If it seems like J.K. Simmons is even more omnipresent than usual these days, that’s because he is. In addition to his familiar commercial pop-ins as the Farmers Insurance professor, the 66-year-old character actor racked up more than a dozen credits in 2021. And though “J.K. Simmons character” conjures a fairly specific role, he worked broadly this year, showing up in a sci-fi action movie (The Tomorrow War), voicing an animated superhero (Invincible), and using his musical theater background in an acclaimed television drama (Goliath). Statistically speaking, it’s been the most prolific run of his 35-year career.
“Wow, you’d think there wasn’t a worldwide pandemic, wouldn’t you?” he jokes over a drink in New York on a late fall evening, almost surprised at his unrelenting output.
We speak ahead of the release of Aaron Sorkin’s latest directorial effort: Being The Ricardos, a “week-in-the-life” biopic about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz that stars Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. As actor William Frawley, best known for playing Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy, Simmons growls through the iconic TV star’s rat-a-tat banter and sage philosophy during a hectic time in the show’s production—a challenge, considering Simmons had no footage of Frawley to work with, beyond his televised performances. Elsewhere this month, you can catch Simmons as a fiery college football coach in National Champions, a timely drama about a student-athlete boycott, and see him reprise his cigar-chomping Daily Bugle editor, J. Jonah Jameson, in Spider-Man: No Way Home, slightly altering a character he first played two decades earlier. The trio of performances remind us of Simmons’ dynamic range—remember his pivot from compassionate father in Juno to tormenting jazz instructor in Whiplash?—and his undying energy, which has afforded him an Oscar and the opportunity to work with nearly everyone in Hollywood. It’s the kind of stamina you’d expect from someone half his age, but Simmons has never subscribed to a conventional timeline.
Near the end of Being The Ricardos, your character says, “The first time a man gets called old, it rips his heart out.” Have you experienced a moment like that in your career yet?
J.K. Simmons: There’s not a specific moment, but I really understand it. Aging can be difficult—more so for women in our society, especially in Hollywood. But it’s difficult for men as well. It’s hard to acknowledge, because at whatever age you are, you still feel very much like the person you were—and inside, you still are. It’s been quite a few years where I look in the mirror in the morning and go, “Hi, Dad, how the hell did this happen?” I don’t feel like the face that looks back at me in the mirror. I keep meaning to ask Aaron that same question.
What’s it like being inside an Aaron Sorkin movie?
It’s an absolute blessing. We go back to 1990, and I had one of the greatest experiences of my life being the understudy and getting to perform in A Few Good Men. [Sorkin’s film began life as a Broadway play; Simmons was the understudy for the role, played onstage by Ron Perlman, that Jack Nicholson would make famous onscreen.] The fact that it’s taken 31 years for us to reconnect, it’s ultimately a beautiful thing. We definitely became close over the years but never worked together. I’m so excited this is the project it happened on and that he talked me out of my trepidation and fear of trying to portray such an iconic character.
Right. I don’t recall you having played many historical figures.
It’s something I’ve consciously avoided the majority of the time. With the exception of a writer like Aaron, “biopics” as a genre don’t appeal to me as an actor or an audience member.
Why is that?
Well, it’s just so hard to have that willing suspension of disbelief, no matter how good the actors are—especially if they’re portraying someone who has been in our homes on TV since 1950, or even a 20th century president. I just have a hard time believing it. So, I’ve only done it a couple of times.
What about portraying William Frawley made you break that self-imposed boundary?
Ultimately, it was everything Aaron put on paper. I think what people don’t discuss enough about Aaron as a writer is his heart. It’s so impeccable, the way he constructs stories—for TV or films. And now as the writer and director, he’s become such a complete filmmaker.
How much of Frawley did you get a chance to dive into? I know you had every season of I Love Lucy to watch, but there’s not too much of him outside the show.
