The current odds-on favorite to claim this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as hypercritical jazz teacher Terrence Fletcher opposite Miles Teller in Whiplash, J.K. Simmons has been captivating audiences since his debut in the 1994 Denis Leary comedy The Ref. From films like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy (where he brought Daily Bugle newspaper editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson to hilarious life) and the Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading to roles on TV’s Law & Order, Oz, and The Closer to lending his voice to animated series like The Legend of Korra and Justice League, Simmons belongs to that very select group of current Academy Awards nominees who really have done it all. I caught up with the multitalented workhorse on the red carpet of this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival (where he received the Virtuoso Award), and he told me how he connected with his Whiplash character, and updated me on his next project, the King Kong spinoff Kong: Skull Island.
NERDIST: You’ve spoken before about the gradual rise of your career to this point. Has that kind of rise allowed you to have a healthier perspective on the recognition your performance in Whiplash has received than an actor might have otherwise?
J.K. SIMMONS: Oh absolutely. If I was walking this red carpet at [Fury star] Logan Lerman’s age I would not be able to handle it at all. First of all, I wouldn’t be able to do the work that he’s doing as a young actor. I had a lot to learn as a young actor, and I learned it slowly and fitfully — and painfully for many audiences — and both sort of personally and professionally I’m sort of still maturing as an actor and a human being. I feel like everything’s sort of miraculously unfolding as it should.
N: You’re known for pouring yourself into the many roles you’ve played. What in particular about this character did you connect with?
JKS: My father was a musician, and a conductor actually. He was a choir conductor, and he was a sweet, gentle, kind, and wonderful man. So that was where the similarity ended. [Laughs.] My own background in music was part of what drew me to it, but that was really just kind of a fringe benefit. The character is one of the most brilliantly drawn things I’ve ever read in my life, and Miles Teller will tell you the same thing. When this script landed in our laps we were both completely in love from day one. And then when we met on set and really clicked and had a great time, it was the gift that kept on giving. Then when [writer-director] Damien [Chazelle] and [editor] Tom [Cross] did such a good job of assembling the movie and Sony Pictures Classics got us here, where people are actually seeing the movie… It’s been sort of the perfect storm of what we all hope every indie film is when we first read a script and decide to make it. That’s not usually the case. It doesn’t usually end up this well.
N: You’re next project is one we’re especially excited about, Kong: Skull Island. Can you tell us anything about your role in the film?
JKS: Well, I can’t tell you all that much about that, because we haven’t seen the script. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever signed on to do something with no script. But I was so taken with [director] Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ characters, and talking with John Gatins, who is writing the script now, both of them, and with Tom Hiddleston, who was the only other actor attached when they asked me to come on board. It was one of those projects, in a very different way from — but not unlike — Whiplash, where you feel a family is coming together, a working family that is exciting to be a part of. As it all unfolds, it’ll be nice to have a little bit of input in that whole process. It’s nice to have a big fun movie to look forward to in the summer.
N: Were you a big fan of King Kong when you were a kid?
JKS: No. You know what, I’m not even a movie buff man, and I wasn’t a comic book fan either! [Laughs.] I was just playing baseball and being a goofball. As a matter of fact, the King King versions we’ve seen so far, I’ve enjoyed each one, going back to Fay Wray, and different aspects of each one. But this is gonna be a very, very completely new take, and a different story really.
N: We can’t wait to see it. Thank you, sir!
JKS: Thank you.
After winning the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actor yesterday, Simmons struts his stuff at this year’s Academy Awards telecast live on ABC today at 7 EST/4 PST. Before watching, be sure to check out the 5th Annual Nerdist Movie Awards winners!