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J.K. Simmons on Counterpart, Acting, and Getting Really Jacked

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Spoilers below for Counterpart.

On the Starz sci-fi espionage series Counterpart, J.K. Simmons plays two different versions of the same character. In one world he’s Howard Silk, a low-level pencil pusher who’s been thrust into events completely beyond his understanding and is slowly struggling to catch up the realization that he exists in two mirroring worlds (and that his wife has been hiding this fact from him for years). On the other side of the inter-world boundary, Simmons plays another Howard Silk, one who’s powerful and tougher and deeply involved in the cold war brewing between the two worlds.

In Sunday night’s episode, “In from the Cold,” Howard Prime, who’s been pretending to be Howard Alpha, has one very sweet moment with Howard Alpha’s wife, Emily (Olivia Williams), which is interrupted by a fight with someone who’s been sent to kill him. The fight reveals to Emily that this is not her Howard, ending a ruse that had been building on Counterpart since season one. Vulture spoke with J.K. Simmons about playing two different Howard Silks, how hard it is to articulate the process of acting, and what it’s like to be really, really jacked.

How are you doing today?
I am here on a rare rainy day in L.A.

That’s very Counterpart–y. It’s not particularly sunny on that show.
No, it is not the sunniest show around.

On the show, you don’t just play two Howard Silks: For a while now, you’ve also been playing one version of Howard who is pretending to be another version of Howard. And in Sunday’s episode, Olivia Williams’s character, Emily, finally finds out. Did that feel like a relief for him, or for you?
Yeah, definitely a relief for the character. In terms of the actor, it simplifies things because that really was the most complex aspect in the first two seasons. It was not so much differentiating between the two versions, but trying to find those shades of gray when they’re pretending to be each other, and becoming somewhat better at it as we go along. That was a big relief for the character, and a bit of a stress-relief for the actor as well.

What are the biggest challenges when you’re playing a character who’s pretending to be someone else?
It’s always tricky for actors to play somebody who’s acting. One Howard, because he’s a superspy, he’s initially a little bit better at assuming somebody else’s persona. As opposed to the kinder, gentler Howard, who is utterly out of his depth, who has no experience trying to do that kind of thing. A lot of the aspects of his counterpart are so foreign to him, it’s hard for him to access or put on.

Do you hold your body differently? Are there physical differences between the two Howards?
Ultimately there are subtle — I hope — detectable differences in physicality. But really, I didn’t think of it that way, with rare exception. Actors tend to be one way or the other, working from the inside out, or the outside in. I tend to be an inside out kinda guy, so to me, the differences between the two characters are psychological, emotional. And that manifested itself physically. People have told me audiences have been able to differentiate, to know which character they’re looking at in the beginning of a scene, even if it hasn’t been made explicit.

I feel like I’m contradicting myself! I think you know what I mean? I’m very bad at talking about process. There’s a reason I’ll never be a director or an acting teacher.

Because the process is hard to articulate?
Yeah, for me, it very much is.

Is there a Howard you prefer to play?
When I first read the script, I fell in love with the kind, gentle, meek Howard, and the sadness of his life and who he is, and I viewed him as the protagonist. And then when we met the more badass Howard, I was really blown away. There’s a great appeal to playing someone who’s just, you know, more badass! He has that superspy virility going on, and when you hit 60 years of age, it’s nice when someone asks you to play somebody that has some cojones.

Speaking of that, you have a fight scene in this episode — you’re quite fit. I read elsewhere that you’ve been doing a lot of work in the gym for several years. Is this … recent? Is there a reason you wanted to … spend a lot of time that way?
Well, it’s been an off-and-on thing for a lot of my life. For the last eight or nine years, I got very consistent with it. As I would go back and forth between being horribly lazy and fat, and then, you know, starving myself to try to get fit, my wife kept preaching moderation. And I kept nodding my head and saying, “Yeah, well … ” So I finally started listening to her and it’s really hard to get back into shape after you’ve let yourself go.

