J.K. Simmons has primarily stuck to humorous roles in recent years — including his ongoing TV commercial gig with Farmers Insurance — so perhaps that is why his role as a dictatorial music teacher in the film festival hit Whiplash is getting so much attention. However, in an interview with Vulture Simmons suggests that the role recalls his villainous role in HBO’s Oz and reveals that if it wasn’t for Whiplash director Damien Chazelle‘s insistence he might not have been in the feature film at all.
Though the Whiplash feature debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Simmons’ relationship with Whiplash actually began with a short version of the film that appeared at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Simmons explains that the short was made to drum up interest for the feature (no pun intended), but later discovered that some of those offering money wanted Chazelle to make a major change. Simmons says, “It was awesome to have the opportunity to do all of it, and to get to go back a year later and be that asshole again. We made the short in an effort to make the feature, but the short itself turned out to be a complete piece of work. It went to Sundance, made a splash, and people came forward with money to make the feature, but I’ve found out since then that a lot of those people said, ‘Hey, how about recasting with this movie star, or this other movie star with more box-office clout?’ And God bless Damien, who knew the two actors he wanted were Miles [Teller, Simmons’ co-star] and me.”
Simmons has been working as an actor for decades, but he was relatively under the radar on film and television in small parts until he starred as Vern Schillinger on Oz. Though he relished at playing a regular role on television, Simmons was concerned that the character’s neo-Nazi background would pigeonhole him. He explains, “I was very cognizant of that when I did Oz, because it was my first on-camera thing after having been a theater actor for many years. The first time I met with Tom Fontana about that show, I was reticent because I realized that this was going to be the first thing onscreen that would have a real impact on my career, and I could end up playing the Nazi of the week on every TV show for the rest of my life — and I’d rather go drill for oil somewhere than do that. But it’s divine providence, because just as we were finishing the first eight episodes of Oz, I got an offer to play the shrink on Law & Order, and it was the perfect yin-yang: psychiatrist, psychotic murderer!”
When Simmons is asked if he found it difficult with shaking his intense Oz and Whiplash characters when shooting ends for a day, he admits that it wasn’t easy. He says, “It was difficult at first. The first year of Oz, it was difficult. I’d been doing theater for about 20 years at that time, but there’s a level of intensity with something like Oz and HBO — or a feature like this — that’s different from doing a play. It was difficult to shed that Vern skin at the end of a day.”