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Under the Influence: How J.K. Simmons prepares by not preparing

His jaw-dropping performance as a brutal music teacher in Whiplash earned him his first Golden Globe, and an Oscar may soon follow. To get into character, Simmons leaned on instinct rather than research. EW asked about his other memorable roles and learned his one rule: Never overprepare.

Whiplash, as Terence Fletcher, abusive music instructor, 2014
When I first met [director] Damien [Chazelle], he wanted to alleviate any fears that I had about the musical aspects of the character. He assured me that we’d have a technical adviser on set who could help me. If we needed to use body doubles for some of the conducting, we could do that. I said, “I actually studied conducting, and I got a college degree in music.” That was just a pleasant surprise to him. Once I had signed up, I worked my butt off just learning the music. I spent a lot of time listening, but also reading through the scores and just knowing the music.

Once we were on set, we were playing live almost all the time. All the guys playing musicians in the movie were real musicians. It was really cool that first day on set when one of the guys said after an early take, “Man, you must have done a lot of research for this.” I was like, “Yeah, starting when I was 19.”

I knew classical conducting. I hadn’t studied jazz at all. The good thing about jazz is there’s a wide range of style of conducting. Some guys count it off and stand aside and tap their toe. Some guys are very animated and very involved. I felt like I had total freedom in creating the conducting style for Fletcher. Again, it was great to have done the research 30 years before that.

Thank You for Smoking, as BR, tobacco lobbyist, 2006
Didn’t read the book! I did later. We actually talked about not reading it because there’s much more intricate plot stuff in the book that wasn’t going to be in the film. That, to me, would have confused was motivates the character specifically in the scenes [director] Jason [Reitman] wrote.

The Ladykillers, as Garth Pancake, demolitions expert, 2004
Here’s what an idiot I am. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie to prepare for a role. In this case, I was sitting in my trailer, reading the days sides—Joel and Ethan always have storyboards along with the sides—and I was literally laughing out loud just reading the sides and looking at the storyboards for what we were going to get to do that day. One of the ADs knocked on the door. It was time to go do something, and I commented on what a brilliant, hilarious story this was. The AD said, “Oh, and I love the original so much.” That was when I found out we were doing a remake. I did not even know four days into shooting. That’s when I found out we were doing a remake. And I never saw the original film because I wasn’t playing that character. I was playing what Joel and Ethan wrote. That’s just my own ignorance. I’m not recommending that.

Spider-Man, as J. Jonah Jameson, Daily Bugle editor, 2002
I actually did more research for that than people might think. First of all, the nice folks at Marvel sent me virtually every J. Jonah Jameson comic book that he appeared in. I pored over those.

There was an editor at the New York Post that arranged for me to come spend a few days a fly on the wall, just to get the general vibe of a big city newspaper. That helped create the Preston Sturges rapid-fire energy that we ended up with in those scenes, that [director] Sam [Raimi] wanted to create.

I wasn’t a comic book aficionado at all when I was a kid, but my cousin Weed* was. Every time we went to visit him on the far, he had two really fun things: comedy albums and comic books. Spider-Man was his favorite. I think he’s planning to retire on what he’s going to get for his Spider-Man comic book collection. We also had Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos.

Oz, as Vern Schillinger, imprisoned neo-Nazi, 1997-2003
I don’t often do a lot of that kind of research, but when it’s something specific like Oz—which I fortunately did not have a lot of experience with—I will. I read The Hot House, about being on the inside at Leavenworth prison. And I did read about the Aryan Brotherhood and how it began. A lot of the stuff about white-supremacist groups was very family-friendly: “We just love our people.” One the surface, you go, “Gee, what’s wrong with loving your people?” But when you love your people to the exclusion of everything else that’s remotely different, that’s when you get into trouble.

Law & Order, as Dr. Emil Skoda, 1994-2010
I didn’t do any research—just read the scripts.

*Yes, Weed. Real name: Ron Jensen.

J.K. Simmons joins Tom Hiddleston in 'Kong: Skull Island'

Hopefully, someone screaming “Get me pictures of King Kong,” will now be added to Kong: Skull Island‘s screenplay.


