The 30th Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) continued its tradition of honoring the year’s standout performers by presenting one of this year’s Virtuosos awards to J.K. Simmons for his phenomenal work in Whiplash. The film follows a promising young drummer (Miles Teller) who enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor (Simmons) who will stop at nothing to realize that student’s potential, no matter how harsh or brutal.
While there, actor J.K. Simmons talked about his reaction when he first read the Whiplash script, that he’s never had a teacher as tough as his character, the feedback he’s received from people who have seen the film, why co-star Miles Teller needed a little slapping around, why there were not hard scenes to shoot, that hosting Saturday Night Live was his biggest pinch-me moment, and the performance of 2014 that he really admired. Here are the highlights of what he had to say during the Q&A.
J.K. SIMMONS: It was just brilliant. It was one of the most compelling things I’ve ever read in my life.
You’ve done TV, you’ve done film, you’ve done Broadway, and you have a musical background. Have you ever had a teacher as tough as your character?
SIMMONS: No. I would have quit whatever the discipline was. A football coach or two in high school, but I’m not playing football.
Do you think this approach can work?
SIMMONS: I think it can, yeah. It depends on the person. I love that the film inspires that fundamental debate. That was one of the first things that (writer/director) Damien [Chazelle] and I talked about, when we talked about me having the opportunity to play this part. I wanted to be sure that he didn’t want to dictate to the audience, “This is the lesson I want people to learn. This character is good, this character is bad.” So many people said they left the theater vibrating. It’s a visceral experience and a real ride of a movie. People walk out of the theater debating this fundamental question.
What sort of feedback have you heard from people who have seen the film?
SIMMONS: I got an email from a friend of mine who’s a symphony orchestra conductor. He’s Eastern European, like all successful symphony orchestra people are, and his whole email was about, “I’m so glad to see this point of view.” He saw it as completely validating.
SIMMONS: I don’t care! When we were shooting Oz, my wife was doing Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, singing and dancing. It was an interesting dichotomy, in our house. I would come home with my swastika tattoo. She was concerned that I would get my ass kicked on the train. Really, I discovered that the only people who blurred that fantasy-reality line for that character were like, “Right on, man! I love what you’re saying!” I was like, “It’s pretend!”
After what you did to Miles Teller, did you apologize to him, in between takes?
SIMMONS: No. He’s a smart, pretty-boy movie star. He needed a little slapping around.
What was the hardest scene for you?
SIMMONS: The tough scenes to do are badly written scenes, and we didn’t have any of those in this film.
Over this last year, what’s the one moment that was the biggest pinch-me thing for you?
SIMMONS: Honestly, it was SNL. When they first inquired, as to my interest and availability, I was like, “Well, that is the coolest thing, ever, and completely terrifying.” I’m working on a film right now, and we’re shooting in Atlanta. I said, “Oh, well, I can’t do it. They asked me to do it, so I’m cool. But I can’t do it, so I can pussy out.” A day or two later, I was telling my wife and kids about it, and they were like, “Are you kidding me?! You have to make that happen.” Fortunately, the movie made the dates work out.
Thinking back about all of the indelible roles that you’ve had, when you’re on the street and somebody comes up to you, can you tell by what they look like, what they’re going to say they know you from?
SIMMONS: Oftentimes, yeah, I can. It varies geographically, too. I was in New York for a week, and when I’m there, much of the time, it’s Law & Order and Oz because those were New York centric shows. There’s a lot of Whiplash now, and I’m very grateful that people are actually seeing the movie. If I see a now 28-year-old woman coming up to me, she’s probably thinking of Juno because she watched it with her parents when she was 18 years old.
SIMMONS: I always steered away from that. I find it really scary, and I admire guys who can pull off biopics. And by guys, I mean women, as well. It’s a very intimidating thing to do. Not that anybody is begging me to do The George Hamilton Story, but it’s scary.
Have you ever played a real person?
SIMMONS: I played Buffalo Bill. It was a small part in a movie called Hidalgo. And I played a real guy in Jobs, but it was Arthur Rock. It was not a guy who was an iconic figure that everybody knew, so that was easy.
What is one movie that came out in 2014 that you loved and would recommend?
SIMMONS: Just in terms of performance that I really admired, Bradley Cooper in American Sniper.