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J.K. Simmons On Playing A Neo-Nazi On HBO's 'Oz'

Simmons was a regular on the HBO drama, which depicts the brutality of life in a maximum security prison. He spoke to Terry Gross in 1998.


Other segments from the episode on December 19, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 19, 2014: Interview with Meryl Streep; Interview with J.K. Simmons; Review of film "Mr. Turner";


December 19, 2014

Guest: Meryl Streep - J.K. Simmons

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. In the new film "Into The Woods," Meryl Streep plays the wicked witch.


MERYL STREEP: (As The Witch) By midnight tomorrow, bring me the items or that child you wish for will never see the light of day.


BIANCULLI: Streep has just received a record-breaking 29th Golden Globe nomination for her role in the screen adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical. She already has won eight Golden globes.

Terry spoke to Meryl Streep in 2012, the year she won an Oscar for her portrayal of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the movie "The Iron Lady. Streep is famous, among other things, for her uncanny ability to do accents. For "The Iron Lady" she had to capture how Thatcher's voice evolved over the course of her political career. At the age of 49, Thatcher became the first woman to lead the conservative party. In this scene, she's speaking before the House of Commons as the men in the room try to shout her down.


STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) Teachers cannot teach when there is no heating, no lighting in their classrooms, and I ask the Right Honourable Gentleman, whose fault is that?


DAVID WESTHEAD: (As Shadow Minister) Methinks the Right Honourable Lady doth screech too much.


BIANCULLI: Thatcher later took voice lessons from a drama coach to help her sound more authoritative. Here's Streep as Thatcher after those lessons addressing parliament about the war in the Falklands.


STREEP: (As Margaret Thatcher) We were faced with an act of unprovoked aggression, and we responded as we have responded in times past, with unity, strength and courage, sure in the knowledge that though much is sacrificed, in the end, right will prevail over wrong.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: Meryl Streep, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for being here.

STREEP: Thank you very much for having me, Terry. I'm a huge fan.

GROSS: Oh, whoa, thank you.


GROSS: So we just heard you before and after Margaret Thatcher has voice lessons, voice lessons to teach her authority and power so that she can speak more powerfully to the Parliament. How did you change your voice for the before and after, for the more confident and experienced Margaret Thatcher versus the early Margaret Thatcher?

STREEP: Well, I had evidence of both voices, you know, from the public record. So I could listen to them. And it's sort of my fun to sing along with records and imitate people who are on the telephone that have different ways of speaking. I mean, I pick things up like that.

So it's not a thing that's a struggle. It's work, but it's not a struggle. It's fun. And she had a very particular way of emphasizing points and making her point, and that had to do with bringing out a word that you didn't normally think was the most important word in the sentence. Do you know what I mean?


STREEP: And she also had a sort of a way, like a railroad train, of going, taking a breath and starting quite quietly and making a point in a way that you don't really know that this point is going to be made through several examples, and there will be not be a break in the speaking voice at any point.

And you - if you think you're going to interrupt, you're really not going to have the opportunity because she's just got capacity. It's just really stunning as I looked at interviews.

GROSS: So you need a lot of breath to keep talking like that. Did you have it?

STREEP: I've just been talking like that.


STREEP: Yeah, I did need a lot of breath. I needed much more breath than I have, after all of my expensive drama school training. I couldn't keep up with her.

GROSS: I think it's interesting that when you're doing the voice of a real person, or I suppose if you're learning an accent, too, you think of it as singing along with a record. So is that what you do? Like you play Margaret Thatcher giving a speech, and you do the equivalent of singing along with it, you give the speech as you're listening to it?

STREEP: I say that because that's my way in the very beginning - how to enter it. Very quickly in the process, I don't think about voice being separate from the way you hold your head or the way you sit or the way you put on lipstick. It's all a piece of a person, and it's all driven by conviction.

In other characters, it's driven by insecurity, or it's driven by fear, or - there's always a driver. And all the physical manifestations, you need your way in. So yeah, when I was a kid, when I was 16, 17, I'd come home from high school, and my dad collected all of Barbra Streisand's records. And she was very young then. I think she probably had three records out, and she was 21, and we had them all. And I knew every single song, every breath, every elision, every swell. And I sang along to it. But for me, it was a way to get out the feeling of the song, and also to get out the feelings that, you know, roil in high school, to express something that I had no other way of expressing.

