What You Never Knew About J.K. Simmons

You might say J.K. Simmons is a late bloomer, in terms of his career in Hollywood. In 1997, the actor, known more for his work on Broadway, nailed his breakout role in "Oz," playing neo-Nazi inmate Vernon Schillinger, Since then, he's been making up for lost time, with barely a gap in his acting resume. Though he's played his share of guys we love to hate, he also portrayed a skeptical shrink on "Law & Order," and showed his softer side as a compassionate dad in "Juno."

He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in his role as a punishing music teacher in the 2014 film, "Whiplash," and scored a second nod in 2021 for portraying William Frawley in "Being the Ricardos." He's a busy voice actor to boot, with J. Jonah Jameson in "Spider-Man: No Way Home" as just one of his signature characters. The Farmers Insurance spokesperson, who, alongside Sissy Spacek, headlines Amazon's sci-fi series "Night Sky," can literally do anything.

So, what else do we know about this in-demand star? The "Palm Springs" actor has experienced setbacks and disappointments to get where he is today, but maintains his sense of humor in spite of it. He has lots of behind-the-scenes stories to share, so let's dive in.

He was a jock in high school

Jonathan Kimble Simmons was born in the Detroit area, but spent much of his early life in Ohio, according to Men's Health. He shortened his name to "J.K." before launching his film career, per The Guardian. In high school, he sported long blonde hair and played JV football. At John Worthington High, you had three choices – be a jock, a nerd, or "a weird hippie freak. You cannot cross these lines," he explained. After ending up on a team with the motto, "It's gotta hurt!," he was sorry he did.

In 2015, he told Esquire his abusive coaches made his life a living hell, screaming at players and denying them water. "I literally got kicked in the a** repeatedly and called all kinds of names," he said. So, the young athlete traded in his cleats and team jersey for sandals and tie-dyed t-shirts. "I went from being a jock to a hippie," he said. "Quickly, I was back in the pine trees with the hippies, listening to my Jimi Hendrix and my Janis Joplin and turning on, tuning in and dropping out."

But there's more to this story. He questioned if being a football player was worth his time, since he thought the hippie girls were prettier than the jock girls. He also was diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter disease, a common affliction in adolescents, which causes knee pain. That, unfortunately, put an end to his football career once and for all.

He studied music in college

J.K. Simmons said he was influenced by his dad, a high school music teacher, when he chose his major at the University of Montana. In 2014, he told The Detroit News that in college he developed an interest in choirs, music composition, and conducting. "So I ended up getting my degree in music performance. Thought I might be Leonard Bernstein when I grew up," he said. "Took a couple of left turns and here we are."

At first, he was double majoring in music education as well, but that changed after he began practicing teaching. "I hated it and I was bad at it," he said. Soon after, he discovered his true passion at The Bigfork Summer Playhouse in Montana. At the time, he explained, "I was just beginning that transition from 'I'm going to sing Brahms for the rest of my life' to musical theater. I fell in love with the drama of it, the comedy of it, the telling stories, the collaboration of it, the communication of it," he said.

From there, the aspiring thespian moved to Seattle for more theater work, then to New York, per Men's Health. With only $400 to his name and a broken-down Fiat convertible, he hoped he could find work as an actor, but he set the bar low. "I didn't really have specific goals," the "Counterpart" star shared. "I didn't even really have ambition — other than once I fell in love with theater, I just wanted to keep acting."

J.K. Simmons sang telegrams in a tutu

J.K. Simmons paid his dues on and off-Broadway and in regional theater, and as many actors do, he dealt with a lot of rejection, per Variety. He appeared on Broadway in "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," "Guys and Dolls," as Benny Southstreet, and he played Captain Hook in "Peter Pan." Odd jobs helped to pay the bills, and you might find one of his go-to gigs particularly odd.

As the "La La Land" actor explained on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," "The main thing I was doing was the tutu-grams," he said. "It was dudes with beards and otherwise sort of mountainy-looking dudes with tutus. It was my main source of both income and embarrassment." Another money-making side hustle was selling beer for $1 a can to guys playing ball in Central Park on hot summer days, per Men's Health. Still, it was tough to make ends meet.

