Counterpart interview: J K Simmons on playing two selves
The Oscar-winning actor plays himself in two universes in Counterpart, available now in the UK on Starz Play...
There are many good reasons to watch Counterpart, the new sci-fi/spy series available now on Starz Play in the UK. It’s smart, suspenseful, cerebral and exceptionally well-written, balancing its high concept narrative with excellent character work. It straddles both its genres effectively without dumbing either one down and without condescending to its audience. But perhaps the single best reason to watch is to see the outstanding work of J.K. Simmons.
The Oscar-winning Simmons plays Howard Silk, a “lowly cog” in the massive and enigmatic bureaucracy at a United Nations intelligence agency based in Berlin. Silk is not exactly sure what his job is – certain aspects are classified – but he’s been doing it for thirty years. But when circumstances demand it, Silk learns that his agency is built over, and charged with guarding, a portal to a parallel dimension, where everyone has a double, including Silk himself.
A series of crimes forces Silk to work with his double, a highly-placed and ruthlessly efficient spy in the alternate universe. As the two men get to know each other, they discover the differences and similarities in the paths that their lives took, their relationships with their wives (both played by Olivia Williams) and the decisions they made along the way. Simmons is fantastic as both Silks, making subtle differences in each so that the viewer always knows which is which, yet creating empathy as they realize they might be more alike than they realise.
There is a lot more to Counterpart that we won’t give away (the first few episodes we saw were packed with remarkable world-building), but Den Of Geek had a brief chat with Simmons about the show, its meaning and themes, playing the dual role and his future in the Batman and Spider-Man franchises…
Den of Geek: I understand that this was pitched as a character piece, with the sci-fi just sort of a backdrop to it.
JK Simmons: Yeah, I mean it really didn’t need to be pitched because I just read the script, and I was really intrigued by this character and this story even before we get to that, “Oh, by the way, there’s a parallel world, and there are two of this character.” It was already, to me, a really interesting character study, and just an overall interesting world. And, then when it turned out to be two interesting worlds, that was some fun gravy to add on top of that.
But that definitely wasn’t part of the pitch, or part of what I was looking for. I just really responded to the script.
How did you really start to prepare to play the two Howards and create differences in them?
I started just as I read through, and especially as the process went along, we ended up with all the scripts at least basically written before we started shooting – which was a great luxury to have for Justin (Marks, creator and showrunner) and for the cast and for everybody. Even before that I started just writing random notes about what might be different, how we might portray some of the differences between this Howard and that Howard.
A lot of that I would then revisit and either expand on or discard or discuss with Justin, and as is usually the case, I think, seventy five per cent of that I did end up just discarding. Some of it was, ‘Let’s make physical differences here’ and some of it was little things that still might end up finding their way into the writing, in terms of little character differences. Some of it goes to backstory that we haven’t revealed even at the end of season one, so some of it shall remain a mystery.
What I find interesting is that the two Howards start to bleed into each other a little bit.
That is the fundamental part of the journey, from my perspective, of the first season, that after the initial shock of these guys meeting, the thing that strikes both of them at first is how different they are. Then, I think it’s interesting, both from an audience perspective and a character perspective, to start to examine where they do meet, and where they are the same person.
Do you think there’s one core personality trait that they share?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, they are literally the same person who, you know, separated and then began to go their separate ways. But, yeah, neither one, at the end of the day, can deny that they come from the same core.
What were the biggest technical challenges of playing the dual roles?
Well, ultimately we arrived at a way of shooting that didn’t really present a lot in the way of additional technical challenges. We tried methods where I’d play one version of the character, and then we’d go back. But that become kind of difficult and challenging and constricting. We started looking around at other ways we could do this, and by well into season one, we ended up with a system where really I could just play the scenes with John Funk, my stand-in, working his butt off in learning both characters, and be able to just play one character all the way through with John. Then we’d switch places and go do it the other way around.
That it ended up being, from my perspective as an actor, much more in my comfort zone and more like just traditional scene work, and then we left the technical wizardry up to the technical wizards.
You and Jeremy Irons did not have scenes together in Justice League, so I don’t suppose you had a chance to pull him over to the side and say, “Hey, remember when you did Dead Ringers thirty years ago? Can I ask you a few questions about that?”
No, no, no advice from Jeremy. In fact, that’s our second film that we’re both in together that our characters never meet in. So, hopefully sometime in the future. Maybe the Batman movie.
What do you feel this show says about the way we live our lives? Does it make you think about, “Wow, what if I hadn’t made that audition twenty years ago? Or, “what if I took train A instead of train B?”
I think it’s a fascinating concept. I mean, you know, anyone can go back and look at their own life, I certainly can, and think not only about the different choices you made, and how they’ve affected you down the road, but the way you responded to things at the time that seemed like a setback or a heartbreak or something negative that as you look back, with the luxury of hindsight, you can go, ‘Wow. That one thing that really upset me at the time or hurt me or pissed me off… my life is so much better as a result of how I responded to that, and moved on.’
There’s also that sort of fantasy aspect of what would it be like to have another chance, to be able to have two versions of yourself and live two versions of your life, and so maybe you don’t even have to make those difficult choices. You can have your cake and eat it, too.
There are people who want to see the alleged Zack Snyder cut of Justice League, which may or may not exist, so I was curious if you remember doing stuff that was shot that was not used?
No, there’s always a snip here and there, and I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything where I didn’t see the final cut and see that there were stuff missing. But my part in this one was tiny to begin with, and I think that sometimes people just need something to discuss on the internet. Yeah, none of that is ringing true to me, again, from my very limited perspective.
Have you met with director Matt Reeves or spoken to him about the next Batman movie?
No, not yet, and I have season two of Counterpart in the offing. So I’m in the dark, as most people are.
How do you feel if someone started a petition to bring you back as J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies they’re doing now?
Listen, those movies with Sam and Toby and everybody, I will always, always, always look back on those with great fondness and pride. I thought those were really good movies, and that J. Jonah Jameson that will go under the heading of “Never say never.” Who knows what could happen.
Counterpart is available now in the UK on Starz Play.