And of course now I'm rich and famous, and I met Barbra Streisand, and I told her that, and she was nonplussed.


STREEP: She was just - we can't know what we mean to each other. You know, artists, you can't know - you can't know that, but she was really important.

GROSS: You know, I hear a certain similarity between your voice in "The Iron Lady" as Margaret Thatcher and your voice in "Julie and Julia" as Julia Child. It almost strikes me as if, and I never thought about this until hearing you in both those films, that if Margaret Thatcher kind of drank too much...


GROSS: ...And started being, like, surprised and delighted about how her, like, food concoction was behaving, then she might sound like Julia Child. What do you think?

STREEP: Well, they had a similar flutiness in - especially in the younger - Julia Child had a flutiness, you know?


STREEP: Which is - and it's also part of her class, the way that there are women of that time and of that class - we don't like to talk about that in America, but there are classes in America. And she was of a class of women who were wealthy, privately educated, went to Smith, moved in that sort of circle. She was conscripted into the OSS, which is the early CIA, which was all filled with Yalies and Princeton and Harvard people and a few women who were typing mostly but also had something to do.

And they had a way of speaking. I mean, the last person you would know, you would also recognize as having that way of speaking is Katherine Hepburn, probably.

When I was in - at Vassar, and I came from a public high school in New Jersey, there was - that class still existed. I think it's pretty much gone, but there was a way of talking that the private school girls had that was different than the way I talked from New Jersey.

GROSS: Let me play a little bit of you as Julie Child in "Julie and Julia." And this is a scene when you're on TV early in your TV career, and you're making some kind of like mashed potato pancake concoction that you're about to flip, and it's not - it kind of...

STREEP: It doesn't go well.

GROSS: It doesn't go well. It kind of splatters in the air, and half of it lands on the stove instead of in the pan. So let's hear a little bit of that. And this scene alternates with you on TV and with Julie watching you on TV.

STREEP: Amy Adams, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, Amy Adams is Julie.


STREEP: (As Julia Child) I'm going to try to flip this thing over now, which is a rather daring thing to do.

AMY ADAMS: (As Julie Powell) She changed everything. Before her, it was frozen food and can openers and marshmallows.

CHRIS MESSINA: (As Eric Powell) Don't knock marshmallows.

STREEP: (As Julia Child) ...we'll give it a try. When you flip anything, you've just got to have the courage of your convictions, especially if it's a loose sort of mass like - oh, that didn't go very well. But you see, when I flipped it, I didn't have the courage...

ADAMS: (As Julie Powell) She's so adorable.

STREEP: (As Julia Child) ...I needed to, the way I should've. But you can always put it together, and you're alone in the kitchen, who's to see?

ADAMS: (As Julie Powell) Pearls, the woman is wearing pearls in the kitchen.

STREEP: (As Julia Child) You've just go to practice, like the piano. I'm Julia Child. Bon appetit.

GROSS: I know I love that because you talk about studying someone's voice as if it's music, and she has such a musical voice.

STREEP: She does, and she has no breath, absolutely none.


GROSS: I was going to say that, exactly. It sounds like she's been running up a hill.

STREEP: She always sounds like that. I feel like that when I'm in the kitchen, don't you? Well, I'm not a very good cook, but...

GROSS: Me neither, honestly.


STREEP: I just...

GROSS: I believe that's why delis exist, so that I don't have to cook. But...


STREEP: Well, I got better after this, and my entire family really did appreciate it. Usually, they're resentful of movies that I go off and make, but this one had a bonus attached. But yeah, she had no breath.

GROSS: You know, I compared her voice and Thatcher's voice before, but breath-wise, they're the opposite because she's almost like gasping for air, and Thatcher has this, like, endlessly long breath.

STREEP: Well, she's so alive, Julia Child. And Margaret is so - is so designed. She's so intent upon making her point. That's the most important thing, is that she win the argument, and there is nothing that stands in the way of that train, you know. But Julia's just alive in front of you. That's part of why people loved her. They lived it with her. They breathed it with her. And the mistakes were all part of it.

