J.K. Simmons won the best supporting actor Oscar on Sunday for playing a bullying jazz teacher in Whiplash, which powerfully explores the limits of sadism and abuse. He bested rivals Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Edward Norton (Birdman) and Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher). 

Simmons, who has been the odds-on favourite in the category after sweeping up trophies throughout Hollywood’s awards season, gave a warm speech thanking his wife, children and parents. “If you are lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call them. Don’t text, don’t e-mail. Call them on the phone,” he told the Oscars audience at the Dolby Theatre.

In Whiplash, Simmons plays Fletcher, a feared top teacher at an elite music conservatory not unlike the famed Julliard School in New York. He notices Andrew, a promising young drummer who has just enrolled at the school, and selects him for a school jazz band entered in a nationwide competition.

At first, Fletcher treats his new recruits with kid gloves, gaining their confidence and earning their admiration. But then, playing on rivalry between students, he turns on them, abusing them mentally and physically – he justifies throwing a cymbal at Andrew (played by Miles Teller) by noting that that’s how Charlie Parker became a legend.

Simmons – who himself studied music before turning to acting – won both the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild award for his role in the film, only the second feature from director Damien Chazelle. The Oscar crowns a more than 30-year career on television and the big screen. While a familiar face at the cinema, he has rarely headlined a film.

J.K. Simmons receives the Oscar for actor in a supporting role for Whiplash from presenter Lupita Nyong'o at the 87th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Feb 22, 2015. – AFP/Robyn Beck


J.K. Simmons celebrates after winning best supporting actor for Whiplash at the British Academy of Film and Arts (BAFTA) awards ceremony in London, Feb 8, 2015. – Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett

“Hung around long enough” 

The 60-year-old actor says the Academy Award success is the result of decades of learning his craft. It “would not have come when I was in my 20s, because I was figuring out how to do this, and it was painful and a struggle – more for the audience than for myself,” he told reporters, self-deprecatingly, at a lunch for Oscar nominees earlier this month. 

“I’ve just hung around long enough and gotten an opportunity to work with enough great people that I’ve sort of gradually learned over the years how to do this,” added Simmons, who grew up in Montana.

The actor – who is well known in the US for television ads for Farmers Insurance, a fact highlighted in a joke by host Neil Patrick Harris – regularly lends his voice for dubbing or animated films. Over the years on television, he has played everything from a psychiatrist on the long-running Law And Order, a neo-Nazi in HBO prison drama Oz, and a police officer on The Closer.

On the big screen, he is well known for his turn as J. Jonah Jameson, the tough-as-nails editor of the Daily Bugle in the Spider-Man movies. He has worked several times with the director Jason Reitman who used him in Thank You For Smoking (2005), Juno (2007), 2009’s Up In The Air with George Clooney and Men, Women And Children (2014).

Married to the actress and producer Michelle Schumacher, Simmons says that over the years, he has learned “how to listen, how to be there, how to relax”. He added, “I continue to be fairly ignorant about many technical aspects of camera acting specifically, and have decided to keep it that way because it just clouds my brain.” – AFP