full metal jacket goes to juilliard with jk simmons

We catch up with the music teacher from hell to talk Whiplash as it gets released on Blu-Ray and DVD.

by i-D Staff
20 May 2015, 8:40am

Already one of America's most beloved characters actors, J.K. Simmons has seen his career hit new heights with Whiplash. Given the role of a lifetime as the abusive, volcanic music teacher Terence Fletcher, who spends his days picking on an ambitious jazz drummer student played by Miles Teller, Simmons' outstanding performance in Damien Chazelle's drama has seen him sweep the awards season. Amid a host of critical trophies, Simmons also claimed Best Supporting Actor at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild awards and the Oscars.

Born in Detroit, Simmons has already worked with the Coen Brothers, Sam Raimi and Jason Reitman, not forgetting his part in the acclaimed HBO prison drama Oz as the terrifying Vern Schillinger. But with roles coming up in Terminator Genisys and Kong: Skull Island, the 60-year-old actor is currently riding the crest of a wave. Below he talks about his own musical background, working on set with Miles Teller, and discusses some of his most famous roles.

Is it hard to relate to an unlikeable character like Whiplash's Terence Fletcher?
No. It came very naturally to me to play bad guys, characters like that… The thing to find in there is where in their minds they are acting out of love. And it was clear to me, in this case, when I first read the script, when Damien first sent it to me, that everything he does is motivated - and perverted - by his love for the music. I had a music professor in college - because I studied music, actually - who was a bit of a perfectionist, though he was a sweet guy, not a Terence Fletcher at all. But he said that our first task is to get it perfect and then we can make it great. But you have to be technically proficient and flawless before you can begin to make art; so to play a guy who is a relentless, abusive bastard like that, you have to find the motivation for it.

Your father is a music professor. What would he have said to these methods?
He probably wouldn't have approved. He was a great teacher. I guess I was in my late twenties, and I went back home to visit him and my mom at the University of Montana, which is where he taught. He was teaching a big class that took place in the recital hall with four hundred students, a survey of music for non-music majors. And I snuck into the back at the balcony and watched him teach this class, and realised really for the first time in my life - at age 25 - that he was inspirational. My brother and I, we both gravitated towards performing and acting and singing. And I saw my father as this really charismatic teacher who inspired curiosity and a love of music. It was a beautiful thing to see.

So where did Fletcher come from? Anyone you know?
Most of it is from the twisted depths of Damien's brain. But, yeah, again that was part of the joy of making this movie with Miles and Damien - it was such a collaborative thing. Damien is such a brilliant writer; to be able to be as structurally good at the minutia of dialogue, and creating different characters with the way he writes dialogue, but still be open to actors improvising around his dialogue and not being too precious with wanting it to be exactly what he put on paper.

What about the physical aspect of the performance? He's very imposing…
The physicality was something that came to me… I don't remember if it was the first time I read the script. It may have been. Damien had written specifically a wardrobe for Fletcher. The idea that I liked about what he'd written was that it was almost like a uniform; he wore the same thing every day and it was impeccable.

It reminded me of Jack LeLanne, who had an exercise show on TV, and his uniform seemed to me part of this regimented disciplinarian way of life that he lived himself and tried to impose on his students. And also, part of his intimidation tactic - he would be this almost militaristic and erect and fit and imposing kind of character… just to help him assert his will on everyone.

The film has been compared to Full Metal Jacket, and in particular you've been likened to R. Lee Ermey, who played the drill instructor…
We joked about Full Metal Jacket goes to Julliard during the shoot! I have never seen the whole movie. And here now is confession time. I am not a film buff. There are many of my own films that I have never seen; by my own films, I mean films I've had small parts in. I did nothing but theatre for almost 20 years.

Outside of Whiplash, you've had a very impressive career in film. You worked with the Coens three times…
Two and a half - I did an off-camera voice in True Grit.

Were these particularly special roles for you?
Working with the Coens in general… there are no smarter or more impeccably prepared and organised directors, down to incredible minute details, than these two. No filmmaker equals them in that regard, and they are really like this two-headed monster. They share the same giant brain and somehow are virtually always on the same page.

What do you remember about Burn After Reading?
I had auditioned. I was on the West Coast, they were on the East Coast, but I put myself on tape a couple of times for other parts in that movie. We'd already done The Ladykillers together. My agent would call and say they said, 'We love J.K. but it's not a fit.' Then when they asked me to put that part on tape, I re-read the script from that perspective and I thought 'This is the best part in the movie. It's just two scenes. But it's the best part in the movie.'

Do you like repeatedly working with the same directors? You've done it also with Sam Raimi and Jason Reitman…
Yeah… I called it the trifecta in the past; the directors I've been able to work with repeatedly. Sam Raimi, Jason Reitman and Joel and Ethan… and now I'm hoping that Damien is the new member of that, that I become part of the Damien Chazelle repertoire company.

What do you get recognised for the most?
It varies hugely. We were in Paris last summer - my wife and I brought our kids to Europe for the first time. I've found that one of the things I'm most recognised for is still Oz. We started in the late 90s and finished ten or eleven years ago. But then there's Burn After Reading - a part where I literally had two scenes in the film! 

Whiplash is now available on Digital HD and is out on DVD and Blu-ray 1st June


Whiplash is now available on Digital HD and is out on DVD and Blu-ray 1st June

J.K. Simmons