No. William Frawley was much more of a reclusive guy. I couldn’t find any footage of him outside of his films and I Love Lucy. And he didn’t have kids. There’s no legacy in that way. He liked to hang out with ball players and golfers and jockeys. He was a sports fan and gambler and liked to go to the bar. But he wasn’t a show biz schmoozer at all, which was ultimately kind of freeing in a way. But there was enough consistency in what three or four people said about Bill that I took it at face value.
Did you get more into character with the wider belt you had to strap on?
We talked about the “fat suit” and I just said “No.” But the more I watched footage of Fred Mertz and saw photos of Bill, I thought it really did need something. He wasn’t fat but he was kind of pear-shaped, like a pregnant woman. So, ultimately, we came up with a small piece of padding from the belly button down that worked brilliantly with the costumes. The physicality helped me ground the character a lot.
One of your two other credits this month is National Champions. You’re playing a prestigious head coach at an interesting time on the current college football schedule.
That was a great experience, too. I’m so grateful that [director] Ric Roman Waugh came to me with that and talked me into that one. Even though I loved the story, I was a little bit reluctant. It’s maybe not unique, but certainly an unusual story in that it’s a football movie with no football.
Yeah, you never even get on the field, which was probably tough considering you’re a big Ohio State fan.
Yeah. First off, I was so pissed I was playing an SEC coach. Maybe if I’d come on a little earlier, I could have made this a fictional Big Ten team. I have this big speech to my players, but it’s not “rah-rah, go team.” It’s a totally different thing. It’s such a beautiful, complex personal drama, as well as really taking an even-handed look from both sides at the quagmire that is high-level college sports right now. Everything that the quarterback character is looking for is completely legitimate, and I think the vast majority of what my character is saying, and what some of what the NCAA says—some!—is also legitimate. Change is already happening.
Did you model anything after other football coaches?
Not at all, in this case. There certainly have been times in the past, like when I played the baseball manager in For Love of the Game—there was a lot of Jim Leyland in that guy. It was just a combination of what was on the page, and then the freedom that Ric gave all of the cast to improvise and make it our own. There were these 50 young men sitting on folding chairs in a hotel ballroom, and when I was looking at them face to face out there, they were there with me. It was wonderful.
We’re talking a day after the release of the latest Spider-Man trailer. There was an entire theatrical event for it in Los Angeles. Twenty years after signing onto the original movie with Sam Raimi, how do you comprehend where the Marvel Universe has gone—and that you’re still inside it?
Dude, at the time, back with Tobey [Maguire] and Sam [Raimi], it was just fun, a treat. I was so grateful to Sam for going out on a limb and saying, “This is the guy I want to play this iconic character.” And then once the universe went on without Sam, I thought, “Well, that was really fun.” So when I got a call from my agent about me doing Jameson again, I was surprised, to say the least. I sat down with all the powers that be, including [director] Jon [Watts] and Sony, to talk about the possibility. And it all happened very quickly. Obviously, I was amenable to reviving the guy, slightly reconfiguring him.
You’ve just lost the hair now.
Yeah, it’s the same guy—he either went bald or stopped wearing the toupee. I think different people within that universe will argue that it’s a much different guy. From my perspective, he’s the same blowhard that he was in 2002 in Spider-Man, but some of the trimmings have changed.
So many people are still connected to those Raimi films. I’m curious why you think there’s such a nostalgia for his early vision.
You have to give a lot of credit to those first two movies for kicking off what is now the Marvel multiverse. When Sam was first meeting about it, he was like, “I don’t want to make a movie about Spider-Man, I want to make a movie about Peter Parker.” I think people recognize what a brilliant job Sam did at creating that universe that’s now expanded exponentially. I look back on those as fondly as anything in my career.
There’s a popular deleted scene in Spider-Man 2 of you putting on the Spidey suit and pretending to shoot webs in your office. What do you remember about shooting that?
