When Jimmi Simpson told his agent and manager that he was bowing out of TV pilot season in order to play a chimpanzee at a small theater in Atwater Village, they thought he was bananas. The actor, 39, had just come off a two-season run of the popular Netflix show "House of Cards," on which he played a conflicted computer hacker, and his career was at an all-time high.
But once Simpson shared Nick Jones' script for "Trevor," the Circle X Theatre Company production that's concluding its critically lauded extended run Sunday, they immediately understood why.
"Pilot season might have been lucrative, but the chance to unpack this play might save my actor's soul," Simpson says after a recent matinee performance. "I thought it might be essential. My guts just ached to do it and make it the most important thing in my career."
The last time Simpson was onstage was seven years ago in Aaron Sorkin's "The Farnsworth Invention" on Broadway. Then his film and television career took over as he scored roles in "Date Night," "White House Down," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and "The Newsroom."
Around the time he found himself surrounded by the talent pool of "House of Cards," however, he realized he had lost touch with something essential inside of him: his love of acting.
"My gratitude for the success of being on a TV show and being able to pay my way through life by just being an actor was so overwhelming that I stopped questioning whether or not I was doing something artful," he says. "Not that film or TV is any less artful than theater. It's just that some of the things I was doing were very repetitive, and repetition can be the death of an artist."
As repetitive as it may seem playing the same role every night, it's anything but, Simpson says. Live theater, he says, allows for a process of discovery unlike anything else. In this case he had to discover the mind of an animal that might as well be human.
Simpson is 6 feet tall, but he walks with a slouch that shrinks him to 5-foot-10. On this day he is having a hard time divorcing himself from the apish physicality of Trevor. He drapes one leg over the side of his chair, and at one point during the interview, he crouches on it, rocking back and forth on his haunches with his hands over his face as he searches for the right words.
The actor doesn't wear a fur suit to play Trevor. Instead, the audience immediately suspends its disbelief as Simpson swaggers about the stage in a checked shirt and suspenders, swaying with an unpredictable gait, his legs spread wide in their high-water khaki trousers, his attention broken by a bright crayon or an overturned cup.
In this way, Simpson embodies a chimpanzee owned by the high-strung widow Sandra Morris, played by TV veteran Laurie Metcalf. Trevor and Sandra are deeply attached and communicate by rudimentary sign language, although both talk to each other as if they are perfectly understood. They enjoy sharing meals of frozen pot pie and red wine.
Trevor, once a budding chimp star, is obsessed with Morgan Fairchild, with whom he acted in a commercial. His fixation on Hollywood leads him to take Sandra's car out for a spin, looking for acting work. This convinces Sandra's neighbor, the young mother Ashley, that the 200-pound animal is a threat and that authorities need to get involved. As Sandra struggles to keep custody of Trevor, the play, inspired by actual events, swings on thick vines of comedy even as it drops into tragedy.
"The core breakdown of communication between two people in the same room who are sure they are understanding each other is something I really relate to in my life with past failed relationships," Simpson says of the play, directed by Stella Powell-Jones. "Communication is the answer to so many human problems — just the ability to hear people and be open."
Hearing other actors is a big part of the appeal of live theater to Simpson — the idea that an entire story hinges, for a couple of hours, on the actors telling it onstage. Plus, theater is where Simpson got his start as a teen actor, playing the disciple who says, "Hey, cool it man," in a New Jersey community theater production of "Jesus Christ Superstar."
He began college at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania as a business major but switched to theater in his sophomore year. He also worked for four seasons at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. At some point he did stand-up in front of Lewis Black's agent, who eventually signed Simpson.
He moved to L.A. in 2002, where his career made a slow but steady climb that he never expected.
"It's always blowing my expectations away because I just don't have them," he says, laughing.
After "Trevor" closes, Simpson will begin filming a new show for the Sundance Channel with Christina Hendricks called "Hap and Leonard." But from here on out he plans to hit the stage regularly.
"I can say out loud now that I want to do a play a year," he says.