"I guess I was a professional musician. I got paid tens of dollars," J.K. Simmons shrugged, getting the first of many big laughs at the press conference for Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. He was being grilled about his music background (he studied classical music in college) and what he brought to his big big role in this crowdpleasing drama. Whiplash is about the sweaty bloody foul-mouthed, humiliating and combative relationship of Andrew, a talented drummer (Miles Teller) and his sadistic mentor, Professor Fletcher (Simmons).
The movie is muscularly directed by Chazelle, like he's got as much to prove as Andrew (he'll direct another music related film next) and edited for maximum razzle-dazzle as if syncopated to the double time jazz rhythm -- or any other rhythm, really, that Fletcher demands during grueling rehearsals. Often stopping the action to scream "Not my tempo!"
Whiplash than sometimes gives off the illusion that it's directed from within, as if the film is continually queued by, responding to, or enraged at Fletcher's barked orders, precise time signature hand movements, and threatening in-your-face closeups. The illusion than is that Professor Fletcher is demanding the movie conform to him, rather than the movie inviting him to be its antagonist.
At the press conference the 59 year old actor was also the star of the show. In this case he had no competition for the spotlight. Miles Teller wasn't there and the film's young director was stuck in traffic allowing J.K. the bulk of the press conference to himself. Though his face is familiar from a long career of well received supporting roles he doesn't usually get this much of the screen (or stage as it were) all to himself. He took the opportunity to keep the press laughing, faux-mock his young co-star for being too busy "working" to be there with him, and for not making the short with him which was used to raise interest and funding for the movie (the short, which was a huge hit at Sundance in 2013, co-starred Johnny Simmons, no relation, who J.K. complimented adding that his take on the Andrew character was much different than Teller's work). J.K. reserved most of the good-natured teasing for his director who he continually referred to as an "adolescent" or "child". When the 29 year old director arrived toward the end of the event, and the questions began to flow his way, Simmons burst out laughing when a reporter began his question with the formal "Mister Chazelle..."
A true scene stealer, that J.K. Simmons.
It was deeply moving for me to work with musicians of that calibre and relive that part of my youth after having taken so many left turns in my career. It was really fun to work with musicians every day at work and/or scream at people which are two of my favorite things."
But for all his joking he managed to slip in thoughtful responses to questions, emotional hooks, and admitting that he wasn't sure how to unpack some of the provocative questions the movie raises about teaching and pushing people to greatness. This juggling act should serve him well in the quest for Oscar gold. The crowd was stunned to hear that they shot this tense intimate movie in just 19 days, a tiny blip in the amount of time they've spent promoting it since. As you'll recall the film premiered to rapturous response at Sundance 2014 and finally hits theaters in select cities on October 10th. Count on J.K. Simmons to spend the first two months of 2015 on red carpets and with cameras trained tightly to his face on Oscar night.