When Aaron Sorkin approached him with a role in Being the Ricardos, J.K. Simmons felt more inclined to turn it down than to immediately say yes. "I was reticent," he admits. Simmons and Sorkin had worked together three decades prior, when the former understudied in the latter's Broadway production of A Few Good Men, but now the writer-director was asking Simmons to play William Frawley in his I Love Lucy biopic.
"I was a little leery about portraying an actor and his character, who are iconic in American history," the 67-year-old actor tells A.frame of Frawley, who played Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. "Like most people who grew up in the United States, I watched the show when I was a kid on my parents' crappy black-and-white TV and oddly—looking back—found myself particularly amused by Fred Mertz."
On principle, Simmons is uninterested in playing real people, due to the inevitable comparisons and a focus on imitation. But Sorkin was adamant that this film, about the cast and crew of the beloved sitcom during one particularly tumultuous week, was not meant to be impressionistic. After all, Nicole Kidman would be portraying Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem would play Desi Arnaz.
And so, Simmons said yes.
"About five minutes after the announcement went out that I was playing William Frawley, I got a call from a friend of mine, Alan Filderman, who's a casting director in New York and one of those I Love Lucy fanatics," he says. "He was like, 'Get your ass up here. I have six books I'm loaning you. You're reading all of them. And I'm going to tell you everything you could ever possibly want to know about William Frawley.'"
That solicitation turned out to be a blessing, as there is relatively little known about the late Frawley's life outside of what viewers could glean from seeing him onscreen. Simmons knew about Frawley's battle with alcohol and that, unlike his I Love Lucy co-stars, he seldom sought out the spotlight and kept few Hollywood friends (Arnaz being the exception). Getting inside Frawley's head, however, necessitated a deeper understanding of him as a person.
"I think there was a loneliness to him. He'd had an early failed marriage with his vaudeville partner, who he technically never divorced, but it fell apart when they were young, and he never got married [again], never had kids, never found somebody to really share his life with," Simmons explains. "That was something that helped me, because I did find that but not until I was pushing 40."
"That gave me a sense of— I'm trying to think of a more articulate word than 'sadness,' and if Aaron Sorkin were here, he would help me," he chuckles. "Something about him that helped me understand how he became a guy who a lot of people, and most notably Vivian Vance"—who played Ethel Mertz—"didn't particularly care for and found to be a bit of a crankypuss."
I learned that it's good for me, at this stage in my career, to do something that makes me a little uncomfortable.
Simmons' Frawley is, indeed, cantankerous and provocative—never missing an opportunity to further incense his onscreen other half (Nina Arianda plays Vance)—but also compassionately sage, as in the scene in which he counsels Lucille over drinks at a dive bar. That is undoubtedly Simmons' standout moment in the movie, though he says every line he got in the script was a gift. "There was never that day like just show up and punch the clock and walk from A to B and no acting required," he says. "No. Every day at work was stimulating and challenging and really a pleasure."
"I learned that it's good for me, at this stage in my career, to do something that makes me a little uncomfortable, that I'm a little bit afraid of," Simmons reflects on having nearly turned down the part. "I'm glad I overcame my trepidation and decided to be part of this wonderful movie."
Now, with the curtain called, Simmons' work paid off with the blessing of his aforementioned friend and mentor in all things I Love Lucy. ("I got him into one of the early screenings in New York and did get the positive review.") Being the Ricardos also earned him a second Academy Award nomination, after being nominated for and winning his first Oscar as a belligerent jazz bandleader in 2014's Whiplash.
"It's hard to say this without sounding arrogant and egotistical, but the first one, by the time we got to that [point] in awards season, everybody around me was saying, 'Well, yeah, dude, you're gonna be nominated for an Oscar,'" Simmons remembers. "This time, there's been such a wide range of guys nominated for awards that it was a bit of a surprise for me."
"The other thing was I was in Scotland"—where he was filming his next movie, Batgirl—"so nobody woke me up at 5 a.m. It was two o'clock in the afternoon when I got the call, so that was nice too!"
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