When I first saw Whiplash, it was like filmmaker Damien Chazelle cracked open my brain with a lightning bolt and splattered the results on screen. Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neiman, an aspiring jazz drummer at a prestigious university who needs to be among the greatest musicians of all time. His unorthodox guidepost? J.K. Simmons, in an Oscar-winning role as Terence Fletcher, a jazz teacher who resorts to terror, torture, and rage to get his players where they need to be. The search for jazz excellence thus becomes a simultaneously visceral and psychological thriller — one that reminded me so much of my days spent as a jazz drummer (including working with an instructor who did, indeed, hurl a chair at a window).
Whiplash is now available on a fancy 4K Blu-ray edition, and I was beyond grateful for the chance to talk with J.K. Simmons over the phone for the occasion. We got into Simmons’ personal history with music, the film’s journey from short to feature, the coping mechanisms that come with screaming at Miles Teller all day, and the wild rodeo that is “an Oscar campaign.” Plus, we talked about his iconic performance as Marvel’s J. Jonah Jameson, the lessons learned from Palm Springs, and his collaborations with Jason Reitman.
Collider: A lot of our readers might not know that you are a musician. You have a history of singing, of being in Broadway musicals. How would you characterize your history with music, and how did that affect your decision to be in Whiplash?
J.K. SIMMONS: Well, music was my first love. And even when I bumped up against my limitations as a musician, I continued to follow it. And then, when I segued into musical theater, and then theater, and then film and TV, I ended up finding a place where my ceiling was a little higher in terms of… I don’t mean in terms of success or career or money, I mean in terms of whatever talents I had.
One of my downfalls as a musician was that my hands just don’t really connect to my brain. So I was never really competent on any instrument. I got halfway decent on piano and guitar, enough that when Damien said he wanted to see my hands in that sequence in the bar where I’m playing the little Latin beat ballad, even though it’s, for the actual piano player, incredibly simple, I practiced for many hours on that, just so we didn’t have to do the fake hand double thing. And that whole evening actually was like a baseball fantasy camp or something, because I found myself with this group of actual LA jazz musicians, really old-school guys: Fou Fou the Drummer [Clifton Eddie], and just an awesome trio backing me up there on the piano. There were a few times, a few takes during that shoot that I actually felt like, “Wow, I’m in the pocket with these guys, and this is exciting. And this is what I thought I might end up doing for a living when I was 18 years old and fell in love with it.”
Starting from the beginning, the origins of Whiplash, it began as a short film that Damien made as a proof of concept. What was the process getting involved with the short, and what did it feel like making the feature version of that?
SIMMONS: I got an email from Jason Reitman, who I already had a professional and personal relationship with. And he sent me the scripts, both the scripts, the feature and the short film, because Damien wrote it as a feature and then later took the studio band chunk and turned it into a short, as you said, as a proof of concept. I think people — including the Academy, for example [laughter] — sometimes misunderstand that it was originally a short film and that he expanded it. But it was originally a feature script. Anyway, I read the feature script and then the short script, and absolutely was blown away by the sheer brilliance of what Damien had put on the page, as Jason said I would be. And immediately said, “I’ll do it. I’ll do the short, I’ll do the whatever.” Obviously there was no money involved. It was just not only a brilliant piece of writing, but a character and an environment that, again, despite my ineptitude as a musician, I at least had an understanding of it. And I did a fair amount of study as a conductor, as well. I mean, more classical. But I really felt like it was one of those roles that come along very rarely where I can’t imagine another actor who’s going to be a better fit for it. And I really, really, really wanted to do it. And so, we made the short film with Johnny Simmons. I think it was a three-day shoot over a weekend in a crappy, free location. And then, obviously, that went on to Sundance and won a bunch of awards, and got the money for Damien to make the feature.
You mentioned something I wanted to touch on, the conducting sequences. Just on a personal level, this film really hit me because my father is a band, orchestra, and choir director, and I played drums in jazz bands growing up, with him conducting often.
SIMMONS: Wow. [laughter]
I know. And I noticed that the way that you conducted the jazz pieces in this film… Well, how would you describe the difference between classical and jazz conducting?
