J.K. Simmons has range. On Counterpart he plays two completely different characters who just happen to be the same man thanks to the magic of parallel timelines. For any other actor that’d be a crowning achievement; over the course of Simmons’ twenty-odd year career, it’s just another day at the office.
Vern Schillinger in Oz
Playing a white supremist who rapes his cellmate then brands a swastika on his butt is definitely one way to make a name for yourself. While Vern Schillinger was easily the most despicable character on HBO’s long-running prison drama Oz, Simmons gave him just enough charm to make him a bad guy that audiences loved to hate. But not so much charm that viewers didn’t cheer when his cellmate took revenge by bashing him in the weight room then defecating on him.
Yeah, Oz was pretty wild.
Mac MacGuff in Juno
You might expect the man who played Vern Schillinger to be somewhat less than understanding when faced with the news that his teenage daughter was pregnant. But in one of the early signs that Simmons could play pretty much anything, Mac MacGuff turned out to be a kind and warm-hearted dad, and the scenes between Juno (Ellen Page) and her father were some of the sweetest in the film.
The Yellow M&M
The soft stuff is all on the outside with this candy-coated peanut, who Simmons has been voicing in commercials for the last 20-odd years. Which was definitely more than a little weird when his best-known other role was as a neo-nazi prison rapist.
J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man
As the motor-mouthed newspaper owner who loathes Spider-Man (and doesn’t realise that Spidey’s alter-ego Peter Parker is working for him), Simmons was consistently the best thing in all three of Sam Rami’s Spider-Man films. In fact, Simmons was so good in the role, they retired Jameson when they rebooted the franchise. His character hasn’t been seen in a Spider-Man movie since – which, considering how memorable Simmons was, is probably for the best.
Will Pope in The Closer
The Closer wasn’t exactly a US version of Prime Suspect, but the idea was basically the same: a tough-as-nails detective (Kyra Sedgwick) who gets results is put in charge of an elite homicide unit to get results. As the man ordering her to get results, Pope was surprisingly (for this kind of series) supportive of his loose cannon underling – in part because he’d had an affair with her before the series began – which gave Simmons a chance to again show off a slightly softer side for 109 episodes across seven years.
Commissioner Gordon in Batman vs Superman and Justice League
Whether you enjoyed the most recent incarnation of Batman or not, it’s generally accepted that those movies didn’t make the most of what they had to offer. Case in point: casting Simmons as Gordon was a brilliant move, and then they gave him next to nothing to do. Okay, he got to light up the bat-signal, but c’mon.
Lenny Turteltaub in BoJack Horseman
Simmons has done a lot of cartoon work over the years, including voicing characters on The Simpsons, American Dad, Robot Chicken, SpongeBob SquarePants, Archer, Kung Fu Panda 3, Gravity Falls, Major Lazer, Generator Rex, Pound Puppies, The Venture Bros., The Marvellous Misadventures of Flapjack, Kim Possible, Justice League Unlimited and he was the voice of J. Jonah Jameson in about half a dozen Marvel cartoons. But perhaps his most memorable animation work was as turtleneck-wearing turtle Lenny Turteltaub, the jaded Hollywood super-producer of Secretariat who was willing to replace his lead actor with a computer-generated hologram without batting an eye.
Fletcher in Whiplash
Easily the most memorable and brutal music teacher in recent movie history, Fletcher took almost demonic delight in driving his students to the brink of collapse “for their own good”. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this particular mix of dark charm and relentless ruthlessness better: if you haven’t seen this already, it’s one not to miss.
Prof. Nathaniel Burke from the Farmers Insurance commercials
Simmons doesn’t do a lot of advertising work, but what he does tends to be memorable. Which is why across America he’s best known as the public face of the Farmers Insurance “We Know From Experience” campaign. Since 2010 he’s been popping up to point out that the insurance firm covers just about everything because they’ve dealt with just about everything… though rumours that they turned this 2015 commercial featuring a monster foot into a full-length film (titled Monster Foot) are dubious at best.
Season two of Counterpart starts at 9:30pm on Thursday, 21 February on SBS.
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