There are actors who have been making movies for a long time and have over 100 acting credits to their name, yet they’re relative unknowns to most movie watchers. Their faces aren’t synonymous with their real names, but rather with the characters they’ve played: “Isn’t that the guy who played Juno’s dad in Juno?” Often times, it isn’t until these actors deliver a breakthrough performance in a buzzed about film that their names become more widely known. Despite delivering memorable turns in big budget offerings, it is sometimes the smaller independent films that give these veteran character actors the right opportunity to showcase their stuff.
The latter is the case with J.K. Simmons, whose career has hit a high note as a fearsome band teacher in the film Whiplash. Simmons won both a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for best supporting actor in a motion picture for his role. He is also nominated for an Academy Award this year. The perennial character actor worked his way up through regional theatre, then Broadway and TV before landing roles in movies.
People might remember him first and foremost for his television roles as a police psychiatrist on Law & Order and a neo-Nazi inmate on Oz. I didn’t watch either show so my exposure to Simmons came when he made the move to feature films. Though he didn’t have lead roles, his supporting stints were memorable. He was well-cast as desk-pounding editor J. Jonah Jameson in the Tobey McGuire-helmed Spiderman Trilogy. He was wryly endearing as Mac MacGuff, the absurdly understanding father to a pregnant teen in Juno.
In Extract, one of my favourite – and, I think, underrated Mike Judge comedies – Simmons plays Brian, a factory manager who is frustrated by the dimwitted, disengaged and lazy workers he oversees. Simmons is great as the gruff higher-up who doesn’t care much for his staff. Rather than learn their real names, he refers to his employees by nicknames like “Boy Genius” for the guy who can’t drive a forklift and “Dinkus” for the lady who “axed” for a raise.
In his longest running role, which is still going strong after 18 years, Simmons is the voice of the yellow M&M in the television ads for the popular candy. Apparently Simmons wanted to be the voice of the fast-talking red M&M, but the voice casting director thought his lower range was better suited for the sweet, dumb yellow one. Perhaps being cast as the yellow M&M was a strange foreshadowing of things to come. Yellow is similar to the colour of Oscar gold, isn’t it?