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JK Simmons on Making Out With Susan Sarandon, 'Justice League' and His Secret Desire to Play a Supervillain

by John Boone 11:55 AM PDT, September 06, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

It's hard to discern how becoming Academy Award Winner J.K. Simmons has impacted Simmons' career -- if at all. Before he took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2015 -- for Whiplash -- the 61-year-old actor was doing smaller indie movies, like Juno, and big Spider-Man blockbusters. Now, he's still starring in Sundance hits -- he plays the motorcycle-riding mensch, Zipper, in The Meddler (out on Blu-ray, DVD and digital today) -- and recently wrapped Justice League. "Oddly enough, the benefit that I'm currently experiencing is the ability to take a break," Simmons says with a contented sigh during a conversation with ET.

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Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One of the things I love most about The Meddler is that Zipper, while a fleshed-out character, is ostensibly a love interest for a woman of a certain age. I feel like that doesn't happen very much in Hollywood.

No, it does not. As a matter of fact, a couple of years ago, my agent and I were sort of talking in general terms about what kinds of roles I would be interested in and at the top of my list was a love story for 60-year-olds. We didn't put a number on it, but I will -- what the hell! A couple of really lovely scripts came my way, and this certainly was one of them. And who wouldn't want to play scenes like that with Susan Sarandon? So it was definitely a no-brainer.

What about this script in particular made it stand out from the others when you read it?

It was really everything. I didn't realize until I met Lorene [Scafaria, the writer and director] how largely autobiographical the story is. But, to me, it just did everything exactly right. It was honest, it was funny, it was smart, it was real. Sometimes you read something that has a lot of good stuff in it, but you can't quite see the forest for the trees. In this case, it was a forest full of lovely trees.

Then meeting with Lorene and finding out it is largely a story about her and her mother and Zipper is really the only character who is completely fictional and sort of a fantasy fulfillment on her part -- the guy she wishes would come along and sweep her mom off her feet. Of course, I told her, "Sorry, I'm married! So, I can't have life imitate art!" [Laughs] But like I said, to be able to play those scenes with Susan and Rose [Byrne], even though she and I didn't work together at all, I've been a big fan of hers for a long time. So, I was happy to be the supporting male in a really fun smart, female-centric movie.

Chickens don't have a reputation for being the smartest animals. How are they as co-stars?

There's an interesting family connection there, because I named the chickens mostly after my cousins and my aunts. And then I threw in Lorene's mother's real name [Gail] in there, as well. So, that's a little family homage there. But chickens as co-stars? Oddly, they are not that good with the continuity. But that's not my problem, at the end of the day. That's Lorene and the editor's problem, to try to compensate for the chickens' lack of continuity. Which I think they did quite capably!

Susan is obviously a legend. Tell me one amazing Susan Sarandon story from set that will cement everything I think I know about her and make me love her forever.

We didn't do a read-through or anything, so there was no sort of big cast get-together before we were shooting, so my first day on set, I drove up to Malibu and it was a late afternoon call and we get to the set and our "hi, nice to meet you" scene is our big romantic kiss on the beach. That was my, "Hi! Nice working with you! Let's make out." And because -- well, first of all, because we're both grownups -- and second of all, because she's just such a wonderful actor, there was none of that awkwardness that there can be. You know, it's not like we are doing bedroom scenes. But in a lot of ways, a little moment like that is even more truly intimate than something more R-rated. [Laughs] And that's the moment, for me, that confirmed everything I thought I knew about Susan as an actor and how much I would like working with her.

A lot of actors, very good actors, connect with other actors to varying degrees, and obviously it's the most fun and the most fulfilling and I think the best end product is when you're able to project both through the camera and really, really, really connect with the other actor. I felt like Marnie and Zipper were really there in that moment and in all the moments in the movie. It was a good first day to have.

Photo: Warner Bros.

There are reports that Lorene is on the shortlist to direct Captain Marvel for Marvel Studios. How do you think she'd do with one of those big superhero movies?

I think she'd do really, really well with anything. Often working with a director who hasn't done 30 films in the last 30 years, like with Lorene or like when I first met [Whiplash director] Damien Chazelle or when I first met Jason Reitman, you read a script and you think, "This is great." And then you meet the director, who's relatively inexperienced, and you just get a feeling for whether you have faith that that director can really make the movie all it can be. I had a very high level of confidence in Lorene based on meeting her and then based on the work that we did and the finished product of the movie. I think she can handle any kind of film.

I'm rooting for it, because I want Lorene to cast Susan as a supervillain. That's my dream casting.

[Laughs] I'm sure Susan would make an excellent supervillain, although I don't know the Marvel universe to know well enough what supervillain she could be. Although, you know what, it's a new millennium. She could play some supervillain that Stan Lee invented as a male. She's Susan Sarandon. She can do whatever she wants.

I'm not arguing with you on that, J.K. And you're moving back into your own superhero world with Justice League -- how is filming going?

My part is done. They are filming that for basically most of 2016, so some of the superheroes are still at work in jolly old London, but I'm back home with my family.

Playing Commissioner Gordon, I assume that most of your scenes are with Ben Affleck's Batman? But did you get to play around with anyone else on the team?

Yeah, mostly with Ben. In this first installment of the Justice League, Commissioner Gordon is not a particularly sizable part. We just kind of introduce him and see a little bit of his interactions with Batman -- and with most of the Justice League. That was a really fun set. Zack [Snyder] runs sort of a big, happy family and it's obviously, in many ways, a very different work environment when you're working on a big, giant movie like that than a relatively small movie like The Meddler. But at the end of the day, the director is the one who sets the tone. And one of the things that Zack and Lorene have in common is they're just nice, smart, competent, fun people that you don't mind spending a 12-hour day with.

Photo: Getty Images

When you look at the projects you're doing now versus before Whiplash, how has winning an Oscar changed your career?

It's not like I was the new kid on the block when all that attention happened, so I was kind of rolling along pretty well before that. Really, I've always been pretty picky and I've always only worked on things that I found interesting, I mean, once I was in a position where I was paying the mortgage and didn't feel like I had worry about, "Am I ever gonna have a job again?" It definitely has increased the number of scripts coming my way, but the luxury that it's provided me is that I'm actually working less, because I know stuff is coming up. So, I'm being more selective than ever. My wife [Michelle Schumacher] is currently editing her film, I'm Not Here, in which Sebastian Stan and I play the same character at different ages, and I'm able to take a little time off and let her be locked in a dark cave for 12 hours a day while she edits the movie, and I can be dad and hang around and take a little break. Oddly enough, the benefit that I'm currently experiencing is the ability to take a break.

One last question: you started by saying you sent your agent a list of movies that you wanted to do. What's left on that list? What's the next movie you want to check off?

Let me see if I can remember. It was so satisfying getting both The Meddler and this other little foreign film, a Greek movie called Worlds Apart that's still bouncing around out there somewhere. One thing -- actually you touched on this before, "Maybe there is a part for Susan Sarandon as the super bad person in the next Marvel movie" -- well, one thing I'd like to do just for fun would be a full-on bad guy in...whatever. In a Bourne movie! Or some big action movie. Just to have something fun like that to sink my teeth into in a popcorn movie. And then I'll go and make three more indie films like The Meddler and I'm Not Here and whatever other indie films I have in the can that are hopefully headed to Sundance or somewhere.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

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