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From student to star

University of Montana alumnus and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons chats about family, fame and why Missoula still draws him back

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Odds are you've seen J.K. Simmons on screen by now, or at least heard his voice. From his heartwarming turn as the dad in Juno to his Oscar-winning role in Whiplash to his smaller cameos on TV shows like "Arrested Development," "Parks and Recreation," "The West Wing" and "Archer," Simmons has become one of Hollywood's most popular character actors. But before "Oz," before "Law & Order," even before the Yellow Peanut M&M, there was Missoula.

Since graduating with a music degree from the University of Montana in 1978, Simmons has become one of the most recognizable and famous locals around. Although he now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and children, he frequently returns to the Garden City and is slated to deliver UM's commencement address on May 14. In advance of this homecoming, the Indy spoke with Simmons about his latest roles, his ever-changing facial hair and what his family is doing to carry on the legacy left by his parents, Pat and Don Simmons. His phone battery was flashing low when we caught him, so we jumped right in.

I wanted to start off at the obvious place. It's been a little more than a year now since you took home the Academy Award for best supporting actor. What's been the biggest adjustment for you in this post-Oscar life?

JK Simmons: I sort of gradually built up to a point where I had a decent amount of work to choose from usually and even when I didn't I was pretty choosy. But I just have a lot more options now and a lot more opportunities, a lot more scripts coming my way. More to choose from. The public profile just walking down the street has certainly amped up some too, but that's kind of gradually been happening for the last 20 years or so anyway, so that difference wasn't too terribly dramatic. I was just in New York for a few days and because I currently have sort of a Grizzly Adams beard going on I was able to hide behind that. I got recognized about half as much as usual.

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Kind of the Letterma-in-Choteau approach.

JK: Yeah, yeah.

I'm glad you mentioned you were in New York, because you were hitting the late night circuit talking about The Meddler, with you and Susan Sarandon, which just opened in theaters. But you also just wrapped a project co-written and directed by your wife, Michelle Schumacher, called I'm Not Here. What can we expect from that collaboration?

JK: Hopefully much more in the future. This is a second career for her. She was a theater actor and then a full-time mom, and she made a short film with some girlfriends on a lark about eight or nine years ago and it's gradually built up into the latest, I'm Not Here. Hopefully there will be many more collaborations down the road.

What was it like working together on the set?

JK: It was great. It's really sort of three stories because more than half the film is really flashbacks of my character. So of the four-week shoot I really only worked sort of five and a half days. I was one of many cogs in the wheel, and my work happened to come in last week because of the way the schedule worked. It was great. I was spending some time on set when I could during the earlier part and it's great to see her in that environment and see her so capable and being the captain of the ship and having a great time, getting a lot of good stuff down—well, not on film. Now she's in the editing room and she'll exist in the dark cave for a while and put it all together. So now she's on her own, but the collaborating part was great.

PHOTO COURTESY OF TODD GOODRICH, UM
  • photo courtesy of Todd Goodrich, UM

The other recent career news is that you're going to be the DC film universe's next Commissioner James Gordon, almost a decade after your last outing as Marvel's J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man. What are you looking forward to most about diving back into the comic book movie world?

JK: I'm not sure because honestly—and, of course, god knows whatever I did know I couldn't tell you anyway—but I know very little about the first Justice League movie except that I'll do a little shooting on it in June in London. I think if things go as planned, I'll be a part of a few Justice League movies and be the latest in a line of character actors who have gotten to try their hand at Commissioner Gordon.

Switching gears, you're going to be delivering this year's commencement address at the University of Montana. What was your reaction when your alma mater reached out?

JK: Well, it's a great honor obviously, so I was greatly honored. I was also trepidatious and intimidated. I say other people's words for a living, and coming up with something hopefully interesting and/or insightful or wise or amusing to say to the class of 2016 is just not really my milieu. It's a work in progress currently and we'll see if I pull it off or if I muddy my family's good name in Missoula.

Your family has strong ties to UM, particularly through your dad's work in the music department and all the support your parents have given to the institution over the years. What are you and the family doing to make sure that Simmons legacy continues?

JK: The most concrete thing is that after my dad passed away, at my mom's behest we started a scholarship fund, the Don Simmons Music Education Scholarship. In the few years since then we've gotten that fully endowed, so there's that way of remembering him annually. The first few years we were all able to be there. This year, unfortunately, it's going to be only my brother David who will be there in person to help pass out the award.

There are a few sort of small monuments around town. My mom was instrumental in the whole Caras Park renovation and the beginning, the formation of Out to Lunch and the carousel and all that. So there's a tree and a bench down there that are in our parents' names, and just recently there's a tree on campus that I actually think maybe has not been planted yet but will be planted soon near the Oval that will also commemorate and call attention to our parents' legacy.

Honestly, the more important part of our parents' legacy is just carried on I think on a daily basis by the people that they have affected over the years, and certainly well past my dad's retirement from the university and my mom's from the Downtown Association. They were one of the most active and benevolent and helpful and involved retired couples that I've ever been aware of, and I think in the sort of old-school tradition of stories being passed down around the campfire, I think their legacy—even without the help of those more obvious ways of remembering them—lives on through the many, many people that they touched.

Originally from the Detroit area, the Simmons family relocated to Missoula in the 1970s and all wound up living together in a large house in the University District. J.K. says it’s those years of “family togetherness” he remembers most fondly. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF ELIZABETH SIMMONS-O’NEILL
  • photos courtesy of Elizabeth Simmons-O’Neill
  • Originally from the Detroit area, the Simmons family relocated to Missoula in the 1970s and all wound up living together in a large house in the University District. J.K. says it’s those years of “family togetherness” he remembers most fondly.

When you look back at your years at UM and in Missoula, what's your fondest memory?

JK: I always get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I walk into the music building. The last few years, of course, it's tinged with sadness as well. But we had an amazing three years or so there.

When my parents moved to Missoula it was just them and my little brother. I was almost 18 and was off at college and my sister was a couple years older and off at college in Europe. We came out to visit many months later and both fell in love with it and both ended up there. Our folks, they bought a nice little house that fit the three of them pretty well, but all of a sudden they had two more kids and my mom's mother who came to live with them after our grandpa died.

I have many fond memories of those years and the three generations of Simmonses living there in one of those great big houses in the U District that Grandma and Grandpa helped pay for. My brother walked a block to Hellgate [High School] and my dad and I walked three blocks to the music building. My mom and my sister were both on campus also, and Grandma was active in church and PEO and this and that. It was a great time of family togetherness. I had the best of both worlds because I had my own private entrance to the house. I could still live like a single college student but have a family meal whenever I wanted to.

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