I learned a great deal during my interview with Mackenzie Mauzy and Billy Magnussen. The Manhattan based performers brought me up to speed on the rite of passage for all New York actors, Rapunzel’s hair and whether or not Meryl Streep likes men in blue tights.
The pair play Rapunzel and Rapunzel’s Prince in the big screen adaptation of the legendary Broadway musical Into the Woods. The two relative new comers—she’s best known as Abigail on Forever while he made a memorable appearance on Boardwalk Empire and will soon be seen in an upcoming Steven Spielberg spy thriller—help bring fairy tales to life as part of a large ensemble that includes Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep.
Which leads me to the first thing I learned during our chat.
“Meryl’s a beast,” says Magnussen. “She’s the one who got me the job. I was in a play and she saw it and recommended to me [director] Rob [Marshall] and [producer] Mark Platt. The play was Vonya and Sonia and Marsha and Spike and I dress up as a prince because we’re going to a costume party. It’s all about the blue tights.”
“Meryl likes the blue tights,” laughs Mauzy.
Next I discovered the wig Mauzy wears in the film put her at a follicular risk.
“They used my hair and braided it into the extensions,” she says. “It was thirty feet long so I wrapped it around my arm. I had a little fake one for rehearsal but I asked to actually wear [the real one] one day so I could figure out how to be mobile. It’s a tripping hazard! We joke about how I had a really strong left bicep for a couple months.”
Then Magnussen enlightened me on a rite of passage for New York actors, “Once you get on Law and Order,” he says, “you’re really an actor.” Both have done time in the L&O trenches. Mauzy played a child killer named Carly Di Gravia—“It’s weird I remember that name,” she says.—while Magnussen says, “It was one of my first jobs. They bleached my hair white and I was a Southern male prostitute. How do you tell your mom? Hey watch this!”
Finally, one I gleaned one last pearl of knowledge from Mauzy. Apparently it’s OK to call Stephen Sondheim, legendary Into the Woods composer and eight time Tony Award winner, Steve. “Everyone calls him Steve!” she laughs. “He likes to be called Steve! It is weird. Steve Sondheim.”
The new film Whiplash draws inspiration from the famous story of Jo jones and Charlie Parker. Jones famously threw a cymbal at Parker after a lackluster solo, prompting the sax player to go away in shame, practice for a year and return as one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century.
Sitting in for Jones is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a teacher at an upscale music college. He’s a perfectionist who uses a toxic mix of fear and intimidation to push Andrew (Miles Teller) toward his dream of becoming the best jazz drummer of all time.
“A lot of musicians had a guy like me in their background,” says Simmons, who is as affable off-screen as his character is tyrannical onscreen. “I get musicians saying that they had a teacher or a conductor who was at least as hard core (as I am in the movie). Either that or coaches. For me it was a football coach. You look back and think, ‘What a psycho. He wouldn’t back off.’”
The actor has yet to meet a teacher who condones Fletcher’s methods, but says people did relate to another of his characters, the sadistic neo-Nazi inmate Vernon Schillinger.
“Oddly I did have that when I was doing Oz which was a little disconcerting,” he says. “I’d have guys come up to me on the street and say, ‘Right on man! I dig what you say!’”
This is the second time Simmons has played Fletcher on film. Writer/director Damien Chazelle couldn’t get the money to turn Whiplash into a feature film, so he started small with some help from Juno director Jason Reitman.
“Jason Reitman handed me the script for both the short and the feature,” says Simmons. “The fact that they came from Jason’s hand to mine was almost enough right there. I knew it was going to be something good. They were both such fully realized and brilliant—and I don’t use that word lightly—stories that it was an absolute no brainer for me to sign on to do the short so we could generate the buzz to make the feature.”
The short film won the 2013 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Jury Award and just one year later the feature version took Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Now there’s Oscar buzz surrounding Simmons’s performance.
“I’ve never really thought in those terms or how my work is perceived in the business,” he says. “With varying degrees of success I’ve always gravitated to what I thought were good projects, with good scripts, a good director and good actors to work with. This is one of those incidences when I was fortunate enough to be offered something that had greatness in it and that greatness was realized by the cast, crew and Damien. If there is awards chatter being tossed around that’s great. It’s great for the movie, it’s great for me, it’s great for everybody.”
Simmons laughs when he’s asked if he is as hyper critical of his own work as his character is of Andrew’s drumming.
“Having seen Whiplash three times now,” he says. “I look at things and say, ‘That could have been better.’ Then I blame the editor.”