In Season 2 of the Starz drama series Counterpart, the Crossing between parallel dimensions is closed and Howard Prime (J.K. Simmons) is going to work and living his life while his counterpart Howard Alpha (also J.K. Simmons) is locked in a mysterious black site and cut off from everyone he knows, each stranded in the other’s world and adapting for their own survival. As war between the worlds escalates, both men find the lines between them blurring in ways they never would have expected.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor J.K. Simmons talked about the trepidation that Season 2 could live up to the bar they set with the first season, his confidence in showrunner Justin Marks, bringing in some exciting new characters and actors, why this is a story that they could continue to find new layers in, how shooting in Berlin compares to shooting in Los Angeles, and what he enjoys about playing two versions of the same character. He also talked about what drew him to the action film 17 Bridges, opposite Chadwick Boseman, and being optimistic about getting to play Commissioner Gordon again in the DC Extended Universe of films.
Collider: I very much was a fan of the first season, so I was both excited and nervous about Season 2 and how it could live up to what was already established. How did you feel about that? Did you have conversations about where Season 2 would go?
J.K. SIMMONS: There was definitely a certain amount of trepidation there. There was, even in the first season, because I signed up to do this based on one script, for the first episode. I’ve always felt confident in what (showrunner) Justin [Marks] and his writing staff are ultimately gonna come up with, but there was a mix of optimistic hopefulness and concern that it could continue to be as interesting and complex and layered and entertaining. From my perspective, the answer on Season 2 is a resounding yes.
This clearly is a great show with smart storytelling and a cast that really excels at the material they’re given, and as result, it was quickly called one of the Best New TV Shows of the Year. Does that also create a certain level of pressure, following that up with a second season?
SIMMONS: Yeah. For better or for worse, I don’t feel pressure. I haven’t directly asked Justin, or anybody else, that question, but from my perspective, it’s just another opportunity to continue to develop these characters and stories. It’s a great, diverse, international, wonderful cast, and then, in Season 2, we’ve added James Cromwell, Christiane Paul and Betty Gabriel, and all kinds of wonderful actors, in addition to having the vast majority of our core cast back, or at least those who haven’t been killed off, twice.
What was it like to bring those new people in, for this season?
SIMMONS: It was great. Christiane is brilliant. I didn’t get to work with her, and U.S. audiences probably are not as familiar with her, but she’s a wonderful German actress. U.S. audiences are, of course, very familiar with James Cromwell, and pretty familiar with Betty Gabriel. I was really, really excited about both of those additions to the cast, and had opportunities to work with both of them. There are couple of really great, new characters that they have brought to life.
This is a pretty complex and complicated series, and Justin Marks was a first-time showrunner. What has the overall experience been like, working and collaborating with him, and how have you seen him grow, from season to season?
SIMMONS: I just don’t look behind the curtain all that much. I tend to take people at face value. When I first met Justin, (executive producer) Jordan Horowitz and (pilot director) Morten Tyldum, and we first talked about attaching to this project, I had confidence in all three of them, and in Justin, as a storyteller. Even though long-form storytelling was somewhat new to him, he was just a smart guy and had such a good, wide variety of ideas about where to go with Howard and the other Howard, and all of these characters and plots, and two versions of this whole world. There’s a lot of creative freedom there.
People who do TV series talk about how, once you get a season of a show done, it makes it easier because you know more about what you’re doing, but it seems like that might not be the case with this show, the way that it opens up and there’s so much more to explore. Did it actually get any easier, or was it just a whole new set of challenges and complications?
SIMMONS: Yeah, there is a certain level of comfort there. I don’t know if I would say that it gets easier because it continues to be challenging, both technically, as an actor, and as a storyteller for Justin, but it does continue to be interesting, unlike doing a traditional network procedural, where it can get to be a bit of a rut. And let me say that the procedurals that I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of have blessedly been exceptions to that rule. But with [Counterpart], we could do six seasons of this show and continue to find new and interesting ways for all these characters to go. We don’t know yet about a third season because Season 2 hasn’t started to air yet, but I’m already having some really exciting conversations with Justin about, optimistically, where we hope to go, as we continue.
Has he also talked to you about how long this series could actually go for, or does it feel open, at least right now?
