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

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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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