Giving heft to supporting roles has made J.K. Simmons one of the busiest actors in Hollywood
Author Sam Polcer
More than 100 roles in movies and on TV separate J.K. Simmons’ breakthrough performance as neo-Nazi prison inmate Vernon Schillinger on HBO’s “Oz” from his final bow last year as beloved Assistant Police Chief Will Pope on TNT’s “The Closer”—which gives you a good idea of the range that this 57-year-old character actor is capable of.
Though Simmons has taken top billing in a few projects, most people know his Everyman face and booming baritone from standout supporting roles: old-time newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films; the lovably understanding father in Juno; psychiatrist Emil Skoda on “Law & Order.” Soon he’ll be appearing in the Steve Jobs biopic Jobs, alongside Ashton Kutcher, and this month marks the debut of his ABC sitcom “Family Tools.” And did we mention he’s also the voice of the yellow M&M? Not bad for a guy who didn’t arrive in Hollywood until he was almost 40.
The new drama The Words finds the Detroit-born actor and father of two in familiar territory, playing the stern but patient dad of struggling novelist Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper). Like much of Simmons’ work, it’s a modest role; the fact that he can bring depth to a character officially credited as only “Mr. Jansen” is why Simmons remains in demand with such A-list directors as the Coen brothers and Jason Reitman.
We caught up with Simmons to talk about some of the highlights from his lengthy résumé, his narrow escape from typecasting after “Oz,” his love of Motor City baseball and why he’s OK with being confused with someone from Poughkeepsie.
As a Yankees fan, I can’t help but bring up your beloved Detroit Tigers. Too soon to talk about the way they self-destructed in the World Series?
You know what? We’re the American League Champs. And you’re not.
Point taken. It must have been a dream come true when you played the Tigers manager in For Love of the Game.
They brought me in to read for the team trainer, which was a two-line part, and like an idiot I came dressed up in my Tigers jersey and cap. I was like a 9-year-old kid living out his fantasy. It turned out that [director] Sam Raimi was from Detroit too, and we just got to chatting and talkin’ baseball. And he asked me to come back in and read for the manager. That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Directors do seem to like casting you again and again. Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) has even referred to you as his “muse.” What’s your secret? Do you bring doughnuts to the set?
I think directors work with someone repeatedly for two reasons: They think that person is going to deliver what they want, and can do so without a bucketful of drama. My relationship with Jason, Sam Raimi and, to some extent, the Coen brothers is just very collegial and fun.
You followed up your first notable TV role, as a white supremacist on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” with more of the same as Vern Schillinger on “Oz,” which lasted for six seasons. Weren’t you afraid of being typecast?
I almost talked myself out of “Oz” because I was concerned about exactly that. Everybody in TV land wanted me to play the Nazi of the Week on their cop show. But the material was just so good that I made an exception, and it turned out to be a six-year exception. It really spoiled me, having that as my first high-profile, long-running on-camera job, because ["Oz" creator] Tom Fontana was such a great guy to work for. I thought, “I guess this is what showbiz is like.” And sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.
How did you get involved with The Words?
Jason Reitman actually sent me the script and told me that Brian Klugman, one of the writer-directors, was a friend of his. He said, “It’s not a big part, but I think this is an extraordinary script and you ought to give it a look.” Brian and Lee Sternthal are lifelong friends of Bradley Cooper, and they wrote that script, like, 10 years ago. Lo and behold, their best pal became The Sexiest Man Alive, so all of a sudden people said, “Yeah, we’ll give you some money to make that movie … if Bradley’s starring in it.”
What’s it like working with first-time directors?
I’m 57 years old, so most of the directors I’m working with are younger than me. A lot of them are young enough to be my kids. There’s a great level of creative energy there. A guy who’s making his first feature film and has a cast of experienced actors should be a guy who’s willing to collaborate and listen as well as talk, and that’s always been the case with the ones I’ve worked with.
Did your early life as a stage actor help shape your attitude toward your film and TV work? You seem to have the drive of an actor who’s just starting out.
I have a certain “going to work” kind of mentality, since I didn’t actually start making money or being even vaguely recognizable until I was pushing 40. I’m not a flash in the pan. By the time I started doing stuff that had a litlle visibility, I felt like I actually had the experience and the ability to deliver.
Are there any other character actors that you’d like to work with?
There’s a long list of veterans whose abilities I respect immensely—for instance, I’d absolutely love to work with [Irish actor] Brendan Gleeson—and hopefully the opportunities will keep coming. The problem is that when you’re a 50-something bald white guy, you don’t usually get to work with the other 50-something bald white guys.
A lot of people recognize your face but not necessarily your name. Does that bother you?
People will occasionally approach me on the street and sort of apologize for not knowing my name, which certainly isn’t necessary! I have no aspiration to put myself in Clooney’s or Pitt’s shoes, to be one of those guys who can’t go out to dinner with his family. I think the level of recognition I have is appropriate, and I’m comfortable with it. Sometimes it’s “You’re J.K. Simmons and I loved you in The Ladykillers,” and other times it’s “Are you from Poughkeep-sie? You look vaguely familiar to me.” Either way is fine.
That said, you did take on a lead performance in The Music Never Stopped, a 2011 film festival favorite. Is top billing something you’d like more of?
It’s not what I look for. In fact, in TV, I look for the exact opposite. I don’t want to be the guy working 75 hours a week. And I honestly can say that I don’t think about what number I’m going to be on the call sheet when I’m reading a script. I’m not looking for a movie to carry. I’m looking for a good script to do and good people to work with and a good character to play—
—that hopefully won’t be a white supremacist?
I think I’m done with those. But who knows? Somebody could write another brilliant one and bring me out of white supremacist retirement.