SIMMONS: As far as the conversations that I’ve had with him, it’s been a year at a time. I think he views each season as a chapter, and with a certain thematic unity. I don’t want to skip ahead, but I’m done with my work on Season 2, so I’m already starting to get excited about the possibility of Season 3.
Throughout Season 1, there were so many shocking and surprising moments, along the way. Will that be the case again, this season? Are there those kinds of moments, or is it more of an overall story that’s being told?
SIMMONS: There absolutely are those moments. I think there is even more of a sense of an overall throughline to this season. I’m always very careful not to give anything away, so I’m not gonna say any more that.
How does shooting in Berlin compare to shooting in Los Angeles?
SIMMONS: Well, I’ll be completely honest, I’m a big fan of shooting in Los Angeles because that’s where my family is. I loved being able to be home in Los Angeles to shoot most of the show, or most of my part of the show, at least. Once the decision was made that the show was gonna be set in Berlin, it was crucial that a significant portion of it be shot in Berlin, and for Season 2, most of the show is shot in Berlin, even a lot of the interior sequences. Berlin is a great city. In the last several years, it has become a really cool city for the young, hip crowd, which is not on my radar. It’s mostly a hotel and a location for me, and just being able to be steeped in the reality of modern-day Berlin, which is a city that’s so ideal for the kind of stories that Justin is telling. Despite the fact that this is a contemporary show, there is a certain end of the Cold War vibe to it, and there certainly is that aspect to much of Berlin.
What do you enjoy most about getting to play, explore and live in these two versions of this character?
SIMMONS: That really has been even more than I was aware of, when I first decided to sign on and do this. It’s really been a great challenge and a fun journey to be both of these guys and to see them grow and change from the inside, as they begin to take on aspects of their other while both guys struggle to maintain their own identity, in these very confusing worlds.
Is it fun to then also get to see Olivia Williams go through that this season, as she gets deeper into both versions of Emily?
SIMMONS: Yeah, absolutely! I’m gonna be careful about this, but to have opportunities to interact with two versions of that character has been mind-boggling and fascinating, certainly for the actors, and I’m confident that it will be for audiences, as well.
You’re also doing an action film, 17 Bridges, with another great cast, including Chadwick Boseman, Stephan James and Taylor Kitsch. What was the appeal of that film?
SIMMONS: Well, the names that you just listed. Although I didn’t know all of them, when they asked me to do it, I knew that Chadwick was gonna be playing the lead role, and he’s a guy that I had met a couple of times, but hadn’t had a chance to work with, and that was part of what drew me to it. I had some great conversations with Brian [Kirk], the director, on the phone, that gave me great confidence that he would be a guy I’d really enjoy working with. It’s similarly, in a way, to Counterpart. It’s a very complex and layered story, full of characters that are not black and white, or good guy and bad guy. Every character in the piece is pretty complex. And once the cast started coming together, including Sienna Miller, who I spent a lot of time with on the movie, and Keith David, it was a really wonderful bunch of actors to work with. I think they still have another few days left. I finished my work on that. And by the way, I’m pretty sure it will be not be called 17 Bridges when it comes out, but that was a really fun film to work on.
How does your character fit into the story?
SIMMONS: He’s a Precinct Captain in the NYPD. Chadwick’s character is a detective, who’s father was also NYPD, as is so often the case. That’s a job that’s passed down, from one generation to another. But I’m gonna be reluctant to do anything remotely spoiler-ish. It’s a really complex and action-filled cop drama.
Are you still holding out hope that we’ll get to see more of Commissioner Gordon, at some point?
SIMMONS: Yeah, I’m optimistic about that. I’m committed, on paper, to play him a couple of more times, and it’s just waiting to see which films are gonna come together that might have Commissioner Gordon in them. But, yeah, I’m definitely hoping to do more of that.
Is there a type of project or a character that you still feel like you’ve never really gotten the opportunity to do, but that you’d still love to get a crack at?
SIMMONS: Not really, honestly. I don’t really think in genre terms, even though I’ve done several different ones. For better or worse, I’ve never really had a career path. I’ve just been fortunate enough to have a lot of good opportunities present themselves. I’m always just looking for something that I find interesting and, hopefully, is different from whatever it is that I just got done doing. I never dreamed most of what my career has turned into, so it’s been a very fortunate and amazing ride.
Counterpart returns for Season 2 on Starz on Sunday, December 9th.