Jimmi Simpson on "Perpetual Grace, LTD," "Westworld," Morrissey, and Bill Callahan - Constructing the Arc | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Jimmi Simpson on “Perpetual Grace, LTD,” “Westworld,” Morrissey, and Bill Callahan

Constructing the Arc

Jan 23, 2020 Jimmi Simpson
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As a self-described gothy teen longing for angst soothing anthems, future Emmy nominee Jimmi Simpson was enamored with The Smiths from the first time his skateboarder buddy gave him a copy of the iconic Brit rockers’ album The Queen is Dead in the late 1980s. And all these years later, the now 43-year-old New Jersey native said, during an interview for Under the Radar‘s My Favorite Album issue that he still listens to that LP “at least once a week.”

However there was a recent period where the actorknown for his roles on Westworld, House of Cards, Black Mirror, and a number of other hit seriesfound himself avoiding much of The Smith’s work, because of the controversy that frontman Morrissey has elicited with a number of far-right political endorsements. This was a major turning point for the TV star, who not only turned to music for solace as a teen, but now carefully curates playlists when creating characters for the series he’s cast in. Then Simpson came to a realization, one that forever changed his outlook on that notorious former Smiths frontman, his disgraced former co-star Kevin Spacey on House of Cards, and other controversial artists whose works have garnered throngs of fans.

Below, Simpson tells us more about that music diehard dilemma, the joys of working with Sir Ben Kingsley in his current series Perpetual Grace, LTD, and his concerns about taking part in cinema’s demise in this Golden Age of TV.

Kyle Mullin (Under the Radar): Why did Morrissey leave a big impression on you?

Jimmi Simpson: Most of us find Morrissey when we’re teenagers. And we think of ourselves as dreamers: “We’re going to meet and write poetry in the cemetery, because we’re gothy, and we don’t fit in anywhere else.” And to have someone sing about that, in such a frolicking way, it’s like “Oh, you get me.”... The thing that’s so great about The Smiths is it transcends that angst of teenage years. You can pop it on in your 30s, 40s, 70s, and just feel understood for a second.

When you talk about being a misunderstood gothy kid, it reminds me of your character from House of Cards. That was my first introduction to you, actually, and you were immediately memorable. Do you think The Smiths was as indispensable to him as they were to you?

Yeah, oh yeah. He was certainly an outsider. He was only comfortable with himself, his gerbil, and his dubstep. He liked his music a little more linear and, uh, through the center of his cortex than I do. [House of Cards showrunner] Beau Willimon actually wrote in that dubstep music as part of the character. Time and time again, we’re connected to characters and storylines through song. Whether it’s The Smiths sweetly bringing you along, or dubstep making your brain feel like it’s crushed.

Does Morrissey’s recent controversies spoil The Smiths at all for you? I saw Nick Cave say recently that fans of The Smiths shouldn’t despair, but instead focus on the classic material, even if they disagree with him.

See, I’ve been following Nick Cave for ages and the things he’s gone through in his personal life, and the way he’s opening up the doors for other people to understand that experience through his keen observations…he’s kind of like a saint. Of course I read that article as soon as it came out. I was torn for a while and there was a lull in my Morrissey listening, and then I read that Nick Cave article. And it was so eloquently stated. It wasn’t just “Hold onto the classics” it was, I’m paraphrasing but it was something like: “You should understand, as musicians, we create a song and release it, it’s a Rorschach test for you to make of it what you will.” So now when I listen, I’m only projecting my stories on it. And I thank these artists so much for giving me this ability to meditate musically. But I don’t attach Morrissey’s political opinions to his music. Just read the Nick Cave article, it’s brilliant. And it’s truthful too. It’s not giving anybody a pass, he’s just explaining to you what’s happening with the craft and the art of music.

Should the same sentiment apply to House of Cards, given the fallout of Kevin Spacey’s #MeToo controversy, and people deciding not to watch the show and see the great performances you and your colleagues gave?

[Pauses] You know, all that stuff aside, I think people do appreciate House of Cards for what it was, and what it is, and what it stood for, certainly. And as far as I’ve heard, people haven’t attached one person’s actions to this body of work. It was a group effort to try and talk about politics in a new way. That’s why House of Cards worked. It wasn’t just one person. So I think it’s a similar application: the art is the art, not the artist.

In terms of your own art, do you use music as part of your process to figure out how to play a character?

