J.K. Simmons interview: ‘Being the Ricardos’
Long before he was a prolific performer who has worked with top directors like Damien Chazelle, Jason Reitman, Zack Snyder, Sam Raimi, plus Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, J.K. Simmons served as an understudy for the role of Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup in the original Broadway production of Aaron Sorkin’s “A Few Good Men.”
‘To this day I get goosebumps every time I talk about it,” Simmons tells Gold Derby about the experience. “Aaron, very generously, even though this was a year into the run, came to see me on my opening night. He came backstage after the show and we had this meeting of the minds and hearts and souls. Over the years we had near miss after near miss for one reason or another, not working together again.”
But now, 31 years after that fateful performance, Simmons and Sorkin have finally reconnected thanks to “Being the Ricardos.” Sorkin’s new film about a week of major upheaval on the set of “I Love Lucy” stars Simmons as cantankerous “Lucy” co-star William Frawley and provides the former Oscar-winning actor with enough sharp-elbowed zingers and bon mots to make up for the lost time between collaborations.
“I do hope it’s not another 31 years [before we work together again],” Simmons says of Sorkin. “Because I’m going to be a little on the old side by then. It was a great opportunity, and to work with him now that he’s directing his films as well. I’m reasonably confident that on stage or onscreen we’ll work together again relatively soon.”
Simmons is one of four top actors who Sorkin cast as the main players in “I Love Lucy,” with fellow Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem starring as, respectively Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Tony Award winner Nina Arianda playing Vivian Vance. But of that illustrious group, Simmons stands out as the only cast member who was alive and aware of the legendary “I Love Lucy” original run.
“It actually occurred to me recently that of the four of us portraying these iconic characters, I’m the only one who was born in this country,” he says. “So I grew up when ‘I Love Lucy’ was on the air and my parents’ little black-and-white TV had it on every Monday night and it was a part of my earliest memories, having it on.”
As Simmons found in his research, Frawley kept to himself and had distinct relationships with his co-stars. Arnaz was his closest friend in show business, Simmons found, while Frawley thought of Ball more as a niece. Vance, however, was a nemesis. The television couple was often at-odds backstage, a contentious collaboration Simmons and Arianda mine for great comedy in “Being the Ricardos.”
“Nina and I were actually working together on the fourth season of ‘Goliath’ when both of us got the call,” Simmons says of his real-life relationship with Arianda. “The fact that we both have the theater backgrounds really was helpful [in creating great onscreen chemistry], certainly in terms of being able to master Aaron’s dialogue. People talk about it, oh it’s fast, it’s fast. Sometimes it is. It’s rhythmic, it’s musical. It’s not always fast. It’s as important in Aaron Sorkin dialogue as it is in anything I can think of to really be able to listen to the other actor and not just be waiting for your queue. … Nina, in particular, in our scenes together was really adept at that and we had a really great time throwing the ball back and forth.”
Simmons won his Oscar for “Whiplash” and has gotten strong responses to his performance in “Being the Ricardos,” but he says it’s the ensemble — not just the four leads, but day players like Josh Bednarsky, who plays a PA who comes into Ball’s crosshairs — that deserves the recognition for the film’s success. After all, he says, with little time to rehearse due to the coronavirus pandemic and a classic Sorkin screenplay, making the film “was like being shot out of a canon.”
“Being the Ricardos” is out in theaters now before debuting on Amazon Prime Video on December 21.