From student to star 

University of Montana alumnus and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons chats about family, fame and why Missoula still draws him back

Odds are you've seen J.K. Simmons on screen by now, or at least heard his voice. From his heartwarming turn as the dad in Juno to his Oscar-winning role in Whiplash to his smaller cameos on TV shows like "Arrested Development," "Parks and Recreation," "The West Wing" and "Archer," Simmons has become one of Hollywood's most popular character actors. But before "Oz," before "Law & Order," even before the Yellow Peanut M&M, there was Missoula.

Since graduating with a music degree from the University of Montana in 1978, Simmons has become one of the most recognizable and famous locals around. Although he now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children, he frequently returns to the Garden City and is slated to deliver UM's commencement address on May 14. In advance of this homecoming, the Indy spoke with Simmons about his latest roles, his ever-changing facial hair and what his family is doing to carry on the legacy left by his parents, Pat and Don Simmons. His phone battery was flashing low when we caught him, so we jumped right in.

I wanted to start off at the obvious place. It's been a little more than a year now since you took home the Academy Award for best supporting actor. What's been the biggest adjustment for you in this post-Oscar life?

JK Simmons: I sort of gradually built up to a point where I had a decent amount of work to choose from usually and even when I didn't I was pretty choosy. But I just have a lot more options now and a lot more opportunities, a lot more scripts coming my way. More to choose from. The public profile just walking down the street has certainly amped up some too, but that's kind of gradually been happening for the last 20 years or so anyway, so that difference wasn't too terribly dramatic. I was just in New York for a few days and because I currently have sort of a Grizzly Adams beard going on I was able to hide behind that. I got recognized about half as much as usual.

click to enlarge 1-i19cover.jpg

Kind of the Letterma-in-Choteau approach.

JK: Yeah, yeah.

I'm glad you mentioned you were in New York, because you were hitting the late night circuit talking about The Meddler, with you and Susan Sarandon, which just opened in theaters. But you also just wrapped a project co-written and directed by your wife, Michelle Schumacher, called I'm Not Here. What can we expect from that collaboration?

JK: Hopefully much more in the future. This is a second career for her. She was a theater actor and then a full-time mom, and she made a short film with some girlfriends on a lark about eight or nine years ago and it's gradually built up into the latest, I'm Not Here. Hopefully there will be many more collaborations down the road.

What was it like working together on the set?

JK: It was great. It's really sort of three stories because more than half the film is really flashbacks of my character. So of the four-week shoot I really only worked sort of five and a half days. I was one of many cogs in the wheel, and my work happened to come in last week because of the way the schedule worked. It was great. I was spending some time on set when I could during the earlier part and it's great to see her in that environment and see her so capable and being the captain of the ship and having a great time, getting a lot of good stuff down—well, not on film. Now she's in the editing room and she'll exist in the dark cave for a while and put it all together. So now she's on her own, but the collaborating part was great.

  • photo courtesy of Todd Goodrich, UM

The other recent career news is that you're going to be the DC film universe's next Commissioner James Gordon, almost a decade after your last outing as Marvel's J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man. What are you looking forward to most about diving back into the comic book movie world?

JK: I'm not sure because honestly—and, of course, god knows whatever I did know I couldn't tell you anyway—but I know very little about the first Justice League movie except that I'll do a little shooting on it in June in London. I think if things go as planned, I'll be a part of a few Justice League movies and be the latest in a line of character actors who have gotten to try their hand at Commissioner Gordon.

Switching gears, you're going to be delivering this year's commencement address at the University of Montana. What was your reaction when your alma mater reached out?

JK: Well, it's a great honor obviously, so I was greatly honored. I was also trepidatious and intimidated. I say other people's words for a living, and coming up with something hopefully interesting and/or insightful or wise or amusing to say to the class of 2016 is just not really my milieu. It's a work in progress currently and we'll see if I pull it off or if I muddy my family's good name in Missoula.

Your family has strong ties to UM, particularly through your dad's work in the music department and all the support your parents have given to the institution over the years. What are you and the family doing to make sure that Simmons legacy continues?

JK: The most concrete thing is that after my dad passed away, at my mom's behest we started a scholarship fund, the Don Simmons Music Education Scholarship. In the few years since then we've gotten that fully endowed, so there's that way of remembering him annually. The first few years we were all able to be there. This year, unfortunately, it's going to be only my brother David who will be there in person to help pass out the award.

There are a few sort of small monuments around town. My mom was instrumental in the whole Caras Park renovation and the beginning, the formation of Out to Lunch and the carousel and all that. So there's a tree and a bench down there that are in our parents' names, and just recently there's a tree on campus that I actually think maybe has not been planted yet but will be planted soon near the Oval that will also commemorate and call attention to our parents' legacy.