Along with his theater gigs at the time, which only paid about $40 a day, Simmons hardly had enough to pay for his expenses and what he described as "some s****hole sublet in Hell's Kitchen" he used as a crash pad. But don't call him a struggling actor. "I don't use the word 'struggle," he said. "Struggle is people who have three kids and are trying to keep a roof over their heads. I was just a single, dumba** guy with no responsibilities other than getting a slice of pizza."

He was 'pushing 40' in his first film role

Performing in the 1992 Broadway revival of "Guys and Dolls" was a turning point in J.K. Simmons' career. In 2014, he told NPR being in the hit show made him realize it was time to take his shot at TV and film, and make his living that way. Two years later, the actor who was "pushing 40," made his feature film debut in "The Ref." In a 2021 interview with GQ, Simmons explained it started with a heart-to-heart conversation with his agent.

Simmons told the agent, "I think it's time for me to grow up, maybe start a family, and it would be nice to get a residual check once in a while." That's when "Oz" creator Tom Fontana came into the picture, and everything changed. Playing Vernon Schillinger, leader of the Aryan Brotherhood on the HBO prison series turned out to be Simmons' big break, but he knew it was a huge gamble, per Men's Health.

"There was a danger that if this is first thing everybody sees me do," Simmons thought, "nobody's going to ask me to do anything except play the Nazi of the week on every cop show." After wrapping the first season of "Oz," Simmons got a call from "Law & Order" producers to play Dr. Emil Skoda on the show. "So I ended up with the ideal yin and yang as people were seeing me on screen for the first time," he explained to Entertainment Weekly.

A 'horrible thing' led him to his wife

Back in the mid-90s, as J.K. Simmons' screen career was starting to pick up steam, there was one big setback for the rising star, per The Guardian. After understudying the role of the Colonel in "A Few Good Men" on Broadway numerous times, Simmons thought he would finally get his shot. Ron Perlman, who had been playing the role, left the show, and producers ended up casting a more famous actor instead to replace him.

"There was nobody on the planet, no other actor, that was more the right guy for that role at that production," he said. That slap in the face really stung, even years later. "I still get emotional about it; how could the universe be so unfair?," he asked. Simmons quit the show altogether and joined a touring company of "Peter Pan." A few months later, an actor named Michelle Schumacher joined the cast, and the pair were married in 1996, per AP.

"This devastating, horrible thing happened that led to the best thing in my life — that led to my life, my family," he said. Schumacher began her career as a triple-threat on Broadway, and she also appeared in "Oz." Looking back on losing that role, Simmons tries to stay focused on the bright side. "If the right thing had happened in that scenario, I wouldn't have kids," he said. Simmons shares two children with Schumacher.

He's proud to be a character actor

Deadline calls J.K. Simmons, "one of the most versatile character actors working today," as evidenced by his 200+ acting credits on IMDb. In an interview with Deadline's "The Actor's Side," he said, "about 40 or 50 of those are probably cartoons." You may have heard him in TV series like "Robot Chicken” or "BoJack Horseman," but did you know he's been the voice of the yellow M&M for almost 30 years?

From playing a loving dad in "Juno" to a white supremacist killer in "Oz," Simmons continues to reinvent himself. "My standard joke is that character actors are just actors who are not particularly good-looking," he told The New York Times. "I think the public perception is there's your leading man, your Clooney and your Pitt, and then there's the other guys." But Simmons actually sees the moniker as a compliment. "It means people are seeing the character rather than the actor, which at the end of the day is my ultimate goal."

Obviously, his appearance plays a part in the roles he's offered. As he explained to Men's Health, "When your screen acting career starts in your 40s and you're already bald... Let's face it: It's not my boyish good looks that got me to where I am." Simmons told Entertainment Weekly that playing these types of roles was his destiny. Even as a kid, the star recalled watching "I Love Lucy," and thinking "It's like I knew I was an old bald character actor waiting to happen."

