As one of the most exciting character actors in the entertainment industry, JK Simmons roles have been nothing short of eclectic. From a the chilling white supremacist on HBO’s critically acclaimed series ‘Oz,’ to the iconic J. Jonah Jameson from the ‘Spider-Man’ comics to being the voice of the Yellow M&M Candy, there is no trail he is afraid to blaze. His latest project, ‘Dark Skies,’ is another great performance to add to his already impressive resume. The film stars Keri Russell (August Rush, “The Americans”) and Josh Hamilton (The Bourne Identity, J. Edgar) as a young couple with children living in the suburbs. As husband and wife, Daniel (Hamilton) and Lacy Barrett (Russell) witness an escalating series of disturbing events involving their family, their safe and peaceful home quickly unravels. When it becomes clear that the Barrett family is being targeted by an unimaginably terrifying and deadly force, Daniel and Lucy take matters in their own hands to solve the mystery of what is after their family. ‘Dark Skies’ co-stars Dakota Goyo (Rise of the Guardians), Kadan Rockett (The Fortune Theory) and J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man franchise, Juno) in an amazing performance as paranormal expert Edwin Pollard. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with JK Simmons to discuss his origins as an much-loved actor, his latest role in ‘Dark Skies,’ his longevity as a character actor and much more!
You have become such a familiar face over the years, I was curious to learn what got you started on a career path in the entertainment industry?
I was actually studying music in college and thought I was going to be somewhere between Leonard Bernstein and Robert Merrill when I was studying conducting, composing and singing. Through a gradual series of transitions into musical theater, then musical theater and then five years on Broadway, it was a very gradual and circuitous route to being about to do J. Jonah Jameson in ‘Spider-Man” and Edwin Pollard in ‘Dark Skies’.
Looking back at the early years of your career, who were your biggest influences?
One of my first films was called “The Jackal,” which may or may not have been a great movie but I had the great joy and privilege of being more or less attached at the hip with Sindey Poitier for the whole movie. I played his second in command at the FBI. We shot that movie for six weeks all over the world and working with him is certainly at the top of that list.
To what do you attribute you longevity in the entertainment industry?
You know what, I think it stems from the fact that from the time I was twenty something, I have more or less been a fifty something character actor waiting to happen! I have been coming into my own for a while now! I have also had chances to work with a lot of great people, bring some really good writers to the stage and screen and I have learned along the way. I have gotten competent at what I do.
You latest project is a very cool film called ‘Dark Skies’. What can you tell us about your character?
Well, he is a guy who lives with way to may cats and knows way too much about alien invasions. I am sure everyone else in his building and his neighborhood thinks he is a complete whack job but it turns out he is the only ray of hope in this families life that is dealing with the horror they are dealing with.
What was it about the character or the script that drew you to this role?
I just thought it was a really intelligent take on this genre and the fact that it was just as much a movie about a family struggling through hard times as it was a sort of horror/alien movie. I thought it did a really nice job of conveying that on paper and ended up doing it on-screen as well. It did a nice job at melding genres and being an interesting film whether you are a fan of that genre or not.
What elements did you bring to the character that might not have existing page initially?
The vast majority of the time, I feel like that isn’t my job. I feel like my job is serve the writer and bring the character to life, whether it is bringing J. Jonah Jameson to life off the pages of Marvel Comics or trying to bringing this guy off the pages of the script. Certainly, sometimes when you are doing an improv style comedy, you are obviously always bringing yourself and I am trying to think of a word besides creativity because I to me the writers are the creators. The actors are more if a conduit. I really view it as, and I feel this sounds like false modesty sometimes, but I honestly believe actors are there to cooperate with each other but more importantly to serve the writers, whether it is Shakespeare, The Coen Brothers or whoever. My job is more like a conduit like I said, a translator or a medium between two worlds rather than a creative role.
The writer and director of ‘Dark Skies’ is Scott Stewart. This was your first time working with him. What was that experience like for you and what did he bring to the table, in your opinion?
