BY ANDREW FISHWe’re wired to feel a vicarious thrill as we watch a young protagonist become the hero he was meant to be. Whiplash hacks into this quirk of brain chemistry and gets you rooting for all the wrong things. Music student Andrew Neyman aches to earn a place in the pantheon of great jazz drummers. Terence Fletcher is respected and feared as the iron-fisted instructor who handpicks the school’s top talent and leads the jazz ensemble to competitive victory. He teases Neyman with a fleeting interest, then belittles him and withdraws. Neyman yearns for the golden ticket that Fletcher has the potential to give, and when it’s finally handed to him, we share his elation despite every indication that it will lead to very bad things.
Tapped to push Neyman — played by gifted up-and-comer Miles Teller — well beyond the breaking point is journeyman actor J.K. Simmons. As Fletcher, he’s Neyman’s perfect dysfunctional complement. Obsessed with finding the next Charlie Parker, he’s happy to torture the full potential out of the right willing candidate.
You might not know him by name, but one look at Simmons’ face sparks a sense of familiarity and respect from just about everyone who’s watched TV or movies for the past 15 years. Adept at channeling brutal, compassionate and everything in between, he’s played a complex and vicious neo-Nazi on Oz, a loving and insightful father in Juno, an ever-exasperated assistant police chief on The Closer, and a pitch-perfect J. Jonah Jameson. And with his fierce performance in Whiplash, the Oscar buzz has begun — an especially satisfying development for longtime Simmons fans like me.
When I attended a Whiplash press event in Beverly Hills recently, I was particularly looking forward to hearing Simmons’ take on the project — a film which will likely bring him the attention and accolades he’s deserved for over a decade.
Simmons submits that Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle’s point was “to inspire discussion and debate and not decide — are we happy for Andrew Neyman or are we lamenting his loss of humanity? I think, based on the reception and the discussions that we’ve been involved in so far, that’s exactly what he achieved. Plus, it’s just awesomely entertaining. The end of the movie with a 10-minute drum solo!”
Neyman sloughs off all possible distractions, including his budding romance with Nicole (a charming Melissa Benoist) by letting her know that she doesn’t even rank on his list of priorities. It’s a moment of heartlessness emblematic of his single-minded symbiosis with Fletcher. “The debate I love,” Simmons says, “is how far is too far? How much is too much? Is it worth it? This kind of relentless abuse might be necessary and appropriate if you’re training Navy Seals, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate in a music school. But it’s there, and it can be productive; there’s no denying that. From my own perspective, I’d rather have a pretty girlfriend than go work with this guy and have my hands bleed all the time. I would have made a different choice.”
With 19 days to shoot, opportunities for rehearsal were apparently off the table, which was perfectly fine for Simmons. “I actually prefer to work that way,” he says. “Whatever the role is, if you’re working on an accent or a dialect or a specific skill set that your character has that you don’t necessarily have, like playing the piano, then that’s the kind of preparation that I find absolutely necessary. For me, if the words are good on the page, the rest of it just comes from spending some time with the script. Not [in terms of] learning lines, but absorbing what the script has to offer.”
Noting that “collaborative” is his “favorite word in moviemaking,” Simmons is particularly appreciative that the flexible dynamic on the Whiplash set offered opportunities for improvisation. “The freedom to occasionally depart from the page a little bit and just throw the ball back and forth, and throw each other a curveball, was an added part of the fun,” he says. “And the fact that Damien is self-confident enough to not get his ego damaged by, ‘Oh, wait a minute. You didn’t put that comma in that sentence, or you said “perhaps” instead of “maybe.”‘ That’s always a beautiful amount of freedom to have as an actor.”
One of the things that’s always drawn me to Simmons’ work is his ability to bring his singular brand of charisma and humor to such a wide spectrum of personalities — from the warm and kind to the downright despicable. As he explains, it’s been a conscious decision to maintain his impressively varied portfolio.
“I’ve been so blessed to have the opportunities that I’ve had,” Simmons enthuses. “If somebody asked me to play a Terence Fletcher-esque character next week, I would be reticent to do so. Part of the joy of doing what we [screen actors] are all fortunate enough to do here, is you get to do something different every time out. I learned that at the very beginning; I’ve been doing theater for 20 years, but when I first started doing camera acting, really, Oz was my first big thing that a lot of people saw. And I knew going into that, that it was a potential trap — that I could be playing the Nazi of the week on TV for the rest of my life. And from nowhere, all of a sudden Law and Order called and said, ‘Hey, would you like to play the shrink on Law and Order?’ — and it was like this perfect yin-yang that I had at the very beginning, so that I was perceived as a guy who could do a variety of things. That’s what we all want to do. We all want to not repeat ourselves constantly, and explore the limits of our capabilities. So, I just want to do something different than whatever I just got done doing.”