His film Whiplash left him with a serious injury

In the 2014 film "Whiplash," J.K. Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a music conservatory instructor, who subjects his student Andrew, a talented jazz drummer, played by Miles Teller, to a relentless regimen of verbal and physical abuse, per The Guardian. Simmons said releasing all that rage in the role that earned him an Academy Award felt good. "Even if it did involve slapping Miles Teller repeatedly," he quipped in a 2015 interview with Esquire. "But seriously, who doesn't want to slap a 27-year-old movie star?"

But what happened next was nothing to joke about. After getting a smackdown, per The Guardian, Teller's character Andrew wanted payback, and he tackled his teacher, leaving Simmons with a serious injury. "JK cracked a rib," the "Top Gun: Maverick" star said, adding that he took no pride in what he did. After being slapped around for weeks, Teller explained, "I always dug that scene because he just finally snaps."

For Simmons, that on-set injury paled in comparison to another one he received years earlier. "On 'Oz' one day, I got a chunk of a camera embedded in my head and I was passed out on the floor geysering blood while the set medic stood over me," he said. "The Closer" alum, who wound up having nine "Frankenstein stitches" in his head, said the medic was "freaking out. No help whatsoever." When filming his part resumed, he added, "they shot me from the other side for the day. That's hardcore."

His emotional Oscars speech was met with praise

In 2015, as he picked up his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for "Whiplash," J.K. Simmons delivered a heart-felt acceptance speech about family. "Call your mom. Call your dad. If you are lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call 'em. Don't text. Don't email. Call them on the phone," Simmons said in his speech. The actor also thanked his wife, his children, per USA Today.

Many fans and outlets took to Twitter to congratulate the star and show their support for his message. Entertainment Weekly wrote, "'Call your Mom.' Such a great speech from now Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons." While another user called the speech a "beautiful reminder to appreciate your family." But not everyone was quite so enamored with what he had to say. Apparently, "Girls" star Lena Dunham isn't a fan of picking up the phone. She joked, "Ugh, thanks a lot, J.K. Simmons."

The "Thank You For Smoking" actor, who lost his dad in 2012 and his mom in 2104, said he didn't plan those remarks in advance, adding the speech "sort of just fell out of my mouth." It stemmed from his close relationship with his family. "Even if you're an orphan when you're 59 years old, you're still an orphan. And it's hard, so I want people to appreciate what they have," he told USA Today.

J.K. Simmons welcomes playing bad guys

J.K. Simmons has a reputation for playing some less-than-noble characters, per The New York Times, So, what makes this accomplished actor so good at being bad? He said it starts with figuring out how the character would define the word "bad." "Certainly Terence Fletcher doesn't perceive himself as a bad guy or even Vernon Schillinger [the brutal neo-Nazi inmate on HBO's "Oz"]," he said. Simmons added that he would like to think everyone's actions ultimately come from "a place of love."

In the role of Colonel Jessep in "A Few Good Men" on Broadway, Simmons said he looked past the fact that Jessup was "an egomaniac and a power freak" and embraced "his love for the Marine Corps, his love for his country, his love for God." Speaking to NPR, Simmons explained he tries to analyze what drives each character to act the way they do.

"Very few people who we view as bad guys get out of bed and think what evil, terrible thing am I going to do today? Most people see their motivations as justified — as, you know, justifying whatever they do." For Simmons, unleashing his temper on-camera can come with benefits, as he explained about his character on "Whiplash" on NPR's "All Things Considered" in 2014. "It was 100 percent cathartic," he said, adding, "and, you know, occasionally painful. Screaming is hard after a while."

He worked with director Jason Reitman seven times

J.K. Simmons and Jason Reitman have a special bond. To date, they have collaborated at least seven times, including on "Up in the Air" and "The Front Runner." In a 2009 interview with The Eagle Tribune, the director said (a bit cheekily) that fans should expect much more from the pair. "Oh yeah, I hope J.K. is in every movie I ever make. He's my muse. Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock had beautiful women; I have J.K. Simmons."