But she was adept, too, at what she was doing - incredibly adept.

BIANCULLI: Meryl Streep speaking with Terry Gross in 2012. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2012 interview with actress Meryl Streep. She just received a record-setting 29th Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of the with in "Into The Woods," the film version of the Stephen Sondheim musical. It opens nationwide Christmas day.


GROSS: OK. So here's a story I read, which I assume is true, but you can tell me if it actually happened - that in - for the 1970 Dino De Laurentiis remake of "King Kong," you auditioned for Dino De Laurentiis and his son...


GROSS: ...Who were Italian.


GROSS: And Dino De Laurentiis said in Italian, what did he say?

STREEP: (Speaking Italian) I don't know. I can't speak Italian anymore 'cause I'm so old and forgetful. But he said something like but this is so ugly. Why do you bring me this?

GROSS: This being you.




STREEP: I'm sitting in front of him at opposite the desk. He smiling. He looks impeccable. He has everything beautiful. And his son is very kind. His son said - 'cause his son had seen me in something - and he said no, you know, dad, she's a wonderful actress. And because I just, I had studied a year of Italian at Vassar I could understand what they were saying and I said, you know, (speaking Italian) I'm very sorry that I'm not as beautiful as I should be but, you know, (laughter) this is it. This is what you get, sort of. And I left. I mean, I was very upset but I didn't show it. Yes, it's a true story.

GROSS: So, a very interesting story, because you're being told early in your career, basically, that you're not beautiful.


GROSS: You're not qualified. Your face is not qualified for this role. And you're also...

STREEP: Face and body, I believe.

GROSS: And body.


GROSS: But then you're also making the decision to let them know that you understand what they said. They were intentionally speaking in Italian so that you wouldn't understand them.

STREEP: Right. Right, right.

GROSS: But you did understand them. You let them know you understood them and...

STREEP: Because they did - they think actresses are stupid. That was the other thing that - I mean, not they 'cause I don't think his son was that way. His son was my champion. I mean, he was the reason I was in the office. But the dad, he wasn't being mean to me, he was just speaking to his son in Italian. But he had no idea that I would understand because they think Americans are stupid, too, so.

GROSS: Did you worried that you were basically - I mean, you hadn't been in any movies yet. So did you worry that word would spread about you that you were - that you spoke back to directors?

STREEP: A pain in the ass?

GROSS: Yeah. That you are a real pain and that you were, yeah, that you were problems, so like avoid her?

STREEP: I am a pain in the ass.


STREEP: How can I hide it?


STREEP: I mean, yeah, that is the package, you know, and - but I was not - I was not probably suited to that role either. I mean that was the truth.

GROSS: How much did you want it?

STREEP: Not much.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STREEP: I mean, I did want a break. But I didn't, I didn't think I would be good in it honestly, I didn't. It represented something that (laughter) - I don't know - I wasn't drawn to. So I suppose it was easier to be obstreperous in the meeting because - because of that. If it were an audition for "Sophie's Choice" and Alan Pakula had said something like, I maybe would have swallowed it because I wanted it so badly.

GROSS: You were engaged to the actor John Cazale, who most people know as Fredo in "Godfather I and II," and...

STREEP: "Dog Day Afternoon."

GROSS: "Dog Day Afternoon." Why am I blanking on the title? And he had a small part in "The Deer Hunter." You were nominated for an Oscar for your part in "The Deer Hunter." It was like one of your first films.

STREEP: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And so you were engaged and he died of bone cancer shortly after in 1978.

STREEP: Yes. We were not engaged, but we were a couple. We lived together and, yes, for like three years. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So he probably died not knowing how famous his roles were going to be, how famous those movies were going to be.

STREEP: I know. I know. He had - well, he had "The Godfather" movies were unbelievably popular and, you know, they were just - popular isn't the word. They were...

GROSS: Well, they've entered into iconic. Yeah.

STREEP: Yeah. Absolutely. And they did early. I mean early, early on they had that importance, certainly, in New York where we lived. And, you know, we would walk along the street and people would roll down the window and they'd go, hey, Fredo, you know, and we could never pay for a dinner if we went to Little Italy, never, which was great. We went all the time. But he, yeah, he made five movies and all five of them were nominated for Best Picture.

