Interview with J.K. Simmons


JK Simmons interview header

For the past several years, J.K. Simmons has enjoyed the luxury of a full-time TV gig, playing Chief Pope on TNT’s “The Closer,” but that hasn’t stopped him for popping off to do the occasional movie. One of his most recent efforts, “The Music Never Stopped,” has just hit DVD, and it’s a moving tale of a father (Simmons) who struggles to rebuild the bond between himself and his son, who is suffering from a brain tumor that prevents him from making any new memories. Bullz-Eye chatted with Simmons about the film, but we also got in a couple of questions about some of his other projects, including “Spider-Man,” “Oz,” “Law & Order,” and, yes, “The Closer,” too.

Bullz-Eye: It’s a pleasure to talk to you, sir.

J.K. Simmons: Thanks! How are you?

BE: I’m fine. I’m in the midst of the TCA tour, so I apologize for having to do this via the speaker on my cell phone.

JKS: Oh, that’s all right.

BE: You know, I think with each passing year, it gets closer and closer to not being hyperbole to say that you’re in everything.

JKS: (Laughs) Yeah, well, you get something once in awhile that I’m not in. But one of my smart-ass actor friends – of course, actors never think we’re working enough – came up to me a few days ago and said, “Hey, hey, hey, this is unbelievable! I went to see a movie yesterday, and it was so cool, because…you weren’t in it!” I was, like, “Oh, great, thanks…”

BE: So has it reached a point where you’re still scrambling to find work wherever you can, or are people coming to you with parts nowadays?

JKS: Well, it’s some of both. You know, I think unless your name is Clooney or Pitt or Hanks or something, there are always things that you’re scrambling after or that you wish you got or that don’t come your way. But, yeah, stuff is landing on my doorstep from time to time now, too, which is a nice change of pace for a journeyman like myself. Actually, this was one of them. “The Music Never Stops” was one, and I nearly blew it, because when the script first came to me, I was very busy. I was actually workshopping a musical theater piece in New York with Jerry Zaks, sort of harkening back to my old Broadway days, and I just really felt like I was almost over my head with the sheer amount of material we were learning. And my agent sent me the script and said, “He’s there, he wants to meet you for dinner tomorrow, they love you for this part,” but I was, like, “There’s just no way. I’m consumed with the project I’m on now, and I can’t take a meeting, blah blah blah, so thanks, anyway.” And two nights later, when I was done, I read the script and thought, “Oh, my God, I hope I haven’t blown this, ‘cause this is the best thing I’ve read in years!” And fortunately, (director) Jim Kohlberg were both on the west coast a couple of days later, and we were able to meet. And it all ended up working out!

BE: Had you read any of Oliver Sacks’ essays prior to this project?

JKS: No, I don’t think I had. I mean, obviously, I knew who he was, and like most people, I’d seen “Awakenings” and this and that. But I hadn’t read any of his books. After the fact, after James and I met and I ended up doing the movie, I got together with Lou Pucci, who played Gabriel, and he was already halfway through with Musiciphilia and doing all of his research. So I did catch up on some Oliver Sachs there in the time before we went into production. I did get to meet him, too, by the way. Luke spent a lot of time with him. Luke worked his butt off preparing for this part and really did most of the heavy lifting in the movie, and he got to spend a fair amount of time with Oliver, visiting facilities and patients, etcetera. I just got to hang out with Oliver a little when we were shooting the Grateful Dead footage.

JK SimmonsBE: So how wide was the musical gap between you and your own father?

JKS: Well, it wasn’t that wide, because my father was much less bull-headed than the father I play in the movie. My father is actually a retired music professor, and he was a choir director. He directed church choirs, community choirs, university choirs. He taught at Ohio State and then retired from the University of Montana. So, yeah, when I was doing my Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin thing, he was smart enough to see that good music is good music, and eventually…well, I actually have a degree in music. My first plan was to be Leonard Bernstein when I grew up. Once I made a little bit of a segue…not that I ever stopped listening to Janis and Jimi, but once I really fell in love with “classical music,” then that became my path for quite awhile. Then I segued into musical theater, then into theater, and then into…all of the ridiculousness that I’m doing now. (Laughs)

BE: It’s obviously a hell of a soundtrack on this film, but are you aware if there were any songs that they wanted to include but couldn’t manage to wrangle the rights?

