Jimmi Simpson | Always the Bridesmaid, Never the Bride
Jimmi Simpson possesses the rare chameleon-esque qualities as an actor that make him an “every man.” Seeing his face pop up on House of Cards, Westworld, or Black Mirror (and even Herbie Fully Loaded) may inspire an exasperating marathon of brain-wracking, trying to figure out what else you recognize him from. Simpson has not always been the “every man,” in fact, he is used to playing characters he deems funny or creepy. A thespian, Simpson’s love for acting on television and film stemmed from his passion for community theater, which he discovered at age 20.
Simpson’s catapult into substantial, recognizable roles shows no signs of slowing down. The actor now stars as James on Epix’s new series, Perpetual Grace, LTD, following Simpson’s grifter character as he attempts to exploit Pastor Byron Brown—played by Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley.
Prior to his shoot at Brooklyn’s stunning hotel, The William Vale, Flaunt was able to chat with Simpson about his career’s longevity, upcoming projects and the importance of civic engagement.
Tell me about the opening scene of Perpetual Grace, LTD. It’s silent and you’re only doing physical acting. There’s a lot you had to convey without words—how important was nailing that scene for you?
I mean, I do take this job really seriously in general. When you’re working with Steve Conrad and Bruce Terris, their story was so clear that it made me just try to ratchet up my own game as much as I was capable. A lot of that has to do with preparation, but so much had to do with my dialogue with Steve Conrad who was directing the first episode. Also Jim Whitaker who directs some other episodes, was shooting and DPing that actual moment, and the three of us were all on the side of the road. Jimmy and Steve had their plan for how to get it visually and I had my plan on how to convey it through my own medium, which is my body and face. Then the three of us hashed it out for 10 minutes before we filmed it and decided together how to most clearly show James steeling himself for this integration with Ma and Pa. His thought being, “Oh shit, what the hell am I about to get into?” I’m glad that you picked up on it cause in such a simple moment so much work and love and passion went into getting it just right. So I definitely thought about it—probably overthought about it—but I probably didn’t even make a dent in the amount practice that Steve Conrad, Jimmy Whitaker, and Bruce Terris put into it. I mean, truly, they’re just other-level filmmakers. I’m aware I’ve been very fortunate to work with the highest caliber filmmakers out there today and I show my gratitude by working as hard as I can to come as close to their level as possible. My dad told me I can always be learning if I spend time with people that know more than me- that one stuck and has done me right.
How was it working with Ben Kingsley? The moment Pa’s face popped through the car window, I was like, “Woah, holy shit!” How did you react to starring alongside him?
Well, just like you. “Woah, holy shit.” So with a show—a television show in particular—or a film, if you’re lucky, you have a production team that’s going to get all the actors, all of the designers, all of the department heads—that means the people who are making the sets look as good as they are—wardrobe, makeup, all the kinda visionaries of the show in one room. We have the cast read out the script. If you’re doing a series sometimes a couple of scripts. And then for the first time everybody is just imagining it happening. We’re now like a week or two away from filming. In my 20-plus years of doing table reads, I’ve never seen an actor completely off book for the entire read, until Ben Kingsley in Perpetual Grace, LTD. It was a profoundly inspiring thing to witness, because again, I drive myself really hard to be prepared, and that means having made a lot of choices before going in, so it’s never a cold read for me. It’s always a very prepared read and often I’ll prepare monologues so that I can convey those to the crew designers as clearly as possible. Ben Kingsley—Sir Ben Kingsley—was off book, meaning that he didn’t have to look down at his words and it was brilliant to watch. He was just letting everyone know how much he cared and how prepared he was. And I would say that first introduction to Ben Kingsley helped ease me through the duration of the series. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a more prepared actor, a more inspired actor, and on top of that he was so warm and such a part of the team. You would expect someone with credits and some prestige to be a little bit jaded, but no. It was like he was making his first film, he was so excited to be there and so joyful to be around—so excited to be a part of the team.
I found myself first really attached to your character in the second scene at the pawn shop where he is clearly at a moral crossroads. When did you first feel connected to James and what made you want to play him?
Well I’ll be honest, there is a moment in the chaos that wasn’t in the final draft of the pilot—and I read the original pilot—but it sums up the character James beautifully, even though it didn’t fit into the telling of the story. But it was during all this chaos, and he looks up and sees this bird went down to a tree branch, and he takes it in with such joy and it gives him this moment of pleasure to be alive. That was my initial connection with James. It was this idea that life is chaos, but there are moments for us to breathe. My strongest connection to James is in his realization that Pawn Shop Glenn needs a father figure—so James quietly assumes the role. After he knocks the kid out with a lead pipe, of course. Even more importantly, there’s a symmetry there—to James’ own lack of a dad. Not only does Glenn give James purpose, he also gives him hope. Hope that the dad-sized hole in James’ own heart might feel more full someday.
So you’ve been in pretty much everything. How has being able to be an “every man” helped your career?
Well what seems to help out is being up for change—that’s been a lucky asset in my career. Initially I found acting when I was 20 and thought “I would love to do community theater at night”. When I moved to NYC and got shots to be auditioning to play weird characters for 10 years it was unexpected gravy. So the fact that I am kind of finding “every man” roles is kind of a newish experience. I was always the “who the hell is that?” guy, so to be the relatable part of the narrative is a new thing and I’m flattered that I’ve been able to take another road in this career and see how far it’ll go. So I’m surprised as well that I get to represent central characters.
You seem to be having quite a moment, contributing to really noteworthy and acclaimed projects like House of Cards, Black Mirror, Westworld, and now Perpetual Grace, LTD. I feel like you’ve kind of been a human personification of the phrase “always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” but now you’re the bride. How has it been for you?