GROSS: You know, in his two most famous roles in "Dog Day Afternoon" and "The Godfather," he did not play somebody who was very bright, but he was supposed to be a brilliant actor. Was that disconnect hard for him?


GROSS: Being really smart and playing kind of dumb in his best-known roles?

STREEP: Well, he could sort of do anything. We met when we were doing "Measure for Measure," Shakespeare in Central Park. He was playing Angelo, the evil administrator of this town in place of the Duke who's gone away. And, yeah, he was - had great capacity as an actor, and he taught me a lot about acting. The directors used to call him 20 Questions because he would just ask questions all the time, all the time. Talk about a pain in the ass. I mean, he was really (laughter). But I learned that, you know, you can't know enough. You can't know enough.

GROSS: About the character?

STREEP: Yeah. And what - about the character but also what the vision is, what the person wants because it's such a collaborative enterprise, you know, making a movie. And the actors get all the credit, but it's really, it's filtered through the director's point of view, always, always, always. So you want to know what they want. You can read something on the page and it appears some, you know, what David Linn says the world is as we see it. So we read a script and it appeals to us or it moves us or jangles us according to our own lights but, you know, the director may have completely other feelings.

And so you need to know. You need to know. And John always would ask. Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Meryl Streep speaking with Terry Gross in 2012. Her new film "Into The Woods" opens on Christmas day and already has earned her a Golden Globe nomination. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. Meanwhile, from "Into The Woods," here's Meryl Streep as the witch singing a song to her daughter Rapunzel - a song called "Stay With Me." I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.


STREEP: (As The Witch, singing) What did I clearly say? Children must listen.

MACKENZIE MAUZY: (As Rapunzel, singing) No, please.

STREEP: (As The Witch, singing) What were you not to do? Children must see...

MAUZY: (As Rapunzel, singing) No.

STREEP: (As The Witch, singing) ...And learn. Why could you not obey? Children should listen. What have I been to you? What would you have me be? Handsome like a Prince? Ah, but I am old. I am ugly. I embarrass you.

MAUZY: (As Rapunzel, singing) No.

STREEP: (As The Witch, singing) You are ashamed of me.

MAUZY: (As Rapunzel, singing) No.

STREEP: (As The Witch, singing) You are ashamed. You don't understand.

MAUZY: (As Rapunzel, singing) I am no longer a child. I wish to see the world.

STREEP: (As The Witch, singing) Don't you know what's out there in the world? Someone has to shield you from the world. Stay with me. Princes wait there in the world, it's true. Princes, yes, but wolves and humans, too. Stay at home. I am home. Who out there could love you more than I? What out there that I cannot supply? Stay with me.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry's 2012 interview with actress Meryl Streep. Her new movie, a film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into The Woods," already has earned her a Golden Globe nomination. She stars as the witch, a role originated by Bernadette Peters on Broadway.


GROSS: You gave a terrific commencement address at Barnard in 2010. And one of the things you talked about was that the hardest thing in the world was to persuade a straight, male audience to identify with a woman character. It's easier for women because we were brought up identifying with male characters in literature. It's hard for straight boys to identify with Juliet or Wendy in "Peter Pan," whereas girls identify with Romeo and with Peter Pan. What led you to that conclusion?

STREEP: Well, it seems like true.


GROSS: I'll accept that as a defense.

STREEP: All right, all right. What led me to that? What led me to that was I have never - I mean, I watch movies and I don't care who is the protagonist. I feel what that guy is feeling. You know, if it's Tom Cruise leaping over a building - I want to make it, you know? And I'm going to - yes, I made it. And yeah, so I get that. And I've grown up well, partly because there weren't great girls' literature - Nancy Drew, maybe - but there weren't things. So there was Huck Finn and "Spin And Marty." The boys characters were interesting and you lived through them when you're watching it. You know, you're not aware of it, but you're following the action of the film through the body of the protagonist, you know? You feel what he feels when he jumps, when he leaps, when he wins, when he loses. And I think I just took it for granted that, you know, we can all do that, but it became obvious to me that men don't live through the female characters.

GROSS: Do you think that women have that kind of double consciousness and men, like boys...

