JK Simmons revisits his greatest screen roles

From Oz to Counterpart, we take a trip down memory lane with JK Simmons

“Any actor likes talking about himself!” jokes JK Simmons when Den of Geek calls him up in late November to have a chat about season two of his sci-fi TV show Counterpart. Talkative and friendly, the 63-year-old actor is every bit as warm as his most likable characters, and not a bit like his scariest.

Coming to TV and movies late after a decade treading the boards on Broadway (his first screen credit was in French Connection TV pilot Popeye Doyle), Simmons has since etched some of popular culture’s most memorable characters into the minds of fans. His latest is Howard Silk in STARZPLAY series Counterpart, a hard-boiled sci-fi about a world where a UN agency oversees a link between two parallel Earths. To celebrate the launch of the show’s second season, we asked Simmons about playing two versions of the same guy, and then took him on a stroll down memory lane to revisit some of his most notable roles…

Counterpart – Howard Silk (2017-)

“[Both versions of] the characters were, from the beginning, so well delineated on the page by Justin Marks and his writing staff. As with any intelligent writing, I felt like just pulling it off the page was most of what my job would be. Certainly, there are technical challenges in playing scenes with yourself and preparing to play scenes where you’re gonna end up playing two different characters, but after a few technical hurdles, it’s been really an enjoyable challenge and continues to be that in season two. We got to a point where, it’s pretty straight forward, really. I play scenes with an actor named John Funk, who functions as my stand-in in that traditional way, but he also does much more work than the average stand-in because he’s preparing both characters just as thoroughly as I am, learning the scenes and successfully mimicking the subtle differences in the characters.”

Popeye Doyle – Patrolman in Park (1986)

“It was certainly new territory for me, being in front of a camera, but I didn’t feel like a fresh actor because I’d been doing theatre for 10 years. I felt like, in a way, a seasoned actor. What surprised me at the time was, it was intimidating in a way, but really it was more freeing. In the theatre, you learn to create your fourth wall and there are all these theatrical conventions that you’re dealing with. I found myself on that job with my one scene as Officer Miller, who technically is billed as Patrolman in Park, and I felt like all my work was done for me. It was a drizzly day, I was in Central Park, there was a very realistic-looking dead body at my feet, there were real police cars with their sirens on and the environment just seemed much more real than what I was used to. I thought, ‘Well this is pretty easy because a lot of your work is done for you when you’re a TV actor!’ And I gotta say, Ed O’Neill, who played the Gene Hackman role, Popeye Doyle, his career was just starting to take off and he was great, and very generous. He treated me like a human being – little day-players are not always treated with that kind of respect and concern. Overall, it was a great experience.”

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Oz – Vern Schillinger (1997-2003)

“It was about a decade later, after my career continued to be mostly in theatre, that Oz came along and I was glad that I had the [right] level of maturity, I was 42 years old when we started Oz. I had played a wide enough variety of characters in theatre at that time. You can’t justify a character’s actions when he’s a murdering, racist rapist, an awful human being, but you need to find a way in, where you can understand the guy’s psychology, and I think that was crucial to playing Vern Schillinger. As always, whether it’s Justin Marks on Counterpart or it’s Jason Reitman [on Juno] or, in this case, Tom Fontana on Oz, if you have a writer-creator who really knows what they’re doing and is able to put a complex, real human being on paper, the job is largely done for you.”

The Closer – Will Pope (2005-2012)

“There are a variety of reasons I took this on. I had done a short-lived series [The D.A.] the previous year with the same creator, James Duff, and the same team, and I had enjoyed working with them. So when The Closer came along, it was one of the first times that I recall, if not the first, when somebody called and said, ‘I want you to play this part,’ and there was no audition. I didn’t have to go through all of that which, good lord, what a horrible thing, auditioning is! I’m glad not to be doing that any more. But it was good. I already had confidence that, given the confines of a police procedural, the writing was going to be interesting enough that if we had a successful show, it’d be something I wouldn’t be bored doing in episode 37. And 109 episodes later, I really enjoyed that whole experience. 109 episodes… that would be 11 seasons of Counterpart. I don’t know if I’d ever do 109 episodes of one character again.”

Spider-Man – J. Jonah Jameson (2002-2007)

“I really did feel like my job on that, more than almost any other character, was to be as off the comic-book page as possible. It was still, to use the overused actor-y term, ‘grounded in reality’, but certainly it seemed to me, and [director] Sam Raimi concurred, that J. Jonah was the most broad in that world that Sam was creating with those first three films. Starting out with a really good script, we then did a fair amount of our own [improvisation]. Sam and I and Tobey [Maguire], Elizabeth Banks and Sam’s brother Ted, all the supporting cast, we were getting together and expanding on the script and ultimately had the freedom to improvise and play around. It was a great environment that Sam created and has always created. I’ve done five films with him and hope to do more.”

Juno – Mac MacGuff (2007)

“I had been playing dad parts off and on before that, and for a long time before I was a dad, because I was 43 when my first kid was born. An important aspect of that character to me, and of that whole story, certainly the Mac MacGuff perspective of that story was, when your 16-year-old daughter comes to you with that news [that she’s pregnant], the expected response based on so much fiction that we’ve seen in the past would be that sort of blustery dad reaction, but it was… The main thing that I felt from Mac’s perspective was just heartbreak, and how difficult it would be, no matter what the ultimate solution to the dilemma was gonna be. He was just sad that his kid had to suddenly grow up this much. But at the same time, he was such a loving father and so confident in Juno as being a good solid human being that there was a level of love that surmounted everything.”

Whiplash – Fletcher (2014)

“I’m not sure I liked Fletcher, but I admired him, for sure. Because the guy’s a genius musician and a perfectionist, obviously to the exclusion of everything else in life that most of us view as important. Like compassion and love and interpersonal relationships. He had one love and, to me, almost every character I’ve played, no matter how despicable, it’s important for me to find out where the love is and what the love is about, and what the love is for. His love for the music and his level of talent and perfectionism drove him way over the edge and turned him into the tyrannical ass that we see on-screen. But I love the ambiguity of that story and that was the first discussion that Damien [Chazelle] and I had about doing the short a year before we did the feature. It was important to both of us that people be able to see that it’s not a story about a good guy and a bad guy, it’s a complex story of these two characters.”

Justice League – Commissioner Gordon (2017)

“I hope to do more Gordon and, on paper, I’m committed to doing more Gordon. It’s just a question of which film it’ll be in, whether it’s The Batman or another Justice League, or another DC universe film when we will see Gordon again. But I’m optimistic that that will happen again.”

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