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(Photo by Glen Wilson/©Amazon Studios)
Does J.K Simmons ever stop? If his recent output is any indication, we wouldn’t bet on it. In 2021 alone, the Oscar winner appeared in a whopping eight films and five TV shows — no small feat, considering those were produced in the midst of a pandemic.
“To be fair, there are a few animated jobs in there, and those are easy and short,” he concedes. “But yeah, it was really shocking to me how busy my 2021 ended up being, because I had no intention of doing that much.” Of the many roles he took on last year, his most impressive turn, hands-down, is William Frawley in Being the Ricardos, Aaron Sorkin’s behind-the-scenes biopic set against the making of an I Love Lucy episode during the Red Scare.
(Photo by Glen Wilson/©Amazon Studios)
As Bill, who played Fred Mertz in the famed ’50s sitcom, Simmons captures the actor’s gait, bark, facial expressions and sardonic deliveries remarkably. “Mimicry was not the goal, you know?” Simmons notes, and you can tell: His depiction of Bill has some real emotional undercurrents. Nevertheless, it’s an uncanny impersonation, just a cut above his co-stars’, which is saying something as they happen to be Nicole Kidman (who portrays Lucille Ball), Javier Bardem (Desi Arnaz), and Nina Arianda (Vivian Vance). Not a bad deal for an actor with “a distaste for biopics in general” and an initial “fear of playing such an iconic character” before he was won over by Sorkin’s script.
Simmons’s schedule isn’t opening up much these days, either. “I’m in Glasgow, Scotland shooting Batgirl,” he says over Zoom, proving that at 67 years old, he’s as in-demand now as he’s ever been. When we press him for a teaser on the film, in which he’ll reprise his role as Commissioner Gordon, he deadpans, warmly: “There’s a girl who’s a bat, and there’s Batman. And I’m in it.” Fair enough. Here’s a look back on his storied career, from becoming “that guy in that thing” to “that guy who’s in everything.”
(Photo by Daniel McFadden/©Sony Pictures Classics)
“We didn’t know if there was ever going to be anything more than that little short film,” Simmons recalls of Whiplash, which first made a splash as a short at Sundance in 2013. “We shot it on a weekend in some random classroom in a school somewhere.” The following year, Damien Chazelle’s indie feature hit theaters, and Simmons’s fiery, arresting turn as tyrannical jazz instructor Terence Fletcher became the buzzy performance of the moment, something audiences had to behold — and earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
But there was a long road to the Oscar win. After 20 years as a theater actor, Simmons decided to give TV a go, nabbing a guest spot on Homicide: Life on the Street. “That character was a neo-Nazi murdering bastard,” he explains, “so when Tom [Fontana, EP of Homicide] was putting Oz together maybe a year later, he thought of me for that part.” That part in the groundbreaking HBO show, Vernon Schillinger, another “neo-Nazi murdering bastard,” put Simmons in the spotlight, although he quickly worried about being typecast as an “Aryan Brotherhood creep.” Luckily another show beckoned: “Just as the first season of Oz was beginning to air, I got the call asking me to play the shrink [Dr. Emil Skoda] on Law & Order as a recurring character, so it became this great yin-yang balancing act of playing this psychiatrist and this psychotic.”
(Photo by ©Focus Features)
Between the big break of Oz and the big win of Whiplash, Simmons became one of the preeminent character actors of the aughts, the kind of guy who could rely on to pop up in a few scenes and nail them. Take the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading. “I had two scenes in that movie, and it’s like the most bang for the buck of I think any role I’ve ever done,” he says. “I mean, you’ve got George Clooney and Brad Pitt and Franny McDormand and John Malkovich, and they’re basically setting us up for that last scene in the movie,” he recalls of his closing moment in CIA headquarters, a dryly hilarious exchange between him and David Rasche.
(Photo by ©Columbia Pictures)
“Spider-Man continues to be the gift that keeps on giving,” Simmons says, and we can see why: He not only got to play the irritable, cigar-chomping newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s trilogy in the aughts, but also elsewhere in the MCU (“the Marvel Universe or Multiverse or whatever it is,” as Simmons puts it), most recently in last year’s smash Spider-Man: No Way Home. “I did five Sam Raami movies in a row, and he always gave us the freedom to improvise and kind of make things our own, which was part of the fun. And then it was a surprise a couple years ago to have them call and say, ‘Hey, we want to bring a different version of that same blowhard back.’”
As we mentioned before with Batgirl, Simmons is forging ahead in the DC Universe, too. “I just drew the commissioner’s mustache again,” he tells us, having last done so as James Gordon in Justice League. When we ask him about last year’s Snyder Cut, he says, “Certainly the fanbase has spoken loud and clear about what a nice version of the story that is. Nice is a lame adjective, but I think it’s a wonderful film.”
(Photo by Clay Enos/©Warner Bros. Pictures)
Although he’s made his mark several times over on blockbuster comic-book movies, the two-word inside joke Simmons may hear most often from fans is “Hank Mardukas.” (If you don’t get that reference, please watch I Love You, Man right now.) “It was to this day the most I’ve ever laughed on any job,” Simmons says of the Paul Rudd-Jason Segel bromance, in which he gives a straight-faced explanation of who his best friend is. “I think people sometimes incorrectly assume when you’re making a comedy that, ‘Oh, you must all be laughing your butts off the whole time.’ In this case, we all actually were.”
(Photo by Chris Willard/©Hulu)
Simmons teamed up again with I Love You, Man’s Andy Samberg on Palm Springs, the sci-fi rom-com that felt like the “have you seen this?” movie during the early months of the pandemic. “As with a lot of the showbiz pals that I’ve made over the years, most of them are significantly younger than I am — Jason Reitman, Damien Chazelle, Andy… There’s almost a reverse sort of mentor relationship, because I came to film and television later in life, and I feel like I learn from them all the time.”
Speaking of Reitman, Simmons has worked with the writer-director on his debut, the satire Thank You for Smoking, as well as Up in the Air and Juno, the indie smash that afforded him a truly moving father-daughter scene. “That was a huge step in a good direction,” Simmons says of Juno, “because that really was the first time that audiences saw a character like that from me — you know, the kindly dad.”
(Photo by ©Fox Searchlight)
Simmons isn’t known for his starring roles — quite the opposite, actually — so it was welcome news when he took on Counterpart, which became a critically adored but underviewed TV series on Starz. What’s more, he led the cast of the sci-fi thriller as two versions of the same person, acting opposite himself (“starring me and me,” as he puts it). “It was a gigantic challenge for me to create those two, the yin and yang versions of the same guy,” he says, claiming he found the process “exhausting but very rewarding.” It really is a marvel to watch, and it stands as just another in a long line of examples of the actor flipping the script on his career.
Being the Ricardos is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.