Esquire Q&A: J.K Simmons
You will know his face. J.K. Simmons is one of those actors. He’s “that guy from Law & Order” or the newspaper editor from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. Some of us still remember him as Vern Schillinger, the head of the Aryan Brotherhood, in Oz, the HBO prison drama from the late Nineties.
But not anymore. Lately, wherever he goes, Simmons is recognised as Fletcher, the sadistic jazz band conductor in Whiplash, a small movie that has made a big noise since its debut at the 2014 film festivals. He calls it the role of his career, a new era, even.
Expertly crafted, it’s an intense movie with a somewhat odd vision, that of an emerging movie savant, 29-year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle. He reimagines big band jazz as a sport; a near-Olympic arena of ruthless competition where all that matters is speed and precision. And in this world Simmons cracks the whip.
In person, Simmons betrays none of Fletcher’s cruelty, at least today. Sipping a Diet Coke at a golf club in Burbank, California, he’s rather tickled that at 59, his career should be reaching such new heights. He says he stumbled into acting, starting as a theatre guy in Montana, then Seattle and New York, often waiting tables to make ends meet. And now look — splashy interviews, talk of awards and the juiciest movie role of his career.
“Fletcher was fun to play,” he says. “All that anger, it felt good to get it out. Even if it did involve slapping Miles Teller repeatedly. But seriously, who doesn’t want to slap a 27-year-old movie star?”
Did you ever have a mentor like Fletcher in your life when you were younger?
Not really. The closest was a high-school football coach. But if you look at what they did, with today’s sensitivities, it’s all abuse. They were screaming at us, denying us water. I literally got kicked in the ass repeatedly and called all kinds of names.
The abuse in Whiplash was wonderful and very politically incorrect. Was any of it improvised?
The best stuff was already on the page. But I did call Miles a self-righteous little prick on one occasion.
How would you have dealt with a mentor like Fletcher instructing you?
At 19, I would have cowered. But a little later in life, the response might have been to say, “Fuck this, you can’t treat me like that.”
So you were a rebellious younger man and yet you have played authority figures…
Yeah, it’s ironic. And I continue to have issues with authority for authority’s sake. It has gotten me into trouble, into jail even. Like, a couple of times, for making a ruckus. For… wanting people to be human beings.
Not since you were 55?
Ha ha! No, not since I was married and had children.
Was it hard summoning the rage for the shoot?
Not after driving through LA traffic. Honestly, it helps provoke that kind of anger. And I have taken a hammer to cell phones and answering machines. A couple of times, actually. I think it’s a pretty healthy way to get that shit out.
I read that Miles got you back for the slapping. There’s a scene where he tackles you, and he cracked a couple of your ribs.
Yeah, and he took such pride in it, too. Like, dude, you’re proud of busting up a 58-year-old guy’s ribs? That’s fucked up! We only had two more days of shooting, luckily. It f**king hurt though.
But you kept on shooting the film. That’s pretty hard core for an old man.
Oh, that’s nothing. On Oz one day, I got a chunk of a camera embedded in my head and I was passed out on the floor geysering blood while the set medic stood over me, freaking out. No help whatsoever. I ended up going to the ER and getting nine stitches in my head — real Frankenstein stitches. When I went back to the set, they shot me from the other side for the day. That’s hardcore.
Where’s the scar?
That’s the thing. No scar. Not even a line. You see? Things heal. Bad stuff happens, but you go on. Life takes care of it.
People call you JK — was it always the way?
Well, my full name’s Jonathan Kimble, but my parents didn’t want to call me either. So for a while, I went by Kim, which is a name for a girl or a Korean person. But as an actor, Kim Simmons was already taken by the theatre union, Equity. Jonathan Simmons didn’t fit, because I wasn’t comfortable answering to Jonathan. And that was taken, too, by the Screen Actors Guild.
You never thought of making up a whole new name, like Troy or Dexter?
Oh, yeah — Rock Groin, nice to meet you!
You’re also a keen musician yourself, right?
I’m doing a little conducting the day after tomorrow, actually. Tim Simonec, one of the composers for the film, asked me to conduct one of his tunes. It’s the perfect title, too: “Too Hip to Retire”.
Let’s hope they don’t screw it up, though.
I’ll have a stack of chairs to hurl if they do.