In 2019, the actor told The Los Angeles Times when Reitman got the script for "Juno," he knew exactly who he wanted for the leads. "He knew it was [Elliot] Page. He knew it was Michael Cera. He knew it was me," he said. Producers, however, wanted more famous stars in the roles. The director fought for all three of his actors, and won. The film, with all of Reitman's picks, was a hit with fans and critics. In 2007, Roger Ebert called it, "just about the best movie of the year."

On the "Happy Sad" podcast in 2021 (via The Playlist), Simmons said the opportunity to play a soft-hearted dad in the film allowed audiences to see a new side of him. "Because people that did know me, mostly knew me as either the worst human being on the planet from 'Oz' or the blowhard from 'Spider-Man." He added that playing "the wonderful character" changed the way he was perceived by people in the industry and the public.

J.K. Simmons got jacked at age 61

In 2016, some photos of the bearded actor at the gym had the internet buzzing, according to Men's Health. J.K. Simmons refers to it as his "shredded Santa" look. Per People, the actor was reportedly training hard with celebrity trainer Aaron Williamson for months to develop his ripped biceps and toned shoulders. The fitness pro was impressed with the senior citizen's stamina, writing on Instagram, "Every time we train together I forget he's 61 years old."

In another post, the former Marine wrote about his client, "He's making me look bad." But Simmons' new workout routine wasn't in preparation for any particular role. It was more of a long-term effort to improve his health. In a 2016 interview with Insider, the star explained that he first gained weight and was "not in good shape at all" while shooting "Oz." To truly embody that character, he thought, "I have to get my a** to the gym and be a believable hard-a**.'"

In 2009, he had ballooned to 250 pounds, and started working on a new health and fitness regimen. After what he described as the second time he "got hugely fat," Simmons said, "I pretty much decided that I was going to stay in decent shape for the rest of my life." In an interview with Senior Planet, Simmons said he enjoys physical activity every day, whether he's at the gym, riding a bike or playing baseball. "I've tried to keep fit and keep my energy up," he said.

His wife directed him in I'm Not Here

In 2017, J.K. Simmons had the opportunity to work with his wife Michelle Schumacher on one of her projects. For several weeks during filming "I'm Not Here," the 2017 film she directed, produced, edited and co-wrote, they barely spoke, per The New York Post – but it's not for the reason you might think. "Honestly, I would come home exhausted and get ready for the next day," Schumacher said. "So for about a month, I don't think we talked to each other, except time on set." 

On set, the director did most of the talking. Simmons, who plays an aging alcoholic who cuts himself off from the world, doesn't have a single line of dialogue. Schumacher, along with writing partner Tony Cummings, had Simmons in mind when creating the character. "He doesn't say a word, so as his wife, I thought that would be kind of fun," she said with a laugh.

Simmons called that "a little icing-on-the-cake challenge." He added, "I was blessed to be able to do [it] with a director that I trust more than any other human on the planet." Schumacher directed her husband once before, in the 2013 comedy, "3 Geezers!," with Tim Allen. He noted there is one key to balancing a successful professional and personal relationship. "My standard joke is, 'Just like at home, I do as directed."

He nearly passed on Being the Ricardos

J. K. Simmons received a second Oscar nomination for his role in the 2021 film, "Being the Ricardos," which stars Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. But when he first learned about the project, written and directed by Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin, he was hesitant, per Variety. "I wasn't all that interested, despite Aaron's involvement," he said, explaining, "I've always been reluctant to portray real people." The director assured him they weren't looking for imitation, they wanted to explore "who these people are."

He said that researching his role as William Frawley, the actor who portrayed Fred Mertz on "I Love Lucy," was different from his usual process. He discovered that after the table read, Frawley would throw away pages of the script that didn't include him. "I found that to be a gem of insight into him," said Simmons, who did the same thing with his script in the film. "It was an interesting exercise in helping to create my own connective tissue between all of my scenes."

Simmons first caught Sorkin's attention in 1990, when he was understudying a role in Sorkin's Broadway play, "A Few Good Men," and had a chance to fill in. A colleague encouraged Sorkin to check out the actor's performance, and the playwright gave it two thumbs up. Sorkin says he wants Simmons in all of his movies. The "Ghostbusters: Afterlife" actor might be fine with that. He said, "I hope this is the first of many times we get to work together."