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Whiplash - JK Simmons interview


Story by Jack Foley

JK SIMMONS talks about creating the character of Fletcher, the ruthless teacher at the heart of the critically-acclaimed Whiplash, and how he wouldn’t personally respond to such inspirational techniques.

He also discusses some of his recent career highlights and his gratitude to director Jason Reitman, as well as the things that inspire him as an actor. He was speaking at a press conference held during the 2014 London Film Festival.

Q. What do you think drives Fletcher as a character?
JK Simmons: Passion for the music and utter perfectionism. He has a complete single-mindedness in pursuit of that goal, human collateral damage nothwithstanding.

Q. How did you prepare for the role? Did you seek out those types of individuals?
JK Simmons: Honestly, the preparation that I had to do for the role was just learning the music. As far as playing the character, it was all there on the page and I didn’t feel the need to look outside of what Damien [Chazelle, writer-director] had written and what was in me to pull it off the page. So, I hit the deck running with Miles [Teller] and we did our thing [smiles].

Q. When Jason Reitman visited last week he said that he wished he’d been the one to direct you to this performance. So, could you speak a little bit about the remarkable run of roles you’ve had over the past few years…
JK Simmons: It’s been great and Jason expressed that to me early on… a similar sentiment about loving the work that Damien was doing. Jason, of course, is a producer on the film. But being involved to one degree or another in every film that Jason has done from the beginning, has been really fun and a really gratifying part of my career… and the fact that this script came to me from him was my first clue that this was going to be something that had a chance to be extraordinary.

Q. You’ve mentioned about jazz being spontaneous. Did that lend itself to being spontaneous with your performance at times?
JK Simmons: I don’t have a response written for that [laughs]. No, it was cool to have something that was so thorough on the page but also to have room to play within that framework. It’s part of what’s fun about what we do. Oftentimes on a movie you’ll have one or the other. You’ll have a really good, solid script or you’ll have, ‘hey, we can put this down or you can do what you want’. So, this was a nice combination.

Q. Have you had a mentor that’s meant as much to you as these characters do to each other?
JK Simmons: Most mentors that I think back on were much kinder and gentler. And really the people who, in my experience, used fear as a motivation, I just don’t respond well to that. So, I don’t.

Q. How did you go about making Fletcher so terrifying? And did you stay in character?
JK Simmons: I terrorised the entire crew [laughs]. Well, we quickly fell into a rhythm of having fun and goofing around on the set in between takes. Damien would yell ‘cut’ and this kid would reassert his masculinity, which I had stripped him of during the takes.. or he would attempt to! But honestly, as far as creating the character, I felt like I was just channelling what Damien wrote and there was no conscious effort on my part to achieve anything other than bringing his work off the page.

Q. What inspires you as an actor?
JK Simmons: I never really thought of consciously being inspired by other actors. Certainly, there are many, many actors that I greatly admire. Willem Dafoe in Platoon, for whatever reason, jumps into my head. But I’m really inspired by… and this goes back to the beginning of my theatre days, and my music days, I felt like when I was studying classical music in college, it was about Schubert or whoever I was singing. I sort of feel like a conduit to great creative art, whether it’s composers or Shakespeare of Chazelle. It’s the creator that inspires me.

Read our review of Whiplash

Read our interview with Miles Teller

Read our interview with Damien Chazelle