SIMMONS: Well, I think there’s a vast range of styles of jazz conducting. And most jazz conductors barely conduct at all. Well, I shouldn’t say most, because again, my research wasn’t all that… I was never really a jazz guy. I appreciated it from a distance. But in classical, there are obviously conductors who are more or less histrionic and dramatic and conductors who are more technical and subdued, but it’s basically very much within the same realm. Whereas, with jazz there is, like I said, just a much wider range. Which gave me the freedom to do what you ended up seeing on camera. And I think because Fletcher is such a bonafide genius musician, [there is] absolutely no doubt in my mind, or in Damien’s, that he had a significant background in classical music, as well.
Shifting to your and Miles Teller’s relationship: Especially during all of these intense back and forth, psychologically damaging scenes, how did you make sure to keep yourself psychologically safe and comfortable? Or were the two of you willing to push past what you would normally do in a performance setting?
SIMMONS: Honestly, for both of us — we talked about this at the time, and then off and on since then — it was just so brilliant on the page, and felt like such a good fit for each of us as actors. And I think Miles, even at whatever he was, 24 when we did it or whatever he was, had a level of maturity and confidence that enabled us to just go toe-to-toe, really live in the moment, and listen to each other. And Damien had enough of his own self-confidence, I think, and lack of ego that he didn’t get married to every word the way he wrote it. So, Miles and I always had freedom to paraphrase and improvise. And as brilliant as Damien’s writing is, sometimes I wanted to be 100% specific with it, but sometimes it was good for us to have the freedom for me to just throw endless, invective, horrific stuff at Miles, and for him to absorb it. The vibe on set between Miles and me, really for everybody, was surprisingly fun and laid back. We would finish a take of me screaming and spitting in his face, and completely dehumanizing and demoralizing him, and then we’d start talking about how the Detroit Tigers are way better than the Philadelphia Phillies.
This is not the first iconically yelling, angry character we’ve seen you play. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention J. Jonah Jameson. It was such a treat to see him show up in the recent Spider-Man film in this weird, Alex Jones-esque remix. How did that process of revisiting this character come about?
SIMMONS: Well, as is often the case, I just got a complete surprise phone call from my agent saying, “Hey, they want to bring your J.J.J. back. And [do] you want to sit down and meet with the big wigs and talk about it, both as a specific bit from… ” What the hell was that movie? Homecoming, right? No, yes.
Far from Home.
SIMMONS: Yeah, Far from Home. And then, also as a potential to be an ongoing thing again. And those movies with Sam Raimi were great highlights of my life and career. And yeah, I’d always hoped that there would be another opportunity. It ended up happening very quickly after we met. Bing, bang, boom, I think a day or two later I was doing this top secret shoot in somebody’s office on the soundstage.
The only thing we didn’t a hundred percent see eye to eye on, I think, was how much is this character going to be the character from, I think, the comic books and from the Sam Raimi original trilogy, and how much do we want to evolve it and to have it be more contemporary or more… you know. I was very attached to what I had done previously for a variety of reasons. So I guess the compromise ended up being no hair. [laughter] Which I think honestly, that decision might’ve just been them going, “We don’t have time to make a wig. We got to shoot him tomorrow in the office.” So, J. Jonah Jameson either lost his hair in the last few years, or he was wearing a hairpiece the whole time. I don’t know, you pick.
Is there a chance, or has anything been talked about, about revisiting him in a future Marvel movie?
SIMMONS: There is a distinct chance, there have been discussions, and I’m not going to say anything definitive [laughter] because I don’t know if I’m allowed to. But yes, I’m very optimistic that I’ll have some more J.J.J. in my future.
Shifting gears a little bit, you mentioned Jason Reitman already. I love your collaborations together. I’m curious if there was ever any discussion in you showing up in his new Ghostbusters film.
