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.”