The Good, The Bad & The Badass: J.K. Simmons
J.K. Simmons is a really nice guy - and I say that from experience. Here’s the thing, I’ve always admired Simmons as an actor. But, he also scares the absolute shit out of me. Why? Back in my early teens, I became a big fan of the HBO series “Oz”, where Simmons played one of the main characters, an incarcerated Aryan Nazi rapist named Vern Schillinger, and he was so convincing for years the notion of him just acting escaped me. Even watching him as J. Jonah Jameson made me cringe, and I couldn’t help but think of him at his worst on that mesmerizing but terrifying show.
Our paths wound-up crossing at TIFF a few years ago, where he attended the annual Sony Classics dinner that I’ve somehow been invited to most years. He was being feted for WHIPLASH, the film that would win him a (much-deserved) Oscar and turn him into an A-list character actor. I saw him chatting with a young-looking dude who I figured was a blogger, but actually turned out to be director Damien Chazelle (another nice guy). I did the usual and congratulated him on WHIPLASH, but Simmons, being the nice guy that he is, actually engaged me in conversation, during which time I admitted to him that “Oz” traumatized me as a kid, something which gave him a hearty laugh, and he told me not to feel bad, because I wasn’t the first guy my age to tell him this, and he even made a joke about George Michael’s similar affliction on “Arrested Development.” If you’re reading this J.K., thanks for playing along and not mocking me.
Of course, there’s no doubt Simmons is a badass. Those workout pictures of his pretty much broke the internet, but there’s more to him than just being a tough-guy. He’s also very adept at comedy, stealing scenes in I LOVE YOU MAN as Paul Rudd’s dad, who’s proudly BFF’s with his gay son (played by Andy Samberg), and in JUNO as Ellen Page’s memorably cynical dad. With him having signed-on to play Commisioner Gordon, Simmons has really hit the mainstream, but he’s also too good to get stuck in supporting parts, with him proving to be a surprisingly good romantic foil for Susan Sarandon in the recent indie hit, THE MEDDLER, and don’t be surprised if at some point he headlines a Liam Neeson-esque older-guy actioner. He’d be well-suited to that kind of vehicle
“Not quite my tempo”. Those lines became instantly quotable right after the first Sundance screening of WHIPLASH, which I was lucky enough to attend. As a half-crazed teacher at a cut-throat music conservatory who pushes his students to excellence with the cost of their sanity, he cuts an imposing figure with his tight black t-shirts and giant biceps. Simmons is equally terrifying but also unexpectedly sympathetic in the end, when a monstrous attempt at vengeance turns into a battle of wits and then, oddly, an artistic triumph as Miles Teller’s character blows him away with the drum performance to end all drum performances. What a part - and what an actor.
Now relax fanboys - I agree that Simmons is perfect casting as J. Jonah Jameson. It’s just that as I perused his filmography on the IMDB, I couldn’t note a single performance of his that I’d call overrated. However, I have, admittedly, always thought the Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN movies (with the exception of the second one) were overrated - so there you have it. That said, Marvel/Sony could do worse than recast Simmons in the part if Jameson becomes part of the new franchise.
“Oz” isn’t a film, but it’s a show I’m consistently surprised isn’t mentioned as one of HBO’s all-time best as it paved the way for shows like “The Sopranos” and arguably is responsible for the pay-TV explosion in drama that’s put us in the middle of this serialized golden age. Simmons is an essential part of the show’s appeal. His Schillinger is one of the most evil characters I’ve ever seen depicted on TV, but what’s even scarier is the way he’s humanized even as he’s caught in a bloody, Machiavellian war with his former victim, Tobias Beecher (the amazing Lee Tergesen). I like this show so much I devoted a Binge Watchin’ to it!
Again, “not quite my tempo.” That first scene where Simmons’s seemingly sympathetic instructor gets unveiled as a tyrant is something, and one of the most memorable moments in recent movie memory.
In addition to this week’s THE ACCOUNTANT and JUSTICE LEAGUE, Simmons is in high demand as usual. He’s got a tiny part in Damian Chazelle’s LA LA LAND, Peter Berg’s PATRIOT’S DAY, the comedy BASTARDS, the Luc Besson-produced thriller THE LAKE and a whole lot more. Truly, his success is well-deserved.
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