J.K. Simmons: The friendly face behind this year's scariest movie villain

“I remember when I first met J.K. Simmons, I just sort of told him, ‘Remember how [frightening] you were in Oz? I want to make that guy look like the teacher in Mr. Holland’s Opus.” —Whiplash director Damien Chazelle

Terence Fletcher, the intimidating music teacher in Whiplash, isn’t a sadistic member of the Aryan Brotherhood, like Oz‘s Vern Schillinger. But for Miles Teller’s high-school drum prodigy, Fletcher is practically evil incarnate, a bully whose primary methods of motivation are tossing chairs and playing cruel psychological mind games. He wants his school’s jazz ensemble to be the best in the country, and woe to the student who thinks his best is good enough. There simply is no good enough for Fletcher.

J.K. Simmons has the gift of ease, which makes Fletcher all the more terrifying. You could imagine another actor overdoing it—ranting like an actor playing a madman. A caricature. But Simmons makes Fletcher even more real because of the coolness behind the cruelty. He has these bulging biceps and a bald head, but it’s those eyes—sometimes calculating, sometimes impassive—that are the most frightening. One inscrutable look from him, and even the audience will slouch down in their seats and hope he doesn’t call on them. READ FULL STORY

J.K. Simmons toys with Miles Teller in 'Whiplash' clip


When director Damien Chazelle was in high school in Princeton, N.J., he played drums in his school’s highly competitive jazz ensemble, which was led by an intense conductor who ruled with an iron fist.

“Drums had always been like a fun hobby for me, and for four years, when I was in that ensemble, it became just a source of constant dread and just terror and anxiety,” the 29-year-old director said last winter at the Sundance Film Festival, where his film Whiplash won top prizes. Practicing constantly, under mental if not physical duress, left scars that were still raw when Chazelle decided to write Whiplash. ”This was the most personal thing I’d ever written, and I put it in a drawer for awhile,” he said. ”I was almost embarrassed to show it because it seemed like exposing a part of myself that I didn’t really want exposed.”

The writer/director admits he still has nightmares—nightmares that audiences can understand after meeting J.K. Simmons’s music teacher in Whiplash. Mr. Holland he is not.

In this exclusive scene from the film, which opens in theaters Oct. 10 after recent screenings at the New York Film Festival, Miles Teller’s eager drum prodigy meets the school’s revered conductor, a man who can make or break his future. In a romantic-comedy, this scene might be termed the meet-cute. But in this tense drama, it immediately sets the unsettling tone for the clash of wills to follow.  READ FULL STORY

Miles Teller can't find the right beat in 'Whiplash' trailer

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job.'”

That’s the fault line on which writer/director Damien Chazelle has built Whiplash. His Sundance sensation stars Miles Teller as a jazz-drum prodigy who earns the attention of his prestigious school’s notorious music maestro (J.K. Simmons). Is genius simply born, or does it need to be forged? How far is a teacher supposed—or allowed—to go to bring out the best in a student, and what are the risks and consequences for such methods?

In the new trailer for the film, Teller’s Andrew Neyman endures physical and psychological punishment as he fumbles to find the right beat and the right answers. READ FULL STORY

Sundance hit 'Whiplash' snares fall release date

Whiplash, the award-winning Sundance film that stars Miles Teller as an aspiring jazz drummer at the mercy of J.K. Simmons’ tyrannical music teacher, will open in theaters Oct. 10. The film, written and directed by Damien Chazelle and championed by producers Jason Blum and Jason Reitman, was based on Chazelle’s short of the same name and went on to win two top prizes at Sundance. Reitman described the movie as “Shine meets Full Metal Jacket,” and Simmons’ performance as a terrifying bully of a mentor is one that could garner award consideration. Sony Pictures Classics’ decision to release the film in October, as opposed to the summer, certainly helps his candidacy.

Click below to see a clip of Simmons in action: READ FULL STORY

Casting Net: Guy Pearce in talks to join Johnny Depp in 'Black Mass'; Plus, Joseph Fiennes, more

Guy Pearce (Iron Man 3) is currently in talks to star opposite Johnny Depp (Transcendence) in Warner Bros. upcoming crime drama, Black Mass. The film tells the story of famed Boston mob boss and FBI informant, Whitey Bulger (Depp), who uses his double status as a way of picking off any criminal competition. Pearce is currently in talks to play Bulger’s brother on the project which is being produced by Warner Bros. and Cross Creek. [Variety]