STREEP: I think it has to do with...

GROSS: ...Don't make that leap, you know?

STREEP: Well, it has to do with very deep things, because it might be that imagining yourself as a girl is a diminishment. But it is something that when I made "The Devil Wears Prada" it was the first time in my life, 30 years of making movies, that a man came up and said I know how you felt. I know how you felt. I have a job like that. People understand.

GROSS: It's the first time?

STREEP: First time. First time. And they say lots of things. I think they - this is what I was trying to say in that speech. It's a very hard point to make because I guess it's hard to wrap your head around it, but for men the most - usually the favorite character that I've ever played is Linda in "The Deer Hunter."

Without question, of the heterosexual men that I've spoken to over the years, that's usually - they say, you know, my favorite thing you've ever done was Linda or Sophie. And they were a particular kind of very feminine, recessive kind of personality. So they fell in love with her, but they didn't feel the story through her body. And it took to "The Devil Wears Prada" to play someone tough, who had to make hard decisions, who was running an organization, and sometimes that takes making tough decisions for a certain kind of man to empathize. That's the word - empathize. Feel the story through her. And that's the first time anybody has ever said that they felt that way. And yet...

GROSS: That's really interesting. Yeah, what do women tell you their favorite role is?

STREEP: Oh, they love everything.



STREEP: OK? They really do. I mean, it's a range of stuff. But I don't know, I really think there's a difference between how men critics see things than how women tend to. And I don't want to make that - it's not a generality and I don't want to say that, but I just feel - I know I do the same thing. There are certain things that I just am not that interested in. Certain kinds of films - I just don't enter them.

I just don't enter the world, you know.

GROSS: So do you like seeing yourself on screen or is that an uncomfortable experience?

STREEP: I don't dislike it. I don't, you know, pop in the CD - the DVD.


GROSS: Let's look at that again.

STREEP: Yeah. But I do think when, you know, sometimes when scrolling through the TV and there's something on and I look at it and I think oh, my god. I thought I was fat? What is my problem?


STREEP: You know, when I was younger I spent way too much time thinking about that. So stupid.

GROSS: Well, Meryl Streep, I really regret that we're out of time. It's been great to talk with you.

STREEP: You too. Great to talk with you.

GROSS: Thank you so much for being on our show.

STREEP: Thanks, Terry. I enjoyed it.

BIANCULLI: Meryl Streep speaking with Terry Gross in 2012. She's nominated for a Golden Globe for her role as the witch in the Disney adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's "Into The Woods," which opens widely on Christmas day. Here's a scene from another film for which Streep was nominated for an Oscar, "The Devil Wears Prada." Streep plays Miranda Priestly, the demanding editor of a popular fashion magazine. Miranda is choosing an outfit for a spread in the next edition and trying to decide between two belts that strike her as very different. As she's deliberating, her new assistant, played by Anne Hathaway, is laughing to herself.


STREEP: (As Miranda) Is something funny?

ANNE HATHAWAY: (As Andy) No. No, nothing's, you know, it's just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. You know, I'm still learning about this stuff and...

STREEP: (As Miranda) This stuff? Oh. OK. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select, I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater for instance because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back, but what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue. It's not turquoise, it's not lapis. It's actually cerulean. And you're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here.

And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers and then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down in to some tragic Casual Corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance bin.

However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, we'll hear an interview from our archives with J.K. Simmons, who plays the abusive, intolerant jazz instructor in the film "Whiplash."


J.K. SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Why do you suppose I just hurled a chair at your head, Neyman?


DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Last week, actor J. K. Simmons received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as jazz instructor Terence Fletcher in the film "Whiplash." Fletcher is abrasive and abusive. But he's also revered by his students at an esteemed New York school of music. One first-year student wants nothing more than to be chosen as the drummer of Fletcher's prestigious jazz band. When he gets picked for the band, he starts attending the practices where all the student players try to perform impeccably because if they don't, they will incur the wrath of their temperamental bandleader. In this scene, the young drummer has just started playing with the band and is having trouble keeping time. Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, the student. Fletcher gets in his face - first verbally, then physically.


J.K. SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Five, six, seven.


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Not quite my tempo. It's all good. No worries. Here we go. Five, six, seven.


