J.K. Simmons has spent the last 20 years as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand character actors, making an outsize impression in films like Spider-Man and Juno and on TV shows including Oz, Law & Order, and The Closer, but his role in the acclaimed new film Whiplash may be the juiciest of his career — and, if the pundits’ early predictions are borne out, it could earn him an Oscar. In the Damien Chazelle–directed music drama, Simmons plays the tyrannical Fletcher, an epithet-spitting, frequently screaming music instructor who zeroes in on Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a jazz-drumming student who becomes both Fletcher’s pet project and punching bag. It’s one of the scariest performances of the year, and among the most fascinating, too: Chazelle and Simmons reveal just enough of Fletcher to suggest even more, and earlier this month, Simmons sat down with Vulture in Los Angeles to discuss some of the implications of that subtext.
Now, I’ve heard that there was a cut sequence in this film where your character is sipping Cabernet while lifting weights in the mirror. If I had to imagine a home life for Fletcher, it’d be exactly that.
That was the way I felt every time I turned the page in the script, was that it was a complete story with complete characters. The fact that we spent most of a day shooting scenes in my apartment with just me — and none of it ended up in the movie — is one of those things that is often frustrating as an actor, but I completely understand Damien’s ultimate decision to leave some more mystery about who this guy is.
I feel like we get some breadcrumbs, though.
Little ones. And there were more. That’s all the scenes in my apartment really were, was more breadcrumbs.
And I feel like some of those breadcrumbs implied some sort of psychosexual subtext to Fletcher’s relationship with Nieman. It’s as though he’s seducing Nieman — or, more to the point, grooming him.
Yeah, absolutely. I think — I hope — that it’s subtle, that aspect of it. It’s not something that I ever had a conversation about with Damien or with Miles. I think it’s just something that an astute reader will see: “That’s a possibility, that’s something to consider.” Some audiences will see that, and some will not. I will neither confirm nor deny. [Laughs.]
You first played this character in a short film that Damien made as sort of a proof-of-concept. What was it like to get that time off as that short played film festivals, and then to revisit Fletcher down the line?
It was awesome to have the opportunity to do all of it, and to get to go back a year later and be that asshole again. We made the short in an effort to make the feature, but the short itself turned out to be a complete piece of work. It went to Sundance, made a splash, and people came forward with money to make the feature, but I’ve found out since then that a lot of those people said, “Hey, how about recasting with this movie star, or this other movie star with more box-office clout?” And God bless Damien, who knew the two actors he wanted were Miles and me.
You’ve played villains before — most memorably, the neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger on HBO’s prison drama Oz — but it had been a little while since your last role like this. Did you feel like the time was right to step back into a bad guy?
Honestly, it’s just complete lucky timing on my part. I was very cognizant of that when I did Oz, because it was my first on-camera thing after having been a theater actor for many years. The first time I met with Tom Fontana about that show, I was reticent because I realized that this was going to be the first thing onscreen that would have a real impact on my career, and I could end up playing the Nazi of the week on every TV show for the rest of my life — and I’d rather go drill for oil somewhere than do that. But it’s divine providence, because just as we were finishing the first eight episodes of Oz, I got an offer to play the shrink on Law & Order, and it was the perfect yin-yang: psychiatrist, psychotic murderer! So it’s not like I was looking to play a psychopathic, abusive guy, but when this script came along and it was so brilliant, it was also, coincidentally, really nice timing, because it had been a while since I had this sort of heinous character to sink my teeth into.
I’m sure you could tell back then, when fans would approach you, whether it was for Oz or Law & Order. They must have had very different reactions to you.
Absolutely. And literally, sometimes I’d be shooting a scene at the pier for Law & Order, and then walking down the street to the flower warehouse to shoot as a different character for Oz. There were plenty of days when I’d do both.
When you’re playing a psychopath, is it easy to let go of that role at the end of the day?
It was difficult at first. The first year of Oz, it was difficult. I’d been doing theater for about 20 years at that time, but there’s a level of intensity with something like Oz and HBO — or a feature like this — that’s different from doing a play. It was difficult to shed that Vern skin at the end of a day, and at the time, my wife was doing Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, so we were at opposite ends of the spectrum in showbiz. I think it was true of a lot of us on Oz that a lot of us were theater guys, and a lot of us musical-theater guys, who were trying to act all tough and shit on this quest for credibility to be believable as these characters. When we came back for a second season, guys like me, Kirk Acevedo, Eamonn Walker, Lee Tergesen, Dean Winters, we all seemed to have a similar understanding: We’re gonna be here for a while, so we’d better learn to relax and have fun in between shots and not take these guys home to bed with us.
You have a musical-theater background, Damien Chazelle is making a movie musical next called La-La Land … does he have a role for you?
You’d think! [Laughs.] You would think, wouldn’t you? And yet, has it been mentioned? I don’t know that there is a role for me, but yeah, Miles is doing it, and Emma Watson is, too. Believe me, if Damien wanted me to be what I am for Jason Reitman — the one guy who shows up in every one of his movies somehow — I would. At the end of the day, this sounds completely bullshit disingenuous, but I just want to serve the story and work with people like Damien and Jason and Tom Fontana, people who really invite collaboration. There’s not always a fit, but honestly, I can’t imagine Damien coming to me in the future with a project that I wouldn’t want to do.
You studied classical composing in college. How did you get from that point to where you are now?
I tend to over-romanticize it. That was a muse that came and went. At first, I was in college just blanking off, majoring in pinball and screwing around.
Oh, I minored in those.
Oh, yeah? [Laughs.] But then I realized that I really loved music. My father was a music teacher and a choir conductor, so it had been a part of my life, but of course the natural inclination for a son is to not want to go where Dad was. Once I decided that music was what I was going to study, that’s what I did, and I was passionate about it. This inner composer came out during that time while I was studying conducting and voice and composition at the University of Montana, and I took a quarter off from school and went off to do an opera and play Figaro.
Had you acted at all before that?
Just in opera workshops and Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. The rehearsals for Figaro were on the evenings and on weekends, but I was there during the day because I didn’t have anything else to do but help put the sets together and slap some paint on the flats. Anyway, there was this guy, a teacher whose high-school class was building the scenery — Don Thomson, and that would be a lovely name to get in your article — who said, “Hey, I run this little summer theater up in Bigfork, Montana.” I ended up there that summer and was the music director, but also ended up playing the lead in Brigadoon because I was the best singer for it. I was far from the best actor in the world, but that was the beginning of that transition.
That’s when you realized you wanted to act for a living?
I totally fell in love with the possibilities of acting, in a different way from standing in the crook of a piano singing Brahms. Don’t get me wrong, though. If I had two lives going on, though, one of them would still be standing in the crook of a piano singing Brahms.