SIMMONS: Again, it’s one of those things where I know… Well, so oftentimes with so many movies coming out now, nobody’s allowed to talk about anything. Jason and I, I did a little bit in his Princess Bride thing. Tully is the only movie of his that’s come out that I have not appeared in. And we did spend some time chatting about this exact question, and how fun it would be for both of us to deflect it as we go along the path to… And ah, God, I don’t know when the hell that movie’s going to come out now, with everything in the world being delayed. So the answer is, I may or may not make an appearance in Ghostbusters, and I’m not telling.
I really loved Palm Springs: the whole film, the script, your performance in it. Your character’s big moment is to “Find your Irvine.” And I’m curious, personally, during this time of societal unrest and pandemics and whatnot, what’s been your Irvine lately?
SIMMONS: Well, for most of the pandemic, my Irvine was pretty similar to my character’s Irvine. First of all, I actually changed the names of the little boy and girl, my character’s children, to the names of our children. Which my son was especially thrilled about, since he’s this little idiot watering dog doo. [laughter] But honestly, the silver lining for us once we escaped New York in March, which was the worst place on the planet to be at the time, and we road tripped back to our LA home, the four of us were back there under one roof. Our kids are both in college now and [are], whatever, semi-adults, and leaving the nest. But we spent mid-March all the way through mid-August, when the kids headed back to school, the four of us under one roof and hanging out in the backyard. And my wife and I would just go take a little picnic out to the — we have a small swimming pool in our backyard. And like so many people’s backyards, it’s a real little oasis, and became much more of one as we were sheltering at home. The whole six months or so was a great time of togetherness and, for me at least, an affirmation of what’s important and what to appreciate. And I gotta say, and I know I’m in the very small minority of people who weren’t getting hurt financially by the whole thing, but I was really happy, and not in a hurry to get back to work, and enjoying the time with my wife and our kids.
One last Whiplash question for you: After that film came out and there was a lot of Oscar buzz around it, I felt like I saw you parodying that role in a lot of awards show packages and internet videos people made. Especially the “not my tempo, rushing/dragging” sequence. Did it ever become a little tiresome to keep revisiting that moment and making fun of it? Or were you always down to clown?
SIMMONS: Really the majority of that, especially all the internet stuff, I wasn’t a part of it. It was people doing some, and I thought some really clever variations on it. There was a typing class one, Weird Al did one, there was a… Oh, God, I’m trying to think of the actress’s name. Oh, God, I know her, I’ve worked with her. She’s great. Anyway, I won’t remember it. [Editor’s Note: I think he’s talking about this Michaela Watkins parody, whom Simmons worked with on Punching Henry]
But as we went on that whole circus of the awards season, my wife and I really made the decision going in, we’re either going to really commit to this or not. My initial reaction when our producers and distributors started talking about awards was, “I’m not a part of that world and I don’t want to be, and I’d rather not play.” But then it was actually Jason Reitman who convinced me, for a variety of good reasons, that it was worth doing. And after my wife and I talked about it, we just thought, “Yeah, we’ll go on board. We’ll go do all the red carpets, and all the interviews, and the screening Q&A’s.” And most of it was just really fun because Damien and Miles and I loved each other, we loved the film, we loved the final product. It was such a pleasure to be hyping something that you honestly never had to exaggerate or over-hype. There’s nothing about that film and what everyone did in that film, that I’m not completely proud of. So it was great to not have to spin anything that whole time.
So, no, I didn’t mind at all. It’s like anything else, once in a while people come up to me on the street and [say], “Not my tempo.” It’s like, “Okay, well, it’s been awhile now, it’s getting a little tired.” But it’s right up there with people mangling the Farmers Insurance jingle in terms of what I get from people on the street.
What do you think Fletcher would think of the Farmers Insurance jingle?
SIMMONS: Well, I think it’s impeccably done. It’s not particularly adventurous melodically, but at least they sing it in tune and the tempo is right. And it’s catchy. So I think he would be dismissive of it, but not disapproving.
Thanks so much for your time, J.K., it was great chatting with you.
SIMMONS: Yeah, listen, they would murder me if I didn’t say, “September 22nd, 4K Whiplash, everybody get it!” So, you know.
You heard the man: Whiplash is available on 4K Blu-ray right now.