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher): You're rushing. Here we go. Ready? Okay. Five, six, and -


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Dragging just a hair. Wait for my cue. Five, six, seven.


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Rushing. Five, six, and -


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Dragging. Five, six, and -


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Why do you suppose I just hurled a chair at your head, Neiman?

MILES TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) I don't know.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Sure you do.

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) The tempo?

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Were you rushing, or were you dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) I don't know.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Start counting.

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) Five, six, seven...

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) In four, damn it. Look at me.

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) One, two, three, four...


TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) One, two, three, four...


TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) One, two, three, four...

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Now, was I rushing, or was I dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) I don't know.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Count again.

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) One, two, three, four...


TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) One, two, three, four...


TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) One, two, three, four...

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Rushing or dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Neiman) Rushing.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) So you do know the difference.

BIANCULLI: Terry spoke to J. K. Simmons in 1998, when he starred as another scary character - neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger HBO prison series "Oz." The program, which ran for six seasons, chronicled the lives of inmates and correctional officers in a prison's experimental unit. Schillinger was violent, sadistic and psychologically damaged, like most of the other inmates at the unit. Early in the first season of "Oz," the neo-Nazi torments his new cellmate, a young lawyer and turns them into a sex slave. In this scene, Schillinger has stolen his cellmate's family photos and is using those photos to further intimidate the scared newcomer.


SIMMONS: (As Vern Schillinger) You got a lovely family. I'm amazed you haven't showed me these pictures before - amazed and a little hurt. I hope you don't mind me finding these hidden underneath your mattress. My wife is dead. But I got two sons - 17 and 16. Handsome [bleep] kids, too - good Aryan stock, you know? My sons are devoted to me. I am an icon to them because I went to prison for my beliefs. They would do anything I asked them to - steal, maim, kill. Maybe I should have them go visit your family. Just a little friendly call? What do you think - my sons and your wife? My sons and your daughter?

TERRY GROSS, HOST: J. K. Simmons, let me ask you to describe your character, a Vern Schillinger on "Oz."

SIMMONS: He's the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood in the maximum-security prison, which is of course a neo-Nazi organization. He's a prisoner in for longer and longer as it turns out. And one of the main relationships I have is with another prisoner. And he and I have sort of gone back and forth in this dominant, submissive torturous relationship.

GROSS: I thought of the high points of the first season was when your character, the neo-Nazi, got your sex slave to perform at - I guess it was the talent show or something - with lipstick on, singing "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)."

SIMMONS: Yeah, we were - actually, originally Tom wanted that to be "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." But for some reason, they didn't want to give him the rights.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SIMMONS: So I was all prepared with my..

GROSS: That was a little "Oz" joke, wasn't it?

SIMMONS: I was all prepared with my I don't think were in Kansas anymore adlib. And then they had to change it. But "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" was, you know, a pretty good second choice.

GROSS: Who chose the song?

SIMMONS: Tom. Tom Fontana, our erstwhile leader.

GROSS: Now, the way you play the character of the neo-Nazi on "Oz," there's always this veneer of solicitousness. You always make it seem as if what you're doing is for everybody's larger good and you're an understanding kind of guy.

SIMMONS: Veneer? Vern's a sweetheart.

GROSS: Well that's how he sees himself. That's how he projects himself as he's, you know, doing some very sadistic thing to you.

SIMMONS: Yeah, You know, my general philosophy of playing bad guys, which I've sort of done, you know, half the time is, you know, very few people who we view as bad guys get out of bed and think what evil, terrible thing am I going to do today? Most people see their motivations as justified - as, you know, justifying whatever they do. And that's what I try to go with.

GROSS: Do you get any letters from members of neo-Nazi groups who have strong opinions about your portrayal of neo-Nazi?

SIMMONS: I haven't. I have had a couple of people come up to me on the street. But the only two people who came up to me and were sort of a little confused about the line between, you know, drama and reality where people who sort of agreed with the philosophy of Vern Schillinger and came up to me and said, oh, hey, you're that guy on that show "Oz." And I said, yeah. And they said, hey, man, I dig what you're saying. You know, that's, you know, and I sort of try to go my merry way as quickly as I can 'cause that's scary on two different levels. First of all, that, you know, that there are a lot of people who agree with that philosophy out there, and second of all that it's only a play, you know?

