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J.K. Simmons is getting Oscar buzz for his performance as music teacher Fletcher in Whiplash.

Daniel McFadden

In the movie business, it's known as a showcase: a smaller-scale film that tells a good story, but mainly serves to introduce a promising talent, or allow an older actor to strut his stuff. The new drama Whiplash, which opened in select cities today, does both. Playing a jazz drummer who'll do anything to satisfy the fearsome maestro at his music school, the actor Miles Teller, 27, proves that his buzz-generating turns in 2010's Rabbit Hole and 2013's The Spectacular Now weren't flukes. And as the maestro, whose teaching technique careens from brusque to sadistic, the great character actor J.K. Simmons, 59, finally gets to play the co-lead.

He sure worked long enough to get here. Or at least, that's what I posited during a recent phone interview (he was in Los Angeles, in his car). But Simmons, ever modest, demurred. "Ah, I hesitate to say that I worked hard," he said, his voice eminently recognizable, equal parts gruff and friendly. "I mostly just hung in there." If that's true, his career should be studied by every actor interested in the mechanics of longevity.

Born in Michigan and raised in Ohio, Simmons (J.K. stands for Jonathan Kimble) did summer stock between semesters at the University of Montana, at the Bigfork Summer Playhouse in Bigfork, Mont. "I was horrible when I started, but I just wanted to keep doing it," he says. For the next 17 years, he did nothing but theatre, honing his craft and celebrating each step upward: graduating, moving to Seattle, getting his equity card, landing a gig at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. "The first month I paid my rent by working as an actor was an amazing and wonderful thing for me," he says.

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He moved to New York, waited tables, tended bar, and went to cattle calls – for two years. At one point, he was literally down to his last $20. Roles in regional theatre eventually led to Broadway – for another five years. Then, after a year of doing eight shows a week in the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls, Simmons decided to try television. Healthy runs as a police psychiatrist on Law & Order and a neo-Nazi inmate on Oz followed.

People who work with Simmons once tend to do it again. Two smallish roles in Sam Raimi's films For Love of the Game and The Gift led to the plum part of desk-pounding editor J. Jonah Jameson in three Spider-Man movies. The Coen brothers hired him three times. But the best money Simmons ever spent was the extra quarter he stuck into a parking meter on the day Jason Reitman was running an hour late to audition him for Thank You For Smoking.

"I wanted to get home to my kids," Simmons says. (He and his wife of eight years, Michelle Schumacher, have two, aged 13 and 15.) "I was standing by my car, wondering if I should put in the quarter or just get in and drive away, when Jason parked next to me and introduced himself. Because I'm a complete idiot about show business, I didn't know he was Ivan's son." Eight films together later, "it's like Jason is my mentor, even though I'm old enough to be his father." (Reitman is a producer on Whiplash.)

Simmons doesn't lament that he's not a conventional leading man. "I avoided that by not being born gorgeous, and by losing my hair when I was 21," he says. "What's great is, as we age, that leading man/character actor thing begins to blend together." In his wildest dreams in Bigfork, he never thought he'd achieve what he has: "I'm living the dream on every possible level."

His longest-running role – 18 years and counting – is on a level all its own: He's the voice of the yellow M&M in the TV ads. He landed it just before Oz, when he was schlepping around to voiceover auditions, trying to get any gig. He thought he should try for the red M&M, a fast-talking wise guy, because that's the vibe he was in. But Janet Eisenberg, his voice casting director, thought he'd be better for yellow.

"She said, 'He's sweet but dumb, you can use your lower range,'" Simmons remembers. "We had this absurdly long debate. It was like I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company talking about whether I should play Othello or Iago. But it's been a sweet, sweet job."

Still, Simmons admits there are levels he hasn't reached. "When there's a part being cast that I feel I could do, I don't always get it," he says. "Nobody always gets it. Ah, maybe Clooney." And when he's watching a great role – whether the actor is killing it, or not doing it justice – he can't help but think, "'Wow, I wish I'd had a shot at that; that would have been fun.' But listen, I have no complaints."

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The maestro in Whiplash could be the great role that didn't get away. The writer/director Damien Chazelle pulled the story from his own experience, and Oscar talk for Simmons began last January, when the film won two top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. His character is charming, cajoling, furious, envious, brutal, crazy and not always wrong – a perfectionist in search of excellence, he declares that the worst thing you can say to an artist is, "Good job." Simmons plays the hell out of him. He slaps his students, shames them, goads them to fight back – so realistically that, during a climactic tussle, Teller broke two of Simmons's ribs.

"It may as well have been a sports movie," Simmons says, chuckling. "We were like a couple of jocks driving each other to work harder. I like that the movie lets you decide whether the end justifies the means or not. I love that we [emotionally] beat the crap out of the audience for an hour and a half, and they seem to enjoy it."

Simmons is enjoying this moment, that's certain. "Unlike a drummer, an actor doesn't lock himself in a practice room and keep at it until his blisters bleed," he says. "Acting isn't ballet, or digging ditches, fighting fires or combatting terrorists, which are some of the things that I think of when I hear the words 'hard work.' It's nice to have more to do in this film, but my career arc has been gradual, and rightly so. I'm comfortable in my own skin now, even though I crawl into other people's for a living. If someone had offered me a great part when I was young, I would have crashed and burned, because I was nowhere near ready. My career unfolded as I was ready for it."

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