Variation on a Theme

An Interview with J.K. Simmons

by Michelle Welch

25 August 2011

J.K. Simmons's most visible credit to date is the scenery-chomping role as J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. But in The Music Never Stopped, (now out on DVD) a deeply rewarding film about music therapy, family, and the Summer of Love generation, Simmons shines in his first lead film role as the uptight father of an amnesiac hippie.
cover art

The Music Never Stopped

Director: Jim Kohlberg
Cast: J.K. Simmons, Julia Ormond, Mía Maestro, Lou Taylor Pucci

J.K. Simmons’s acting career draws no lines in the sand. In film, Simmons has been a favorite in Jason Reitman’s bullpen, with supporting roles in Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air. In television, Simmons has been as willing to “go downtown” with Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development, as instill absolute dread and unease as a white supremacist and rapist on HBO’s prison drama Oz. He’s familiar to TNT audiences as the politic Assistant Chief Will Pope on The Closer, and during commercial breaks as Yellow, the peanut M&M.

J.K. Simmons’s most visible credit to date is the scenery-chomping role as J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. But in The Music Never Stopped, (now out on DVD) a deeply rewarding film about music therapy, family, and the Summer of Love generation, Simmons shines in his first lead film role as the uptight father of an amnesiac hippie.

PopMatters spoke with J.K. Simmons about his transition from baseball player to hippie as a teenager in the late ‘60s, his musical family, and how starring in The Music Never Stopped made him experience the Grateful Dead all over again.

What about the project attracted you to The Music Never Stopped?

I hate to sound like a cliché but it was the script, the script, the script. My agent sent it to me and I was so involved in another project at the time that I didn’t read it when I got it. Then I blew off a meeting with James [Kohlberg, the director]. When I finally did get around to reading it I was glad that they hadn’t already got someone else. It was such a great script that I immediately wanted to get on board.

This is your first lead role in a film. Did that factor into your interest in the script?

Um, yeah. Well, you can’t ignore that really. It’s nice to be number one on the call sheet. But ultimately it was just the way the story develops. I did go through that when I was first reading it; I did go through with thinking it would just be another dad part and he’s emotionally unavailable while the mom and son have all the lead in the story. And that wouldn’t be that interesting to me.

But obviously [this film] ends up developing into something else. But being there working almost every day during the shoot—I think I had one day off—it was part of the appeal. But I certainly wouldn’t be interested in being a lead in a movie that didn’t have a great script. Really it was the story and the combination of intelligence and heart in the script. That’s what made me want to do it.

The script is based on an Oliver Sacks case study, but it transferred the weight of the story between the son and his doctor to your father character. Do you know how that decision came about?

Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks who wrote the script used the Oliver Sacks case study as a departure. The science of the script is pretty accurate. But from my perspective—since I wasn’t playing the part Lou [Taylor Pucci] played or the doctor Julia [Ormond] played, who were based on real people and they had to do all the clinical research—I just played the part as essentially a fictional character.

I stuck with the relationships and the character they wrote. I tried to connect with Lou particularly, and Cara [Seymour] and Julia, and fortunately I was surrounded by a really, really good cast. My job was in a lot of ways the easiest of the main characters because it was just taking it off the page and not screwing it up.

How was it different to enter a project where you’re the emotional center of the story when you have more of a background in character acting or supporting roles? Does it make you approach the material in a new way?

I don’t think there’s a different way of approaching the material at all. Good material is good material. The only difference might be when you come in. I just did a little thing on another wonderful indie recently where I came in for two days to play Bradley Cooper’s dad. It was a really good story. But when you come in at that point, you’re not involved in pre-production; you come in to be a cog in a machine that’s already up and running and going smoothly.

The difference with a movie like this is you’re reading with Jim [Kohlberg] ahead of time. We were talking about casting possibilities for some of the other characters because Julia was the only other actor attached when I signed up. Just being more involved in every aspect of the movie. And when I’m jetting in for a few days or a week for a more supporting part, the way I approach the work and the actors is 99 percent the same; I’m just not as involved overall as a contributor.

What is your relationship with the Grateful Dead?

Well, I gotta be honest, I was not a Deadhead as a young guy. I mostly heard the Grateful Dead through my sister’s door because she was into them. I was more of a Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin kind of guy. But what I realize I didn’t appreciate at the time about the Dead—I just heard them and was a musical purist and thought, eh, they’re okay, but they’re not always in tune and they’re not the tightest band in the world. But my sister kept trying to get me to appreciate what they do have to offer, and so did this movie. And then we got to meet Bob [Weir] and Mickie [Hart, members of the Grateful Dead], and obviously I spent a lot of time listening to their music. And I really did develop more than an appreciation for them.

There’s that scene at the end of the movie after the concert when Gabriel says “they don’t just play what’s on the page, they play the notes in the air”—it’s that whole metaphysical vibe of the Dead that I did learn to appreciate. I wouldn’t say I have the Dead going in my car all the time, but I do have a greater level of appreciation than I did before.

You studied for a time to become a composer. Did your musical background come from the family or was it an individual pursuit?

