'The Tomorrow War' Star J.K. Simmons Knows You Recognize Him Now, And He's Okay With That [Interview]

At some point, you started recognizing J.K. Simmons. Maybe you started recognizing him after his scene-stealing role as J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies. Maybe you started recognizing him after he won an Oscar for his terrifying work in Whiplash. Hell, maybe you've been recognizing him for years — few actors are as busy, and fewer are so consistently reliable.

Simmons has a supporting role in the new science fiction film The Tomorrow War, the kind of small-but-important role he has been elevating for decades. But unlike 20 years ago, you know his character is important the moment he shows up just because he's played by an actor every movie fan has grown to adore. J.K. Simmons has become Hollywood's least-hidden chameleon.

Speaking over Zoom ahead of the July release of The Tomorrow War, I asked Simmons about his rise through the ranks of Hollywood "that guys," the impressive beard he sports throughout the new film, a key moment in Whiplash that has never left my mind, and whether he's down to return for a Spider-Man movie again.

You spent much of your career as a chameleon, and you've disappeared into a hundred different roles. But audiences have caught on. Audiences recognize you now. What has the transition been like, becoming an actor who gets audiences to perk up when they see you?

Right. I mean, it's weird. And I do, I've always taken pride in trying to, kind of, disappear and be the character instead of the guy. So, but I also understand that the more you pop up, the more that's going to happen. And it feels like I need to embrace the good side of that. You know, my little actor-y thing about it.

You play a bigger role in the back half of The Tomorrow War, but you pop up in one scene early on. It really pings my brain – oh, J.K. Simmons is here, so this guy, he's going to be really important. Is that something you keep in mind when you pick roles? 

No, I don't. And again, maybe I should. But I do actually pick roles now. I mean, for the first 30 years of my career, I didn't have my pick of lots of possibilities. And that in itself is a, sort of, a new position to find myself in. But I honestly don't pick roles based on how big they are at all. And a lot of the roles that people will continue to see me in will be cameos, essentially. A small something where I find an interesting thing to do.

So what was the fun here? I mean, there is absolutely fun here on paper. You get to grow a big beard, you get to fire a big gun, you get to go on an adventure with Chris Pratt. So was it just, hey, this sounds like just an absolute blast?

Listen, not shaving every day. That was a big part of the draw for this movie. Maybe not for my wife, but for me. Yeah. I mean, there was absolutely nothing to not get excited about with this movie. I mean, working with Chris, the script, the idea, the story, the character, the producers were, I mean, it was a big [happy family].

You don't betray the reality of your situation, even though the whole thing could be silly. Is that a particular school of acting? For you to realize, hey, I'm in a Spider-Man movie, I'm in Tomorrow War, or I'm in something very over-the-top, but I need to make sure I sell the reality, let me make sure people aren't making fun of this. 

Yeah. And I think the actors in this movie, the actors that I like working with are, there's always that same, I mean, there are gradations of it, but there's always that same commitment to the reality that you're in and the character that you're playing. And if it's a little bit more on the broad comedy side or a little bit more on the angsty drama side, grounding it in some kind of reality and relating to the other characters that you're playing the scenes with, is always what's going to make it work best.

I want to double back. Let's talk about the beard. Was the beard in the script? Because there's so much good comedy mined from your beard and I want to know how much that was written, how much that was you saying, "I want to have a beard, damn it."

Yeah, I was into the beard idea. I don't know how much they wanted the beard idea or loved the beard idea. But to me it was, there was no room for discussion. I don't shave for six months and if we're going to go somewhere cold, I mean, really that's what it was all about. I just didn't want to get cold. So I wanted to have a hat and a beard.

I remember Samuel L. Jackson told the Marvel filmmakers to never write a scene for him where he has to run. Do you have any major demands for blockbusters like this?

Samuel L. Jackson was a smart guy. I got to learn more from him. But unfortunately, because everybody keeps telling me, "Oh, I see you everywhere. You're in everything." Well, apparently, Sam Jackson is in the other half of everything because our paths have never crossed, so. I'll get the benefit of his wisdom up close and in person.

Yeah. I feel like that has to happen. The J.K. Simmons/Samuel L. Jackson buddy cop movie. Why hasn't that happened yet?

I mean, come on. Thank you.

I hope you don't mind me steering us down an off-topic avenue, but I've always promised myself that if I ever spoke to you, I'd ask you about one moment in Whiplash. Are you okay with me asking about Whiplash for a moment?

No problem.

All right. There's one moment at the very end of that film, where Miles Teller is going on his drum solo and there's a look on your face that is either intense anger or the most overwhelming pride. I've seen people read it both ways. Either people see the ending as the ultimate tragedy or as the ultimate stand up and cheer moment. Are you pleasing this monster? Are you angering him? There's a close-up on your eyes, where you can see, almost off camera, your mouth moves, like you're smiling. What's going through your head and the character's head? Because that shot has never left my mind.

That's one of the two things that [director Damien Chazelle] and I talked about the first time we met and talked about making the original short film, which would hopefully lead to the full length feature. And that ambiguity, that dichotomy is exactly that argument, is exactly what we were both hoping for. And Miles, too, once he was a part of the feature film. So the answer is all of the above, really, honestly. And although I don't, when we're doing the work, not actively thinking of, this is how I want an audience to perceive this. I am trying to embody and portray, really, all of that because it's all in there, it's all a part of it.

So, there is no clear answer to you? I feel some actors I've spoken to really like to just know hard answer, even if it is just for them to know. It sounds to me like you kind of revel in the not knowing.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think we do that all the time. We do that more than we're aware of in life. You laugh until you cry. I mean, it's possible to have three or four emotions surging within you at the same time. And anybody who's had kids knows that. They make you crazy at the same time that you love them, you'd give your life for them. So it's all of the above.

Well, you gave me a good avenue back into Tomorrow War because this is a movie about families, about kids, about what we owe the next generation. This is clearly a film about global warming. Is this something that was on your mind as you made it? 

I mean, I don't... During the actual making of the movie, I'm never thinking of the macro of it. I'm always just in whatever that beat is. And Chris, of course, in his character and his journey, deal more with, trying to non-spoilerize what's coming out of my mouth here. To me, it's the overarching themes of most things that I do, are not something that enters into my thinking after I first read the script and, kind of, absorb all of that. And from that moment on, really, it's just one second to the next. And I'm dealing with the microcosm of it, and with whatever actor is sitting across the table from me, which, in this case, happened to be a guy that I was a big fan of, coming in, and I'm a bigger fan of now, having worked with him. This Pratt guy that people have probably heard of.

And now, my contractually obligated Spider-Man question. If they gave you a call, would you return as J. Jonah Jameson?

[He pauses for dramatic effect] Yes.


The Tomorrow War hits Amazon Prime Video on July 2, 2021.