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J.K. Simmons Talks Edward Hopper and Maintaining a Marriage of Artists


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God bless PBS. The Public Broadcasting Service has been airing free, informative, and entertaining documentaries, educational programs for children, news, and international television series for more than half a century. Their American Masters series of biographical documentaries debuted back in 1986, and has been providing invaluable portraits of some of the greatest artistic figures in American history. This year, they’re looking at brilliant thinkers like Hannah Arendt, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary Oliver, and more. The first biography of the year, however, is focused on the great modern painter, Edward Hopper, and features voice acting from J.K. Simmons, Christine Baranski, and Isabel May.


HOPPER: An American Love Story, by Phil Grabsky and Michael Cascio, is an insightful and quietly moving study of the artist. PBS is for the people, and they deliver the best audiovisual meditation on the artist for those who couldn’t attend Wim Wenders’ 3D film installation, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Edward Hopper (i.e. most people). Exploring his life through his writing (read by Simmons as Hopper), his art, and his relationship with his wife, Josephine Nivison, the documentary provides the kind of context which retroactively enriches one’s appreciation of Hopper’s work.

We spoke with Simmons about the artist and what it was like portraying him in a wide-ranging conversation about art, biopics, marriage, and Clint Eastwood’s new film, Juror No. 2. Check it out below.


Voicing Edward Hopper’s America

MovieWeb: Edward Hopper is such a seminal figure. I romanticized his paintings a lot when I was younger and wanted to be William Burroughs by way of Tom Waits. Watching this, you learn so much about the man and the cage of his mind. Were you a fan of his before this and either way, what’s your sort of impression of him and his art after doing this?

J.K. Simmons: Well, first of all, I love that you mentioned Tom Waits. And I imagine a young Tom Waits must have had some Edward Hopper posters.

MW: I think he had an album called Nighthawks at the Diner actually, a live album or something.

J.K. Simmons: Yeah! Yeah, I was a very casual fan of [Hopper’s] work and, you know, not knowledgeable at all. And in fact, I realized during the course of this documentary and researching for it, that there were some paintings of his that I conflated with other people. But it wasn’t until I started researching for this and just reading the script for this that I began to really appreciate his depth as an artist and the darkness, and the solitude. I’m kind of looking for a more intelligent word than “sadness,” for a lot of his characters. Because his paintings do seem like characters that he has put down on the canvas.

MW: Yeah, it’s sort of like the silent bizarro flip-side of Norman Rockwell’s America.

J.K. Simmons: Right! Yeah, and I can only assume that he was somewhat disdainful of Rockwell.

MW: It’s great to hear you read Hopper’s actual words. I know you’ve expressed in the past how much you genuinely like doing voiceover work. I think you were talking about Rivals, the documentary, and you said, whether it’s books on tape or nature documentaries, you just like doing things with your voice. Why is that, and also, how different is it when you need to take on the actual voice of the subject, like here?

J.K. Simmons: Well, the flippant answer to that is — you don’t have to get into makeup, which is honestly true. One of the aspects of voice work that sort of took me quite a while to really wrap my brain around, was the additional freedom that you have, especially when you have that feeling that you can have trust between you and the producer, the director. Obviously, I go into things now because I appreciate the writing. So I’m in a position where I don’t have to do something just to put meat on the table. So I only do things that I think are well-written, with people that I have an instinct that I’m gonna enjoy working with. So I feel at least more freedom, and this probably doesn’t apply to this particular gig, but oftentimes there’s more freedom to go a little farther in almost any direction and not be afraid that you’re going to be left with egg on your face in the final cut.

Related: The Best Voice Actors of All Time, Ranked

MW: It seems so organic, hearing his words through your voice. How much of it is just the integrity and honesty of this man’s own words and just reading it that way, versus psychoanalyzing and sort of emotionally trying to replicate something for you doing this?

J.K. Simmons: I think it’s interesting, because at times, he’s sort of begrudgingly psychoanalyzing himself, and I found that interesting. And there’s a certain commonality to being an old bald, white curmudgeon that I identified with. As far as his actual voice, I was dissuaded from the very beginning against attempting any kind of impression. You know, they wanted me to sound like me. Which I did with, I felt like, maybe a 10% inflection of not so much how he sounded, but who he was.

MW: Yeah, there was an almost cryptic sense of resignation in the performance. I think that felt true.

Somebody Cast J.K. Simmons in the Edward Hopper Biopic

J.K. Simmons as Howard in Counterpart
Starz Originals

MovieWeb: It’s funny, obviously you mentioned the makeup, and not having to go through the process of that in live-action. But then also, as you said, there’s this almost physical resemblance in a way. If you had a great makeup team and script, would you want to portray Hopper after doing this? Or is there another artist who you’d like to play, whose life you’d like to explore?

J.K. Simmons: Really interesting question. Because generally speaking, I have shied away from that — and there are exceptions, if people are combing through my filmography, but generally speaking, I’ve steered away from playing real characters, aside from William Frawley [in Being the Ricardos] and Jeff Pugliese, who was a police sergeant in the whole Boston Marathon bombing, the Patriots Day movie. So that was part of what this was, like an easy way to kind of dip my toe into this guy, Hopper, and in a way, it would be intriguing.

