“Miles and I would just be dicking around like a couple of knuckleheads on the set,” said J.K. Simmons, describing his transformation from real-life nice person to the demonic mentor who torments jazz student Andrew (Miles Teller) in Whiplash. “Then we would go into one of these fierce exchanges from the script. When the scene was over, we went right back to what we were doing before. It wasn’t something we felt we had to maintain.”
Simmons doesn’t believe there is only one way to work theatrical magic. “If someone else wanted to stay in character, or not even talk between scenes, I would be fine with that. I would be respectful of that. But the way Miles and I worked was exactly what I would have wished. By the way, I think of all the Oscar snubs, not crediting Miles with anything for this is a disgrace. He’s an incredibly talented actor.”
Simmons, who has worked steadily in films, television, commercials, and video games for the last 20 years, is equally impressed with his director, Damien Chazelle, whom he calls “young and promising.” This film came to Simmons via his friend director Jason Reitman, who cast him in Juno nearly eight years ago. “I had lunch with Damien and thought I would take a leap of faith. And then I saw the script, and that was it. If one of my son’s middle school friends had handed me that script, I would have made the film.”
But it got even better. After making a short film from the script to shop around, Simmons was even more impressed. “The budget was a nickel. When I saw it, though, it was one of the rare films that exceeded my expectations,” he said. Without a doubt, Whiplash stands as one of the best-crafted movies released in memory. Compelling, economical, and yet emotionally explosive, the film about a young jazz drummer also takes an incredibly intelligent series of stances on America’s obsession with the pursuit of fame. By its soaring conclusion, you may not even know whether the protagonists have triumphed or sold their souls. “I’ve seen it four times,” said Simmons. “And the last time I cried for Andrew. I was completely moved by the tragedy of Miles’s character.” Other viewings might yield other reactions, he readily acknowledged.
Simmons is up for an Oscar and a dozen more honors, including SBIFF’s Virtuoso Award, and he isn’t complaining. “This is a first; it’s not something I’ve ever focused on before. It’s beautiful, a gratifying ego stroke, and it gives my wife [Michelle Schumacher] an excuse to try on a variety of fancy dresses.” Though he began in live theater, Simmons says he’s quite happy doing this now. “Maybe when my kids are grown up, I can go back to Broadway. It would be great someday, I suppose.” He laughed, “I want to be like Bradley Cooper when I grow up.”
SBIFF’s Virtuoso Awards take place at the Arlington Theatre Sunday, February 1, at 8 p.m.