GROSS: You're right.

SIMMONS: We're just pretending.

GROSS: "Oz" was the first time I actually noticed you. I actually realized -well, who, I mean, well, who is this guy? He's really great. Let me find out more about him. And I'm wondering, where were you before that?

SIMMONS: At the Bigfork Summer Playhouse in Bigfork, Montana, doing musical theater, which is where I started out when I was in college in the '70s in Montana. And I bounced around doing regional theater all over the country for a lot of years. And when I finally got things going in New York, it was all on stage also. I did several Broadway shows and really just three or four years ago started doing television and film - things that people might actually recognize me from.

GROSS: Now, why did it take so long for you to break into television and film?

SIMMONS: Well, because I was - at first, when I started doing this, I just thought it would be kind of a fun thing to do. I never had intention of coming to New York or LA and actually doing more than scraping by - you know, doing plays. And as my career sort of progressed of its own volition, I did come to New York. I did Broadway shows. And I started realizing that this is actually how I'm going to make my living. So maybe I should try to do television and film and make a better living and get an occasional residual check so I can pay a mortgage someday. And, you know, I went shopping around for agents who I thought could help me more with those kinds of jobs. And I ended up in a big hit Broadway show - the revival of "Guys And Dolls" a few years ago - which all of us in that show ended up getting a lot of attention. And that helped sort of launch other aspects of our careers.

GROSS: Now, I saw that revival on Broadway and I guess I saw you and didn't realize it at the time because I hadn't yet seen you in "Oz."

SIMMONS: I played Benny Southstreet, Nathan's right-hand guy.

GROSS: So you get to sing in the oldest established permanent floating craps game in New York.

SIMMONS: Well, I sang the title song, "Guys And Dolls" with Walter Bobbie. And I sang the "Fugue For Tinhorns." (Singing) I got the horns right here.

Yeah, it was a great job, it was great. Fun show.

GROSS: I think we should hear you sing. So why don't we play something from the cast recording of the Broadway revival of "Guys And Dolls?"

SIMMONS: Oh good. I thought you were going to make me sing live, and I didn't warm-up.

GROSS: (Laughter). So let's see. You've said you're on "Fugue For Tinhorns." Why don't we play the part that you sing on the song? Or, one of the parts that you sing?


SIMMONS WITH CAST: (Singing) I'm pickin' Valentine 'cause on the morning line the guy has got him figured at five to nine. Has chance. Has chance. Guy says the horse has chance. For Paul Revere I'll bite, I hear his foot's all right. Of course, it all depends if it rained last night. I know it's Valentine. The morning works look fine. Besides, the jockey's brother's a friend of mine. Needs brakes. Needs brakes. This guy says the horse needs brakes. I'll tell you, Paul Revere, now, this is no bum steer. It's from a handicapper that's real sincere. I'll go for Valentine 'cause on the morning line the guy has got him figured at five to nine. Has chance, has chance. Guy says the horse has chance. Valentine, Valentine, Paul Revere. I got the horse right here.

GROSS: What a great score.


GROSS: So have you sung a lot on stage?

SIMMONS: Yeah. I actually was a musician in college, a composer and singer, and really intended to be the second coming of Leonard Bernstein when I got out. But I sort of segued into doing musicals and then into all aspects of theater, and then into a maximum-security prison.

GROSS: (Laughter). A natural progression.

SIMMONS: Sure. (Laughter).

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

SIMMONS: Yeah, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

BIANCULLI: Actor J.K. Simmons speaking to Terry Gross in 1998. Last week, Simmons received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as jazz instructor Terence Fletcher in the film "Whiplash." Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new movie "Mr. Turner." This is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Now 71 years old, the English director Mike Leigh continues his prolific career with the new movie "Mr. Turner," a biographical portrait of the great 19th century English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner. Once again, Leigh's stock company of actors researched and helped create their own roles. Foremost among them is Timothy Spall, who won this year's Cannes Film Festival and New York Film Critics Circle awards for best actor. Critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I've come to dread award season bio-pics, most of them middlebrow Oscar bait. But now comes Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner." And Leigh makes other directors look like simpletons. The film has none of the usual thematic sign posts or flashbacks to childhood traumas that spell out why someone was driven to achieve greatness. What Leigh does have, in this portrait of J. M. W. Turner, is Turner's art, which remains too mysterious to pin down. In glancing brushstrokes, he gives us the strange world and life of a man whose mind was barely engaged by anything but his painting.

