Interview: J.K. Simmons Talks Nonstop Work and Being a Team Player

By  · Published on August 19th, 2011

J.K. Simmons is a worker, or as he calls it, a “journeyman actor.” The J.K. Simmonses of the world feature epic sized filmographies, even for an individual year. In 2009 alone, the actor appeared in 10 movies. Most were small parts, but 10 movies? He’s a busy man. One would think with that type of work ethic, Simmons would be an actor that cared more about the checks than the quality of the work.

From speaking with the character actor, that didn’t seem to be the case.

Simmons has, finally, got a starring role film under his belt ‐ recently, anyway ‐ that we can see. The Music Never Stopped (out now on DVD) is one of those small, non-cynical, heart-string yanking dramas. It’s a father/son story, so if you’re sucker for daddy issue movies, this one’s for you, kid.

Here’s what actor J.K. Simmons had to say about appearing in nearly everything, being Jason Reitman’s good luck charm, and naturally working off of Diablo Cody-isms:

To start off, your filmography is a pretty long list…

A lot of those movies, where it looks like I’m working 52 weeks a year, I go in and do two days on, say, Burn After Reading. I’ve really come to enjoy that type of work. Being a guy who was used to theater for 17 or 18 years, getting used to the concept of jumping in and out of projects, without a real rehearsal, took me a while to learn to enjoy that. To really settle into a character, like with this film, was a nice departure. I was there literally everyday on the set, except for one day when I had surgery on my thumb. I tore some tendons from playing basketball with my kid. I went back to work the next day, and you’ll notice a lot of me sitting down with my hands folded in my lap, because my thumb was in a cast for 2 weeks [Laughs].

[Laughs] With your theater background, were you taught to really stick to a script, or do you like having the freedom to deviate?

I’ve gotten to the point where it varies a lot. The thing that hasn’t changed is if the core isn’t in the script, then I’m not interested. There are scripts like this that are virtually perfect, and it was like Juno or a Coen Brothers’ movie. We changed a word here and there, but this was a script that I didn’t want to mess with. Usually when I work with Sam Raimi, we riff a lot. A third of what’s on the screen in the Spider-Man movies we came up with at the time. We’d take the script, and run with our ideas from there. I really like both processes. I’ve been really lucky in my television work, too. Whether on Oz or The Closer, the scripts are intelligent and well-written, but they also give me a little bit of leeway to make it my own. It really varies from project to project.

I’m surprised to hear you say that about your television work. TV is known as a writer’s medium, and I’ve heard some actors say you can be trapped by that.

When I did my recurring thing on Law & Order all those years ago… that was one of those shows where when you said “perhaps” instead of “maybe,” the script supervisor would come over and correct you. Also, that’s okay. That was a brilliantly written show for 20 years. It was a well-oiled machine when I got there, so you go with the flow. You just learn that’s a show where you don’t mess around, and that’s great. That’s all fine as long as the script is good. If you’re working with a mediocre script, and if they’re going to be a script Nazi about it, then that’s a pain in the butt. I can work either way.

How is it working with Diablo Cody dialog? I’m a fan of her as a writer, but she writes very heightened dialog. Are there ever cases where it doesn’t come out naturally, and she’d be understanding of that?

First of all, both times ‐ three, technically since my voice will briefly be in Young Adult, because Jason Reitman said he won’t make a movie without me now. He says I’m his good luck charm.

That’s very nice of him [Laughs].

Oh yeah? Are you kidding me? It’s like The Pope saying you’re his favorite Cardinal. [Pause] I’m not quite sure where that Catholic reference came from… With Diablo, her writing is so, so specific. I don’t think I’ve changed a word or have wanted to change a word in any of the projects I’ve done [with her]. There’s a level of specificity with her, like a lot of writers. You either click with that or you don’t. An example coming to mind is David Milch, who I think is one of the better TV writers out there. He’s so specific. I auditioned for a couple of his pilots 10 or 15 years ago when I was first really getting involved in film and TV. I loved his writing.

I got his writing, thought it was intelligent, but I realized I’m not good at it. I can’t deliver it. For whatever reason, despite understanding it and appreciating it, I couldn’t deliver it. I think the same thing is true with Diablo. I’m sure there’s tons of good actors who would read a Diablo Cody script and feel too constrained by her specific vernacular, and not be able to get into sync with it. Maybe because we’re both average white people from the midwest, I just jibe with her writing. It’s the same thing with Jason Reitman. I think the best thing I can do is just memorize the words they wrote, and then not to screw it up. I tried to do the same thing with The Music Never Stopped. When I read the script, I thought all we had to do was not mess it up.

[Laughs] You’re always trying to meet what the material calls for then, right?

I think it’s good to be able to adapt. When a script comes my that’s great, I just get out of the way. I have such respect for good writing, because God knows I can’t do it. I think this comes from being a stage actor and a musician, which was my original training. When I started doing theater ‐ whether dealing with Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, or whoever ‐ the reason I was doing it was because it was a good play. For a long time, acting to me was strictly an interpretive art. I’ve begun to bring more of that to it. The Spider-Man movies just jump to mind because there was an element of improv. Not to say the scripts weren’t good, but Sam would just get us in the room, and we’d play. What I try to do is be adaptable to different writers, different directors, and different actors that I work with. I just try to be a team player.

The Music Never Stopped is now on DVD.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.