JK Simmons becomes William Frawley, but not really
When JK Simmons logs into our Zoom call, he just returned home to Los Angeles after a flight from London, where he was on holiday with his family after completing filming in Glasgow for the upcoming bat girl movie. During his last jet-setting weeks, Simmons also discovered he had landed his second Oscar nomination, for playing William Frawley in Aaron Sorkinit’s To be the Ricardos.
Simmons has already crossed the gauntlet of awards season, for the 2014 hit Whiplash. He ultimately won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the ruthless bandleader who whips a wannabe drummer (Miles Teller) in shape.
Not only is his character in Be the Ricardos quite different, but the whole awards season has been the complete opposite of his first experience, where he was the clear favorite for almost the entire race. “I was surprised to be nominated [this time]. Last time for me, as a nominated individual, as I learned along the way, people who actually know these things said, “Well, yeah, sure. It’s obvious.’ So this time it was rather a pleasant surprise. And I’m in that “it’s an honor to be nominated” mindset.
But Simmons’ work as Frawley, the real-life actor who played Fred Mertz on i love lucy is worthy of the praise it receives – it captures the spiky ways of the grumpy actor, but also his moments of sweetness, especially with Nicole Kidmanis Lucille Ball. He spoke to vanity lounge why he was nervous about taking on the role, what it was like working with Sorkin as a director, and how he’s adjusting (or not) to working on set during the pandemic.
Vanity Lounge: Has your perspective changed on this whole rewards circus after your experience with Whiplash?
JK Simmons: I just learned it. I don’t think my perspective has really changed. I certainly appreciate it for what it is, although that was never my personal raison d’être or otherwise. I never had this goal when I started that I wanted to win an Oscar because that would have been foolish. It’s been such a gradual progression for me, my whole career. I can look back on 30 different moments that were huge professional milestones for me and well over 30 people to be grateful for.
From what I’ve read, you were a little scared to take on the role in Being the Ricardos, mostly because he’s a real person that people know.
Yes. Traditional biopics have never been something that appeals to me as an actor or an audience. And of course, I knew that because it was Aaron, it wouldn’t be anything typical. But I was still suspicious and, honestly, I was afraid of it. And when he first popped up like “Oh, Aaron Sorkin is writing this, and they might be interested in you”, a long time ago, I thought, God, I love him so much and I really want to do something thing with him, but I don’t think it’s the one. And then a little over a year ago when it happened and there was a real script and I could see, unsurprisingly, how awesome it was, so it was just a matter of phoning Aaron and him reassuring me, as he did with all of us – the four of us playing these iconic actors and characters – that he wasn’t looking for perfect impressions. Among the phrases he repeated were: “Think of it as a painting, not a photograph. I want to know who these people are on the inside and how they relate to each other and the world around them.
Why don’t you enjoy immersing yourself in biopics or watching them as an audience member?
Well, as an audience, I find it very difficult to have this willful suspension of disbelief, because no matter how wonderful the actor is, I’m like, Well, that’s not right this type because I’ve seen it on TV my whole life, depending on who the person portrayed is. And that’s obviously a bit simplistic and naive – you might say stupid. And as an actor, that often feels like a different skill. And curiously, in this film, especially for me and for Nina [Arianda], we had very minimal little sequences where we played Fred and Ethel. I really liked those. We both did. The four of us enjoyed the challenge of trying to repeat pretty much exactly what we watched in black and white. And obviously we had the footage to watch over and over again, so I could do exactly the silly moves that Bill did in that particular episode. And so, dipping our toes into the world of the Impressionists was fun. I’m glad I don’t have to do it all day every day.