Interviewed by Lesley Coffin
*This piece has been pulled from two separate interviews with Simmons
Johnny Simmons was already of age when he made his acting debut a decade ago in the series Numb3rs and feature film Evan Almighty. Since beginning his acting career the Alabama native has made a career out of playing boys on the verge of manhood in films such as The To-Do List, 21 Jump Street, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower…all films which cast him as high schoolers well into his 20s. Eventually he matured in roles to college students, such as the award winning short Whiplash (the basis for the 2014 Academy Award nominated feature) and last year’s Frank and Cindy and The Stanford Prison Experiment, both films based on true stories. At this year’s SXSW film festival his starring role in the darkly comic crime film Transpecos won high praise and the Audience Award (along with several other awards at subsequent festivals) and at that 2016 Tribeca Film Festival he starred in two films making their debuts; Robert Schwartzman’s debut feature Dreamland and Noah Buschel’s The Phenom out now on VOD. I spoke with the soft-spoken actor about his starring roles in two coming of age films.
Are you starting to get a sense for what producers and casting directors think of you when you’re up for roles?
I have no idea. I wish I knew. But, then again, I think each role that comes up is the one that’s supposed to come my way at that point in my life. And I feel like I’m still learning so much from each of my roles.
This if the first year we’ve seen you in a number of leading roles. What’s the biggest difference between supporting and starring parts?
I feel like I’m still learning what the difference means. But it is a lot more work, because you’re there all day, and often you’re in every shot. And I’m used to having breaks and days off. So as an actor, your stamina starts to be built up. On top of that, I feel a level of perfectionism kicking in, which I need to avoid because a big part of acting is surprising yourself. In the beginning, I tended to over prepare because I felt I wouldn’t have a chance to get things right. But really, you need to let go the second you get there. You have to be willing to let go regardless of the size of the role, but it’s different when you’re the lead because you feel that added pressure. But regardless of the size, acting’s always just about finding out who the person is you’re playing and your willingness to go on that journey with them.
When you’re a supporting character in an ensemble, there’s often one scene that is essentially the character’s big or signature moment. When you’re the lead, there might not be a scene like that, and if there is, you might not know it until you’re filming it or when the director finds it. Do you feel like there’s a signature scene for you in a movie like Dreamland, where you’re in practically every scene?
For me, that’s the scene when I’m riding the mophead. But the movie changed dramatically from the script we all read. Robert went into the editing room and had a vision of something completely different. So the movie on screen’s completely different from anything I expected. Did you have a different one in mind?
I loved that scene of you on the phone with your mom when you got the dog.
Oh, I love that scene. That mophead scene’s the one that stands out to me because it’s the image you’d have if you took a snapshot from the movie. But I completely agree with you, as a full scene, that scene of him talking to his mom was so great. It moved me when I watched it, because there’s so much left unsaid, but you know you don’t need to say anything to know there’s so much left unsaid. I felt it when I filmed it, and I felt it when I watched it, and I’m so glad that you’re saying it now. And that’s the kind of work I want to do every time. Having Talia Shire (Schwartzman’s real-life mother) on set with Robert was just amazing, because she’s such a force of nature.
The press notes compare the movie to The Graduate, which has been the predecessor to a lot of coming of age films. Did Robert talk to you about any other films he was inspired by or that he asked you to watch?
When I saw it for the first time, the visuals reminded me of Drive, although the story’s completely different. But when I got the script and we were in pre-production, I felt like the movie was closer to Shampoo than The Graduate. Monty, in my mind, has an affair with a married woman outside of the relationship he has with his girlfriend, and at times is taking money for sex from the mothers of his students. So I wanted to talk with Robert about Shampoo and figure out how Warren Beatty’s character had sex with all these women and did he do all that unlikable stuff, and still made audiences’ love him? That’s the essence I wanted to get at about who Monty was at this moment in his life. The world just seems to be sweeping him up. His girlfriend’s not into him, but he just can’t see it. It’s an expired relationship but he just can’t let it go. Dreamland, this piano bar he wants to open, is complete outside of his budget but he holds onto that dream. He’s having an affair with a married woman, but she’s never going to run away with him. So those were the similarities I saw to a movie like Shampoo.
Your character’s at the center of the film and everyone else has to have a connection to him. Did you and Robert work on establishing a unique relationship with each character?
On these smaller films, you end up meeting an actress and just falling into each other’s arms without much getting to know you talk. Because you just don’t have the time to work on things. And the trouble is, you might not have time to build chemistry, but that’s kind of the job of an actor. Doing interviews aren’t entirely dissimilar to casting calls and rehearsals. The meetings aren’t totally natural, but it’s our responsibility to build an authentic rapport quickly. But we didn’t have a lot of time on Dreamland, but we made do at 1 in the morning somehow.
Did you have a favorite scene to film?
The mophead. I’d never driven a mophead and had to do it on Wilshire Blvd without a helmet, and the idea of disaster happening at any moment’s exhilarating. I was just like, “sure, let’s do it.”
I really liked your scenes with Alan Ruck at the hotel, which is this world that allows Monty step into other people’s lives that were just fantasies before. He plays the part of an old school a bar pianist or as a high-paying guest.
