LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Mastering the art of jazz drumming wasn’t the only objective on actor J.K. Simmons’ mind when he signed on to play an abusive music teacher in the independent film “Whiplash.” He also focused on co-star Miles Teller’s face.
“I mostly just wanted to do the best possible job of reddening Miles’ cheeks while slapping him,” the actor quipped in a recent interview.
Among his many roles, Simmons, 60, has previously played a neo-Nazi in HBO’s prison drama “Oz,” a psychiatrist in police procedural “Law & Order,” a newspaper editor in the “Spider-Man” film franchise and a blind lawyer in “Growing Up Fisher.”
But it’s a manipulative, abusive, but also at times charming, jazz teacher that may be his shot at an Oscar.
“Whiplash,” the feature-length directorial debut from Damien Chazelle, pits young jazz drummer Andrew (Teller) striving to be the best in his craft against Simmons’ Fletcher, an acerbic, calculating, foul-mouthed instructor.
Simmons is up for a best supporting actor Golden Globe on Sunday and a frontrunner for next week’s Oscar nominations.
As Andrew is pushed to his very limits of existence by Fletcher, the film explores both the physical and mental anguish of the pursuit of perfection - from Andrew practicing until his fingers are dripping with blood to Fletcher continuously slapping him as he mocks his skills.
“I wanted to portray a character who is single-minded in his objective and his focus, and is unconcerned with what the collateral damage might be,” Simmons said.
“Without even seeing my character, you see him through all these terrified kids’ eyes, and it just makes my job so much easier as an actor when it’s been established that you have a room full of kids that are scared.”
Simmons said finding Chazelle and the role of Fletcher was “kismet,” or fate, as he had studied both classical and rock‘n‘roll music in college.
For 29-year-old Chazelle, who scored two BAFTA nominations on Friday, the inspiration for “Whiplash” came directly from his own recollections as a young jazz drummer in high school.
“I certainly remember the sheer anxiety and terror of being in rehearsals, my hands bleeding through practice,” he said.
But the first-hand experience came as an advantage to the rookie director, who initially took the film as a short to the Sundance Film Festival in 2013.
After winning the jury award for fiction in the short film category, Chazelle returned to Sundance with the feature length version in 2014 and won both the audience and grand jury prizes. Sony Pictures Classics bought the film for $3 million.
And while a film about the niche world of jazz drumming was not Chazelle’s easiest pitch to make to film buyers, he said he hoped it was the emotional journey that would connect with audiences.
“You can actually end up telling a more universal story the more you really burrow into a specific world,” he said.
Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Eric M. Johnson, Robert Birsel