The actor, perhaps best known for his 12-season run on CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” steals scenes opposite Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in the film, arriving in theaters on Aug. 6 before hitting Amazon Prime Aug. 20. With a screenplay by Carax and Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks (who also wrote the music and lyrics), the film is largely a two-hander about a famous couple and their talented daughter — the title character.
It wasn’t Helberg’s TV stardom or roles in films like “Florence Foster Jenkins” that enticed Carax. “I had never seen Simon’s work in anything,” reveals the director. “He turned out to be very special. It’s difficult to find an actor who can really play the piano, sing and whom I’d want to film.”
Like all of Carax’s films, “Annette” is difficult to describe, though it marks the filmmaker’s English-language debut. Helberg compares it to a fever dream, a painting and a poem. “I think it’s supposed to wash over you in some ways,” he says. “It’s profound, there’s lots of symbolism and it takes on these enormous subjects but it’s not preaching. For me, it was an incredibly exhilarating experience making it and watching it.” And while he considers Carax a genius, it was a challenging role; Helberg found himself in charge of 50 professional musicians and utilizing skills from singing to puppeteering to getting “tossed around a little bit by Adam Driver, who is not a small man.”
Originally, the French filmmaker wanted to make sure there were enough Europeans in the film to satisfy quotas that would secure EU funding. When asked the Los Angeles native if he fit the bill, Helberg noted that his wife, actor-filmmaker Jocelyn Towne, became a French citizen in 2013 (her mother was born in France) and their children go to a French school. “We had toyed with the idea of me trying to get French citizenship, but I don’t speak French,” Helberg revealed. What happened next was a tale of “many insane iterations and hustles,” as Helberg immersed himself in learning the language and began pursuing the French consulate “to the point where I wanted to put a tracking device on his car,” he joked.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter, as Carax cast a European in Cotillard, but Helberg is now a proud French citizen. Helberg laughs, “Maybe the joke was on me the whole time.”
If it was, Helberg is at least in on the joke – he’s winning raves as The Conductor, a character who stands in stark contrast to Driver’s arrogant, selfish comedian Henry McHenry and who becomes a surrogate father to Annette.
Though the actor has already shown his range working with greats like the Coen Brothers (“A Serious Man”) and Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), there is always the concern of typecasting. He points out that he was cast in those films by directors who, like Carax, had never seen “The Big Bang Theory.” (His latest director is familiar with his work – he just shot “As Sick as They Made Us,” written and directed by his “Big Bang” costar Mayim Bialik.)
“There’s a bit of a stigma that comes with being on something that is a ubiquitous, zeitgeisty thing that is so popular,” Helberg notes. “It’s not ever cool to be really popular and our show was very mainstream.” But Helberg hopes he’s been able to transcend that. “It’s conscious to some degree but it’s also that the things I really love to do and go after tend to be very different from the show. They also tend to be very different from the last thing I’ve done because I don’t like to repeat myself too much.”
He also is sporting a different look in the film – he grew a beard and his hair is long as The Conductor, which has had the unexpected side effect of people on social media commenting on his attractiveness.
When this is pointed out, Helberg laughs with surprise. “I haven’t been totally aware of that,” he says, “other than I’ve had people say like, ‘Oh hey, you’re really good in the trailer. Your hair looks great!’” To him, such compliments are signs of his range. “I’m happy that I get to look different and play a different kind of role. I will take any flattery. I will take any compliments and lord them over anyone that ever tries to get me to play a nerd in tight fluorescent pants again, so I appreciate the ammunition.”