“Did you think of [your character] as a psychopath?” asked Amy Taubin, who moderated the New York Film Festival press conference for the indie drama “Whiplash,” which premieres at the fest on Sunday night, September 28, and opens in limited release on October 10.
Actor J.K. Simmons answered, “If I say no, will you hate me?”
Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a music teacher who inflicts verbal and physical abuse on an aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller). The story was inspired by the personal experiences of writer-director Damien Chazelle, who himself was a student drummer. Explained Chazelle, “I had a conductor who made a point of terrifying his students and his players, and my motivation for being a drummer was born out of fear, which in a way is so antithetical to what art should be.”
The director added, “It poses I think a lot of questions, especially with a music like jazz that is so renowned for its sense of freedom – the whole music itself being a kind of a ‘Fuck you’ to authority, the fact that there’s such an authoritative streak in a lot of big band jazz, at least, to me is kind of paradoxical.”
A bit of the student-teacher dynamic seemed to work its way into Chazelle and Simmons’s playful rapport; the actor poked fun at the relative inexperience of the now 29-year-old filmmaker: “When I met Damien and saw that he was, you know, 11-years-old, it’s a real leap of faith to go with a technically second-time director on a film like this. I knew he was a writer; it was a brilliant script, but I certainly had concerns about working with an adolescent,” he said, but he was equally effusive in his praise, adding, “from the very beginning, his hand, including in the editing room, was unerring.”
Simmons, showing a bit more of the Terence Fletcher spirit, discussed his process of getting into character, explaining that it wasn’t complicated at all: “All I did was read what Damien wrote and look at Miles, who is just such a slappable little bastard.”
Simmons admitted that Fletcher is a “borderline psychopath,” but playing him had dual benefits for the actor, who also had past training as a musician: “It was deeply moving for me to work with musicians of that caliber and sort of relive that part of my youth after having taken so many left turns in my career … To work with musicians like that, to be doing that every day at work and/or screaming at people, those are two of my favorite things.”