J.K. Simmons relishes leaving his “cuddly” image behind for “Whiplash”

jk1J.K. Simmons? He’s that cuddly character actor, right?

You know, loving father to “Juno,” gruff but amusing boss in “Spider-Man” and “The Closer.” Heck, he’s the folksy voice of Farmer’s Insurance on TV!

But after the new film “Whiplash,” you may not look at him the same way again. As jazz band teacher and conductor Terence Fletcher, he is a monster, a seeming psychopath — manipulating, screaming, terrorizing his conservatory students.

“He’s a perfectionist who is doing his best to bring that out in everybody around him,” Simmons explains, sticking up for the bully he plays in the film.

Simmons’ “nice-guy image is part of the fascination,” John Anderson wrote in his Wall Street Journal review of “Whiplash.” “Can he possibly be this awful?”

“His Fletcher is so inscrutable he’s bloodcurdling,” David Edelstein enthused in New York Magazine.

Have we been reading Jonathan Kimble Simmons wrong all these years? In his hands, Terence Fletcher is like tantrum-tossing Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight — on steroids.

Simmons, playing along, rejects that.

“Bobby Knight’s a total (rhymes with ‘wussy’),” Simmons growls. “He just threw a chair across the court. I threw one at somebody’s HEAD.”

Simmons, who has enough of a musical background the actually conduct the band formed for the film, fell in with Terence Fletcher’s espoused mission. The band leader is determined that his conservatory produce the next Charlie “Bird” Parker or Buddy Rich, a true jazz great. And he alternately cajoles and teases, taunts and slaps new drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) to get that across. It’s “ends justify the means” tough love, Fletcher’s version of Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t HANDLE the truth” speech from “A Few Good Men.” Parents and coaches who create star athletes and brilliant musicians aren’t cuddly.

“These guys are still out there, in sports, in the military,” Simmons says. “Those are places where a guy like him would be seen as effective. He’s getting a job done.”

whipPark Terence Fletcher alongside “Tiger Moms,” or men’s movement backlash at a softening American culture. He’s an uglier version of Nick Offerman’s “man up” image on “Parks and Recreation.” That’s one reason “Whiplash” is stirring up controversy. Does it take a monster to shape a genius?

“I can’t condone that level of emotional, psychological and even physical abuse in any scenario,” Simmons says. “I like that we’re a kinder, gentler world.

“But I kind of agree with Fletcher’s overall philosophy. Our society’s willingness to settle for mediocrity, to overpraise kids for modest achievements, is counter-productive.” The father of two teenagers says that living with them gave him what he needed to know to play a sweet dad in “Juno.” But living with them now taught him that “‘Nice job’ is not the best way to drive somebody to greatness.”

Simmons, 59, grew up in Montana, attended the University of Montana and worked in the Seattle Rep before breaking into movies and TV, playing military types (“The Ref”), law enforcement officials, coaches, supporting player authority figures.

He broke out ten years later in the original “Spider-Man” movies as a bug-eyed, blustery Daily Bugle editor, J.Jonah Jameson.

Whatever niche film and TV had put him in, Jason Reitman yanked him out of with “Juno.” The director then cast him in his later films, most memorably as stunned furiously blunt freshly-laid off mid-level manager in “Up in the Air.” Reitman is still changing Simmons’ life, not only casting him in the director’s “Men, Women & Children,” but shoving writer-director Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” script into his hands.

“This all goes back to Jason,” Simmons says. Reitman has always been “the game changer, for me…To be perceived as an actor who has some versatility is what you pray for. It’s what gives you chances to work in more god movies, on more good scripts with good directors and good actors.”

“Juno” raised his profile and increased his offers in “cuddly, dad roles.” “Whiplash” could change that perception “for the next few years.” The offers could be scarier, meaner. Does that worry him? Not as all, Simmons laughs.

“That’s worked out pretty good for Tommy Lee Jones, hasn’t it?”

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2 Responses to J.K. Simmons relishes leaving his “cuddly” image behind for “Whiplash”

  1. dave says:

    Did everyone forget J.K. Simmon’s role on the TV Show Oz as anything but a cuddly dad?

    • Nope. But you have only so many inches in a story, and that was years ago. The image now, as evidenced by his use on those Farmers Ins. ads, is the one I posited. Market research driven. Juno’s dad.

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