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Q&A: J.K. Simmons on Understanding His Intense ‘Whiplash’ Character

It’s hard to say what J.K. Simmons is best known for — it could be his TV roles on “Oz” or “The Closer,” or perhaps his insurance commercials. But now he’s an Oscar nominee for his searing portrait of an abusive music teacher in Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.”

What appealed to you about the script for “Whiplash”?
This is one of those that just jumped off the page. I thought it was just word perfect. I felt like I could make the character of Fletcher happen.

How do you approach a character who is so unlikable on the page?
I completely understood Fletcher and where he was coming from. Whether he’s perceived as sympathetic or understandable isn’t something that goes through my mind.

You actually have a background in music, don’t you?
When I first met Damien, he wanted to put me at ease about the conducting. He said they would have technical advisers lined up. I said, “I actually have a college degree in conducting and composition.” My first plan was to be Leonard Bernstein when I grew up. So I had some credibility; I wasn’t just some actor up there, waving my arms.

Prior to “Whiplash,” what would you say you were most recognized for?
I get “Spider-Man” a lot, but it really depends where I am. If I’m in New York and walking up Eighth Avenue, I’ll just hear: “Yo, ‘Oz!’ ”

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