I’ll try to read the text unfettered. And then I’ll start to have a clear idea of what’s happening, and who I need to be. And once those things have made themselves a little bit more obvious to me, I make a playlist in support of it, to get me in the right headspace. There’s kind of a pounding, soothing drumbeat to the playlists I make for characters. I think of acting as a very isolating experience until the day you get on the set and do it. The prep is all about you and your imagination. So I think of music as a tribal beat urging me through the brush—that’s what my playlists are like when I’m working on a character.

What do you mean when you say acting is an isolating experience?

Well, it’s your job to show up and not just know your lines. It’s your job to have your part of this exchange worked out, to have your guy knowing what they’re doing there. And I don’t believe you can do that by just winging it. Yeah, sometimes you can get lucky, but if you’re telling a large arc of a story it’s your job to construct that arc as clear as a carpenter building a house. And it’s also your job to be there on the day and be so malleable, your figurative house has to be made of rubber boards. If you’re too strict, and insist “I’m going to do it this way” then you’re not going to have as much interaction with the other actor. So I don’t think isolating yourself as part of the process of craft hinders yourself with other actors, I think it’s just your job to do your prep. You want to show up with your tool belt ready to do the job. Knowing your lines is like just having a fanny pack, and showing up for war. You need to have a lot more stuff worked out.

And of course fanny packs don’t look great, and went out of style ages ago…

Hey, my mom can rock one. I won’t talk about the aesthetics of a fanny pack, but it can’t hold enough supplies.

I’m curious about the playlist you had for your character on Westworld.

Bill Callahan’s song “Drover” was a big song for me during Westworld. He gives me that drumbeat I was talking about earlier, the one that says: “Do it, do it.” It drove me harder than any other song. It gives you hope. It makes you feel like you have endless resources. “Drover” made it onto probably half of the playlists for my characters. It’s a wonderful song. You can’t sit there and listen to “Drover” by Bill Callahan at full volume, before you gotta go get something done, and not be made to feel a little bit more like you’re going to be able to do it. It’s like this guttural motivation. I love it. I went off on a Callahan hole. Sorry.

No problem. That’s a noble rabbit hole to dive down if ever there was!

A Calla-hole!

Exactly. Did you hear his new record that came out this year, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest?

Yes, I love it. Sometimes his albums are like movies, sometimes they’re like shallow brooks with a couple of shining stones at the bottom. But there’s always something beautiful there. And I just hope he keeps making music forever. I saw him at the East Village in ‘99 or something, and it’s just burned into my brain of a perfect show. He’s practically dislocating his jaw as he enunciates the words, from the bottom of his soul. You can’t shut me up about him.

Did listening to Callahan get you pumped for any particularly challenging Westworld scenes?

It was most useful in the huge turn and reveal, when young William goes dark. He’s dealt with the loss of his love. He’s had enough of the rules, and playing by them. To see him squeezed and squeezed in the preceding episode, and then: It’s a new day, he wakes up and sees Logan drunk, as usual, and he’s surrounded by dead bodies. Then he’s a new character from that point on. It was no longer sweet William trying to do his best and make everyone proud of him. It was old William, getting done what needed to get done. And it was such an extreme character shift. It was difficult, I had to work on it for a bit, and it was songs like “Drover” that made me feel like: “It’s a new day, let’s make it happen, and the world hurts. Get used to it.”

And then after thatspoiler alert-it’s revealed that your and Ed Harrischaracters are the same man. How did it feel to read that in the script and get ready for it?

It tickled me silly that I would somehow turn into as good of an actor as Ed Harris. I was seriously flattered to play a younger version of someone whose work has blown me away since I saw [1984’s] Places in the Heart and thought, “Who the heck is that?” I was just a kid, and his performance landed with me. So I was flattered that they were giving me the responsibility to shoulder the burden of pulling off a young Ed Harris. And I wanted to make sure I delivered. I can’t remember who said it, but the old phrase goes: “Part of the process for every good artist is an element of fear.” And I think, for a lot of us, it’s fear that we won’t be able to sleep at night if we deliver work that we’re not happy with. It has nothing to do with critical reactions, or the public, but whether or not you’re actually satisfied. And Westworld was one of the first times I really had to think about that. It’s a lot of responsibility. It’s a huge show. There’s so much money and publicity behind it, and all these people working to executive this story, and they need us to show up and be as amazing as possible. So the fear is a factor, because you look over and you see Anthony fucking Hopkins. So that gets a performance out of a kid from Jersey. It leaves me wondering: “How the hell did I get here?”

Speaking of the great actors you’ve worked with: what was it like to be on set with Ben Kingsley [on Perpetual Grace, LTD]?

