J.K. Simmons did not yell at me in a recent interview, and I was a little disappointed. Although I hoped to be berated for pictures of Spider-Man, the man I spoke with didn’t affect the personality of flat-topped, cigar-chomping newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson from Sam Raimi’s webslinger trilogy.
Nor was Simmons the gruff dad from “Juno,” the psychiatrist from “Law & Order,” assistant LAPD police chief from “The Closer” or, thankfully, a neo-Nazi from “Oz.” Instead, the guy answering my questions sounded like the kind of laid-back dude you’d want as a next-door neighbor to come over for barbecue, beer, and a baseball game.
But Simmons is also consummate actor from Detroit who logged time on Broadway and has made a mark across the pop culture landscape portraying a variety of memorable characters. While he continues to voice Jameson on Disney XD’s animated series “Ultimate Spider-Man,” Simmons is not an actor who always lands in the same roles. A self-described “journeyman actor” and “gun for hire,” he’s a performer you’re happy to see show up on “Arrested Development” or “Parks and Recreation,” or in the films of Jason Reitman and the Coen Brothers, but his characters aren’t “just” a forgettable general, cop, dad, or other typecast roles.
Such is the case with “Dark Skies,” the sci-fi/supernatural thriller now out on DVD/Blu-ray. In the film, Simmons play Edwin Pollard, a somber but eccentric paranormal specialist called in to assist the Barrett family (led by Josh Hamilton and Keri Russell) tormented by mysterious beings. Instead of showing up with a big personality – like that of a “Daily Bugle” editor -- Simmons slips into the suspenseful vibe of the film by being understated as he explains the forces targeting the Barretts.
In the Q&A that follows, Simmons talks about his own thoughts about the paranormal, but also chats about his previous (and hopefully future) work in the new Spider-Man movie universe and going in blind for his upcoming sitcom, “The Family Guide.”
MTV Geek: What is your take on the paranormal and supernatural topics covered in “Dark Skies”?
J.K. Simmons: In the summer of 2002, I was driving along, late at night, in the middle of nowhere New Mexico and I saw something fly by that I have no explanation for. I am open-minded and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it or pursuing it but … I’m not going to say I believe and definitely not going to say I don’t believe that there are other life forms out there.
Geek: So do you think you saw …
Simmons: All I know is I can’t explain it. It didn’t make sense in the world in which I live. It was moving and glowing in ways I can’t explain. But then I can’t explain how an email works, so what do I know?
Geek: Do you have to do research for a role like this?
Simmons: No, it just made sense on the page. This is the guy who has experienced this first-hand, has all this knowledge, but no one will listen to him because they obviously assume he’s a whack-job. This family reaches out and he’s trying to arm them in this situation.
Geek: If you had to encounter a horror monster – ghosts, aliens, zombies – in real life, what would it be?
Simmons: Probably zombies because they’d be fun, and they move slowly. The classic zombie.
Geek: Are you a big fan of zombie movies?
Simmons: I’m not a fan of any genre but am a fan of movies that are intelligent and/or funny. That goes across all genres: a horror movie, a zombie movie, alien invaders, chick flick, or raunchy comedy. If it’s well done, I’m a fan.
Geek: Then how do you determine what movies you want to be a part of?
Simmons: If it makes me laugh, I’ll do it. I don’t care if it’s low-brow or stupid or high-brow or offensive. It's the same way with drama or any genre; if I read it and find it compelling and interesting, and I think I can do it.
Geek: What is a type of character you’d really like to take on?
Simmons: A really juicy bad guy in a big movie. Most aren’t that well-written, or are going to actors with higher profiles than me. I’d also like to do more along the lines of “Juno,” cuddly good-guys.
Geek: Has there been any talk about you returning to the role of J. Jonah Jameson in the new Spider-Man movies?
Simmons: There’s always talk. I’m doing it in animation land, but Sam Raimi’s take on the world of Spider-Man has run its course. We were all excited and ramping up for “Spider-Man 4” a few years ago, but for a variety of ridiculous showbiz reasons it ended up not happening. The reboot is a very different universe. Both versions are legitimate, and this one doesn’t have a J. Jonah Jameson so far. As far as I know, I won’t be putting on the flat-top again.
Geek: You did a guest spot on “Arrested Development” in 2005, so will you be watching the new episodes?
Simmons: I’m absolutely going to be watching. I was a big fan of that show and have had the opportunity to work with a few of those people. Actually Jason Bateman is co-producing a show I’m doing at NBC that will be on as a midseason show. He’ll also be doing voiceover acting on it, playing the adult version of my son and the on-camera version is a 12-year-old kid.
Geek: This is “The Family Guide”?
Simmons: Yeah, it is a half-hour family comedy and my character happens to be blind. [Regarding the challenges of playing blind], I’m far from settled into it. We shot the pilot in March and it was difficult. It is literally un-actable because you can’t look at something with your eyes open without seeing it. So how do you pretend? In that regard, it has been a real challenge. But as with everything I get involved in, I believe in it and find the script to be compelling. And it happens to be based on a true story, based on DJ Nash’s childhood.
"Dark Skies" is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.