mean, I know I’ve got a lot of stuff on my filmography, but maybe the biggest benefit of all the attention I got a few years ago for Whiplash was a sense that I don’t have to always work all the time. Even though I had already made the decision to largely work at home in LA, after we moved here when our kids were little, I’ve always managed to be pretty close to having my cake and eating it too in terms of being a father and a husband as well as having this career that’s exceeded anything I’ve dreamed of when I was younger.
After all that you’ve done, what does it take to get you to commit to something new?
A really brilliant script. I still have, at my advanced stage, a certain naivety about film and television, specifically, because I spent 20 years as a theater actor, occasionally doing leading roles. Lots of supporting roles. I don’t really understand how to have a career in film and television. It just was something that happened one opportunity at a time for me. I’ve never had like a map for my career. I don’t have specific goals in mind now. Now, I get lots of scripts and I already was getting a decent amount of scripts, and now I get lots of scripts and I’m just looking for something that really sparks something in me and shoots in LA. Ideally.
I don’t want to headline a feature. I didn’t want to headline a series, particularly. I continue to be very happy doing good supporting parts in really interesting things. I did another movie with Jason Reitman in the fall that’s coming out next fall. That’s a Hugh Jackman vehicle and I have a nice little supporting part. I don’t have any illusion that I’m suddenly going to become the leading man that everything is gonna be built around all the time. But every once in a while when something like Counterpart comes along, first of all, I can’t pretend that it’s not nice for the ego, but it’s also nice to come into something knowing that you’re a part of the team, that you’re a real collaborator and not merely an actor. Although, I’m not a producer or anything, but I feel like I am collaborating on significant decisions about things along the way.