'Counterpart's' J.K. Simmons, Justin Marks on Challenges of One Actor in Dual Roles
The star and creator explain how using "subtle audience cues" can distinguish very different worlds and what the future holds for the Starz series: "There are secrets that we all know the answers to."
After J.K. Simmons won the best supporting actor Oscar in 2015 for playing the raging jazz band leader in Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, he signed on to play Howard, a character he describes as "a kind, gentle, sad-sack, lowly cog." It would seem like a big departure from the intensity of his Academy Award-winning performance if it weren't for the fact that in Counterpart, there is another Howard — a slick, confident secret agent living in a parallel universe — whom Simmons also plays.
Created by Justin Marks, Starz's Counterpart, which premiered Dec. 10, sees Simmons' Howard (the mild one) uncover a world where duplicate versions of every person on Earth are living different lives. After his discovery, Howard must work with his "other" to prevent an attack on his world. Simmons, 63, and Marks, 38, spoke to THR on the L.A. set of their show (where they're currently shooting the second season) about creating the critically acclaimed series, the challenges of having a leading man in dual roles and where Howard will go next.
Justin, where did this idea first come from?
JUSTIN MARKS Counterpart was always a show that came of this desire to do a different kind of Cold War espionage story. I had grown up on the books of Graham Greene and John le Carre and was really excited to do a story in that world, but something that felt like nothing we'd seen before. It's a Cold War story where the Berlin Wall was more of a metaphysical construct, a divide between two worlds that were once identical and have grown apart and grown into a competition.
J.K., how did you prepare to play these two different roles?
J.K. SIMMONS The very first time I read Justin's script, I immediately went back and read it again from the other character's point of view because that's always my perspective — my character's view of this world and how he navigates his way through it, or how they navigate their way through it in this case. It was really just the same kind of work as usual, but twice as much. There were obviously logistical and technical hoops that we all had to jump through, but at the end of the day, it's first of all an opportunity to work with my favorite actor. (Laughter.) And second of all it's just playing the scenes and wanting to make the words work and go after what you are after.
What did you have to do technically to make it work?
MARKS Because a lot of the scenes were [J.K.'s two characters] exploring each other on different levels, it took a lot of work to get it to a point where it felt very natural. We really made every wrong choice that we could possibly make at the beginning. At one point, we had a disembodied robot voice that was just playing out of the ceiling while he looked at some person just standing there perfectly still. And then we added little ear pieces that went into all the actors' ears, but that didn't work out very well. Finally we found the best solution was just to get another actor who would observe and watch the way J.K. performed one half of the scene and then be able to perfectly imitate it.
How important was it to distinguish these two worlds visually? Do you feel like you have a responsibility to give cues to the audience so they would know which world they're in?
MARKS We had a lot of conversations with the art department about the best way to service these two worlds and to create a sense of geography. We could've done color, black and white, sepia tone or other things to give the audience cues. But we decided instead of servicing an underlying aesthetic, we created very different narratives between the two worlds. On the other side, they had a very specific event where things went differently a few decades ago, and everything is a manifestation of that event. So when you look at a world where people are wearing face masks or not shaking each other's hand so much or the streets are a little more empty in the city, these were ways that we would more subtly cue the audience as opposed to some big slam title that says, "The Other Side."
SIMMONS We wanted to make a show for smart people, and you want them to really want and need to pay attention. You don't get up and go to the refrigerator without hitting pause when you're watching this show.
MARKS There are a lot of shows that I love to watch while I do the dishes. This would not be one of them.
J.K., of course you've done quite a bit of TV over the years. I think Oz is something that a lot of people remember you for, especially. How would you compare working in TV today versus back then?
SIMMONS Well in a way it's almost full circle for me because Oz was truly groundbreaking. It was the first original drama on pay cable. And Tom Fontana created this messed up, great world. And then I spent several years after that from Law & Order to The Closer and a couple of network sitcoms and this and that in more traditional network TV land. And this is back to, like Oz, it feels like a hybrid between the feature world and what I guess we're calling high-end television now — which there is a real proliferation of these days and it's great to be a part of it again. So to me it's like the ideal combination of something new but almost a homecoming.
When you look at a character like in Oz or your character in Whiplash, what do you love most about playing a bad character like those guys, or even the more badass version of Howard?
SIMMONS You get to vent all that stuff that builds up when you're commuting to work on the 101. (Laughs.) I mean it's great to play those guys and just exorcise whatever demons you may have and get everything out of your system and get paid for it.
What can you say about where the story goes in season two?
SIMMONS Nothing. (Laughs.)
MARKS Here is the only high-level thing that we've talked about for this show. The first season showed the Howards as two people who, in a lot of ways, couldn't be more different. I think not just the second season but hopefully future seasons of this show start to really explore ways where their personalities and their histories overlap, and sometimes in more surprising ways than you might expect. So this season is about that convergence.
How far in the future do you have the show mapped out?
MARKS I think there's this fallacy that you have to go into a television series, especially a series in this genre, with a plan. There are secrets that we all know the answers to. We have a certain emotional truth that we all believe in when it comes to what the show is trying to say, and we have a very loose but very specific idea for how this show ends — we just have no idea when that'll happen and what side we'll be standing on when it does.
If there were another version of you in another world, what job would you want him to have?
SIMMONS That's easy. Center field for the Detroit Tigers.
MARKS First base coach for the Red Sox, during a Tigers game.
SIMMONS You wouldn't have much to do. (Laughs.)
A TALE OF TWO BERLINS
Counterpart, set in the German capital, is mostly shot in a downtown L.A. studio
Marks chose to set his story in Berlin because "it became the allegory that we wanted to tell this show around — this idea that if you could create two equal worlds and then decide on an arbitrary division between them, what kind of drama would come out from that?" While the show shot 42 days in the German capital during season one to capture exterior scenes, it's primarily filmed at LA Center Studios in downtown Los Angeles.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.