J.K. Simmons on ‘All Nighter,’ the ‘La La Land’ Oscar Controversy, and Playing J. Jonah Jameson Again
You think you know the “J.K. Simmons type” and then you look at his IMDb page. Yes, he’s played a lot of tough and scary dudes; the sadistic white supremacist on Oz, the terrifying music teacher in Whiplash, which netted Simmons an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. But for every intimidating Simmons role, there’s a softer one; the big-hearted father in Juno or the incredulous cop in the last Terminator. There aren’t too many actors who could convincingly play both bully blowhard newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson and confident crusading Commissioner Gordon, but Simmons is about to complete that unusual comic-book combination in Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
“My part in the first film coming out this fall is very, very small,” Simmons told me when the topic of DC movies came up during our phone interview earlier this week. “It’s a little introduction of the character. But whenever the next one gets off the ground, whether it’s The Batman movie or the Justice League sequel, and I know those things are getting shuffled around right now … we thought we might be getting to work pretty soon on The Batman, but we’ll see what the future brings. Hopefully that’ll be another comic-book character that I get to take two or three or four cracks at.”
Before he crosses the interdimensional divide from Marvel to DC, Simmons will first be seen in the comic mystery All Nighter. He plays Frank Gallo, a workaholic father who returns home from a business trip and can’t find his daughter Ginnie (Analeigh Tipton). With nowhere else to turn, he shows up on the doorstep of Emile Hirsch’s Martin. The last time Frank was in town, Ginnie and Martin were a couple. Six months later, the pair have parted ways, and her ex has no idea where Ginnie’s gone. Reluctantly, Martin agrees to become the Watson to Frank’s Sherlock, and the two set off across Los Angeles to try to locate the missing woman.
Over the course of a conversation that neither rushed nor dragged, Simmons told me about his reasons for making this movie, how his career his changed after winning an Academy Award, his perspective on the whole Moonlight/La La Land Oscar night kerfuffle, and whether he’d ever be up for a return to the Spider-Man universe.
What was it about this role or the film in general that particularly interested you?
It was kind of a 50-50 thing. The script was really clever and the character felt funny and real and all the things I look for. And Emile was already attached to play Martin when they sent it to me. And I’ve been a big fan of his; I think he’s an extraordinary actor who can do such a wide variety of things. I thought he was the perfect guy to do the movie with, because he’s not going to lapse into the kind of silliness that it could have lapsed into with a less adept actor playing that role.
You guys make a funny pair. Even your physicality is funny. There’s a two-shot in profile of you eating dinner together and you have perfect posture and he’s slouched over. Was that something you two developed together?
There wasn’t anything scripted about that or any conscious discussion between the two of us or with [director] Gavin [Wiesen]. That was just the way Emile inhabited that guy and the way I walked into the room playing my guy — and already being a bigger guy than Emile accentuated that aspect of the whole alpha dog and beta dog there. Which, by the way, was one of the first movies I saw Emile in.
Right, Alpha Dog.
He was so brilliant. A lot of guys were great in that movie, but that was the first thing I really noticed Emile in and made me want to work with him.
You get tased in this movie. I was curious: As an actor, how do you prepare for that scene? Do you watch videos of people getting tased?
I actually did look at a couple YouTube things and talk to police officers. But I realized some of the YouTube stuff I was watching was clearly staged. What I wanted to do was obviously in a comic context, and try to make it real; try to recreate what really happens. Most of the stuff I was looking at I was skeptical about how real it was. So I went with the advice of guys on the other end of the taser, some police officer friends and what the stunt guy and everyone else was telling me. We tried a few more extreme and less extreme variations. At a certain point, you try to do different things and trust your director and your editor to find the right combination of real and funny.
It was interesting to think of this movie alongside Whiplash; they’re both movies about these tough authority figures butting heads with young men. It made me wonder what you were like at your co-stars’ age. Were you the ambitious cocky type or were you more the slacker, stoner dude?
I guess if I had to pick one I was probably 70 percent towards Emile. I was kind of floating along, doing whatever came next and having a good time. I was doing theater, I was acting, but I wasn’t a real goal-oriented guy yet. Definitely more of a slacker. If I could have a job that would let me sleep in, that was ideal.
