The story of Gary Hart's failed shot at the United States presidency is the stuff of legend. The man could have been the next John F. Kennedy, but history had other plans. Hart's candidacy was undone in a matter of weeks by a sex scandal, the likes of which would have been a non-issue in an earlier era; after Hart, the relationship between politicians and the media would never be the same.
The Front Runner, directed by Jason Reitman, stars Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart, backed by an ensemble cast which includes Vera Farmiga as his long-suffering wife and J.K. Simmons as Bill Dixon, Hart's campaign manager. Alfred Molina, Bill Burr, Mike Judge, and Kevin Pollak.
While promoting The Front Runner's home video release, we spoke with J.K. Simmons, who shared stories from the set and reflected on his career and relationship with director Jason Reitman. He spoke about communicating with the real-life Bill Dixon, transitioning from being a stage actor to working in TV and film, and fostering positive relationships with co-stars and directors.
You already know this, but you're a beloved actor. You're a character actor who can play every character.
At least the ones that have come my way, so far! When I read a script, I need to find a way into the character. Psychologically, I can either see and hear myself as the character or not. A lot of it is instinctual, but a lot of it has to be hard work and building a frame of reference, too.
Let's talk about The Front Runner. I'm a bit ashamed to admit, I didn't know who Gary Hart was before I learned about this movie.
Well, most people who are younger than Hugh Jackman didn't, so it's not that unusual.
Watching the movie, this story feels like a real turning point between politicians and the media. You were a young man back in 1987 when this story first broke; were you aware of it at the time?
Yes, very much so. Even though I'm not a political person, I'm pretty much apolitical, the rest of my family are very much into politics and were Gary Hart fans! My folks, my sister and brother.
So, it really was as much of a game-changer as the movie shows.
Oh yeah, absolutely. He was the clear... He was on the way to the White House. It was almost a done deal.
He was ahead by 40 points. It's incredible. We won't get too much into overt politics, but the movie makes very deliberate Kennedy comparisons; JFK was a guy who is now notorious for his womanizing reputation, but he got away with it because there was an understanding that those things were off-limits to reporters. There's so much in this movie, raising questions about whether the media was doing a good thing in undermining patriarchal institutions, or whether they're dragging him through the mud for the sake of a provocative headline. That moral complexity, is that something that drew you to the story?
Honestly, what drew me was just Jason Reitman. Everything Jason does, he likes to begin the discussion without telling the viewer what to think. He's always looking for interesting and complex stories, but he doesn't like to choose sides for the audience. He likes to draw out the quagmire and let people fight over it.
That's definitely how I saw The Front Runner. It's something that presents all the sides and doesn't say, "This is the correct one." It's a great moral story that's not didactic, which I think is very interesting. So, about Jason, I'm always interested in actor/director pairings, and you've been in pretty much every single one of his movies. How would you describe your relationship with Jason?
At the beginning, it was a mentor/protege relationship, but backwards. Although I'm of Jason's parents' generation, he is, by far, more experienced and knowledgeable in the world of film than I am. He grew up in it, but I came into it after a twenty year career in theater. I looked to him as a mentor, especially early on. And he's really just one of my favorite guys to collaborate with. With all the experience he had, growing up in the business, going to film school and making several short films; I think he, very wisely, really cut his teeth on a lot of short film work and commercial work, paying the rent before he wanted to do his first feature, Thank You For Smoking, which I think is an underrated movie which people should check out if they haven't seen it!
How does it work, does he say, "I'm doing a movie!" and you say, "Who am I this time?" What is that casting process like for you and Jason, specifically?
That's pretty close to the reality of it! Yeah. (laughs) That's about it! "Where and when," and "can we make the schedule work?" Yeah, I've certainly never said "no" to Jason, and I don't anticipate that happening in the future.
That's really cool. At Screen Rant, in particular, we can't wait to find out who you're going to play in Ghostbusters, but I think that's all we can say about that for now!
(Laughs) Listen, I'm the last guy in the world who will ever give a spoiler about anything, so... No comment!
