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Though he’s appeared in more than 50 movies and several hit TV shows, J.K. Simmons is perhaps still best known as the deadpan professor in Farmer’s Insurance commercials. “It’s humbling, to say the least,” says the 59-year-old actor.
So perhaps it’s only fitting that though Simmons landed the leading role on a broadcast network series last year – the recently cancelled NBC sitcom “Growing Up Fisher” – and starred alongside Kyra Sedgwick in TNT’s long-running hit “The Closer,” the part that may well earn him his greatest kudos is in a small indie film that began as a short. Simmons portrays Terence Fletcher, a teacher at a prestigious music academy who physically and emotionally terrorizes a young drummer played by Miles Teller in “Whiplash,” which scored the top awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and is showing at Toronto, ahead of its Oct. 10 theatrical release via Sony Pictures Classics. Hurling insults and instruments, Simmons is alternately hilarious and horrifying, often in the same scene. It’s the kind of performance that is already earning Oscar buzz for the self-proclaimed “journeyman, bald, white guy bouncing around this business a long time.”
While he’s played plenty of tough guys, from a white supremacist on “Oz” to newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson in the “Spider-Man” movies, Simmons has also had his share of nice guy roles, thanks largely to Jason Reitman, who cast him as the loving father in “Juno” and a fired employee in “Up in the Air.” In fact, he’s the only actor with a part in all six of Reitman’s films: He’ll next be seen in the director’s “Men, Women and Children,” also playing at Toronto. “He’s my muse,” says Reitman. “Hitchcock had his blondes, and I have J.K. Simmons.”
Simmons almost walked away from his first meeting with Reitman, when he went to audition for “Thank You for Smoking.” Reitman was running late, and after an hour, Simmons went to feed his parking meter. “While I was debating whether to even go back in, Jason pulled up and we met at the parking meter,” he recounts.
In the meeting, Reitman asked how Simmons would differentiate his “Smoking” boss from the iconic J. Jonah Jameson. “He said, ‘I have concerns because this guy is also the boss and kind of gruff. How will you make them different?’” recalls Simmons. “I made some smart-ass comment like, ‘How about I don’t have a flattop and chomp on a cigar?’ He took that in the spirit it was intended and I think that’s the moment we became pals as well as co-workers.”
It was Reitman, an executive producer on “Whiplash,” who recommended Simmons to writer-director Damien Chazelle, who sent over two scripts to the actors – the feature version and an 18-minute short film that was shot to obtain financing for the full-length version. Simmons signed on to the short, and stayed on for the feature.
The actor says he didn’t worry about whether audiences would perceive his character as a villain. “I didn’t concern myself with making him sympathetic; I just concerned myself with making him real,” Simmons says. “People ask what my toughest roles, are and the truth is, the ones I struggle with are the ones that end up being forgettable,” he notes. “When the material is so good on the page, it’s not tough.”