One for All
In Starz’s Counterpart, he plays not one, but two leading roles. and he’s one of a handful of actors to win five major awards — including an Oscar — for a single performance.
Walking down Sunset Boulevard in faded jeans and a hoodie, J.K. Simmons could be almost anyone, if it weren’t for those arresting blue eyes gleaming from under his baseball cap.
There’s a Detroit Tigers decal on his phone, but the cap doesn’t commit to a team. Instead, it declares, “I’m Not Here.”
That paradoxical statement suits Simmons’s approach to his career, says Justin Marks, executive producer of Counterpart. On the sci-fi thriller, now heading into its second season on Starz, Simmons plays opposite himself via dual roles.
“He tries to talk himself out of a lot of things,” Marks says. “His whole way in is to start by saying, ‘I can’t do this — I can’t do this scene. I can’t do this line. I can’t do this thing.’ Then he finds a way in and makes whatever it is amazing.” Simmons admits that he tried to talk his way out of this headlining role. “I’ve been a supporting guy on a show where I saw the lead working 70 hours a week, and I thought, ‘My kids are still at home and I’d like to see them.’”
Marks promised Simmons the series would have enough subplots to keep him from putting in too many hours. Simmons also balked at shooting out of the country for an extended period of time, unwilling to be away from his wife and two teenagers. When the producers offered to shoot out of town for weeks at a time instead of months, he agreed to star.
Simmons didn’t set out to be an actor. “When I was in college, I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll finish getting my degree in music, and maybe I’ll teach school. That’ll be great.’ Then I realized, when I did my student teaching, that I was horrible at it,” he recalls. “It was pretty clear right away that I wasn’t going to be any good for students. I just didn’t have that skill set.”
So he accepted a position as music director at the Bigfork Summer Playhouse in Montana. He was surprised to learn that the administrators didn’t just want him toiling in the wings; they wanted him onstage. “They foolishly cast me as the lead in one of the productions,” he says, smiling. “I was in over my head. I was horrible.”
Even so, he soon saw how the variety of roles was strengthening his skills. ”One night you’re the leading man, the next night you’re the third guy from the left in the chorus, and then the next night you’re a character with three lines. I learned a lot during my time there.”
Simmons moved to Seattle to pursue more theatrical roles, but he returned each summer to Bigfork for several years. At age 28, he piled everything he owned into a car and drove to New York to pursue a career on the Great White Way.
For the better part of the early ’90s, he waited tables and worked his way up, both on Broadway and into small roles on TV and in movies. It was a 1996 guest spot on NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street, playing what he calls “a neo-Nazi white supremacist murdering bastard,” that really set the ball in motion.
A year later, Homicide creator Tom Fontana was casting what would become HBO’s acclaimed prison drama, Oz. He wanted Simmons to inhabit the character of Vern Schillinger, another member of the Aryan Brotherhood. Simmons again tried to slink away. “I went into that meeting really kind of trying to talk my way out of the job. To be truthful, I was afraid that I would be typecast as a Nazi bastard for the rest of my career.”
After Fontana convinced him there would be several shades of gray to the character, Simmons signed on. Sure enough, the typecasting didn’t take.
Soon after Oz, Simmons was enlisted to portray psychiatrist Dr. Emil Skoda on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
It was a gigantic break, says the actor, who was in his 40s when this wave of success hit. “I loved that people were seeing me as the messed-up psychopath and then flipping the channel and seeing me as the sardonic shrink.”
Unbeknownst to Simmons, these contrasting roles were preparing him for his latest TV venture, in which he plays two sides of one character: mild-mannered Howard Silk, and Silk’s almost identical yet devious “counterpart” in a world that is like ours but very, very different.
“Playing Schillinger in the morning and Skoda in the afternoon was similar to this, but now I have the added element that, more days than not, I end up playing both characters, sometimes in the same scene.”
According to Marks, Simmons knows every choice he’s making and is always three steps ahead of everyone around him. “It’s terribly intimidating,” the producer says, “because he finds ways to challenge you intellectually about everything. But it’s inspiring, because he’s so engaged and he pushes all of us to raise our game.
“Plenty of actors have played two people before,” Marks adds. “But I think very few have been able to achieve what J.K. is able to do, which is to truly inhabit these characters, even in the silent moments. You can’t see the gears moving, but you can feel how he embodies both characters from the inside out.”
