An Interview with Simon Helberg of #FlorenceFosterJenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers:  Nicholas Martin
Starring:  Rebecca Ferguson, Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Official Socials: Site | Facebook Twitter | Instagram | IMDb
Hashtag: #FlorenceFosterJenkins
The story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.

I am a self-proclaimed geek girl, and proud of it! I’ve always liked the things nerds and geeks would get made fun of for liking, ever since I was a little girl. While the girls in my 5th grade class were all swooning over New Kids on the Block, I was swooning over Raphael from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As I grew up, I never stopped liking those things; in fact, I started to add fandoms to the long list I already had. So, a few years ago when The Big Bang Theory show started to air and someone recommended I watch it because “it’s something I would like” –and I saw what the show was about –I finally felt understood. As I started watching the show and getting to know the characters, I realized that Howard Wolowitz was my second favorite character (and he’s not my #1 favorite because, well, Sheldon…). I absolutely LOVE Howard and his sass! And, as the professional fangirl that I am, I started to do more research on the actor who plays Howard on BBT: Simon Helberg. My research led me to find out that he’s actually a very smart, sweet, and funny guy. He’s less hyper than Howard, but has somewhat of that sass in real life. OMG, I love him!

Then, fast-forward to July 2016, when I get asked if I could go on behalf of OUaT to interview Simon Helberg as part of the promotional press tour for the new movie he’s in, “Florence Foster Jenkins” (in which he plays Cosme McMoon). Naturally, I squeed like the fangirl that I am and said, “Absolutely I can!” The day of I was so giddy, I couldn’t stop smiling and was so amazingly star struck (which doesn’t happen often to me) when I got to sit next to him during the press table. He even joked with me about my geeky pins on my jean jacket! Cue more fangirl squees!

Anyway, without further ado, here’s the interview with Simon:

I have to say that one of the funniest scenes in the movie is the very first time you here Florence sing (Simon: “oh, yeah”). It’s a great shot, and all your reactions really make that scene that great. Do you recall anything about that day while shooting? I’d love to hear about it.

Simon: Yeah, I remember. Actually, my wife was there that day because she knew it’d be fun, and I knew it’d be fun, just based on the script. A lot of that stuff is not like it’s planned in the sense that it’s not like, ‘now we are going to have this expression, or this look’. This movie ended up being a reaction movie, I guess. But, in the script it did say something like ‘Florence opens her mouth and lets out a shrill screech’ or something like that, and then ‘Cosme looks like a stunt mullet’, that’s what it said (we all laugh). And I had to look up mullet, I mean, I know the hairstyle very well, it’s super cool, but it’s very British –there are a lot of Britishisms because Nicholas Martin wrote it and he’s brilliant, and British. Anyhow, when we shot it –because we are playing this music live in the film, what you are seeing and hearing is what is happening; we did not do it to playback –there is so much to focus on, there is so much work to be done that it helped, actually, it liberated us from becoming totally self-conscious because we are totally playing this music and it made it very authentic. So, that’s her singing and that’s me playing and acting, and I think that’s an eccentric part. But, that day it was really fun. I remember knowing that this is going to be a good scene, and it’s important because it’s the first time the audience hears her, and I was sort of like the eyes of the audience, so I felt a bit of pressure. But she’s so brilliant, Meryl, that all I really was ever doing was watching her. And when you watch a master like that, it makes everyone else’s job very easy.

Your character, which is a great comic relief, like when he is trying to compose himself, he looks like he’s in a perpetual state of nervousness; he’s very giddy. So, is that something that –upon research on the actual individual –he is known for or is that something you brought to the character, and you thought it would be great?
Simon: Yeah, there certainly was no evidence of his disposition in real life, or his emotional stability, or anything like that. Although there’s probably more now that there’s a biography out with the poster [of the movie] as the cover –so they waited until we did all the work to publish the biography –but, there is really kind of nothing. Except for maybe, like, Cosme was a master chess player, and that he was born in Mexico, lived in San Antonio, and then he moved to New York at 18, and things like this, which actually were helpful. And there’s also the imply that he was gay, and that he was into amateur body building, so all those things were lovely little clues to come up with the ‘what might that guy have been like?’ Like, also not having English as your first language, and then moving countries as a young child, and moving to New York, and when being gay was illegal and him not being able to manifest it. It would probably make someone feel sort of alien in their own body. And then, the other part of it is just the script and the clues that were there, of how difficult it was for him to try to confront Hugh’s character to tell him that his wife is a terrible singer, and Hugh seems to have no idea. How uncomfortable that might make someone who has probably never had to confront anybody, and then to know about this mistress. It just felt like every scene he had walked into some kind of conspiracy that he had to help uphold, and how that would’ve made me very uncomfortable, and I am just a nervous person, and Meryl Streep and then Hugh Grant showing up there, I was giddy, and I was scared; I was kind of in awe.

Have you ever found yourself working in Hollywood in a position in which you’ve had to tell somebody to give up the pipe dream?

Simon: Well, to play this character, I thought about what is that kind of moment, you know? Because he has so many moments like that. I think that we naturally tend to encourage people to pursue what they want, unless it’s detrimental to anyone around them. And sometimes we do it out of selfishness, or out of fear of hurting them, or if we profit from it. And I think this movie walks that line because these people are gaining something financially and artistically, but, also, they are helping a woman live out her dream in this beautiful way; a way you would for a child. Like, you wouldn’t criticize a three-year-old for carrying a bad tune, or for having a belly, or having bad dance moves. But I haven’t crushed a lot of dreams, not as many as I should, but there are people that I know who are sort of Pollyannaish, and kind and innocent, and I have thought about what would it be like for that person? I worked with a person who was a producer, and would have to fire people, and she was the sweetest, most meek person, you felt like she would just crack. What would it be like when this person fires somebody? I just thought about that during this movie too, because he has to constantly be the messenger and deliver bad news, but he’s not equipped to be a dream crusher.

