It gets complicated on ‘Counterpart’ but worth the effort, says J.K. Simmons

“I thought it was just a story about this kind of sad sack, lowly cog in this Fritz Lang dystopian bureaucracy. Then when the bombshell drops and we see the other Howard. My mind was blown,” says actor J.K. Simmons, who plays two versions of the same man in “Counterpart.”
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

The “Oscar bump” is a term often used to describe a raise in salary when an actor wins an Academy Award, but history has shown that it’s also the sort of recognition that can bring the right project and the right actor together. You can add a new case study to that list with J.K. Simmons, a supporting actor winner for “Whiplash” in 2015, and the sci-fi thriller “Counterpart.”

“It was back when I was getting a trophy every time I turned around, three years ago, and I was kind of a flavor of the month,” Simmons says of being approached about the project from Justin Marks. “At that point, it was just a script and there was no network, no nothing. I didn’t know Justin’s work. I knew [pilot director] Morten Tyldum’s work. ‘Imitation Game’ was on the awards circuit that same year, so I bumped into him a couple times and got a good feeling. [‘La La Land’ producer] Jordan Horowitz was producing, and I knew we’d be in good hands there.”

Despite the stellar team, Simmons was reluctant to join the project as the plan at that time was to shoot the series in Romania. With teenagers at home in Los Angeles, that didn’t seem feasible for him, yet he was still intrigued.

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“It was only one episode at that time, but I loved the character and I actually didn’t even know it was two characters until I got to that part of the script,” Simmons notes. “I thought it was just a story about this kind of sad sack, lowly cog in this Fritz Lang dystopian bureaucracy. Then when the bombshell drops and we see the other Howard. My mind was blown.”

Viewers learned of the twist during the Starz series’ marketing campaign. Thankfully, knowing about it doesn’t diminish the stylistic and calculated storytelling Marks and his team crafted for the show’s first season.

Set in “present” time in a world recognizable as our own, Howard is a 30-year veteran of a U.N. agency in Berlin with a mysterious mission — to diplomatically exchange intelligence with a duplicate version of the world (known as “Prime World”) that was discovered or created (take your pick) in 1987.

The people of the duplicate world were once the same people as those on Prime World. But when the planet replicated, they each went on with their own unique experiences shaping their lives. By the time the pilot is over, Howard meets his doppelganger, a Howard with the same early life but who has become a hardened intelligence agent, seemingly 180 degrees from the first Howard.

The show explores how people and the world can diverge over three decades if new events are introduced in their lives. Moreover, unlike many shows with sci-fi elements, it intentionally leaves a lot to the imagination with many questions unanswered.

The creative challenge for Simmons was significant. He has many scenes as both Howards, often playing against other actors as well. The season’s exteriors were filmed in Berlin for six weeks and the production then returned to Los Angeles for interiors for the rest of the shoot. Tracking each Howard’s journey in each episode required a lot of continuity.

“Lots of scrawling in hard copies of scripts,” Simmons says with a smile. “I had a stack of cherry, salmon, yellow, green, blue page scripts, 3 feet high in my trailer at one point. Any time they rewrite four lines, they issue a new script. It got a little daunting.”

Actors have played multiple characters in filmed content for decades, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t technically challenging this time around. Simmons says it required experimentation with different set ups for the best results as some were more “intrusive” than others.

At first, the production tried to have Simmons film one Howard first and then react to that recorded audio as the “other” Howard. Eventually, everyone realized that wasn’t ideal.

“Ultimately, there’s an episode where there’s a big sort of face-to-face scene across the glass between the two Howards,” the actor says. “And the way that was photographed was exactly as it would have been if it was just me and any other actor playing the other part. My stand-in, John Funk, did the same amount of work that I did to learn all the lines and everything, and they were able to make the cinematography genius happen in a way that really was very sort of actor friendly.”

Already into filming the second season, Simmons is still enjoying the creative process of exploring both characters. What he seems most proud of, however, is being part of a show that can be sophisticated, smart and entertaining all in one package.

“That was something [everyone involved wanted], a show for smart people that doesn’t lay it out,” Simmons says. “It rewards patience. If you stick around, things will be revealed to those who are really paying attention. You gotta hit pause if you’re gonna get up and go to the bathroom.”