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J.K. Simmons shifts into bad to the bone Billy Barber in ‘Defending Jacob’

Actor J.K. Simmons
Besides starring in the limited series “Defending Jacob,” J.K. Simmons helped record pandemic safety information for the Vox documentary “Coronavirus Explained,” streaming on Netflix.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A few years ago, J.K. Simmons found himself playing two versions of a character in alternate worlds. One timeline was very similar to our own. The other featured a world ravaged by a pandemic where a huge swath of the population was wiped out, and the survivors engaged in social distancing that found everyone wearing masks in public. To say rewatching Justin Marks’ “Counterpart” is somewhat eerie at the moment is an understatement.

Simmons is on the phone when the subject is brought up, but you can easily imagine the look on his face when he notes, “It definitely does make Justin Marks seem a bit prescient in a scary way, doesn’t it? Now ‘Counterpart’ has been airing lately and probably being seen by a different wave of people than the dozens who saw it when it was on Starz, so in my infrequent outings into the world the last six or eight weeks, I have been getting a lot of comments about that.”

More recently, the Oscar winner can be seen in “Defending Jacob,” one of Apple TV+’s first breakout hits that has become a welcome diversion for many during the stay-at-home orders. The limited series finds him playing Billy Barber, the estranged father of Andrew, played by Chris Evans, and grandfather of the Jacob (Jaeden Martell) in question, a teenager accused of murder.

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Trailer for the Apple TV+ limited series “Defending Jacob.”

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Serving a life sentence for the same crime his grandson is accused of, Simmons’ character didn’t even know he had a grandchild until Andy shows up hoping he’ll take part in a genetic test that could help Jacob’s defense. As the series goes on, he become an even larger player in Jacob’s trial.

“To me, with any project, is what’s on the page. Is it a script, a story and a character that I find compelling? That was definitely the case here,” Simmons says. “Then Chris and Michelle [Dockery, who plays Jacob’s mother] were a big part of the draw. And then [director] Morten Tyldum who, speaking of ‘Counterpart,’ he and I had met a few years ago when they were first coming to me with that idea. I’d found him to be a really, really visionary, deep kind of director. He was a guy that I was looking forward to working with again.”

“Defending Jacob” is an adaptation of William Landay’s 2012 bestselling novel, but Simmons chose not to read it in preparing for his role.

“The good news is that as an actor doing your research, you can find things of value, back story or whatever that can inform your creation or your collaboration on that character,” Simmons says of reading the source material. “But you can also find things that just have nothing to do with the adaptation that really can get in the way or in the worst kind of scenario, just be petulant about what’s missing [in the adaptation].

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“So, in this case I didn’t read the novel despite how wonderful everybody says the novel is. Sometimes in those situations I’ll read the source material later just out of curiosity or just because everybody says it’s a good read, but I guess I’ve been too lazy to do that in this case.”

Simmons pauses and then deadpans, “I’m so busy the last couple of months.”

Billy Barber isn’t just involved in the melodrama to spice up the family dynamics. The character is part of the film’s commentary on whether Jacob would be inclined to commit such an atrocious act due to an inherited trait. Hence, Andy Barber swallowing his pride hoping his father will take a test that might just disprove it. Simmons remarks, “My back story that fed into a Bloody Billy Barber did involve that. This ‘sins-of-the-father’ goes back further than my character, and that he came into the world just genetically off.”

In ‘Defending Jacob,’ based on the book by William Landay, creator Mark Bomback takes on the ‘murder gene.’ We looked into the science behind it.

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Neither writer Mark Bomback, Tyldum nor Simmons had any intention of making Barber out to be “not that bad a guy.” Simmons’ opinion is that Barber is battling for his own soul and for the soul of his son and his grandson. Then again, he’s not completely altruistic either. Barber may be stuck behind bars, but there is a delight in being able to screw with the system through other means.

“I’ve played some nice guys, and I’ve played some horrific guys, but I’ve never played a character that I couldn’t at least understand on some level what it is that motivates him, and what it is that makes him a human being,” Simmons says. “I’m not saying other actors can’t, but I can’t just play a character if I don’t have some way into understanding his point of view, his perspective. I don’t have to like it or agree with it, I didn’t have to become a sympathizer for the Aryan Brotherhood when I was doing ‘Oz,’ but I had to understand where this guy was coming from, and why he believed what he was doing was right, and that certainly is the case with Billy Barber.”

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Trailer for the Netflix/Vox documentary “Coronavirus, Explained”

Earlier this year, Simmons found himself doing some touch-up voice-over work for Vox’s “Coronavirus Explained” documentary that was released on Netflix at the end of April.

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“A little over a month ago when most of the country had been in some form of sheltering at home, they asked if I could set up a little home studio and add some more, obviously, up-to-date stuff,” Simmons says. “A lot of those interviews were from a year or probably going on two years ago. The warnings from the experts about the lack of preparedness, not just here, but everywhere, all over the world.

“Nobody was really ready for this, and the tragedy is that if everybody the world over had listened to some of these experts, we could’ve been more prepared.”

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