It is. My dad is a retired music professor. I did a little singing in choir in high school and that kind of stuff. But when I started college, I avoided going into music because it just seemed too spot-on to do what Dad did. But after a while I realized it was really what I loved. I got my degree in classical music and composition and voice and conducting. I really wanted to go be Leonard Bernstein when I got out of college. But it ended up segueing into musical theater and one thing led to another and here we are. But now it’s full circle because my kids are more musical than I ever was and play five or six instruments. So it’s nice to be on the other end of that.

Have you ever been in a position where your musical interests, possibly in relation to your kids or other family and friends, made you feel like “the square” that your character is pegged as?

Well, this is kind of like my philosophy toward acting. I had a great music professor in college who had an appreciation for virtually any form of music. He was a very classical musician and a genius choir and orchestra director. But he said “good music is good music” and then said, “anything except country and western,” which is where he drew the line. This was the 70s which was before hip-hop and gangster rap and all that. But he said Jimi Hendrix was an incredibly talented guy, and he could appreciate him just as much as the London Philharmonic playing a Beethoven symphony.

So I never felt there was a reason to draw lines. I try to appreciate all forms of music just like I appreciate all forms of theatre or film or TV. I’ve done mostly dramatic series work on TV, but if someone came to me with a comedic character on a sitcom, I’d be happy to do that. As a matter of fact, I just did a little goofball comedy thing. It’s a mockumentary called Geezers that’s hopefully going to be playing at festivals soon. Well, blah blah blah, I play this actor researching a role and it turns into an old folks’ version of The Hangover meets Porky’s. There’s no form that I would avoid. As long as it’s good people and good writing.

Have you experienced the generation gap musically with your kids, though?

Oh, definitely. Not in love with the hip-hop, rap, gangster rap, yada, yada, yada that sort of edges its way into what they’re doing. But I’m comfortable that they’re open-minded enough and getting a solid enough musical education that they’re playing classical and jazz and classic rock and original stuff. They’re also listening to rappers. But there’s a lot of intelligent creativity going on with rap that I’m reluctantly beginning to learn. Especially the stuff out of Detroit.

I have a friend currently writing about the band Phish and following their tour. They of course have similarities to the Grateful Dead as a jam band and their constant touring and all that. But my friend really idealizes the 60s and hippie culture, and we sometimes don’t see eye-to-eye there. So it was really funny to watch this film after just recently arguing with him from a similar position as your character. It really resonated with me. But to kind of branch from that, how would you characterize your experience of the 60s? Did you find yourself taking part in the hippie culture at all?

My experience of the 60s? I ended up covering almost every side of it. I was born in 1955, so in the late 60s I was a teenager. And my sister, who was a couple years older, she was one of the original hippies of our town. By that time we’d moved from Detroit to Columbus, Ohio, in the suburbs. But she was one of the early hippies, and I was this big jock into baseball, basketball, and football—that kind of guy—and pretty straight-laced.

Then after a while the whole thing started to click with me: the anti-war and rock ‘n’ roll and all that. So when I was 14, 15, I made a complete turnaround. In those days, you couldn’t play on the baseball team and be a hippie. You had to choose one or the other. So I finally turned on, tuned in, and dropped out and embraced the hippie thing for quite a while.

Then when I ended up in college, still with the Gregg Allman hair down to the middle of my back, and even though I was into classical, I still had this persona. I was still in love with rock music. I saw no reason not to embrace it all. Then people would see me singing in the college choir and assume I was a soprano who stumbled into the bass section. Wonderful dichotomy there with the hair. But I had to finally cut my hair when I started doing theater. But I approached the whole 60s generation gap from all angles, at one point or another. And my parents were very liberal for the time. There was never any real clashing of heads. The generation gap in our house was relatively unproblematic.

Is there any current music that interests you now?

Honestly, I rarely listen to anything. If my wife turns it on, or my kids, I listen to that. But if I’m in the car I’m doing business on the phone or catching up with family or listening to baseball. I’ve gotten to the point now where I rarely seek it out. Music has become so ever-present in our lives. You can’t walk through a shopping mall or go into a restaurant without what we used to call Muzak.

Music to me was never something that I could listen to while reading a book. Especially when I was studying music, if I was going to listen to music, I was going to put on the headphones or crank the stereo, and by God, I was going to sit there and just listen to music. I wasn’t going to talk on the phone and multitask, which I can’t do anyway. So if I was going to sit down and listen to a King Crimson album or a Mahler symphony or old Jimi Hendrix, I liked to be able to focus on it. But now there’s just no time in my 2011 life to be able to really do that.

What’s next on your agenda? You mentioned a couple projects already. Do you have anything coming up soon that is very special to you?

Really all that’s on my mind now is hoping more people get to see The Music Never Stopped because we all wished more people saw it in theaters, so hopefully people will watch it. But I have three things in the can that will be coming out in the next year. One is Geezers, which is really fun. Then there’s a Mark Wahlberg movie called Contraband, kind of an action film that was fun to do. And then that little part in The Words with Bradley Cooper. All three of those are very different from each other, but they’re all good and I really hope people get to see them.

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