Can you tell us a bit about you learning the piano? Even before I read that it was you playing it in this movie, it was very obvious and very well done.

Simon: Thank you. I grew up playing. I started when I was about 10, which seemed late at the time, so silly now that I think about it, I was actually very little, but I got obsessed with it. I tried to play classical, and I didn’t really connect, so I ended up playing rock music and playing jazz, and, after that, in school I got into these bands. By the time I was 16, I had played all around the Sunset Strip and in a bunch of jazz places, and with a couple of bands and made a tiny bit of money. So I did it semi-professionally for a bit, and then I just stopped and I started acting. I kind of peaked at that moment, and then I got this role, and I kind of lied to Stephen Frears and said, ‘oh, I can play anything, I am a professional piano player’. But I said it like meaning I know where my hands should go, and he just hummed in on ‘you can play anything?’ And I really wanted to be in this movie with Meryl Streep (me: and not crush anyone’s dream) (laughs) Yes, and not crush Stephen’s dream of my ability, so I kind of had to have this crush course for a few months, took some lessons. I am very slow at reading, so I had to get an apartment to go sit alone and work through this, and then learn these pieces as well as I could, so that when I got on the set to accompany Meryl to shoot this, aside from that terror, also the ability to bop and weave with her singing, destroying these songs and the ability to do that. It took like 3 months to really get ready.

You had mentioned that you were kind of in awe working with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, so how did that relationship work on set? Did you guys kind of play off of each other?

Simon: Yeah, for sure. I think all we did was play off of each other. That’s kind of what you want everyone to do, but when you are working with really great people. Meryl spoke about kind of feeling alive, and that’s what she’s so brilliant at. Every time you watch her, even every time I catch a few scenes of this movie in one of the screenings, I am always amazed by something that she’s doing because it’s kind of that light on the screen. It’s not something you can kind of figure out at home; it has to happen there. It takes this total surrender and confidence, and also vulnerability and commitment. The amount of work that goes into it, that we all put into it, and then you sort of let go of it on set and try to be in that moment. And it’s two pretty incredible people to watch.

What was the difference between working with a British film company versus an American company?

Simon: Well, first of all, it was my real first time getting to spend a real chunk of time in London (me: which is amazing), and, yes, it is such a great city, and we fell in love with England, and it’s such a magical place. In some ways, it’s very much the same, but in others it’s very different because there’s like an elevated level of class that you feel. Or maybe it was just who I was working with, obviously royalty in many ways. But it also felt very intimate, which I think is a British thing. The studio that we shot at was like the size of my garage and it had one, maybe two stages, but there was no security. In Los Angeles, these are like institutions and, this just felt very like ‘Oh, we’re shooting? There’s Meryl, and there’s Stephen’, and I feel it helps to feel intimate when you’re making something intimate, because sometimes you can get carried away with the monstrous size of the feeling of the studio. It didn’t feel like there was a studio; it just felt like this a group of people we are shooting with.

Earlier you mentioned your wife was on set that day, and I read that you had your directional debut with her in your movie “We’ll Never Have Paris”. So when you work with someone like Stephen Frears, or Todd Phillips, or Joel and Ethan Coen, what have you taken away from those experiences that you applied when you got behind the camera?

Simon: Well, everyone works very differently. Like, Joel and Ethan storyboard everything and they are word perfect, they are so brilliant. Their scripts are so perfect, and as you read them, the transition from page to screen is identical. Usually when you read a script, when you do a movie, by the time you see it, it’s very different. They have basically finished the movie in their head before you started. I thought what I can take from that is to make the script as good as I could possibly do before, and I asked everybody before to have the lines memorized perfectly and then you can open it up a little bit for improve. But when you are making a movie on a tight schedule, and it’s your first one, I think if you rely too heavily on ‘oh, this will come together later’, or ‘let’s find something that works better’, and you want to find it that you can be free on set, but you don’t want to be lost going into it. And Stephen, he’s kind of in between those, actually. He is so free, but you are also kind of filtering it through his vision, but almost seamlessly; you don’t feel him pulling the strings. It’s been a very good group of people I’ve gotten to be around.

You’re about to enter your tenth season of “The Big Bang Theory”, which started in 2007 when it was still taboo to be a geek, but now to be geek it’s almost like being a rock star. (Simon: You’re welcome, we all laughed) How do you see this show transform throughout the number of years and how proud are you about being on that ensemble?

Simon: I’m very proud to be part of it. When we would talk to people at the beginning, I saw that there are a lot more geeks out there than people realize: there are people that feel awkward, or like they don’t have a place, like there were a bunch of closeted nerds that deserved more. And we said, hey, it’s ok, we are actually the stars of the show in this one, we aren’t the buddies, and that’s cool. I don’t know if there was anything more that we wanted to do than to entertain people, and I feel like it has spoken to a deeper part of what maybe was a subculture, and is now more of mainstream culture. And yeah, it’s cool to see that. The other really cool thing is that a lot of people that are going into science, these little kids that have grown up watching it, now want to be engineers and physicists, and I feel that is really great. And I feel that if I was a kid and I saw the show, it might inspire me because I never really had that much of an interest in science, and it’s great that people are talking about this thing, especially that certain people deny that science is real, and it’s cool saying these are these irrefutable facts, and it’s actually kind of fun and we should celebrate the beauty of evolution as a brilliant, magical thing.

Simon was funny and so amazing, and humble. I am incredibly happy and lucky to have met him and gotten to interview him. Please make sure you go check out the new (very funny) movie he is: Florence Foster Jenkins (and read my review of the movie as well).

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