Alan was a lot of fun to do scenes with and those hotel scenes show Monty’s whole problem in life, but set in this strange new place. He does it again when he tours real-estate he can’t afford or goes to the bank to get a loan he would never get. The ambition’s there, he just has no ability to self-reflect. Even now, I’m not sure who Monty is, especially having just seen Robert’s new version. But by the end, when Alan’s character has sort of seen a potential in Monty he doesn’t see in himself, I hope I have a different look when I’m playing the piano in that bar. I wanted him to have a little bit more of an edge now, and make it clear that he isn’t playing the character of that hotel pianist, he’s taken the real job and does it as himself.
Do you think developing that edge is what he needed to get out of this experience?
I think about that scene in The Graduate, which was a complete opposite, where they’re on the bus and the camera just rolls. They’ve escaped, and got everything they wanted, but then they just look at each other and think now what? And Monty’s kind of the opposite. Things just keep happening to Monty, hitting him in the face, but in the end I think he has a bit more edge and has learned things the hard way, but he’s found the resolve to go after what he wants and find direction in his life. I think he’s learned not to have an affair with a married woman, I doubt he’d do that again…but I don’t think it’s soured him on love.
The tone and style of The Phenom couldn’t be more different. Had you seen Noah Buschel’s other sports film, Glass Chin and approach he takes to the familiar genre, kind of making the anti-sports film?
Noel and I kind of clicked right away because I never really felt this was a sports movie. Sports movies have a tendency to follow a pattern, and if you really like that pattern, they can be a lot of fun. But I tend to get bored by those movies. What I liked about The Phenom was, sports was almost in the distant backdrop of this movie, and this is more of a coming of age story. It’s about a guy coming to the realization about why a guy has lost what he always loved and what caused him to lose his abilities. I think anyone can identify with those ideas, I certainly could and I’ve never really played baseball. Sorting through how common a problem that is was fascinating to me, and realizing a lot of macho athletes feel the same way was eye opening.
A lot of the abuse your character experiences at the hands of his father focuses on his attacks on your masculinity? When researching the role and world of athletes did you find that to be an accurate way athletes are taunted?
With Ethan’s (Hawke) character Hopper Sr, that’s a major problem with his mindset. From what I understand, locker room culture, and even on the field, players frequently face the kind of taunting Ethan’s character throws at my character. And it took a long time for the sports world to admit those verbal attacks can have serious repercussions, admitting there’s an issue and that the kind of mental breakdown my character has is serious and something he can’t just snap out of. And I think the role Hopper Sr. played in all this, beyond just the abuse he threw at his son, was teaching him that it’s not okay for him to talk about his feelings or that it’s not something men do. And that’s a bummer, because I think a lot of young men raised with these ideas of masculinity are taught not to talk about their problems and that just makes them worse.
Because baseball is somewhat in the background and a lot of the focus of Hopper’s mental state focuses on a kind of performance anxiety, were you able to bring your own experiences as a performer to the role?
Oh yeah, I’ve definitely felt some similarities to that experience, especially thinking about our relationship to audiences and fans. Baseball fans aren’t like golf spectators, who remain completely quiet and focus on the athlete, trying not to disturb them. Baseball players and football players have to put up with screaming, cheering, and taunting fans, and dealing with that part of the game’s one of the hardest things to deal with when they are worried about performing. And movie actors have to perform with a similar kind of pressure, because you are asked to experience real, intimate feelings, but you have about a hundred people on set watching you. So I definitely felt there were some comparisons to draw from. You’re at your most vulnerable, breaking down or crying, something most people never want others to see you do, and you’re hopefully doing it for a lot of people. But I’ve learned to embrace that aspect of acting and I think it would be really interesting if we could all express our vulnerability in public more. It’s why watching kids can be so interesting, they just are who they are, until they learn what is or isn’t considered socially acceptable.
The film has flashbacks, but the age difference for your character isn’t massive. You’re going back and forth between high school and just out of high school and then to the present day scenes of you in therapy with Paul Giamatti’s character. Did you want to stress any age or character differences in those scenes?
If we had more time, I would have liked to have differentiated those times periods differently in some physical way. But part of the idea is he’s still a boy in a lot of ways. He’s stunted and has a kind of Stockholm syndrome, so he’s still in that very volatile space, physically and emotionally. It’s when he experiences the flashback on the baseball field and he goes back to his childhood self that I wanted to stress a difference. I thought about it almost the way I look at how we all go back to our childhood selves when we go home for a visit. I love my parents and I’d consider myself an adult, but when I’m under their roof, there are pieces of me from childhood I don’t like that surface. I have a friend who smokes in his real life and he’s a 34 year old full blown adult, but when he goes home he keeps it secret from his parents.
Was it a challenge to get into physical shape and learn how to pitch so you could play a professional baseball player?
Actually, that’s where I had the most time to prepare. We had a lot of pre-production time, and I spent a year going back and forth to training, and I got four good months where I was learning how to pitch like a major leaguer. And that was an incredible opportunity to get on this film.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)