Sundance 2014: 'Whiplash' is the movie that could make Miles Teller a star

The opening-night movie at the Sundance Film Festival is often, almost by design, a mild, light, forgettable affair. A lof of filmmakers don’t want the opening slot, and the basic idea is that the bar can’t be raised too high, because then you’ll risk making all the movies that come afterward look disappointing. But Whiplash, which opened the 30th anniversary edition of Sundance last night, didn’t just raise the bar — it electrified the spirits of everyone who saw it, including me. It stars Miles Teller, who had his breakthrough role in last year’s Sundance favorite The Spectacular Now (and will soon be seen in Divergent), and Whiplash confirms that he’s truly a spectacular actor, with a slightly damaged glamour and a face you can’t stop watching because of all the feelings it registers. Last year, I said that Teller reminded me of Elvis Presley. In Whiplash, he’s more like the young John Cusack, but with a cockiness that never hardens into attitude; it’s open and shifting. He plays Andrew Neiman, a brilliant, driven young jazz drummer who is attending the Schaffer Academy in Manhattan, a (fictional) performing-arts institution that, as presented, is one of the best music schools in the country. There, he comes under the tutelage of the school’s fearsome and legendary taskmaster — a scarily exacting maestro of jazz named Terence Fletcher, played, in a bravura performance, by J.K. Simmons. This isn’t the cuddly, twinkly Simmons we’ve grown used to in recent years. In skin-tight black T-shirts, his shaved head set off by mad-dog eyes and a squiggly vein running down the side of his temple like an electric wire, he’s more like Bruce Willis with three times the ferocity. READ FULL STORY

Sundance 2014: 'Whiplash' director on the price of greatness and the intensity of J.K. Simmons

It’s going to be a memorable Sundance Film Festival if the rest of the movies can keep up with the beat that Whiplash laid down last night. The opening-night premiere from 28-year-old director Damien Chazelle tells the story of an ambitious jazz-drummer prodigy (Miles Teller) who bumps up against an intimidating tyrant of a music teacher played by J.K. Simmons. Bad-ass bald, with bulging biceps that fill his fashionable black t-shirts, Simmons’ Terrence Fletcher is a cruel taskmaster who bludgeons his students with torrents of mocking, often homophobic, invective in his mission to create true genius. Fletcher toys with them psychologically and bullies them physically, like some musical Bobby Knight. “I remember when I first met [J.K.], I just sort of told him, “Remember how you were in Oz? I want to make that guy look like the teacher in Mr. Holland’s Opus,” Chazelle said to the audience after last night’s premiere.

Chazelle himself was a serious jazz drummer in high school, and he based the poisenous relationship on one he had with one of his own mentors. “Drums had always been like a fun hobby for me, and for four years, when I was in that ensemble, it became just a source of constant dread,” he said last night. “Just looking back, it was an interesting experience because I became a much better drummer than I know I ever would’ve, but I also didn’t enjoy it at all. And maybe for people who feel that music should be about joy and fun, it was missing the point. So those were certain questions that I was grasping with and I just wanted to write about it.”

That Whiplash — which refers to a jazz composition composed by Hank Levy — got a prime Sundance showcase is a great tribute to Chazelle’s crew, and an honor to the festival’s spirit. Last year, Whiplash won the Sundance price for Best Short film, and Chazelle spent the last 12 months turning an 18 minute short, that was specially created as a sample to show potential investors, into a deeper, richer two-hander that questions all the blood, sweat, and tears that seem to be the price of greatness. Sony Pictures quickly picked up the distribution rights to some international markets. A big number for the price of the domestic rights would not surprise anyone who witnessed last night’s premiere. (Though if the film becomes a hit, Simmons’ future as a comforting, vest-wearing pitch-man for Farmers Insurance might soon need to be rethought.)

Chazelle, who also wrote the screenplay for Grand Piano, spoke to EW before the premiere about his movie. READ FULL STORY

'Whiplash': Sundance-winning short to become full-length feature -- BREAKING

The savage Sundance-winning short Whiplash, about a young drummer facing down a brutally antagonizing music instructor, is about to become a feature film.

Writer and director Damien Chazelle adapted the 18-minute short from several scenes in the full-length script with the hope that it would attract investors for the complete version.

Now Bold Films, the production company behind Drive and the upcoming Only God Forgives, has stepped forward to fill out the undisclosed budget. The company will make Whiplash as a joint production with Right of Way Films and Blumhouse Productions, who teamed up to create the short.

In the video above, EW debuted the first clip from Whiplash, which went on to win Sundance’s short film jury award for fiction.

The movie focuses on a drummer (Johnny Simmons) in an elite jazz orchestra conservatory as he struggles to impress a merciless teacher, played by J.K. Simmons (Juno and Spider-Man.)


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