From writer/director Lorene Scafaria, the dramedy The Meddler follows Minnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon), who relocates from New Jersey to Los Angeles after the death of her husband, to be near their daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). But when never-ending texts, unexpected visits and unsolicited advice push them apart, Marnie starts to approach every day as a new adventure, embracing every opportunity to find a new purpose in life.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor J.K. Simmons (who plays Zipper, the retired cop-turned-movie set security guard that is a potential suitor for Marnie) talked about why The Meddler appealed to him, playing such a straightforward nice guy, finding his approach to the character, still getting to play a romantic lead, and why he likes the film’s more ambiguous ending. He also talked about preparing to play Commissioner Gordon in the upcoming DC movie Justice League, and what got him to sign on to lead the new Starz TV series, Counterpart.
Collider: How did this come about for you? How did this film and role get on your radar?
J.K. SIMMONS: My agent sent me the script and said that they wanted me to do it. I guess (writer/director) Lorene [Scafaria] had me in mind, as this guy. I read the script and loved every aspect of it. And I knew that Susan [Sarandon] was attached, at that point, so that was a drawing card, too. So, they set up a meeting for Lorene and I to have lunch, and she’s just delightful and brilliant and wonderful. It was a very nice, easy thing that just landed in my lap.
Did you find it unusual to read a script and get offered a role of a guy who’s just a nice, straightforward guy with no frills or gimmicks?
SIMMONS: That was part of what was particularly appealing about it, at the time it came along. It’s not like I haven’t played nice guys before, but there were plenty of offers to play characters that were just too similar to Fletcher. One of the things that appealed about this was that it was pretty much the antithesis of that character.
This is a deeply personal story for the writer/director, but it’s told in a way that’s very universal and relatable. Was it nerve-racking to know that she was telling her own story about her own mother just with a few embellishments, or was it freeing to know that your character was one of those embellishments?
SIMMONS: Yeah, it really was. One of the first things Lorene told me was that the story was very autobiographical, but the character of Zipper was the only aspect of the movie that was totally fictional and that she created him as a wish fulfillment from her perspective, that somebody would come along and into her mom’s life.
How did you view this guy? What kind of a guy is Zipper to you?
SIMMONS: One of the first things I said to Lorene in our meeting was that he struck me as a California cowboy. He’s very solid, no-nonsense, and simple without the implication of being simple. He’s a straightforward guy who’s grounded and is a good person that has something to offer.
How did you go about finding his demeanor and the way you wanted to portray him? Did you have a freedom to explore who he is?
SIMMONS: Generally, if I read something that I think is really good and that I feel a connection with and is right for me, I see and hear who the guy is, as manifested by me. Most of what Zipper ended up being is stuff that was my instinct and that I talked to Lorene about. First of all, what he does for a living, I work with those guys, all the time. They retired L.A.P.D. motor cops who work set security now, all wear the same uniform, they’re great guys with great stories, and they’re great at their job, providing security on sets. I felt an onus to portray them. All of these guys that I’ve met or interacted with, they’re out there all day in the sun, so they’re leathery, tan-looking cowboy types. Almost all of them are my age or a little bit older. A lot of them still have that mustache that they grew in the ‘70s. So, as far as the look, that was all there. Lorene decided that she wanted the character to look like J.K. Simmons because she asked me to do it, but the look as my idea. And his whole demeanor and sound all just very organically leapt off the page to me, the way that some things do. It makes my job pretty easy when a character jumps almost fully formed off the page and into my mind. If the director agrees with that vision, the rest of the work is just getting to work with somebody brilliant and wonderful like Susan, and having a good time making a movie in L.A.
What do you think it is that draws Zipper to Marnie, at a time when her life is really a bit of a mess?
SIMMONS: I think part of it is just good, old-fashioned chemistry, and it’s nice to see a movie where you’re allowed to portray that in characters of a certain age. And then, beyond that, as they get to know each other, there’s a sense of seeing the wounded bird in her and wanting to be the man and help take care of her.
Did you ever think that you would have opportunities to still play a romantic lead, at this point in your career?
SIMMONS: I still balk when people call it that, but people keep calling it that, so I guess that’s what it is. It’s great. It’s one of two parts that I’ve done in the past year or so that have that in common. There’s another film – a little Greek movie – that hopefully is going to get some distribution here in the U.S., called Worlds Apart, where I also play a 60-year-old guy who looks a lot like J.K. Simmons, who has a romantic relationship with an appropriate woman. My overall quest is always to do something that’s somehow different from whatever it is that I just got done doing. If that can include occasionally playing an older guy who has a romantic side and a romantic relationship, than that’s a real treat. Obviously, doing it with Susan was delightful.