Timothy Spall is Turner, a stout cockney in a top hat, who strides purposefully along beaches and from one end of Leigh's widescreen to the other, pausing to scrutinize the light the way a dog sniffs the air. That's what obsesses him - light - its texture, its frangibility. He uses that word - frangibility. It means brittleness, suggesting that light splinters and refracts into many colors, which it does in Turner's art. Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope allude to Turner's work in their own landscape shots, not to make the film look like a painting come to life but to suggest what Turner saw before he got to work transforming it.

Spall's performance is extremely good and extreme. He sticks out his thick lower lip and often grunts in lieu of speaking. Mr. Turner sets the record for grunts. Oddly though, when Turner does speak, his vocabulary is full of big words like frangibility. And just when you pegged him for a misfit loner, he'll stride boldly into the main hall of the Royal Academy of Arts and slap the backs of fellow landscape painters setting up for a big exhibit.


JOE WRIGHT: (As Joseph Gillott) Good morning, Mr. Turner.

TIMOTHY SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) No, it's Billy (unintelligible).

WRIGHT: (As Joseph Gillott) Delighted you could join us.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) (Grunts).

ROGER ASHTON-GRIFFTHS: (As Henry William Pickersgill) Damn fine spectacle this year, Billy.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) (Grunts). Aha. Very fine day to you, Mr. Stothard.

EDWARD DE SOUZA: (As Thomas Stothard) (Laughter). Mr. Turner, sir.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) (Grunts). Constable.

JAMES FLEET: (As John Constable) Turner.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) (Grunts). Jonesy. Gordo.

RICHARD BREMMER: (As George Jones) William.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) The hanging committee.

>>BREMMER (As George Jones) Do you approve?

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) Did well out.

BREMMER: (As George Jones) Gratzi.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) Prego (laughter).

WRIGHT: (As Joseph Gillott) Did everything be to your satisfaction, Mr. Turner?

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) It is indeed, Mr. President. It's a splendid cornucopia.

WRIGHT: (As Joseph Gillott) Cornucopia?

TOM EDDEN: (As CR Leslie) Good morning, Turner.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) Good morning to you, Mr. Leslie, Robby.

JAMIE THOMAS KING: (As David Roberts) Good morning, Mr. Turner.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) My other piece, where is it located?

EDDEN: (As CR Leslie) We placed it in the anteroom.

SPALL: (As J. M. W. Turner) The anteroom? (Grunts).

EDELSTEIN: Artist bio-pics tend to be laughably overfull of exposition. But in "Mr. Turner," Mike Leigh would rather glide over details than be caught spoon-feeding his audience. He's arrogant about such things, which I kind of love him for. We have to infer the twisted nature of the relationship between Turner and his shy, rather simple, housekeeper Hannah Danby played by Dorothy Atkinson. We don't know why Turner coldly refuses to acknowledge publicly the children he had with Hannah's aunt played by Ruth Sheen. And I don't think Turner does either. He's a mystery to himself. He's not a cruel man, merely selfish, childlike and emotionally stunted. He concentrates on other realms.

In one scene, Scottish physicist Mary Somerville, played by Lesley Manville, arrives to demonstrate the magnetic properties of violet, and as she gazes on the spectrum, she tells Turner, all things on earth are connected. The philosophy is right there in Turner's work, where the presence of humans suffuses the landscape and vice versa. Finishing a picture as it hangs in the Academy, Turner spits on the canvas and adds a puff of yellow paint dust to make the colors radiate beyond the boundaries of objects. When he's done, the paintings seem magically indefinite, like the movie.

Near the end, the photographer, one of the first, sets up shop in London, and Turner poses while brooding that painters could be supplanted once people have access to literal reproductions. Then he decides the reality he sees will never be captured by a camera. He's right. But thanks to Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall, the medium of cinema does pretty great by him.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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