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Looking over your recent filmography, it’s so varied; big movies, little movies, television, drama, comedies, musicals. Are there any roles or projects you haven’t gotten to do that you’re still looking to try?
There’s always new stuff coming down the pipe. “The role that I would love to do someday,” those are mostly theater things. And honestly since I did theater for 20 years, and then camera stuff for 20 years, most of the theater roles that I coveted and really wanted to do I’m getting a little long in the tooth for. I’m not going to be playing Hamlet, y’know? But hey, I could always play King Lear.
In terms of like specific genres or kinds of characters, there’s nothing I feel like I want to check off my list. For better or worse, I just respond to scripts. As things are getting put together, like they have a Miles Teller attached or Emile Hirsch or somebody else that’s an actor or director that I’d really like to work with, that’s part of it too. But I’ve been blessed to not be typecast and stuck doing one thing.
How did winning an Oscar change your career?
What it’s mostly done is people want me to come onboard earlier in the process. Up until three or four years ago, when I would get an offer for something it would be number six or seven or eight on the call sheet and the movie would already all put together, and “We start shooting in three weeks, are you available?” Now, with All Nighter for example, or Counterpart, the thing I’m doing now, I’m the guy that they want to attach and they can use me to go out and help get their financing because I’ve got a bunch of trophies on my shelf and I’m a bankable commodity, at least for the time being. [laughs]
Speaking of Oscars, I just rewatched the ending of this year’s Oscars, and I didn’t see you on stage with the rest of the La La Land team, so I have to assume you were watching it somewhere. As a guy who was in the film, I would love to know your reaction to that whole thing.
Not only was I not there, I was not watching because I was getting up at 5AM the next day. I snuck off to sleep in the guest room just around the time Damien [Chazelle] won Best Director. I was trying to go to sleep, and I checked in on IMDb on my phone just to see what was happening. I saw that Damien had won and I thought “Oh that’s great, good for him. Youngest ever – that’s awesome.” And then I tried to turn it off and go to sleep and I couldn’t go to sleep because who could go to sleep at 9PM? I checked the phone one last time before I turned off the light and that was during the two minutes that La La Land had won. So I went to bed thinking La La Land won Best Picture.
The next morning in the makeup trailer everybody’s talking about the giant snafu and I didn’t know what to think! And of course [La La Land producer] Jordan [Horowitz], who was at the center of all that, he’s a producer on the thing I’m doing now. So everybody at Counterpart was feeling attached to it. I tell you what: Considering what a disastrous mix-up that was, I thought everybody, including Warren Beatty, handled themselves about as well as they could be expected to.
I agree. Did the whole scenario ever make you contemplate what you would have done in that situation? They announce your name, you go up on stage, start your speech, and then somebody runs out from the wings and goes “Whoops, sorry. Actually, Mark Ruffalo was the winner.”
There’s that great moment in the Ben Stiller movie Zoolander where he’s so convinced he’s going to win the award. I have Ben Stiller on the brain cause my kids just made me sit through Tropic Thunder for the 19th time — which, by the way, is a hilarious movie.
Yeah, I’m not quite sure how I’d handle it, in that situation especially, because it’s more of an individual deal. That may be a little bit tough to take. [laughs] Having said that, I’m a big Mark Ruffalo fan too.
I’m a lifelong Spider-Man fan, and I loved your J. Jonah Jameson. They didn’t bring you back for The Amazing Spider-Man, but now they’re doing a whole new Spidey again. If the opportunity arose, would you be up for returning to the part or have you permanently put the flattop and mustache to rest?
The first part of that is never say never. But the second part is I think it’s probably unlikely. The incarnation I did was Sam Raimi’s version of that world. It was a great, great, great experience on every level — especially the first two movies. The third one got a little … micromanaged, I thought.
First of all, anytime Sam Raimi calls, I’m ready to jump and get involved again. This new version is not going to be his. There’s actually another something in the pipeline, far off in the pipeline, that I hope Sam and I might do in the next couple years. But I’m open to anything. I’m trying to think, what year was the first movie?
That was 2000.
So it would definitely be a more senior version of JJJ than we’ve seen before.
Might have to put a few less hairs in that flattop.
All Nighter opens today in Los Angeles and expands wider next week. For full playdates, visit the official website.