You know J.K. Simmons’ stern, malleable face. If you don’t, you should. Over the last 20 years, the character actor’s been appearing in films such as Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy and “Juno,” as well as TV shows including “Oz” and “Law & Order.” Yet despite this flurry of activity, stardom has evaded the actor. That could change this fall as his latest release, Damien Chazelle’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “Whiplash,” expands following a limited release last Friday.
Since its premiere in Park City and its subsequent screening at Cannes, Simmons’ performance has been courting Oscar buzz for Best Supporting Actor — and for good reason. As Fletcher, a psychotic music instructor who makes life a living hell for new student Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), Simmons is total force. He’s also terrifying to watch.
Indiewire caught up with the actor by phone to discuss “Whiplash” and that Oscar buzz.
You didn’t make it out to Sundance for the big premiere.
I did not, no, I couldn’t be bothered. [Laughs] I was working. I was doing a TV show and it was a rare example of me being number one on the call sheet and I just wasn’t able to get away.
What was it like to watch the film become a sensation from the sidelines?
Well, you know, it’s great. I knew that we had a made a wonderful movie and that Damien was the real deal and I was certainly expecting that it was going to be well received, but obviously, you never know. It’s a competitive place out there so the fact that we got the level of attention we did was really gratifying. I got to go to Cannes for the first time. Damien and I went to Cannes and I got to be there firsthand seeing just the outrageous reception we got from audiences there. And it’s continued…Toronto, New York, the film was really landing with audiences all over the place.
How was your first Cannes?
I mean it really was crazy. I hadn’t seen the film before Cannes. I didn’t want to see it by myself looking at my computer. I had seen pieces of it in the editing room with Damien. He allowed me to come in and give a little input from my point of view as he was getting toward the end of cutting the movie together. But I really hadn’t seen it and I didn’t know…I didn’t even understand 100 percent what I was seeing. But when I went to the first screening in Cannes it was actually a press screening and you know, there tend not to be massive ovations at press screenings, but it really did get a really significant applause and reception at the end of the film. That same night we went to the actual Cannes premiere of the movie—Damien and I—in a gigantic theater. The reception was…you know, I haven’t spent a lot of my career at film festivals and things. I mean people who have been around this business for a long time, everybody was saying they had never ever, ever, ever seen a reception like that for a film. It was through the roof. It was gratifying. It was embarrassing at a certain point. Damien and I were like man how many times can we stand here and shake each other’s hand, and hug and bow and wave? It was really just amazing.
Your body of work is pretty remarkable, but it’s “Whiplash” that’s finally bringing you the type of recognition you’ve long deserved. Do you feel that way about this film, or do you think it’s just a case of the press making a whole lot out of nothing?
Well, no, no. I’ve done a lot of really nice parts in a lot of indie films and this is…this one is not only a wonderful, wonderful film and one of the great parts I’ve been able to have the opportunity to do. The awards buzz is a beautiful thing. And for me and for the movie…to be a part of this whole thing is exciting, it’s cool.
So you care about awards season?
Yeah. I don’t know if that’s the way I’d phrase it. I mean it comes with the territory. When a film is getting this kind of attention and people are appreciative the work, then that’s an extension of it. If the awards buzz is happening and it’s coming from critics and people in the business and all of that, that’s only more good news. We know that we’ve made an extraordinary movie here and that Damien is a filmmaker to be reckoned with and that Miles is a movie star on the rise who’s a really talented young actor. I had an opportunity to get a nice, meaty part I could really sink my teeth into and that doesn’t come along everyday. So yeah, I mean awards buzz is just a beautiful part of the whole big picture.
Now about the character you play in “Whiplash,” Fletcher — he’s one terrifying man. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous to get on the phone with you.
That’s honestly why you didn’t come here in person, right?
That’s exactly why. [Laughs] How did you get to the core of Fletcher and actually empathize with the guy to play him?
I do think you need to understand a character’s motivation and perspective. Whether you need to like a character I don’t think that’s necessary in order to portray him. But honestly, it was all there on the page and Miles and I have had this discussion, you know. There’s was nothing I really felt I needed to draw on or identify with or a role model that I needed to emulate in order to create this character. It was a unique character that Damien put on the page that I just felt a connection with. I felt that I could be the guy to bring it to life.
Was it hard being so tough on Miles? I can tell you have a deep respect for the guy.
Yeah, but at the end of the day it was also totally fun just to berate and abuse that smug little prick—no, I got to be careful what i say in print because–you know. We joked a lot on the set. Basically our whole relationship is based on giving each other a hard time. We really clicked. People sort of — the natural conclusion is that I’ve been around awhile and Miles is a young guy new on the scene and that our relationship is like a mentor/protogé kind thing, like a milder version of Fletcher and Andrew but really, to me, it felt like we were a couple of 9th grade knuckleheads hanging out together creating trouble in the back of the classroom.
Did you have a mentor coming up as an actor?
I had many, many mentors that I worked with. Music teachers, choir directors, directors in summer stock or in regional theater. You know people I was able to work with repeatedly and learn from who were really sort of appropriate people for me to work with at a given time in my development as an actor. But yeah, not one person I could say this is my mentor or guru. It was a combination of input from a lot of different sources. You know, I mean up to and including Sam Raimi and the Coen brothers and Jason Reitman. I think if you’re not learning from people all along the road, you stop growing. And you know, I learned from Damien on this film.
Did any of your mentors take a similar approach to the one Fletcher does in the film?
No. I mean the closet I ever came in my experience was probably a high school football coach or two. And honestly we’re talking about 44-45 years ago when I was playing high school football, so that was kind of par of course back then, that level of abuse. But I’ve certainly had some teachers and some directors who have demanded more out of me than I initially thought I could get away with and who wouldn’t settle for me phoning something in. But, yeah, I’ve worked with people who are demanding but never anyone that manipulative and abusive. Have you noticed a change in the types of roles you’re now being offered?
Honestly I haven’t, I haven’t yet. And I asked that same question of my agent as this movie starts getting all this kind of buzz. And he’s like “You know what? You’ve got to wait until it comes out.” Listen, I’m blessed to be on anything. When I started to do this in summer stock in Bigfork, Montana in 1977, it never occurred to me that I’d live in New York or L.A. and be working with movie stars and make a comfortable living doing it. If this whole movie and this whole experience brings better scripts—more scripts, more opportunities my way that I might not otherwise get, then that’s gravy.