NEW YORK (AP) — After playing the cowboy artist Charlie Russell, some called him Kid. After "Brigadoon" in summer stock, his cast mates called him Tommy.
"J.K., Jake, Kim, Kimble. Never my first name. Never Jon or Jonathan. It changed a lot, especially when I started doing theater, because I had groups of friends from this theater company or that theater company who would call me different character names."
Jonathan Kimble (J.K) Simmons is sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan, recalling the myriad names — almost as numerous as his many characters — he's gone by over the years. But by any name, you're more likely to know Simmons by his rubbery face, seen in everything from Broadway to insurance ads.
After decades as a recognizable, if hard-to-place actor — the father in "Juno," a Neo-Nazi on HBO's "Oz," the assistant police chief of TNT's "The Closer" — Simmons is getting some richly deserved appreciation. In Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash," he plays a drill sergeant of a jazz conductor at an elite New York music conservatory, pushing a young drummer (Miles Teller) to extremes.
His Terence Fletcher is an indelible, near-psychotic taskmaster who will summon any moviegoer's memories of a domineering perfectionist or a cutthroat coach. Expect to see his gesture to cease playing — a cinching of his fingers — and his trademark instruction, "Not my tempo," in your nightmares.
"This, to me, is certainly in the single digits of top projects I've ever been a part of, and I'm talking going back to the Big Fork Summer Playhouse in Montana," says Simmons, who was born in Detroit, raised in Ohio and first worked in the Northwest after graduating from the University of Montana.
That is about as exuberant Simmons is likely to get about his attention for "Whiplash," acclaim that could well lead to an Oscar nomination. At 59, he's been in the business too long and seen too many egos swell with celebrity to put much stock in the shine of the spotlight.
"I always felt like being a performer — a musician, an actor — was more about being a conduit," says Simmons, who studied music in college. "I still feel like my job is to lift it off the page."
For a veteran character actor like Simmons, the size of the part is only a small ingredient. Take the Coen brothers' CIA farce "Burn After Reading," which he so memorably bookends with just two scenes.
"I read the script and I said, 'This is the best part in the movie,'" says Simmons. "All this stupid antics, all this foolishness that Clooney and Pitt and Malkovich that all these people are doing, I get to cash it all in. It's like there are all these genius point guards and I'm like this 8-foot-tall guy just waiting to dunk it at the end of the movie."
He came to "Whiplash" through writer-director Jason Reitman (who has regularly cast Simmons). Reitman called to recommend "Whiplash," which Chazelle aimed to turn into a feature after first making it as a short.
"The first time Jason Reitman said, 'You need to read this,' it was 'Juno,'" says Simmons. "Anything Jason hands me, I'm 90-percent in right there."
Though Chazelle, 29, had only a low-budget feature to his name, Simmons took a leap of faith.
"It was a gift for a newbie like me to have someone who was willing to put themselves on the line for the movie that early on," says Chazelle. "Then it just became: Either I'm making the movie with J.K. or I'm not making the movie."
The drummer role was recast for the feature to add the up-and-coming Teller, but despite the interest of some big-name actors, Simmons remained. He had made Fletcher his own, giving him his all-black wardrobe, his shaved head, his precise gestures, his muscles.
"He showed up on set and he was Fletcher in every single way," says Chazelle, who modeled the character on a conductor of his from high school. "Suddenly, Fletcher wasn't my character any more. Suddenly, he was absolutely J.K.'s and J.K. knew him better than I ever would."
"The image that came to my mind for that was the Jack Lalanne version," says Simmons. "Everything I wore in the short, I pulled out of my closet. I was wearing the same T-shirts in the feature."
He and the 27-year-old Teller found an unlikely chemistry.
"The vibe that we somehow immediately fell into on set was just flipping each other's (expletive) all the time and behaving like two eighth graders goofing off in class in between takes," Simmons says. "Despite the fact that I'm older than his parents, we very much hit it off like peers."
But it's not lost on Simmons that one of his biggest successes is happening alongside a pair of 20-somethings.
"They're children," he says flatly.