Fair enough! Okay, back to The Front Runner; you play Bill Dixon, Gary Hart's real-life campaign manager. I know you met with him, did he have any advice for you on how to represent him? What was that like, leading up to shooting?
I did get in touch with Bill. I still haven't met him in person, but we spoke on the phone many times, sent E-Mails, yadda yadda. Bill Dixon certainly, since that campaign, has not been a public figure and basically stayed out of D.C. ever since then. Initially, he, and I think a lot of the campaign team, were not all that excited about seeing the nadir of their careers dramatized. But ultimately, he was very open and helpful with me, with any questions that I asked. At the end of the day, it was... Largely because of the way I approach these things, it was not at all about politics, and not even a lot about ethics and morality, but it was more about the minutia of what really happened: "Did you get to smoke cigarettes?" and "what kind of beer did you drink?" and all kinds of little things.
Can you share an example of any specific scenes he may have influenced?
There's a scene in the sort of montage near the end, where I'm handing out envelopes in the campaign office in Denver. That was not originally in the script. That was based on a conversation I had with Bill. He said, when everything went south and it was clear to him, before it was clear to anybody else, that the campaign was dead in the water, the first thing he did was go to the bank and use the campaign funds to get cashier's checks for all these people who were working their butts off and make sure that they at least got paid before everything evaporated.
That's incredibly nice of him.
Yeah, I mean, the guy is a real role model in terms of ethics and humanity in general. I say this, again, about a guy I've never met face-to-face, but I really got to admire him as I got to know him from long distance.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie, it's near the end, when you and Hugh Jackman are in the office together, and you ask him about his affair and he gets really peeved and says it's nobody's business, but you insist, like, "You can tell me, though." And then you two really go at it. It's not a long scene, but I love these fast dialogue scenes that play out almost like an action movie. I know some actors who psych themselves up by jumping rope or doing push-ups and stuff like that; do you have a ritual like that, something to push yourself into the right head space or physicality?
No, I don't. I've gotten to the point, now, where... I've been doing this long enough that I just... Even in the more intense or more involved scenes, you do your preparation ahead of time, as much as is necessary, and then on the day... Hugh and I were probably playing backgammon five minutes before we rolled cameras on that scene.
A lot of people think that you started in Oz and Law & Order, but you were a stage actor, as you said, for twenty years beforehand. That transition, is that easy going from stage to screen? Do those sensibilities change?
It was a little bit bumpy, both in terms of my comfort level and also, you know, in terms of just getting work. A lot of people might shy away from a guy who is, you know, forty years old and basically has nothing on his filmography because he's been a stage guy. Yeah, it was hard getting comfortable, and for a while, it was hard just getting hired. It's one of those periods that you work through and, obviously, I've gotten to a point now where I've been more fortunate that I ever thought I would be.
I definitely get the impression that you are an actor whom directors just adore. You've worked with so many directors multiple times.
I think not being a pain in the ass definitely goes a long way towards that! (laughs)
Do you consider yourself an affable guy on set? You said you don't have those pre-shooting rituals, you show up to work. What is your disposition on set?
First of all, the work day... This is a ridiculous business, the work days are twelve, thirteen hours long. So, just being a team player and being someone people can get along with are valuable commodities. I find, with Jason and other directors like my wife (Michelle Schumacher), Sam Raimi, the Coen Brothers, other directors I've worked with multiple times, that vibe starts at the top. If the director's a reasonable person, fun and low-key and smart and prepared, that creates a vibe of collaboration and enjoyment of the work. And they hire people accordingly. That's the thing, too. People take for granted or don't even think of it; Jason is really well-established and can, to a certain extent, get what he wants in terms of casting and hiring crew, and he surrounds himself with people he doesn't mind spending a twelve hour day with! Certainly, that includes Hugh Jackman, the nicest guy in the world. I've worked with a lot of movie stars who I love working with, who were great guys, like Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and I would put Hugh Jackman right at the top of that list of guys who are big movies stars who have not let it go to their heads.
The Front Runner releases on DVD and Blu ray February 12.