[Laughs] It’s been good, I’m grateful. With “always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” there’s an inherent disappointment to that phrase. Like a lot of women, I actually wasn’t looking to be the bride, and so I was aware of that, that I wasn’t doing those other things, but generally it made sense to me for what I was. It made sense for me to come in and be kind of funny or creepy, because I just couldn’t believe I was getting the opportunity to play such extreme roles and, you know, to get the chance to stumble into a role and take more time to tell the story is a completely different artform. And I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but I’m grateful for the opportunity and the faith that I can do a lot of different things. I entered this business softly and developed within it slowly. I’ve never been tapping my toes, needing more to happen. That’s kept me a real happy actor. I tell young artists “tend to the flower at your feet, no matter how small... desiring other people’s gardens will only cause you to neglect your own”. Besides, each actor is their own vessel of craft- and each moves differently and are awesome at different things. Get to know your own vessel and worry less about how fast everyone else is going. Black Mirror was my favorite show at the time when I was asked to do it, and I remember very clearly. My phone was on my dash and I got an email about a Black Mirror episode and when I got into my driveway I looked at the email explaining, “We want you to play this role,” and I was beside myself. I could not believe that Charlie Brooker thought that I was good enough to be part of telling his story. It’s not that I didn’t think I could, I just really wasn’t thinking someone else would think that. So it’s always just like a beautiful complement, a surprise, each time I get a new kind of style to play, because I’m just working on my own craft and the fact that I’m getting invited, it really is a happy surprise every single time. I think if you’re happy and surprised by people giving you shots to work harder, and you don’t feel like you’re left out, then you’re going to get disappointed less.
That’s a great outlook.
My career has been a slow play. I’m actually doing a movie right now with Awkwafina and we were talking about longevity of careers and we were talking about not being embraced immediately and it really laid the groundwork for a much more longterm career. Because you’ve seen it when it’s hard, you know what it’s like to be able to get through a moment based only on acceptance of yourself, as opposed to some kind of collective “you are great.” You have to get though moments where you work out, “yeah, nobody’s watching the show,” or, “yeah, people haven’t picked me up a bunch,” but I know the work I did for five seconds was pretty great and I feel good about it, and it gets you through the trying times, and it keeps you way more grounded through the longterm.
What are you working on with Awkwafina right now?
Doing a movie called Breaking News in Yuba County. Allison Janney is starring in this kind of hilarious and dark little story—it reminds me of like an early Coen brothers, like Blood Simple meets Fargo—directed by Tate Taylor. Wanda Sykes and I are kicking around for quite a lot of it—Mila Kunis is in it—just a whole bunch of great women that I’m really lucky to be tagging along with.
Do you have a favorite role you’ve ever played?
Yeah, I have a couple. Westworld and Black Mirror—these are epic shows that I can’t believe I was apart of. But most people know how great those shows are and have seen work that I am so, so proud of. Two lesser-known roles that I’m so proud of, that made me the actor I am, happened before Westworld and Black Mirror. I got into a bad motorcycle accident and about a year later I was able to really physicalize again. I played a role called Trevor, and he’s a chimpanzee, in a little theater in Atwater with 99 seats. I’m the chimp and Laurie Metcalf is my human caretaker. It was a play written by Nick Jones and it was called Trevor. And it was one of the greatest training sessions I’ve ever had as an actor, working next to Laurie. When someone comes up to me and says, “I saw you in TREVOR,” it makes my week, because theater is so damn important to me. So many roles I’ve played on film and TV were dependent on what I’d learned about myself from the play I’d done directly preceding the shoot. My modest training in theater keeps me aware that development and growth is always possible. I think the stage is the healthiest and most freeing place to practice the craft of acting—your limits and potential. In film, there’s no rehearsal and little experimentation allowed due to the budgetary constraints—you gotta work the kinks out on your own time. For me that’s theatre. I feel very out of touch if I’ve gone more than two years without doing a play. Because, when an actor is on the stage and there’s not millions of dollars at stake, no cameras running demanding that you pull off an idea of perfection so that you can move onto the next shot, that’s when an actor manages to see what they can really do, in my opinion. I followed that with a television show called Hap and Leonard, where I played Soldier, and that was kind of my biggest role on film at that point. I’m still proud of the piece. Two of my favorite roles were connected this way. The strangely hilarious and terrifying work I did in Hap and Leonard season one is a direct result of my playing a chimpanzee for three months prior in the play TREVOR. Not many people saw either of those but they’re both personal highlights of my career.
I see that you’re politically active on Twitter, engaging in everything from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to the Iran crisis. What role do you think celebrities or highly visible people need to take when it comes to political engagement?
You know, it’s always been like, “don’t talk about politics, or religion,” or whatever. You wanna keep the cool. Let me just preface that by saying I don’t really believe in celebrity. I don’t believe in an idea that those who are seen, who are famous, should be on like a higher level than others. I don’t believe in country clubs. I don’t believe in elitism. And so, as an actor that’s seen, my goal is to show people that I’m just one of many, and my opinions aren’t more valid because I’ve been on some TV shows, but I do think it is everyone’s responsibility to be involved politically right now. We’re not in a place where you can say, “well it’s a difference of opinion, but let’s not argue, things will be fine.” Because things won’t be fine. So unless you’re engaging on some level politically, I actually think you’re slacking on the job as a human being because we’re currently at a place where we won’t be okay, and unless we actually shift the tide the entire world is at stake. Our time is so limited—if we don’t move from the extreme capitalist notion of what good is to a humanitarian notion of what good is, and it’s not about sides—it’s not about two different opinions—it’s about right or wrong at this point. You either believe in this species as a whole, or, you believe that you should be able to jam as much money in your damn pockets in as short a time as possible and feel good about it. And I’m just so sick of Americans that are still defending the idea that abject capitalism is an American right. Because it’s not.