J.K. Simmons has played some incredibly intimidating characters, most notably a sadistic neo-Nazi in HBO's "Oz," and Tobey Maguire's bullying editor in the "Spider-Man" films. You can add his demanding brute of a music teacher in the new movie "Whiplash" to that list.
The actor, whose other films include "Juno," "Up in the Air," and "I Love You, Man," is generating serious Oscar talk for his performance as Terence Fletcher, a renowned jazz instructor whose teaching methods are beyond brutal.
Simmons sat down with Moviefone to talk about nearly losing his voice from screaming so much at Miles Teller (who plays the drummer he takes under his wing), his own extensive music background and why he's so good at being so bad.
You haven't played a character this brutal since "Oz."
I probably haven't.
Was it fun to get in Miles Teller's face and scream at him?
Super fun. [Writer/director] Damien [Chazelle] was nice enough separate the scenes in which I had to scream like a maniac. He gave me a few days in between to let my vocal chords recover.
Did you ever lose your voice?
I tore it up a little bit, yeah. I mean, whatever. I did 20 years of theater; I'm a trained actor; I'm a trained singer. I know vocal technique, but that was out the window with this. At the end of the day, this just had to be 100 percent losing your mind and letting it go. There was no such thing as "vocal technique."
Was it hard to go from screaming at Miles to just hanging out on set between takes?
You know what, it wasn't at all. We quickly settled into that rhythm of just, Damien says "cut," and we'd just chill and start goofing around.
You play piano in this. Was that something you had to learn or have you been playing all these years?
I have a degree in music. I studied music in college. I was a singer and composer and conductor. Thought I might be either Leonard Bernstein or [an opera singer like] Robert Merrill. Of course nobody knows who those guys are anymore. Well, okay, Bernstein. Then segue, segue: Opera, operetta, musical theater... what was the question?
Did you already know how to play piano?
When I was studying music in college, I had to study every instrument as a composer or composition student. I studied every instrument in the orchestra a little bit. I can basically play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" on an oboe or a cello. I had a piano "functional exam" at the University of Montana and I think that was for my music education degree, which I ended up not getting. So I had a very basic, "Go Tell Aunt Rhodie" in the key of C and play my scales, but my hands lack musical talent. I have it in my head and in my heart. So, the piano playing -- even though any musician will tell you that that was a very simple piece I play in the movie -- I practiced a lot. [Laughs] I practiced many hours to get that little piece down.
Did you ever have a teacher remotely as tough as Fletcher?
Nope. Fortunately, no. I had a couple of high-school football coaches who were a little out of line. But that was kind of par for the course in 1970.
What about a film or theatrical director?
Not really, no. I've had a few producers who found it necessary to scream at people. I usually was not the brunt of that myself. I don't respond well to that. [Laughs] I don't know how many people do. It's one thing if you're on [Marine recruit training camp] Parris Island, that's maybe where that belongs. And is actually necessary and productive.
Do you think Andrew [Miles Teller's character] would have gotten to the level he does, musically, without Fletcher?
This is the debate that the movie inspires, and that was Damien's reason for making the film, debating that issue: How far is too far and when does the end justify the means, or not? My take on it is that if I was Andrew Neyman, I'd rather have a pretty girlfriend and go see movies with my dad than bleed and do everything this guy wants me to do.
What do you think happened to Fletcher to make him the way he is?
Well, this is sort of stupid, but I actually don't like to talk about specifics of backstory.
But you did create one for him?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And there was some backstory stuff that we shot, not linear backstory, but we shot most of a day in my apartment, just me alone. And that gave a few hints as to where this guy comes from, why he's such a miserable f*ckin' bastard. But Damien decided -- correctly -- that that sort of took a little bit of the air of mystery away from the character and so none of that ended up in the final cut.
Damien based your character on a real teacher of his. Did he tell you much about him?
Yeah, a little bit, but only in broad strokes. I wasn't playing that person, from real life, I was playing the fictionalized version of him that Damien wrote. We talked more about how the relationship made him feel and just the sort of general nature of that relationship, as opposed to specifics to play this guy.
Why are you so good at being so intimidating?
First of all... first, first, always, it's having a good script with a good character and a good point of view. Second of all, I look like the boss because I'm a bald guy with a low voice. I started losing my hair when I was 21. It's nice to have people think of me for those kinds of parts and then have the same people, or others, think of me as Juno's dad or Mel Fisher in "Growing Up Fisher" the sort of nice guy parts. The thing I'm going to do in a couple of weeks is a little movie in Greece called "Eros," where I play a really sweet German character. And then I'll do a movie called "Steve's Umbrella," where I play a really sad, pathetic drunk at the end of the rope. That's a movie that I was cast in because I'm sleeping with the director.
You've been in so many movies and TV shows. When people stop you in the street, which ones do they usually ask you about?
It varies by demographic and by geography. When I go back to New York, it still tends to be, "Yo, Oz!" I get that a lot. And "Law & Order," of course, which is a New York show. "Spider-Man." "The Closer." We did 100-whatever episodes of that. And then whatever's been on most recently. When I had the sitcom on NBC, "Growing Up Fisher," a lot of that. But, ultimately, at the end of the day, more people will see the [Farmers] insurance commercials than probably every film I've ever done. [Laughs] And those are everywhere, so in the middle of the country, that's oftentimes what people talk about. But you know, there was a guy a couple of months ago who came up and said, "Hey, I loved you in..." and you kind of play the guessing game in your head of what he's going to say, and he said, "Das Barbecu." That was an off-Broadway show I did in 1994 or something.
That was a Wagner opera send-up, right?
Yes. It was the entire Wagner "Ring" cycle condensed into an hour and a half with five actor/singers.
Do you have any musicals lined up?
Well, apparently not! [Feigns anger.] Damien's doing one [currently titled "La La Land," about a jazz pianist] and he's taking Miles for the ride, but I don't get to go. I haven't been onstage in almost 20 years, other than a benefit here and there. I might belt out a song once in a while for a charity event or something. My wife and I met doing a revival of "Peter Pan" on Broadway in 1991. And we've talked off and on about getting back to the stage at some point. I think it wouldn't be until both the kids are in college, so that's a good five years out.
"Whiplash" hits theaters October 10.