Honestly, the more important part of our parents' legacy is just carried on I think on a daily basis by the people that they have affected over the years, and certainly well past my dad's retirement from the university and my mom's from the Downtown Association. They were one of the most active and benevolent and helpful and involved retired couples that I've ever been aware of, and I think in the sort of old-school tradition of stories being passed down around the campfire, I think their legacy—even without the help of those more obvious ways of remembering them—lives on through the many, many people that they touched.

click to enlarge Originally from the Detroit area, the Simmons family relocated to Missoula in the 1970s and all wound up living together in a large house in the University District. J.K. says it’s those years of “family togetherness” he remembers most fondly. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF ELIZABETH SIMMONS-O’NEILL
  • photos courtesy of Elizabeth Simmons-O’Neill
  • Originally from the Detroit area, the Simmons family relocated to Missoula in the 1970s and all wound up living together in a large house in the University District. J.K. says it’s those years of “family togetherness” he remembers most fondly.

When you look back at your years at UM and in Missoula, what's your fondest memory?

JK: I always get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I walk into the music building. The last few years, of course, it's tinged with sadness as well. But we had an amazing three years or so there.

When my parents moved to Missoula it was just them and my little brother. I was almost 18 and was off at college and my sister was a couple years older and off at college in Europe. We came out to visit many months later and both fell in love with it and both ended up there. Our folks, they bought a nice little house that fit the three of them pretty well, but all of a sudden they had two more kids and my mom's mother who came to live with them after our grandpa died.

I have many fond memories of those years and the three generations of Simmonses living there in one of those great big houses in the U District that Grandma and Grandpa helped pay for. My brother walked a block to Hellgate [High School] and my dad and I walked three blocks to the music building. My mom and my sister were both on campus also, and Grandma was active in church and PEO and this and that. It was a great time of family togetherness. I had the best of both worlds because I had my own private entrance to the house. I could still live like a single college student but have a family meal whenever I wanted to.

Those cheesy biscuits of your dad's.

JK: Yes indeed.

Speaking of the music side of things, you won the Oscar for your role as an incredibly intense conductor in Whiplash. How much did your early career in the music department inform your approach to playing Terence Fletcher?

JK: In every way I can think of, that job, that role, that project was a gift and it all along had the feel of one of those things that was meant to be. A very, very big part of that was—despite the fact that my father was certainly a much kinder, gentler conductor—it was great to feel like a competent enough musician that I could look at those scores, which were very complex scores, and actually learn them and actually conduct them and not just be some actor up there waving his arms around.

Everybody in that room, all those musicians, all those actors playing musicians, were real players. In fact, only a few of them had any acting experience. There were two or three that were actors who didn't play at any kind of high level but even they played a little bit. We were really cranking some tunes in there. That was the very exciting part of it, even including my little piano ditty, which is something I never got particularly good at. I got by with the bare minimum of piano skill required to graduate from the music department, and it was fun to be able to display my small amount of competence on the keyboard.

What do you miss most about those more music-heavy days from your early career, like your time with the Bigfork Summer Playhouse and on Broadway?

JK: Honestly, what I miss most is singing in a really good choir. Those years, both at Ohio State with Maurice Casey and at the university with my dad and Don Carey, being part of an exceptional choir is one of my favorite things I've ever done. Even some church choirs that I sang in that were better than average, there's a kind of experience you have there, especially doing the major works with choir and orchestra and the big kinds of Brahms "Requiem" or William Walton "Belshazzar's Feast" pieces I've had a chance to do over the years, sometimes with the great Robert Shaw because Don Carey was a protege of his. That honestly is what I miss more than any of my musical theater stuff or my solo singing.

Your commencement address comes at a rocky time for the university, with declining enrollment and budget cuts. What's your understanding of the situation, and do you have any thoughts on how the university might recover?

JK: Honestly, I don't feel that I'm well enough informed beyond the basics to have all that valuable an opinion. Certainly UM is not the only institution of higher learning that's having some difficult times. I don't know that I have anything to offer in terms of a solution except that people like myself and other alumni of the university continue to do their best to be ambassadors and advocates for the university and help be part of fueling a rebound, an economic rebound. That's the bottom line, right? It's about dollars, and it's going to take an infusion of that in addition to just being an ambassador.

The revitalization effort I know is underway, and I know President [Royce] Engstrom and the rest of the powers that be are huddling up and doing what they can. As with national politics in general, I'm aware that I'm not well enough informed to be giving too much of an opinion about it.

There was a lot of fear around here when Jon Krakauer's book Missoula came out that it would start to define the outside world's impression of the community. Do you get asked about the book much?

JK: Some, but not much. Certainly the perception in Missoula that that was going to be disastrous for the university's reputation ... Look, there are bad apples in many barrels and I think President Engstrom, from what I'm aware of, has been bold and proactive and risked making some unpopular decisions to try and weed those out. Again, as far as I know, he certainly continues to be dedicated to that and I think has been very successful in that.

Do you get asked about Missoula or Montana much in general?