JKS: Well, I know there were a lot of songs which, as we were filming, they’d go, “Well, we’re 90% sure that we have the rights to this song,” and we were, like, “Uh…” (Laughs) There was one, though I can’t remember what it was that we had to change. It was the scene, though, where we’re in Gabriel’s room after we first started to really bond, and Gabriel tells the story about losing his virginity. It was the song that he lost his virginity to…which, of course, takes Henry a little while to understand. “Oh. Oh!” ‘Cause Gabriel’s being a little poetic, you know. (Laughs) But that song, we ended up having to change to…oh, God, my memory’s so terrible. But we changed it to whatever it ended up being. And that’s the only specific incident I can think of where we were hoping to get a song but were unable to get. But we did get (Buffalo Springfield’s) “For What It’s Worth” and the whole Grateful Dead canon and (the Beach Boys’) “Heroes & Villains.” That was all stuff that was pretty solid, that we knew we had from the beginning. That was one of the big pieces of how the film got produced at all, ‘cause despite what a great script it was, it had been lying around on the shelves for something like 10, 11, 12 years because nobody could figure out how to produce it without spending six billion dollars on music rights. But Nick Goldberg had some connections in the music business and thought he could get it done on a more reasonable budget, and…that’s how we were able to get it done.

BE: This is a movie that obviously requires a deft touch to keep from slipping into being overly saccharine. I think it succeeded – it didn’t do that – but is that something that everyone was very conscious of while it was being made?

JKS: Well, we didn’t talk about it. I think you’re absolutely right. That was a concern. I mean, when I read the script, I didn’t think that was something we’d have to be careful of because I thought the script itself walked that line so well. But, certainly, if it had been in other hands, yeah, it could’ve been very sort of gloppy and sentimental and Movie-of-the-Week and tromped all over that line that I hope that we managed to not cross. I mean, yeah, it’s a really wonderful and heartfelt story, but, like you said, it could’ve crossed over into saccharine, and I think we were successful in not doing that while still being very emotionally impactful. I think the thing in the script, that I’m verbally putting my finger on right now, that made it less of a concern for me is that the script really had a great combination of heart and head, you know? It was a very emotionally powerful story, but also really, really intelligently told. And hopefully we translated that from…from the page to the stage, as we used to say.

BE: I wanted to touch on a few other projects that you’ve worked on. First off, I’ve got to bring up “The Closer,” since Kyra Sedgwick is preparing to depart.

JKS: Yeah, it’s been a really happy place to be for…going on seven years now. Which is not always the case, so that makes going to work a lot more fun.

BE: So what is the state of the series at this point? Will it be going on beyond this season, beyond Kyra’s departure?

JKS: Well, they’re saying this is the last season of “The Closer,” which is not really true, because we’re shooting 21 episodes, which they’re going to air some this year as Season Seven and some next year as Season Eight. So that’s kind of a misnomer that’s floating around out there. As far as any successor show, though, there’s nothing that’s really close to any kind of fruition.

BE: I’ll keep my fingers crossed, because even taking Kyra out of the equation, you guys are still a great ensemble.

JKS: Yeah, it’s a great bunch of actors to work with, and, almost as important, a great writing staff that’s managed to keep things interesting for so long.

BE: By the way, I think it’s awesome that you appeared on an episode of Adult Swim’s “NTSF: SD: SUV.”

JKS: (Laughs) Yes, that was…you know, when I do get this other stuff out of the blue, I just read it, and if it hits, it hits. And that was just one of those where I laughed my butt off, and I thought, “This’ll be a blast.” And it was really fun. Paul Scheer, who’s one of those comedy faces that everybody knows and hopefully more will come to know who he is, he’s one of the stars and a co-producer on the show, but the whole gang there was a real funny outfit to work with. I know they’re airing now, so I hope they end up being successful, so they can make some more episodes. That was fun.

BE: Has there been any talk of seeing Dr. Emil Skoda turn up on “Law & Order: SVU”? I know he tended to appear on the original “Law & Order,” but he was on “SVU” at least a couple of times in the early days of the show.

JKS: Yeah, I used to do the first “Law & Order,” but – little known fact – Dr. Skoda also appeared on an episode of “New York Undercover,” another Dick Wolf product. But, yeah, I did a couple of “SVU” episodes in the first year or two, and then, you know, B.D. (Wong) has been their trusty shrink over there for a long time now. Really, before I left New York, my “Law & Order” days were over. No, wait, actually, I did what turned out to turned out to be the very last episode of “Law & Order,” or the mother ship, as we called it. None of knew it was the very last episode at the time, but it turns out it was. And, actually, that was the same trip when I was out there to shoot “The Music Never Stops,” which we shot all on location in New York. In the city and…well, you know, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx. I think we covered four boroughs and Westchester County on that shoot.

BE: I know you worked on “For the Love of the Game” with Sam Raimi, and I’ve always liked to think that there was a moment during that shoot when he said, “If I ever make ‘Spider-Man,’ you’re my J. Jonah Jameson. Was there?