J.K. Simmons: The illustrator Edward Gorey — there were feelers put out a few years ago about him, and me portraying him in a biopic. And I looked at that, I couldn’t visualize him at all, and I looked at pictures of Gorey. He kind of looks like a cross between me and ZZ Top. And I read a little bit about him and I thought, “Wow, that is a pretty interesting dude.” I don’t know, I wouldn’t mind not shaving for a year to play him. But yeah, I don’t know. I think for PBS to be able to find the team that could put together this really, really good documentary about Hopper is great.

So I don’t know if anybody is out there who’s likely to throw enough money at a project to make a real biopic, a Hollywood film about him. That, I honestly don’t know. I would be intrigued, but reluctant at the same time.

Surviving a Marriage of Artists

J.K. Simmons as Howard and Olivia Williams as Emily in Counterpart
Starz Originals

MW: I found Hopper’s relationship with Josephine to be fascinating, like a lot of marriages from the ‘Lost Generation’ and the ‘Greatest Generation,’ and between artists. We spoke with Julie Delpy and with Richard E. Grant, they were doing [The Lesson], a movie about married artists who kind of hated each other. Separately, they both expressed the same thing, that relationships between artists are kind of doomed to fail. But on the other hand, you’ve been with an artist for a while, and now you’ve acted in her films. Comparing your experience to Hopper and Josephine’s, how do you think artists can survive a relationship together?

J.K. Simmons: Well, I like to hope and flatter myself by believing that generosity and kindness are key ingredients there, and I’m not sure that Hopper was full of those. He was certainly a genius, a man of great depth. But I think for any union of artists to survive, the ego that — let’s face it — most artists, whether it’s performing artists or visual artists, most of us have an ego that has to be tempered by empathy and love and kindness and generosity. You know, depending on the day, you might or might not get an argument out of my wife. We met on stage together, doing a Broadway tour in 1991. As you know, obviously, the union has survived through bringing two kids into the world and career transitions, multiple for her, into the very holistic filmmaker that she is now. And I continue to be a one-trick pony.

I’ve shied away from all the grown-up responsible jobs, and still just get to pretend to be other people for a living. I think staying in my lane has been good and served me well.

MW: That’s beautiful. And I optimistically would like to think actors and filmmakers have a much more collaborative art versus a writer, a painter. So most of them do play nice, hopefully, a lot of the time in that field. And you mentioned ‘staying in your lane,’ or sticking with what you’re amazing at. But have you ever tried painting, or another art?

J.K. Simmons: I have absolutely zero natural visual talent, and then again, that’s one of the things that Michelle, my wife, has developed in her transition. Painting. She has a good natural eye and has developed that through her education. She has transitioned from Broadway baby to filmmaker and something that that, yeah, one of my answers when people say are you interested in directing? I, you know, I directed a few plays back in the day, but I just don’t have the eye for it. And I think that’s, I think it’s good to know your limitations.

From Edward Hopper to Clint Eastwood

MW: So, after you saw the finished film, what was a big takeaway for you from watching it?

J.K. Simmons: Well, honestly, it’s a kind of generic answer, but still at my advanced age of 69 and a day, I still sort of marvel at how these things get put together by the people who actually do those grown-up jobs that I’m talking about. There are always surprises and usually, especially feature film or live-action, usually a handful or more of those surprises are not pleasant. In this case, it was interesting to see the finished product and find myself involved in it, and moved by it even, despite having been a part of it. So that, to me, is like a great test.

Related: The 10 Best J.K. Simmons Movies, Ranked

MW: Yeah, God bless PBS and the people who are really preserving culture and history in these projects. So, Edward Hopper’s work kind of has a Man in the Gray Flannel Suit vibe to it, and I get that from Clint Eastwood’s work as well. I grew up watching 12 Angry Men on repeat in elementary schools, which is embarrassing when I say it out loud. But I’ve been interested in the production of Eastwood’s Juror No. 2, which you star in. Is there anything you can share about it?

J.K. Simmons: Well, first of all, it was Clint. I mean, it happened to be an interesting character that they were asking me to do, but I would have done almost anything just to be able to spend a few days on set with him. And as I’m sure lots of people already know, the real Clint is a far cry from what he’s known as, you know, what we grew up loving about that scary spaghetti Western Clint. He’s really sweet and funny and a delightful guy.

J.K. Simmons: Juror No. Two is one of those movies — I always make sure I stay very, very far away from giving any kind of spoilers, and there are lots of fun plot twists in this. But it was a great experience and a really wonderful cast with Gabe Basso and Chris Messina and Nick Hoult, and all 11 of the rest of us on the jury with Nick, a really wonderful ensemble of actors that I had a good time working with.

In the meantime, HOPPER: An American Love Story is now streaming, with Simmons’ dulcet tones capturing the words of one of America’s great artists. You can watch it through the link below:

Watch on PBS

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