The last time I was really overweight was on purpose — foolishly on purpose — for a part. A director asked me to put on weight and I was already in pretty bad shape. So, I dunno, ten years or so ago, I was arguably in the worst shape of my life. Certainly the fattest. When I was working my way back from that, I decided I wanted to try to stay as consistently fit and healthy as possible. You know, for all the reasons that include health and also vanity. Male ego, all that stuff.

You’re pretty jacked now, or at least it seems that way in this episode.
Frankly, we had to go back and forth during the schedule, and it was very tricky. [For] the one Howard, I wanted to appear emaciated because he’d been incarcerated and underfed. But it was just a period of three or four days between playing the emaciated version where I’d lost a bunch of weight in a healthy way, and then working with my trainers to slam a bunch of protein and lift a bunch of heavy stuff for the few days before we shot that big fight scene. And there are more fireworks to come from badass Howard. Should I say that? Or should I not say that …

I think “more fireworks to come” is the right level of teaser. But that sounds really hard, to go from this place where you’re purposely emaciated, and to then only have a couple days to bulk up. That seems intense!
Yeah, and I certainly don’t advocate this, to have people bounce back and forth. Especially guys of a certain age. I do it in a very healthy way. I work with a couple of different trainers, Dana Perri and Erin Williamson, both of whom are really very thorough and health-oriented trainers who work at getting results without any of the kinds of cheating or unhealthy starvation stuff you sometimes hear about.

You get very few opportunities to play happy on Counterpart, but there is one scene where you and Emily suddenly solve something and look so joyful. I felt this wave of happiness for your character, but then it instantly got yanked away. Is it exhausting to constantly play within that sadder range of emotions?
It’s challenging in a couple of ways. As you said, that tighter range of color, the subtle variations need to be increasingly subtle. Yeah, there’s a persistent — I’m trying to think of a word that’s not “negativity,” because that doesn’t sound like it’ll make people want to watch the show. But the persistent, uh …

Dark intensity, perhaps? The characters have different variations on it, and it really makes those moments when happiness and lightness creep in — it really makes the experience more enjoyable.

You’ve also done a lot of voice acting, and I’m curious about how you build a character when you’re doing voice acting differently from when you’re in front of a camera.
It is more challenging in a way. A fellow of mine, Billy West — with whom I’ve been doing the M&M characters for many years now — I think is the first guy I heard use the phrase “theater of the mind.” When you’re only doing the voice, you have a specific visual image of who you are or who you’re dealing with, and I find it helpful to just close my eyes and visualize and play. Another thing that I’ve found, I’m more willing and I find it easier to make a wide, wide range of choices as a voice actor. When you’re being directed — “louder, faster, funnier, meaner,” whatever — it’s much, much easier to play the extremes and trust and leave it up to the directors, producer, editor, to make the final decisions.

Plus, you don’t have to lose a bunch of weight and then bulk up again really fast.
This is true! You don’t even have to shave or put on a decent shirt if you don’t want to. Lots of sweatpants and hoodies in voice-over sessions.

So, J. Jonah Jameson only makes a small cameo in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. But the movie is all about these different versions of Spider-Man, and it made me wonder what different versions of J. Jonah Jameson might be like. Is there ever a chill version of J. Jonah?
Never chill. I’m trying to remember now, because I have done some animated J. Jonah Jameson since I did J. Jonah with Sam Raimi, and at one point we did go into five or six or seven different wacky versions of J. Jonah Jameson. Some dedicated comic nerd will have to dig into that and find out what episode that would be of. I don’t remember the show! Avengers animated thing.

But never chill, you don’t think.
I don’t recall JJJ ever being chill, except maybe momentarily dropping the volume and intensity just so he could shockingly bring it back up.

J.K. Simmons on Counterpart, Acting, and Being Really Jacked