Q&A: Oscar winner J.K. Simmons on his long career and pulling double duty in the new Starz thriller ‘Counterpart’

Academy Award-winning actor J.K. Simmons is pulling double duty in the new Starz spy series "Counterpart."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

On an ordinary weekday morning, J.K. Simmons contemplates the “what ifs” in his life.

The 63-year-old actor has played dozens of characters over the course of a decades-long career, including a neo-Nazi in the HBO series “Oz,” the enigmatic music teacher in “Whiplash” and the guy who knows a thing or two in those Farmers Insurance commercials.

But would those roles, and his other life achievements, still have fallen into place if, at roughly 35 years old, a theater gig as an understudy on Broadway had gone differently?

“I thought I was going to have the opportunity to move up from being the understudy to playing the part,” Simmons explains, careful not to reveal the name of the play. “And it seemed like, in a fair world, that would have been the case. The playwright wanted me, the director. It was a perfect match.”

“But,” he continued, “it didn't go my way because the producers felt they needed somebody recognizable. It was just personally crushing to me at the time… and I really felt ignorantly confident that it was going to happen, because it should have happened.”

Simmons went to his agent’s office the next day because he wanted “something else, anything else.” That something else turned out to be the role of Captain Hook in the 1991 Broadway revival of “Peter Pan,” where he met his wife, Michelle Schumaker.

“So what seemed like a bad piece of luck professionally led me to my wife,” Simmons says. “And here, talking to you. But it is interesting to think of what path my career would have taken had that understudy job turned into something. Would I have found my way to ‘Whiplash’ or this? I don’t know.”

“This” is the new spy thriller “Counterpart,” which finds Simmons pulling double duty, playing two versions of the same character. The talk of “what ifs” are a by-product of the show’s premise. The Berlin-set series, which premieres Sunday on Starz, centers on a bureaucratic agency that is concealing a secret portal to an alternate universe, in which there are replicas of people living lives that have diverged in small ways from their doppelganger.

Viewers are first introduced to Simmons as Howard Silk, a dutiful low-level employee in the agency supervising the portal, before the character’s other, more hardened self, Howard Prime, makes his appearance.

The Times recently spoke with Simmons about working for two, life after winning an Oscar for “Whiplash” and his path to acting. The following is an edited version of the conversation.

You said you were surprised by the twist in the series — had you not been told this part would require you to play two characters beforehand?

I don't know if this is usual or unusual, but whenever my agent sends me something, I just read the script. I don't read the breakdown or the synopsis because I don't want to have my opinion colored by anything other than the script. So I had no idea what this show would be about. So, I'm reading the script... and when it gets to the point where ... the Big Reveal happens — I would love to see the video of my reaction because I had a very visceral, physical reaction. It was really mind-blowing just as a reader. I was glad that I hadn't been approached to say, "Hey, they want you to play this. And it's two characters. It's a parallel world." Unfortunately, of course, audiences won't have that same experience as me because the description of the show is out there.

What kind of scripts had been coming your way after winning an Oscar for “Whiplash”? Had you been looking to make a return to television?

No, I really wasn't. I was getting a fair amount of [scripts] — because of Hollywood's usual lack of imagination — "Oh, we need a guy who berates everybody in his path. Let's hire that guy."

Really, most of those kinds of things weren't interesting. I did one of those. That was kind of fun. I just took a small part in a feature. But this came along and it wasn't attached to Starz. I went to the meeting just because I really loved the script. I really did not think I was going to do the job because I wasn't sure I was right for it. I wasn't sure I wanted to put in that much time, frankly, because it was clear that it was going to be long hours to play those two characters. And also at the time, the plan was to shoot the whole thing in Europe, and I didn’t want to be away from my family. Initially, I really was trying to talk my way out of a job and the final straw was when I said, "I just can't go off to Europe for 5 months." I have kids in school — a life that I'm not willing to put on the back burner. And glances were exchanged and, next thing you know we’re shooting in L.A. I guess you win a few trophies and all of a sudden you can throw your weight around.

It is kind of crazy. I never really had great ambition or a plan. I just kind of fell in love with pretending to be other people.

J.K. Simmons

What went into forming the identities of what is essentially two versions of the same character?

[Creator and executive producer] Justin Marks and I talked about making distinct physical differences — more weight for one, or more hair. And in a way, I would have liked to have done it.

I thought, "Well, the first Howard that we meet — the kinder, gentler Howard, as I refer to him, and who I really still think of as the protagonist — I thought, "Well his exercise regime would be riding his bicycle to work and being very cardio, and the other Howard would be in the gym pounding weights." And they would have a slightly different physique. I even went so far as to think, "Is one of these guys vain enough to be wearing a toupee?" And I thought that they've had different dentists for 30 years, so does one of them have a better set of teeth? But really, at the end of the day it was just impractical and expensive.

We have a little something up our sleeve for season two. They're working out the logistics to make sure we can actually do it. But there may be a little more of a physical differentiation for much of the second season.

In the spirit of the show and keeping the 'what if’ theme going, what do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t acting?

I would probably be a starving musician instead. When I was in college, studying music, I was planning on getting my music education degree as well, but then I did my student teaching and I realized that: A) I was terrible at it, and B) I really hate it.

It just wasn't for me. My father was a teacher, my sister's a teacher. My brother is a Renaissance man, and working with kids is one of the things he does as well. I mean, I love kids. I’ve loved being involved in every step of my kids' childhood and coaching T-ball and everything else. But when I was in college and did the student teaching, it was just clear to me that that was not my calling. And, you know, as you go along in your own education, you realize some of your teachers are passionate about what they're doing, and some of them are not, and I did not want to be one of those teachers who's just punching the clock and waiting for the day to end.

I was looking at your IMDb page today and it’s a stunning list of credits—

It is kind of crazy. I never really had great ambition or a plan. I just kind of fell in love with pretending to be other people. My tendency is to not want to repeat myself too much, and I've been fortunate to have enough of a variety offered to me. The reality is, I was already not hurting for opportunities before “Whiplash.” But since all the attention from that movie, the number of scripts coming my way has increased a lot, but the end result is that I'm working less. I'm being even more picky than I used to be. The mortgage is paid, the kid's college tuition is covered


Where: Starz

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)