Did you give any thought to what might have happened to Marnie and Zipper and their relationship, after we leave them in the film?
SIMMONS: Yeah, and we were joking about the sequel on set. I love movies that give people enough credit for intelligence and imagination, and that leave you with a certain ambiguity like that. As I read the script for the first time, that was the last thing that really appealed to me. We’re left just thinking, “Wow, it’s a world full of possibilities. Who knows where it might go?” There’s no big red bow at the end, which I like.
It’s been announced that you’re going to be playing Commissioner Gordon in the DC cinematic universe. When you play a character like that, do you feel the need to read the comics and watch whatever previous versions of the character are out there, or do you personally prefer to stay away from all of that and find the character yourself?
SIMMONS: Well, to read the comics, yes, absolutely. I’m still a couple of months out from doing that and I have two other films before then, so I haven’t gotten started on that. Obviously, a lot of really wonderful actors have played that character previously, and most of them I saw at the time the movies came out, never imagining that I would be doing the same thing. So, I can’t say that I don’t have some impression of that character in my head that’s based on what I saw, but I’m not planning on going back and watching any of the other films. I’m just planning on learning as much as I can about him through the comics and getting my feet wet in the first movie, and then hopefully continuing on from there. I take this from my days doing theater. If I was doing a musical, I would never listen to the cast album because I wanted to do my version of something. I’m sure there will be differences and similarities with what Gary Oldman or Pat Hingle have done before, but I’m just going to try to do my take on it and be as informed as I can about the rich history of the Batman universe, going into it.
Having previously played a character in a comic book movie, with J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man films, and having had people love your work as that character, does it place any added pressure on you to take on another iconic comic book character?
SIMMONS: There are easy comparisons to make. I wasn’t a big comic book reading kid, so I did a fair amount of reading when I was playing Jameson, who was very much the comic relief in those movies. Even in the comics, he was a blowhard who was all bark and very rarely bite. My understanding, from what I’ve learned so far about Commissioner Gordon, is that he’s the older guy with the mustache who relates with our hero in a certain way. Other than that, it’s a vastly different character and much more of a stronger, impactful character in the DC universe.
It’s also been announced that you’re doing a TV series for Starz, called Counterpart. Is that something you’ve started working on yet?
SIMMONS: No, that’s probably starting in the fall. That was another thing that came my way about a year ago. By that time, I was pretty heavily booked, and you never know about sequels and if they’re going to happen or not. So, production will be starting on that, I believe, sometime this fall. It will be in L.A., as well, which is always a plus because I have a wife and kids and a life here. That was one of the nice fringe benefits of The Meddler, too. It was an L.A. story with a really nice part in a wonderful movie with Susan, and I could go home to my wife and kids every night.
What attracted you to this TV series and the role you’re playing in it? Did you have to put in some thought before deciding to sign on for something you could be doing for awhile?
SIMMONS: Yeah, very much so. There were a lot of reasons that I was reluctant. It was one of those meetings that I went to because I just really responded to the writing, but I didn’t think it was going to be for me, for a variety of reasons, that being one of them. I knew that it was going to be a big commitment and that I was going to be the central character. I’ve got a wife and kids, and I like to see them, and they were planning on shooting the whole thing in Eastern Europe. And the way the character was written, I thought it should be played by someone 15 or 20 years younger than me. But I loved Justin Marks’ writing and Morten Tyldum is attached as a director and producer, and they were both guys that I was anxious to meet.
As our talks progressed, they ended up being willing to move the production to Los Angeles, and Justin put me at ease about my concerns about whether I was the right age for the character, in a non-patronizing B.S. way. He did it in a way that I firmly embraced. It’s one of those things where, if it’s successful, you’ll go on to do 50 or 60, or however many, episodes of it and you can’t know, going in, exactly how it’s all going to pan out. But I felt confident enough with the script that I did read and the way that they laid out how the first season would progress that it was something that creatively was a no-brainer for me, even though it’s a genre that I’ve not always been all that interested in, as an actor. It’s just really, really smart, layered writing and it’s a character that I thought I could have a good time with.
The Meddler is now playing in limited release.