A few weeks before shooting, Sam called me and said, “What kind of shape are you in right now?” I was like “Meh.” He was like, “OK, can you be in really lousy shape? Can you eat a lot of cheeseburgers? We got this idea…” And I didn’t, really. I stayed in mediocre shape. But he told me that Jameson was going to parade around in private in the discarded Spider-Man uniform. So when it came time to do that, because money was tight at Marvel, they didn’t build me a suit. So I wore the same exact suit that one of Tobey’s stunt doubles wore. Now, I’m not a giant guy, but I’m bigger than Tobey, and certainly bigger around the waist than his stunt doubles.
So the spandex worked.
Dude, it involved shoe horns and lots of baby powder to get me into the stunt double’s outfit. Thank God I wasn’t another 10 pounds overweight. But once we got me into it, that was the ultimate inner nine-year-old boy getting to have fun and “pew-pew” play around like a jackass, being my own Spider-Man.
Your first significant on-screen role came on Oz, when you were in your early 40s. Was there a moment in your theater career where you felt you really needed to make something happen by a certain time in your life?
When I foolishly started out, I had no dreams or ambitions that I would be doing what I’ve been doing for over 20 years now. I just fell in love with doing theater and hoped that I could continue to do that. I was never going to be the young phenom. When I joined the cast of A Few Good Men, my first Broadway play, I was 35 years old. I had a 13-year career before that—summer stock in Montana and the Seattle Repertory Theater. My first feature film was The Ref. I was already pushing 40, but that was the first time I consciously went to my agent and said, “I think it’s time for me to grow up, maybe start a family, and it would be nice to get a residual check once in a while.” And then [Oz creator] Tom Fontana came into my life.
It’s amazing just how many projects you’ve tallied since then. Is there an ambitious personality trait that pushes you to take on such a diversity and wealth of roles?
It’s really not ambition in and of itself. I fell in love with telling stories, playing characters, pretending to be somebody else. Not to say I don’t have an ego. Obviously as an actor you want people to look at you, but it’s been a progression for me. I’ve never had specific ambitions like, “I want to work with this movie star” or “make this much money.” It’s one fortunate meeting or event after another, and meeting the appropriate people along the way. Jerry Zaks, Tom Fontana, Jason Reitman, Damien Chazelle, collaborating with my wife [filmmaker Michelle Schumacher] on her movies. If I would have had a plan and had specific ambitions, there’s no way it would have been as good as what it’s been.
You even have the M&M commercials coming up again this time of year.
[Laughs]. It’s been Billy West and me as “Yellow” and “Red” for 25 years, and it’s the sweetest gig we’ve ever had. I didn’t realize, going in, how iconic those characters were. The insurance professor, as well. It’s on that long list of good fortune that has mostly dropped into my lap at a time when I was ready to receive it.
Considering your start, how much were you able to appreciate finding some fame later in life, as opposed to it starting at a younger age?
I’m not sure about appreciating it more or less, but [it’s been helpful] being able to see it for what it is and prioritize it and have my head turned by it less than I would have. I fortunately met my wife at a time when I felt ready to be a grown-up in my mid-30s. The fact that it came much later in life, after having experience as an actor and human being, I didn’t get sucked down the rabbit hole of what it can become. Especially on social media, which I continue to stay away from.
I watched Whiplash again recently and I forgot how terrifying you are in that movie. It seems like you really enjoy yelling and boiling into rage. Is it a fun thing to act?
Yeah, it absolutely is. We all have anger, sadness, joy, and laughter in us, and to have those opportunities in beautifully-written material to access that stuff and just let it erupt, whether you’re berating somebody or making somebody laugh or breaking somebody’s heart, it’s all part of being a human. It’s what most of us love about what we do.
In that movie, your character claims that the two worst words in the English language are “good job.” Are there people you look to for honest feedback about your work?