Kyra Sedgwick, who played a detective to Simmons’s assistant police chief for the better part of seven years on TNT’s The Closer, says he’s able to move through emotions like no one else. “It’s just sort of breathtaking that in a three-minute scene he can really play all notes.”
Segueing from one apt metaphor to another, she adds, “On the days that I was with him, I knew that I had nothing to worry about. I knew that any ball I tossed at him was going to get caught and pitched back to me in an interesting, exciting way.”
That range is evident in the characters he’s played, from the kindly, supportive father in 2007’s Juno to the sadistic music teacher in 2014’s Whiplash, for which he took home an Oscar as best supporting actor.
Simmons is the lead in his current series, but most of what he’s done till now has been supporting work. “I’ve sort of always been number three, four, five, six, seven, eight or nine on the call sheet. I don’t suddenly feel like now I need to be the leading man in everything. In fact, that was one of the things that I was not looking to do on television. But, then I found Counterpart and fell in love with the script and the world.”
He believes so much in the importance of supporting roles that when he won the SAG Award for best supporting actor — for Whiplash, a role that also brought him Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice and BAFTA honors — he addressed the importance of the term. Recalling that speech, he says, “The gist of what I said was, ‘We’re all supporting actors, because we’re supporting the script, we’re supporting the story, we’re supporting the project, we’re all supporting each other.”
He adds, “At its best, what we do as actors is a team sport, and that’s the way I like to work, whether I’m the captain of the team or a utility player.” Confirming that drive, Marks says: “I compare him to Springsteen in that, yes, he’s an artist, but J.K. also approaches what he does from a very blue-collar perspective in the amount of work that he puts in.”
Bouncing between comedy and drama is something else Simmons loves about this profession that he’s found — or that’s found him. He says he’d never choose one over the other. “Sure, there’s a fun factor in comedy, but sometimes I like to go to work and play a super sad scene and cry like a baby, because it’s good to get that stuff out, too.”
As for those wacky Farmers Insurance commercials (since 2010 he’s appeared as professor Nathaniel Burke of the University of Farmers), Simmons reveals that for a time he thought, “Eh, I don’t want to do commercials, because I’m a legitimate actor, blah, blah, blah.” Every once in a while, he’d consider a pitch that came his way, but in the end, he’d pass.
“When Farmers came along, I just thought it was so clever, and I liked that it was a character as opposed to a pitchman. For some reason that was important to me.”
The appeal of working for what Simmons considers an upstanding company also drew him in. “My mom and dad had Farmers, and they always had a good experience with them.”
That his folks played a role in this choice isn’t surprising, Sedgwick says. “He was happiest when his parents came to visit. He just beamed when they were around.”
His father passed away in 2012, and his mother in 2014. When Simmons had an audience of millions — accepting his Oscar in 2015 for Whiplash — he told the world, “Call your mom, call your dad. If you’re lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call ‘em. Don’t text. Don’t email. Call them on the phone. Tell ‘em you love ‘em, and thank them, and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you.”
He explains: “I just knew that if I was fortunate enough to have somebody hand me the Oscar, I would use my 45 seconds to talk about what’s most important to me — my wife, my kids and my folks.”
In fact, his wife, Michelle Schumacher, is the reason he’s not wearing a Tigers cap. "I’m Not Here,” he explains, is the name of a film she has written, produced and directed. His intense blue eyes become warm pools of light as he talks about how excited he is for everyone to see her work. They met in an early ’90s production of Peter Pan on Broadway. He was Captain Hook, and she was Tiger Lily.
While making career commitments might be complicated, it’s obvious that this is the purest commitment in Simmons’s life. “Being an actor, getting recognition and a bunch of awards, that’s nice, but to me the best validation in life comes from the relationships that you maintain. There’s nothing that can surpass that. Nothing.”
Even so, Simmons insists that he’s not ready to slow down. “I want to keep doing things that challenge me. Counterpart certainly does that. The beauty of this series is that I don’t have to choose between playing someone who’s meek and unassuming and playing someone who’s bold and self-assured. I get to do both at the same time, and it’s pretty heavenly.”
Viewers can catch up on Counterpart on the Starz app or at www.starz.com.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2018