J.K. Simmons is proud to be a character actor — even if the term is mostly misused.
Film critic Roger Ebert once applauded actor J.K. Simmons’ acrid delivery of “every line [as] a punch line.” Some 20 years into a storied career — highlighted by roles in Juno and on the recently wrapped series The Closer — Simmons continues to amuse audiences on a regular basis, with no fewer than five projects already on the docket this year. First up is Jobs, the biopic of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, which premieres this month at Sundance; it will be followed by an eerier turn in the sci-fi horror flick Dark Skies. In May, Simmons takes the lead on ABC’s Family Tools, playing the cantankerous patriarch of a dysfunctional family running a business. American Way spoke to the 57-year-old actor about his hidden talents and what being a character actor really means.
American Way: For as many roles as you’ve played, audiences are still learning your name, aren’t they?
J.K. Simmons: Being “that guy” is no problem for me. People who recognize me on the street will occasionally come up to me and apologize for not knowing my name. No apologies are required.
AW: You’ve said in the past that you’ve had trouble with authority figures, yet you’ve made a fine career playing a lot of those types of men.
JKS: My troubles with authority figures manifested in many different arenas in my youth, and it hasn’t completely stopped, I must admit. It never was — and isn’t now — a problem with authority; it’s a problem with mindless authority. Those guys are a lot of fun to play, though.
AW: To some actors, character actor is a derogatory phrase. Others really embrace the label. Where do you fall?
JKS: By and large, I think somebody uses the phrase character actor when they’re talking about an actor who’s not that good-looking. To my way of thinking, though, Brad Pitt is a character actor: He has had the opportunities to do a pretty wide variety of roles for a tall, blue-eyed, blond, handsome guy. He’s done great and greatly varied work. Any time an actor refuses to repeat himself and refuses to do the exact same thing over and over again, he’s probably a character actor. I’m OK with being called that.
AW: People might be surprised to learn you’ve got a beautiful singing voice.
JKS: I actually started out studying music, doing Beethoven and Brahms and Mozart, then segued into musical theater, like Rodgers and Hammerstein. Probably the biggest difference between doing theater and screen acting is the paycheck. But I still sing all the time.