The first time I met him was breathtaking. He has this immediate warmth that makes the room very comfortable. You feel right away that he’s here, onboard, and happy. You wouldn’t have thought he was a star, the way he acted like one of the team. An even cooler element to Sir Ben: he was as in awe as the rest of us by [co-creator] Steven Conrad’s [The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Weather Man] vision and execution. Sir Ben would just look around and say: “Isn’t this script just glorious?!” It was like we were all kids doing our first jobs together. It was so special.

On the flip side, you worked with one of Hollywood’s hottest up-and-commers, Jesse Plemons, on the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister.”

Yes! I’d never met him before working on that episode, but I for damn sure was a fan of his. I don’t really watch sports, but I started watching Friday Night Lights and couldn’t stop until I saw all of it. And Jesse stuck in my mind as one of the more talented young men we have working today. Then there’s his role on Breaking Bad, and then he shows up on Fargo, and knocks it out of the park in a way that you can’t imagine anyone else doing it. So when I met him on the set, I fanboyed out a bit, and told him “Brother, I’ve been loving everything you’ve done since Friday Night Lights.” And he was just a super cool guy of course.

And he must’ve thought you were cool ever since you portrayed Lyle, the notoriously obnoxious intern on Letterman. To bring things full circle: What might be his favorite album? Would you guys have similar tastes?

He likes a little more upbeat stuff than me. His two favorite artists are Rihanna, and Stereolab. First of all, Stereolab keeps him peppy. But then Rihanna makes him feel like the sexual man he knows he is. Those are his big two. And I gotta say, I agree with him.

If Letterman ever became his wingman, I’m not sure they’d be able to agree on what kind of music to listen to to get pumped up.

I doubt Dave would be into it. But Lyle would give him a shoulder rub and calm him down, get him to stop calling the cops, and just enjoy the ride.

What are your fondest memories of playing that bit with Dave?

The first time I was so nervous, I don’t remember anything, except that he started improvising and laughing, and I just fell hard into the character. And they asked me back a bunch of times, but it was always jumping into a black hole and warping into another dimension where I’m talking to David fucking Letterman. Then I’d say some bullshit to Paul and walk right out of the wormhole, and walk onto New York City streets, and I’m Jimmi Simpson again. And I’d say to myself: “How the shit did that just happen?” It’s one of the greatest things that’s happened in my life.

I didn’t realize Dave was riffing in those bits. Is he a good improviser?

He’d just come up with an insult, and pop stuff in, and welcome what you do back. The scripts were always tight as hell, but when Dave added something it was glorious, and hard not to laugh.

What are you working on next?

I just finished shooting a movie called Unhinged, with Russell Crowe. I’m also in another movie called Silk Road. But the thing I’m most excited about is spending some time with my wife, Sophia, because I have my first two days off in 45 days right now. As soon as I stop talking with you, it’s cat time, just us playing with our cats.

That’s sounds great! Well I’ll leave you to it.

Oh I should go on record saying that the best movie I’ve seen in the past decade is Drive. Just in case you’re polling people.

Really? Why did it speak to you?

Because it feels like the director, Nicolas Winding Refn, teleported into my brain, and saw how I’d make a movie in my fantasies. And then he made it. It’s like a soundtrack come to life. And [Ryan] Gosling’s performance in it is one of my favorites. There’s also [Bryan] Cranston, Ron Perlman. [Carey] Mulligan killed it. But above all it’s so visually appealing. It’s so immersive, and so shocking. I think movies are going through a lull, and some people are trying to make movies that not everyone wants to see, that aren’t mainstream, in a beautiful way. The people who are doing that are great directors.

You think movies are in a bit of a lull compared to TV?

Yeah, everything’s so easy to see at home. And people are doing amazing things on TV, some of which I’ve been lucky to be a part of. But there’s nothing like that experience of being in a theater, in an unfamiliar place, and the only thing you can look at is what’s in front of you. There’s no phones or distractions, there’s just this story. People trying to give audiences that experience, of stepping away from your life and falling into a narrative, I really look up to people that are doing that.

Is that what you’re trying to fight for with these new movies you wrapped, Unhinged and Silk Road?

I want to lend my voice to the new TV experience, but I also want to help keep movies alive, and not drift solely to just everyone separated in their own home. Because there’s so many benefits to both. I don’t want us to lose that movie theatre experience.

[Note: This article originally appeared in the digital version (for smart phones and tablets) of Issue 66 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online. For the issue we interviewed musicians and actors about their all-time favorite album.]

Also read our separate interview with Simpson on his all-time favorite album: The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead.


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Ronald Wages
June 24th 2020

Awesome interview, got to know him from his role on House of Cards (which I’ve watched a handful of time already!).