PASADENA, Calif. — J.K. Simmons does not seem like a man who worries a lot about the road, or roads, not taken.
A longtime character and voice actor with a background in music, he’s sung on Broadway, played a neo-Nazi inmate on HBO’s Oz, and won an Oscar for playing the tyrannical music teacher in Whiplash. And as the professor in the Farmers Insurance ads who recounts those crazy accidents, he’s known as a man who’s seen it all.
Now the 63-year-old Simmons is the star — make that stars — of Starz’s intriguing Counterpart, a spy drama with a sci-fi twist that’s all about the roads taken and not taken by a man who’s seen very little.
In the series — which makes its official premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday after a post-Outlander preview last month — we first meet Simmons as Howard Silk, a man who’s done the same low-level job for 30 years in an international agency in Berlin whose mission he can’t begin to grasp. He’s a man whose boss seems barely even to see him, much less consider him for the modest promotion he’s seeking. Meanwhile, his wife, Emily (Olivia Williams), lies in a coma after a car accident.
“The focus of his life was being with his wife, and enjoying the things that they enjoyed together, and that he enjoys getting out of life, which is reading a good book, and listening to great music, and experiencing all that a city like Berlin has to offer culturally. So that his lack of advancement in the workplace is, I think, a frustration at times. But it hasn’t been a priority of his whole life. And when we meet him, I think it’s that time of life where he’s like, well, it’s now or never,” Simmons said in an interview during the Television Critics Association’s winter meetings this month.
“My wife is comatose in a hospital bed, much of my life is falling down around my ears, I’d like to maybe start getting to the bottom of some of this monolithic mystery that I’ve been surrounded by my entire career and been largely ignorant of,” he said of his character.
Enter a decidedly more aggressive Howard — also played by Simmons — a man from a parallel universe who’s crossed over and insists on speaking only to his counterpart, with life-changing results for both.
“You think of Berlin, you think of the dividedness of it and the history of World War II and the Cold War and all that. And that certainly informs the feel of Counterpart. But Counterpart is also set [in] very much modern day, and so Berlin is also really burgeoning — it’s like the hip city in central Europe now, and it’s having an explosion of youth, and all that that implies,” Simmons said.
As for what each Howard might represent to the other, “the differences between the two characters, or the two versions of the same character, are what I think first strikes you as an audience. It is what first struck me as a reader, and as an actor,” Simmons said. “But really interesting to me as we go along … is finding the places where they intersect.”
Winning an Academy Award in 2015 affected his career “significantly,” Simmons said, both in the roles he’s offered and in the way he’s now “part of the promotional aspect” of projects. He’s enjoying both, but winning “affects my life much less than it might at age 30. I’ve been around long enough that it doesn’t turn my head.”
Where once he feared being pigeonholed as the fearsome Vern Schillinger of Oz — “an absolute highlight of my career” — he now encounters fans of his “professor of insurance” who “badly mangle the jingle when they see me,” he said.
“And shockingly often they get the name of the company wrong. I guess I’m not doing my job well enough if they don’t know what company I’m affiliated with,” he added, laughing.