Everybody in the industry seems to like and admire J.K. Simmons, and why wouldn’t they? He’s talented, versatile, dependable and affable. The fan club includes Aaron Sorkin, writer-director of Amazon’s “Being the Ricardos,” for which Simmons is Oscar-nominated as supporting actor.
Sorkin’s last seven screenplays have centered on real people, but he tells Variety he doesn’t picture the person, or any actor, when writing. “But in the case of William Frawley, there was only one actor I wanted. Frawley and J.K. is the closest I’ve come to writing a part for an actor.”
Sorkin’s appreciation began 30 years ago, when his “A Few Good Men” was a big Broadway hit. In a dual phone interview, Sorkin relates, “J.K. understudied the Colonel, which Jack Nicholson played in the movie. I heard J.K. was going on so I went to see, and he blew the doors off the theater. It was incredible.”
Simmons adds, “To this day, it was arguably the greatest experience I have had as an actor — certainly the greatest onstage. It was the thrill and overall experience of doing brilliant material with wonderful people.”
Sorkin says, “A number of wonderful actors have played that part. J.K. gave the best performance of anyone, including Jack.”
Simmons deadpans, “Can you just write that I’m suppressing a laugh at this point?”
Between that experience and the beginning of “Ricardos,” they hadn’t encountered each other in person. Given the longtime appreciation, Simmons didn’t have to read for the film role.
“J.K. doesn’t have to audition, certainly not for me,” says Sorkin. “We had a Zoom meeting and I felt like I was auditioning for J.K.” Sorkin wanted to assure him — as he reassured Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem and Nina Arianda — who play Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Vivian Vance, respectively — that he wasn’t looking for a physical impersonation.
“Playing these iconic people didn’t let it scare them,” says Sorkin. But Simmons laughingly adds, “We did let it scare us; we just overcame that fear. Beyond the four principals — and I wish Nina was nominated as well — it’s a beautifully cast and beautifully acted film, by 60 or so actors, and I was excited to work with them.
“When I got the script, I immediately read it twice, and this is something I rarely do. I so enjoyed the structure of it and the intimacy of it and the brilliance with which he gives gift after gift after gift to every actor.”
Simmons had decades of stage work before he started regular film and TV work in the 1990s, making a huge impact as villainous prisoner Vernon Schillinger in HBO’s “Oz” and the sympathetic Dr. Skoda in NBC’s “Law & Order.” Asked if stage experience helps a film actor, Sorkin says, “No doubt about it. An actor is a musician and their instrument. If an actor is stage-worthy, they will have a fantastic instrument, the way J.K. does. By instrument, I mean an incredible command over their own voice and body. I love what an actor like J.K. brings to a role, I live for that.”
“Being the Ricardos” earned three Academy Award nominations: for Simmons and best actor and actress contenders Bardem and Kidman. Sorkin echoes Simmons’ wish that Arianda had also been recognized for her great performance. and the writer-director concludes of the three contenders, “I really want them to win Oscars. These were very challenging roles, and these are three actors who don’t need to take risks.
“The only reason J.K. is not sitting on all his laurels is because he’s afraid of heights.”
Sorkin himself started out as an actor in high school and college, earning a BFA at Syracuse U. in acting. “As soon as I graduated, I came to New York. I realized my friends were learning how to act, but what I learned was going into a different part of my brain: I was learning what a play was.”
When writing, he says every line out loud. “I want to make sure the words are say-able. The last thing I want is for an actor’s job to try to make something work. I will at times go to the actor, as I did with J.K. and say ‘I need your help. I wrote a rough transition here and I need you to pull it off for me.’ ”
Simmons says, “It’s really refreshing to work with a director who understands actors and is open and collaborative. This is Aaron’s third film as a director. All of us actors had conversations, out of earshot of the maestro, saying we had a sense of complete faith in him as a well-rounded director, right from the beginning. It’s fun to watch ‘Aaron Sorkin Screenwriter’ become ‘Aaron Sorkin Writer-Director.’ ”
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