J.K. Simmons on the Art of Being the Bad Guy

Posted January 18, 2018 5:20 p.m. EST

What if you suddenly discovered that you had a badass doppelgänger, one with the power you’d been lacking all your life? That’s the central premise of “Counterpart,” the new espionage-meets-sci-fi series in which J.K. Simmons does double duty as two leading men. He plays Howard Silk, a mild-mannered office drone for a United Nations-like organization, his job so arcane even he isn’t sure what he does.

Then a defector crosses over from the Other Side — a parallel realm reached through a basement in Berlin — and Howard is introduced to someone: a tough-guy version of himself, whom he must impersonate to stop an assassin (Sara Serraiocco) with a kill list that includes his wife (Olivia Williams). (The show has its premiere on Starz on Sunday, Jan. 21.)

With that alternate universe, Justin Marks, the show’s creator, has tapped into a seductive notion — “that idea of how different things might be if I hadn’t made these choices that I now regret,” Simmons said. “Or conversely, how fulfilling it is to know that the life based on the choices I’ve made is the life that I’m living and that I love.”

In a phone call from Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, filmmaker Michelle Schumacher (“I’m Not Here”), and their two teenagers, Simmons, 63, talked about life after winning an Oscar and the art of playing a bad guy. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: What are the challenges of playing a variation of the same character?

A: There were logistical and technical challenges and long days. Waa waa waa! I try not to complain too much about how hard my fabulous show business job is. The good news was that Justin and I had a lot of time to figure out how to differentiate these characters — and what not to do. I considered all kinds of subtle things in terms of appearance that ultimately seemed unnecessary because the more interesting thing was how has a person really changed at his core in the second 30 years of his life due to his environment, his experiences.

Q: Which Howard is the dominant scene partner?

A: In general, we preferred shooting the kinder, gentler Howard first. For the first 20 pages of the script, I was thinking, this is the character that I’ll play, this is our protagonist, and this is the guy that I’m identifying with. And when I got to the scene where we meet Howard from the Other Side and the two worlds are revealed, I was as surprised as I wish audiences could be.

Q: The New York Times Style Magazine recently included you in a roundup of outstanding character actors. Do you consider yourself one?

A: Absolutely. My standard joke is that character actors are just actors who are not particularly good-looking. I think the public perception is there’s your leading man, your Clooney and your Pitt, and then there’s the other guys. The vast majority of actors that I have worked with like to think of themselves as character actors. To me, putting the word character in front of the word actor is a compliment because it means people are seeing the character rather than the actor, which at the end of the day is my ultimate goal.

Q: How did life change after your Oscar for best supporting actor for playing the tyrannical music instructor Terence Fletcher in “Whiplash”?

A: Well, the sheer number of offers immediately increased greatly, and I had already gotten to a point in my career well past anything I had fantasized about. But the result is that I’ve felt like rather than take advantage of the opportunities to work, work, work, work, work, I’ve actually taken advantage of the confidence that I will continue to have a career. And that has oddly provided me with more free time to spend with my family.

Q: I hear you’ve got a drum set at home. I trust you don’t fling cymbals.

A: Both kids actually competently play the drum kit.

Q: You’re so good at bad guys. What’s the secret?

A: I put “bad guy” in quotes because as an actor I have to find a way to identify with, or at least understand, my character’s perspective. Certainly Terence Fletcher doesn’t perceive himself as a bad guy or even Vernon Schillinger [the brutal neo-Nazi inmate on HBO’s “Oz"]. One of the great “bad guy” parts that I ever played was Colonel Jessep in “A Few Good Men” on Broadway. And I realized that everything this colonel does comes from a place of love — his love for the Marine Corps, his love for his country, his love for God. Not to say that he’s not also an egomaniac and a power freak, but that’s his motivation. And I think the majority of the time in my work, and I hope in my life, the primary motivation for most behavior is love.