JK Simmons on Spider-Man, classical music and Whiplash

The veteran actor's monstrous music teacher has made him an Oscar favourite - but not with his daughter

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Terence Fletcher is a music teacher. But not the cardigan-wearing music master you might imagine. He’s in charge of the lead jazz band at an elite New York conservatory and runs the student players with a fist of steel. This merciless maestro is firm of bicep, shaven-headed and clad, always, in no-nonsense black – an intimidating presence even before he opens his mouth to deliver furious tirades that are operatic in their abusiveness. And when an ambitious young drummer falls within his sights, Fletcher only cranks up the volume.

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This is the premise of the fantastic Whiplash. The film stars Miles Teller (Divergent) as Andrew Neiman, the talented but callow sticksman. And playing Fletcher with coruscating brilliance is Jonathan Kimble “JK” Simmons, the seasoned character actor previously best known for playing the kindly dad in 2007’s Juno and the table-thumping newspaper editor in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy.

“Did I like Terence Fletcher?” muses Simmons in his sonorous rumble. “Ahhh, I can’t say I liked him, no,” the 60-year-old chuckles dryly. “I identified with much of his philosophy, but certainly not his pedagogy.” 

Whiplash is the creation of 30-year-old first-time writer/director Damien Chazelle. He based his screenplay in part on his own experiences as a teenage drummer in a jazz orchestra. Before he cut his acting teeth on Broadway in the 1990s, Simmons, too, had a musical schooling, which helped with some shortcuts to playing Fletcher.

“I didn’t have a jazz background but I strummed my guitar badly in coffee houses when I was a kid,” says the Detroit-born father-of-two. “And after I’d been in college for a year I decided to study classical music. So I did have a background as a singer, composer and conductor of classical music. At one point I thought maybe I wanted to be Leonard Bernstein when I grew up.”

Did any of his teachers come close to Fletcher’s take-no-prisoners methods? “I can’t say they did. The closest was probably a couple of football coaches.” In sport, he observes, “that kind of behaviour was not all that uncommon.”

In Whiplash, “that kind of behaviour” includes Fletcher launching a chair at Neiman’s head and making the student and two other drummers practise the same routine for hour after sweating and bleeding hour. The character is written with such vivacity that the actor had a pin-sharp grasp of who he was. But it was Simmons’s idea that Fletcher would wear an unchanging uniform day-in, day-out. And he admits there was a little scope for tweaking the teacher’s verbal onslaughts.

“Part of the beauty was that Damien had written such a complete script, and his dialogue is brilliant. But yeah, there were some opportunities to add some of my own venom to it.”

Has he had much experience venting and chastising on such a thunderous level? Would his kids recognise some of dad’s bark in there?

“Yeah, actually we had a big discussion about whether my daughter Olivia, who’d just turned 13, would be allowed to see it at the New York film festival. And after much debate my wife and I decided that we would allow her to see it. And when I informed her of that, she hemmed and hawed and then said, ‘I don’t think I want to see it. I hear you’re really, really mean!’” 

The duel between Neiman, who idolises Buddy Rich and practises till his fingers bleed, and Fletcher, who lives and breathes jazz, makes for an unlikely but powerful thriller. Little wonder that in the current film awards season, this low-budget gem (in cinemas now) is attracting huge attention. Simmons, especially, is gaining career-best plaudits. He won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor, and is now nominated for an Oscar in the same category. 

“It’s not the raison d’être of why I do what I do, but the level of attention that I’m getting personally and that the film is getting is very gratifying.” The always-busy actor will next be seen in Terminator Genisys, the blockbuster franchise reboot released this summer. “After doing theatre all those years, and television and film for the last two decades, this is a pretty rare opportunity for me to have a part that’s just brilliantly written – and is also just this big.

“I usually come in and shoot a week or two, play my little supporting guy, and have a good time. But this was just a… I don’t want to say ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ because I’m hoping many more parts this good come along before I ride off into the sunset. But this was a great opportunity for me to have a part I could really sink my teeth into.” 

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You can now catch Whiplash in UK cinemas.