JK: Absolutely, depending on what I'm wearing. I generally dress like a slob. I'm either wearing Griz gear or Ohio State Buckeye gear, because that's where my dad taught when I was in junior high and high school, or Detroit Tigers gear. Sometimes a mixture. Earlier this morning I had on a Griz sweatshirt and a Tigers cap, which is what I wore a lot of the time 40 years ago when I was a student. So if I have the Griz gear on, I'll definitely get a fair amount of Montana shout-outs, and sometimes even if I don't, people who either have a real Montana connection or just random fans that are aware of my connection. My last evening in New York I got together with a few Montanans, some Bobcats and some Griz and some Bigfork types. Just a bunch of folks that I get in touch with when I'm in town and some of them get in touch with each other. It ended up being three or four people more than I even knew it was going to be and it was a real nice little Montana gathering there at Joe Allen on 46th Street.

How important has it been for you personally to keep that connection to Montana going?

JK: I never consciously thought about it. It just happens. Those were great years and very formative years. My parents so fell in love with Missoula and the university and Montana that when my dad first went to interview for the job, he was sold. For people who were not born and raised in Montana, they were great ambassadors for the state and Missoula in particular. The connection has remained just very organically because I met so many great people there, in Missoula and up in Bigfork. A lot of my good friends that I'll have for the rest of my life are folks I met in Montana.

When you come back to town these days, what's tops on your to-do list?

JK: Tower Pizza, No. 1. And just getting together with old friends. There's certainly lots of overlapping, but oftentimes the old friends are quite old and friends of my parents' generation. And depending on the time of year, floating the Blackfoot or the Clark Fork. I don't know that I'll make time for that on May 13. It's more of a July, August kind of deal.

  • photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
  • Juno

The beard looks very Montana. Will you be sticking with that look for your speech at UM?

JK: Unfortunately I'm not. My facial hair varies according to job requirements, and I certainly have a fair amount of freedom to make most of those choices. But the job I'll be in the middle of when I come out to do the commencement address, I'm actually playing a real guy in a movie called Patriots Day about the Boston Marathon bombings and the first responders. I'm going to look as much as I can like Sgt. Jeff Pugliese from the Watertown Police Department, who does not have a beard, by the way. Police officers tend not to have Grizzly Adams beards.

So more of a mustache look, or clean-shaven?

JK: No, he's got the leftover mustache from the '70s.

Which is a look you've sported before.

JK: Yeah, in the '70s, when I was a student in Missoula. Among other times.

Now that you've got an Oscar on the shelf and have landed some exciting new roles, what are you looking forward to most on the horizon?

JK: Some time up on Flathead Lake with extended family and friends. That's my current pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

And lastly, back in 2009 you offered up some advice for UM grads in our feature space, mostly about taking time to travel and being open to other careers. And your "call your mom" comment during the acceptance speech at the Academy Awards certainly generated a lot of buzz. Any other words of wisdom you'd like to add to the pot?

JK: I got nothing. Take a trip, and when you're there call your mom. I'm trying to come up with some thematic material and some general wisdom from the aged for my commencement address, so I don't want to give away any other pearls of wisdom in advance of that.

I'm sure there are plenty of folks down in Hollywood whose brains you could pick for ideas.

JK: Yeah, if I was smarter I would have consulted some of my writer friends a long time ago and just asked them to write it for me. But I'm not that smart I guess. It needs to be my voice, however meandering it might end up being.

  • photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
  • Juno

Words of (sometimes questionable) wisdom from J.K. Simmons’ most notable characters

J.K. Simmons is keeping the contents of his May 14 commencement address under wraps, so the Indy revisited famous lines from his past roles in search of a few pearls of wisdom.

J. Jonah Jameson, Spider-Man: “No jobs! Freelance! Best thing in the world for a kid your age.”

Vernon Schillinger, “Oz”: “A man does everything he can for his kids. Comforts them, loves them. Sacrifices everything for their happiness. But when your own flesh and blood renounces you, you have no choice but to renounce them.”

Garth Pancake, The Ladykillers: “Don’t trust the banks.”

Vernon Schillinger, “Oz”: “If you don’t watch, how will you ever learn?”

Mac MacGuff, Juno: “Look, in my opinion, the best thing you can do is find a person who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you, the right person is still going to think the sun shines out your ass. That’s the kind of person that’s worth sticking with.”

Vernon Schillinger, “Oz”: “Trust me, McManus, you lose an eye, you get kicked in the balls, you get a face full of shit, you become a different man.”

Professor Burke, Farmers Insurance: “What you don’t know, can hurt you.”

Terence Fletcher, Whiplash: “I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that’s an absolute necessity.”

Cave Johnson, Portal 2 video game: “When life gives you lemons? Don’t make lemonade. Make life take the lemons back! Get mad! ‘I don’t want your damn lemons! What am I supposed to do with these?’”

Yellow Peanut M&M: “Love hurts.”

Terence Fletcher, Whiplash: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’”

J.K. Simmons, 2015 Academy Awards: “If you are lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, don’t text, don’t email. Call them on the phone. Tell them you love them, and thank them, and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you.”

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