That’s an intriguing question, because I think for actors in general who find great success at a young or old age, it’s easy to fall into that “I’ve had good fortune and good success and everybody says I’m doing everything right, therefore I don’t have to listen to anybody anymore.” Whether that’s an ego-driven thought process or is more subconscious or subliminal, it’s easy to succumb to that. In my case, I think I look mostly to family and old friends, guys that I knew when we were doing non-equity theater in Montana. And my wife and kids, my siblings.
Part of me wonders if there’s a Hank Mardukas in your life.
I wish [laughs]. God, everybody should have a Hank Mardukas. I mean, Hank Mardukas is a compilation of a dozen different guys, going back to my buddy Paul Lang that I’ve known since junior high school.
I was at a wedding recently and the best man made a Hank Mardukas reference during his toast.
First off, that movie is, to this day, the most I’ve ever laughed on a movie set—to the consternation of the director. It was Paul [Rudd] and Jason [Segel], the funniest people on the planet having a lot of fun. But it’s a real gem of a movie. And then when you finally see Hank Mardukas, it’s just a guy giving a brief wave and that’s it. One of the memorable characters in film of the last 20 years.
I’d imagine that’s what motivated you to reunite with Andy Samberg in Palm Springs last year.
Absolutely. Even though he’s a generation younger than me, he’s almost like a mentor because he’s such a comedy brain. We’ve stayed pals. I even got to do some Brooklyn Nine-Nine with him. I hope we reunite a few times on camera.
I spoke to your trainer Aaron Williamson earlier this year for another story.
Ah, the famous “Shredded Santa” photo.
Yes. He said you had been doing a lot of intermittent fasting. How much has that changed your lifestyle?
It has changed it, but not as much as I wish. Honestly, during the pandemic, I’ve let a lot of things slide physically. I’ve gotten a little fat and happy since The Tomorrow War, which I worked hard at, and I’m hoping that more of those challenges come into the future because I’m not getting any younger. It’s always good motivation to have an opportunity to play somebody who is not Fred Mertz—you want to look imposing, or at least healthy physically. But the foundation that I laid during those years with Aaron—he’s been a real inspiration and help.
You mentioned A Few Good Men earlier. I’ve read about you losing the lead role of Col. Jessup and then meeting your wife right after quitting the show as an understudy. When you have such an impactful, life-altering moment like that, how much does that shape the way you approach things?
It’s one of my favorite stories in life, just because I was so heartbroken and devastated at the time and feeling sorry for myself. And then the sliding doors moment led to what has become the most important relationship of my life. I think both my wife and I can impart this: There are setbacks in life. Of course, you don’t always get what you want, and sometimes you don’t get what you legitimately believe you deserve. Life is simply not fair. But there’s a great sports quote, “Setbacks are just setups for comebacks.” Whether it’s a little thing or a seemingly gigantic thing, having the belief that good possibilities can come out of whatever misfortune you have is a beautiful mindset to remind ourselves of.
You’ve played a lot of fathers in your career, but there’s such a diversity in each one. Have you leaned on that family life to build these characters, or do you work strictly from the page?
The vast majority of it, especially with the really good material, does come off the page, and oftentimes that will lead me, usually subconsciously, to incorporate aspects of my own life and experience, and my own relationships. Even when I was doing something like Whiplash, the heart of [Fletcher] and his behavior was antithetical to who my father was. But being a conductor, an educator, a musician was exactly what my father did—he just channeled his passion in a much kinder, gentler way. But my brother pointed out that the way I held my right hand when I was conducting the jazz band, in this case, was exactly the way our father held his right hand when he was conducting a choir. Some of that stuff is just biology you’re not even aware of.
Speaking of which, Miles Teller posted a fictional poster of Whiplash 2 on Twitter last summer with your “Shredded Santa” photo. I’d be curious to see that plotline.
Yeah, he sent that to me [laughs]. I think it ended with a grisly murder. I’m not sure who was the victim and who was the perpetrator.
This interview has been edited and condensed.