JKS: Well, we actually worked on two films before “Spider-Man.” Funny you should bring up that film, though, because I’m still sore from playing in a fund-raising softball game with Jim Colborn, who was a former big-leaguer and is currently scouting with the Texas Rangers. He was one of the many real baseball guys sitting on the bench with us in that movie. We were lucky to get a bunch of guys. It was in November, so a lot of baseball guys had a lot of time on their hands, so we had a lot of big leaguers, minor league players, and this and that. So my bench was full of experts that I could glean some info from. But that’s a digression.

Yes, I did “For the Love of the Game” with Sam, which was the first time I’d met him, but then a year later we did a film called “The Gift” down in Georgia, and it was during that shoot that word got out that Sam had been tapped to be the director of the “Spider-Man” movie. Friends of mine started calling me and saying, “Hey, you’ve got to go talk to Sam! You’ve got to tell him you should play the bad guy in ‘Spider-Man’!” They’d all gotten it into their heads that I should play one of the main bad guys in the Spider-Man canon called the Vulture…based, I think, only on the fact that he’s bald. And, y’know, I’ve never been the type to…I’m not a networker, you know? I wouldn’t go up to Sam and say… (In a sniveling voice) “Hey, can I be in your next movie?” But by that time, we’d done two movies in a row, we’d really clicked, we’d really hit it off and liked working together. So he brought me in. He wanted me to do the part, but I had to meet with the producers and all that. So I went in and auditioned and…actually, interestingly, the same day I went in and read for the producers in the morning, I was making the rounds for voiceover auditions and this and that, as I did a lot in those days, riding my bike around Midtown. And I was at Grey Advertising, walking from the waiting room back to the recording studio to lay down some audition for…I don’t know, trying to sell some laundry soap or something. And one of the guys comes literally wheeling out backwards in his chair, out of his cubicle, and says, “Hey, J.K., congratulations!” I said, “Thanks! For what?” And he said, “J. Jonah Jameson! They just announced on the web that you’re playing J. Jonah Jameson!” I hadn’t even gotten a call from my agent yet, and the fansites were already announcing that I was going to be playing J. Jonah Jameson.

JK Simmons

BE: When you were on “Oz”…well, first of all, how did you react when you learned that Vern was going to meet his death during a production of “Macbeth”?

JKS: Well, that was something that Tom (Fontana) had said that he had in mind from very early on. First of all, when we first started that show, I was not technically a series regular. He had two possible plans in mind, the first being that my character would end up being killed off in the third season, but he ended up being someone that he wanted to hang onto. So when they offered me a regular series deal, he said, “We’ll put it in the contract that if you get tired of it, I’ll kill you off whenever you want. I’d like to have you go ‘round, but I understand the idea of signing away of six years of your life is rough.” And Tom Fontana is one of those guys in the business that you could actually just shake hands on something like that and have absolute faith that he’s going to make good on it. And I’m digressing again. What was the question again? Oh, right, the end of Vern.

There was a time at the end of…how many seasons did we do? Six? At the end of our fourth season, there was some uncertainty as to whether we were going to have a fifth or not, so we shot…there was a scene where I got stabbed in the back by Kareem Said, and then we shot two versions of that scene, one in which I was killed and then one in which I was just writhing on the floor in agony. But once we ended up doing the extra two years…yeah, that’s when he developed his whole Scottish-play plot where, y’know, all the guys playing the title role kept dropping like flies. I, of course, was too tough and egotistical to think that I could fall prey to that sad ending.

BE: I like the way you maintained the superstition by referring to it as the Scottish play.

JKS: (Laughs) Oh, yeah. Some things never change.

BE: Do you have a favorite from Vern’s more deplorable actions?

JKS: Well, I think the crucifixion might be my favorite. Crucifying the pederast Catholic priest. That was poetic. (Laughs)

BE: Lastly, do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

JKS: Well, I certainly wish more people had seen “The Music Never Stopped.” I mean, we did get out there a little bit, but I wish more people had seen that. And, yeah, there’s another one that’s in the same boat, called “Off the Map,” that we shot about eight years ago that never really got the audience it should have. So, yeah, when people go onto Netflix, after they get “The Music Never Stopped”… (Laughs) …they should get “Off the Map.”

BE: What was “Off the Map” about?

JKS: Well, it’s another period piece, and…well, it’s interesting, because it’s hard to really say what it was about. It was a quirky slice-of-life thing. Sam Elliott, Joan Allen, and…oh, God, I’m so terrible with names, but just a brilliant performance by…another actor whose name I forget. That’s terrible. But it’s a genuinely sweet but quirky little movie.

(Writer’s note: My best guess is that the actor in question is Jim True-Frost, given that he has a pivotal role in the film.)


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