From director Jason Reitman and based on the book All the Truth is Out by Matt Bai, the real-life story of The Front Runner follows the rise and fall of politician Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), the charismatic senator who was considered the front runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, until his campaign was derailed by the story of an extramarital relationship with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). As tabloid journalism found its voice in politics, no amount of smarts, idealism and excitement could keep Hart’s race going, and the questions surrounding his personal life affected all of those around him. The film also stars Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Kevin Pollak, Ari Graynor, Molly Ephraim, Tommy Dewey and Steve Zissis, among others.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor J.K. Simmons (who plays Gary Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon) talked about working with filmmaker Jason Reitman throughout his career, his evolution from Thank You for Smoking to today, getting involved with Juno, the storytelling approach to The Front Runner, the shift in the way that media covers politics, and whether Gary Hart could have weathered a similar scandal today. He also talked about being optimistic that he’ll get to reprise Commissioner Gordon, at some point in the DC Extended Universe, what he’s most enjoyed about making the Starz TV series Counterpart, and what gets him interested in a project.
Collider: You did Jason Reitman’s first film, Thank You For Smoking, and you guys have been working together ever since. What was he like, as a director, on that first movie, all those years ago, and what changes or evolution have you seen in him, over the years of working with him?
J.K. SIMMONS: He was a first-time director on Thank You For Smoking, but that was also pretty early in my film and camera acting career, too. I’d done theater, for most of my life, until a few years before then. Even though I’m about the age of his father (Ivan Reitman), his experience is really greater than mine. Even on that first film, he had really cut his teeth in short films, and he’d made some brilliant short films, over the few years before Thank You For Smoking. He was uncommonly mature and prepared, for a first-time feature director. All of his talents were very apparent, even then, in 2005. So, here we are, several films later, and he has just continued to mature and evolve while also staying true to who he is. Like with most of the good filmmakers that I admire, he re-invents himself, to a certain extent, every time out, and he tells a different story, every time, but there are certain aspects of a Jason Reitman film that you know you can rely on, at the same time.
Since you’ve been in pretty much all of his movies, in some form, at what point did you realize that you had essentially become his muse?
SIMMONS: He did actually use that label, for many years. It’s a beautiful thing, from my perspective. Any time the phone rings and it’s Jason, I’m happy to sign up. I signed up for this, not even really understanding what the part was, just because I knew it was Jason and I wanted to work with him.
At what point did you realize that you might have a career-long relationship with Jason Reitman?
SIMMONS: It was his second film, Juno. He had joined my poker game, and we were at a poker game at a friend’s house, and he handed me the hard copy script for Juno. He didn’t say, “I want you to play Mac MacGuff, or anything.” He said, “You’ve gotta read this. It’s really good. I was never planning on directing other people’s scripts, but this is really good. Check it out.” So, I read the script and fell in love with it, but I didn’t know if he wanted me to play one of the little cameo parts, or what. I fell in love with the part of Mac MacGuff, but he didn’t say that he wanted me to play that part, so I was trying not to get my hopes too high. And then, when he called and said he did want me to play that part, that was exciting. After that, he said, “But the producers want big names, so we have to convince them.” He had to convince them of Ellen Page and I because they were also looking for big names to play Juno. They wanted whoever the pop star of the month was or somebody high profile to play Juno, and nobody had heard of Ellen Page, at that point. Jason took Ellen and myself into a soundstage and we did a full-on, old time camera test and played a few of the scenes from the movie, in order to convince the money people that Jason had in mind who he wanted for these parts, and that the movie was going to be the best possible movie, if you let the director make the movie, instead of insisting that they hire names that are going to sell tickets. It turned out pretty well, after all.
Because of the way this story is told, The Front Runner doesn’t really ask whether Gary Hart had an affair or not, it just explores the reaction and what it meant for the individuals that it affected, as well as the country. Why do you think that approach is so effective?
SIMMONS: What the movie does, and I think what Jason wanted the movie to do, is provoke discussion and debate. He didn’t want to come down on the side of Gary Hart being a guilty adulterer, and that it’s a good thing he’s not president, and he didn’t want to come down on the opposite side and say that the press should have left him alone and he should have been president. He wanted to leave all of those questions open for debate. Certainly, if you look at the changes in politics and in the world, in general, in the last 30 years, and you look at the way the media is sometimes “reporting,” this was a real seismic shift, in a lot of ways.
It’s interesting to watch how Gary Hart was this man in the middle of a scandal who thought he could somehow rise above it, if he just kept pushing forward and ignoring what was going on around him. Did that reaction surprise you? Do you think he could of somehow weathered the storm, if he’d handled it differently?
SIMMONS: There’s certainly been a lot of conjecture about that, at the time and since then. I think if he’d been more wiling to play the game and try to spin and wiggle, it’s possible that he could have weathered it. Certainly today, he could probably have weathered it more easily, in light of what’s gone on, in the last 30 years, that has failed to totally derail political careers. From the Bill Dixon perspective, which was the way that I approached things, there was a different version of his own personal ethics that he walked away from, of his own accord. It’s interesting, we plant that seed, early on, in the movie. One of the first scenes in the campaign office, where I’m sitting at the table with seven or eight of the young campaign workers, talking about these different opportunities, Gary doesn’t understand this whole celebrity and public persona aspect of it. He’s trying to run a campaign of ideas and talk about policy, and everybody else just wants him to pose for a picture and be handsome.
When we spoke for the first season of your Starz series Counterpart, you said that you weren’t really sure about what would happen with Commissioner Gordon in the DCEU, but that you were hoping to return to the role and get to explore him deeper. Since then, are you aware of any further movement on that?
SIMMONS: Nothing has changed. There are conversations going on, that I’m not going to make public. As far as I know, there’s no opportunity, in the immediate future, for me to do more Commissioner Gordon, but I continue to be optimistic that it will happen again.
You’ve always been such a terrific actor, and you’re so good in everything that you do, but your work on Counterpart has been some of your best. What have you most enjoyed about the journey you’ve gotten to take, playing both of those characters?
SIMMONS: We’ve wrapped Season 2 and are sitting with crossed fingers for Season 3. It’s been great. I was sold on that character, even before I got to the page 19, or whatever it was, where you realize that there are two of him. What’s been really fun to explore, in both the first and second season, is the dichotomy and the places where those two characters, or those two versions of the same guy, meet and coincide, that neither one of them would really want to admit to. As we have gotten deeper into it, that has been the most interesting aspect. And then, in the second season, we not only add some new characters and some wonderful new actors, like James Cromwell and Betty Gabriel, but also previously unseen versions of some of the other characters.
With such an interesting array of characters that you’ve played, what is it that gets you excited about a project?
SIMMONS: It’s exciting when I read something that I just automatically identify with, that somebody has thought to send me and say, “You would be good in this part,” and I thoroughly understand and relate to that character. Whether it’s somebody we like or don’t like, or whether it’s somebody with a similar background to mine or somebody who’s very different, if I can identify with the psychology and the core of who the guy is, that’s really the main thing that I’m looking for. And then, it’s also about the script and the story, and whether I think it’s smart and well-written, and worth people plopping down their money and spending time in the theater to watch. It continues to be exciting to find new things to do and, hopefully, to not repeat myself too much. The more you work, the more difficult that gets. I continue to be very fortunate and blessed, just to be able to do what I’m doing for a living, and to have not been too much of a victim of being typecast and having to do the same thing, over and over again.
The Front Runner is now playing nationwide.