In Being the Ricardos , J.K. Simmons turns grump into gold

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In Being the Ricardos , J.K. Simmons turns grump into gold
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As astounding as it is watching Nicole Kidman transform into Lucille Ball for Aaron Sorkin's Being the Ricardos, there's something equally as impressive watching J.K. Simmons do his thing: unvarnished, witty, completely dependable. Quietly, Simmons creates a scalpel-sharp William Frawley, the legendary TV cast member whose I Love Lucy neighbor Fred Mertz became a household name. Playing Frawley, Simmons hides a sweeter strain of compassion within the bristly exterior we all know (and love). EW caught up with the Whiplash Oscar winner to discuss his work on Ricardos, as well as the hustle of awards season, something he's familiar with.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We all watched I Love Lucy in syndication. Did you watch it during its first run?

J.K. SIMMONS: Yeah, my parents' household was one of the 60 million that tuned in every Monday night. And oddly, I may be completely making this up now, but as I recall, I tended to identify with the crusty old bald guy even as a 4- or 5-year-old. It's like I knew I was an old bald character actor waiting to happen.

William Frawley is a fascinating actor. We know him as Fred Mertz — immortally — but he had something of a backstory, right?

Aaron [Sorkin] brilliantly peppers in all these little details in the script. Bill spent 40 years in vaudeville and on Broadway and doing little character parts in movies before I Love Lucy. So one of the aspects of his personality is that he was a bit of a curmudgeon. He didn't suffer fools.

Awardist
Awardist

Glen Wilson/Amazon Studios J.K. Simmons in 'Being the Ricardos'

Notoriously, he didn't mesh with costar Vivian Vance.

The whole conflict with Vivian began at the first table read of the first episode. Bill was sitting there ready to get started, and Vivian said to Lucille loud enough for Bill to hear, "You can't be serious — I'm married to that old coot?" As I can attest, you may look in the mirror and see that old coot, but you don't want to be referred to that way.

Crabby though he is, your Frawley is key to our understanding of how respected Ball was in her moment.

The best version of Bill is that he did feel that paternal, big-brother kind of relationship with virtually everyone on the show. Not Vivian.

You've worked on some movies with beautiful scripts: Juno, Whiplash, Palm Springs, now this. Do you have a set of principles that helps you choose these roles for yourself?

That really is 90 percent of it, the script. I skip the log line, I skip all the details, and just read the script. And when you're fortunate to get something that is beautifully nuanced and subtle and layered like the ones you mentioned, that's 90 percent of what it takes for me to want to do it.

We're just now getting used to Aaron Sorkin as a director with Molly's Game and The Trial of the Chicago 7. Can you give us a little insight as to how he serves his own screenplays on set?

I'm glad you asked that question. The surprising thing to me was how collaborative he was as a director in terms of tiny little adjustments to the script, because no matter how brilliant the writing is, we actors come in there and go, "Eh, maybe I could say it this way." He never dismissed any of those ideas out of hand. It was always a conversation. And he would sometimes say, "Well, no, I want you to do it the way I wrote it, and here's why," and he would explain very specifically his thought process. But his ego is not afraid of actually listening to somebody else's idea.

You've obviously been through many an awards season. At this point in your career, what do awards mean to you?

When that buzz starts happening this time of year, it's always a nice thing to hear about yourself. Because let's face it, we're all actors, we're all basically spending our life screaming, "Look at me, look at me, look at me!" But more importantly, we're telling these stories and we want eyes on this movie. This is a brilliant ensemble from top to bottom and I hope the movie gets some of that kind of attention.

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's February issue, on newsstands Friday and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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