- RatedNC16 /GenreDrama, Musical
You could say 60-year-old JK Simmons was humbled on two fronts working on the Oscar-nominated film 'Whiplash'.
First, he did not expect the writer and director, Damien Chazelle, to be so young. And two, the first time he saw the completed film, it moved him so much he wept after a screening in Cannes.
When ‘Whiplash’ played in Sundance, Simmons was away due to work commitments, but he finally got the chance to see the finished film when it was screened during Director’s Fortnight section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. There, it received a standing ovation.
He recalled: “That night, I was able to sit with Damien and my agent and just let the film wash over me, and for the first time in a while, in a theatre, especially watching something that I knew, I found myself completely overwhelmed, emotionally.
“I was just weeping at the end of the movie. Once we got the outrageous reception that we got, and (co-star) Miles (Teller) and I had to stand there for the entire credits and minutes beyond the credits with this ovation going on, I think people thought I was overwhelmed at the ovation, but it was the movie itself that had really landed with me.”
JK Simmons as a bullying music instructor in 'Whiplash' | Photo: Golden Village Pictures
Simmons, whose film credits include three ‘Spider-Man’ films (playing newspaper editor J Jonah Jameson), ‘The Cider House Rules’, ‘Thank You for Smoking’ and ‘Juno’, recently won the Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for his role in ‘Whiplash’. He is also in the running for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
When his friend and filmmaker Jason Reitman first recommended the script of ‘Whiplash’ to him, the actor knew that it arrived with the seal of approval from someone that he greatly admires and had collaborated with successfully in the past.
Reitman had directed Simmons in ‘Juno’ back in 2007, a bittersweet comedy that went on to earn three Oscar nominations, and again in 2009 in ‘Up in the Air’, which won six Academy Award nods including Best Picture.
Reitman had read, and loved, writer and director Chazelle’s work and suggested that Simmons would be perfect for the key role of music instructor Terence Fletcher.
Simmons said: “Certainly when the script came to my attention with the connection to Jason... I didn’t waste any time in reading it, because I knew if it had the Reitman seal of approval, it would be something good."
SURPRISED BY DIRECTOR’S YOUTH
When he first met Chazelle, Simmons admitted that the youthful 29-year-old writer and director surprised him. “Yeah, when I first met him, for whatever reason, with the name Damien Chazelle, I was envisioning, like, Antoine Fuqua.
Miles Teller (left) and JK Simmons in a scene from 'Whiplash' | Photo: Golden Village Pictures
“I was envisioning this big imposing black guy, because it’s the world of jazz, which is largely African-American, and then when Damien and I met for lunch, and I saw that he looked like one of my son’s classmates in eighth grade, I thought, ‘Wow, man – this came out of you?’”
The short version of ‘Whiplash’created a huge buzz when it played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 and provided the impetus to get the feature into production. A year later, the full-length version won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Prize at Sundance.
A FEROCIOUS BULLY
In 'Whiplash', Simmons plays Terence the intimidating instructor who runs the college jazz band like a ferocious drill sergeant, dishing out physical and verbal abuse to his terrified students, one of whom is Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a gifted drummer at a top New York conservatory.
Terence picks on the student musicians who aren’t performing to his exacting standards. He preys on their weaknesses and humiliates them.
Read the review: 'Whiplash'
Simmons said: “It was one of those stories that come along – and this doesn’t happen frequently – that just leapt off the page. It immediately connected as something that I knew I could bring off the page successfully.
"I could see who he was. Not why, but who he was. I immediately connected with it, though not because it was anyone that I identified.”
Terence is a perfectionist, determined to drive his pupils on so that they achieve the very best. And while Simmons certainly doesn’t condone his brutal methods, he can sympathise with the philosophy behind them
“His motivation, and his sort of philosophy, is espoused in the scene in the nightclub, after the piano playing. He talks about the willingness of people to settle for mediocrity now, and jazz is a dying art form, and the over-praising of ‘good job’ and that whole thing,” Simmons said.
The actor said that during his own time at the University of Montana and indeed, training with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, he never came across a tutor like Terence.
“I had a couple of perfectionist professors, and music professors, because I did study music in college, but no one who was remotely cruel and abusive like that. Maybe a high school football coach, especially in the '60s,” he said with a laugh.
Working on ‘Whiplash’ provided a welcome opportunity to immerse himself in jazz, a musical genre that was not that familiar to Simmons. It was essential, too, that he knew the music that was performed in the film, mostly by real musicians.
“My background and my training and what I gravitated towards most of my life is not jazz – it was rock ‘n’ roll, then classical, and then opera, then musical theatre. I made a living doing that for many years. I always had an appreciation for jazz, but was never at all an aficionado."
Simmons admitted he had just "a few jazz albums", but "never really appreciated it until I started preparing for this movie".
"I listened mostly to the specific stuff that I had to conduct: Hank Levy, Duke Ellington, and the amazing stuff that Tim Simonec and Justin Hurwitz wrote for this movie.
“Obviously, I had to really be familiar with those pieces technically to conduct them. I had the joy of being able to trust the hands of the director in the editing room, to know that he’s a musician.”
‘Whiplash’ is now showing