November 30, 2009
2009 Cassavetes Award Presented to Actor J.K. Simmons
As terrifying as J. K. Simmons was as white supremacist Vern Schillinger in the acclaimed HBO prison drama OZ, it’s a little hard to imagine that he got his start as a singer, graduating from the University of Montana with a degree in music. His acting career began onstage with an off-Broadway stint in the 1987 musical Birds of Paradise; following a quick rise through the ranks, he made his Broadway debut in 1990 and went on to appear in Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Das Barbecü, and as Benny Southstreet in Guys and Dolls.
By 1994 he had already turned to the big screen, landing roles in The Ref and The Scout that were soon followed by The First Wives Club, The Jackal, Anastasia, and Celebrity. Recognized both for his versatility and his deep voice, he caught the eye of some of the industry’s top directors – repeatedly. Sam Raimi cast him in For Love of the Game, The Gift, and the ongoing Spiderman series in the key role of newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson. He undertook the unforgettable role of Garth Pancake, an explosives ace with irritable bowel syndrome, in the Coen Brothers’ 2004 remake of The Ladykillers (and he worked with the Coens again in Burn after Reading). He appeared in Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican opposite Brad Pitt, in Joan Chen’s Autumn in New York, in Lasse Hallström’s The Cider House Rules, and alongside Sam Elliott and Joan Allen in Campbell Scott’s Off the Map. That was all prior to the sensation that was Jason Reitman’s Juno (SDFF 30) – in which Simmons “brought down the house,” to quote Roger Ebert, as Ellen Page’s father Mac MacGuff. (Simmons also appeared in Reitman’s satirical Thank You for Smoking). Simmons continues to be in high demand for the small screen as well: he’s a major player in TNT’s The Closer, as he was in the classic series Law & Order.
With that “classic gangster mug,” as then–New York Times theater critic Frank Rich called it, J. K. Simmons was born to be an amazing character actor in the tradition of Ned Sparks and Eddie Albert. But stars are made, as Simmons is proving with simultaneous muscle and grace he shows in every part he plays – and for that we at SDFF 32 are grateful.
In this podcast interview, Simmons and noted film critic Robert Denerstein discuss the works of John Cassavetes, Simmons’ long career on stage and on screen, and look back on his most memorable characters.