Yeah, I am a complete moron about show business in general and this genre is not something I have spent a lot of time with. When my wife and I do get out to see a movie, horror is not what she is looking for! [laughs] I just took the job based on what I saw on the page. The bonus is, when you are working with a writer/director, if it someone new, you never know if they can do both or is this guy just got the opportunity to direct because he is a good writer. That isn’t Scott’s case at all. It was a nice combination of both. Being able to communicate as a writer by putting the characters on the page doesn’t mean you are going to be able to communicate with actors, the cinematographer and everyone else and translate what you want onto the screen. In this case, to my good fortune, he was a terrific director to work with.
You also had the opportunity to work with some other very talented actors for your scenes. What was the biggest challenge during that period of time from an acting standpoint?
Probably cat continuity, I would say! [laughs] There were lots of cats wandering around the set. That was a challenge along with the complete lack of oxygen in that tiny little apartment once we got all the lights in, the nineteen people on the crew, the microphones and everything else that was there. The actual playing of the scene with Kerri [Russell], Josh [Hamilton] and myself was great. There are great and that was the easy part. It was cats and oxygen that were the issues!
Are you a believer in other-worldly beings who may walk among us?
I wouldn’t say I am a believer but at the same time I am not going to say I am not. I am open-minded. Honestly, I saw something one night in New Mexico that I can’t explain. It is not something I specifically put a lot of thought into but I am open to the possibilities.
One of the cool things about this film, as you mentioned, is that it isn’t easy placed in one genre. The same thing could be said for your career. What do you find yourself looking for in material these days when you are reviewing scripts?
Honestly, I am always looking for something differently than what I have been doing recently. In terms of comedy, if it makes me laugh, I will do it! I don’t care if it is low-brow, stupid, high-brow, offensive of this or that. I recently did a little gag for Jimmy Kimmel which will probably be provocative to some people. They sent it to me, I read it, I laughed, so I said “Sign me up!” It is the same way with a drama or any genre. If I read it and find it compelling or interesting and I think I can do it, because there are things I read that I think “This is great but I am not going to be good in it. They need to get somebody else.” It is really a combination.
How do you feel you have evolved as an actor since your earlier years in the craft?
I have been from being an absolutely abysmal actor to being a competent actor. That has been the evolution! Fortunately, most of the abysmal years were doing theaters for handfuls of people as I was learning, figuring things out and benefiting from some good directors in my formative years. In the twenty years or so that people have actually seen me on camera, I think the evolution continues more subtly. I continue to refine what I do and I continue to have opportunities to work with really, really good directors and writers like Jason Reitman, Sam Raimi and The Coen Brothers. Now, I can add Scott Stewart to that list!
Your work continues to be very diverse. Is there a particular type of film or a specific type of role you have your sights set on at this point in your career?
I would like to do a really, really intelligent, juicy bad guy part in a big movie. Most of them are not all that well written and frankly, most of them are going to actors that have a higher profile than me. I would also like to do something along the lines of ‘Juno’ where there is a more cuddly, good guy part that is a bigger role. Come to think of it, I might be getting into something like that soon. I have a new show that will be on NBC in mid-season of February called ‘The Family Guide’. It is the challenge I am looking for because it is a half hour comedy but it is also a guy who is an excellent father who also happens to be blind, so you add a little physical challenge on top of everything else! I am really looking forward to that!
With all of your years of experience, what is the best piece of advice you can pass along to those looking to making their career in the entertainment industry?
Honestly, my first piece of advice would be don’t! [laughs] Do this for fun and find something else you think you can enjoy or tolerate to do for a living. If you are determined to go forward, my biggest piece of advice would be listen and collaborate. In many ways, that is the most difficult thing to learn as an actor — to be relaxed enough to actually listen and collaborate with other actors, writers and directors. Be a team player!
Thank you very much for your time today, sir! It has been a pleasure!