We were recently able to sit down with Simon Helberg as he came through Atlanta promoting his new film Florence Foster Jenkins. Simon chatted with us about what drew him to the role of Cosme McMoon, what it was like working with Meryl Streep, and how he hopes fans will see a different side to him from the character he’s best known for – Howard on The Big Bang Theory.
What drew you to doing this role specifically?
Simon Helberg: How can anyone not want to do this role, or to be in the same room with these people? It was … Well, the script, I guess, is always the first thing and it was brilliant, and I was moved by it. I thought it was funny, and I thought it was relevant. I thought I’d never had a shot to be in anything like this. I couldn’t imagine.
The music part of it, obviously, is something that I connected to and I play music, but also I love characters that are somewhat alien, and I love characters that are deluded or these tropes that you’ll see in comedies a lot, like the overconfident idiot, or accidental genius, or these kinds of people that have a misconception of themselves, but somehow it doesn’t ever seem to stand in their way. I think all of these characters have that, actually, in the movie. They’re all kind of unaware of who they really are, but they fully embrace what they think they are, I guess. This is a little bit of an intellectual answer but I’m an intellectual person.
You had such specific mannerisms and a demeanor in the film. How did you create that, or what did you tap into for that?
Simon Helberg: Well, there were a few things that sort of led to that that, I guess, make sense and then others were just sort of weird moments of … I don’t know … Inspiration that I don’t know where it came from, just having fun creating a character. There are a couple key little things that happened.
One, I remember I was taking piano lessons and the piano teacher told me about these students that would walk around the conservatory, all of the piano majors and these trained pianists that seemed to have these very long arms. She was talking about this idea of feeling these- imagining you had weights on the end of your arms that pulled your hands down sort of to the floor, so when you played the piano, imagining that you had these long arms and you weren’t playing with your wrists.
You were imagining almost that your fingers were being pulled through the keys, and I thought, “oh, that’s like that image of when you’d come back from summer break and someone had a growth spurt” … not me ever … but I knew people like this. They hadn’t really figured out how to use their body yet. It was like they were out of … they weren’t coordinated enough to kind of adjust to their new found height.
So I imagined this guy. It seemed to fit: him being almost alien or out of his element, and also being seemingly gay at a time where that was forbidden and illegal, and I thought maybe he doesn’t know he’s gay either, especially if it’s frowned upon people. Him being born in Mexico and moving to Texas as a kid, and English being his second language, and then moving to New York … How does that manifest? I saw it manifesting as I guess a sort of gecko-like posture, being completely exposed and vulnerable and having your neck out literally, and your eyes on the sides of your head, taking it all in. There was something about him that I could see and he was so pure, and it’s fun to watch someone so pure get caught up in something so oddly deceitful but still innocent.
What was your first reaction when you heart Meryl as Florence start to sing?
Simon Helberg: I tried to wake up, I think. I probably looked somewhat like I did in the film when they would cut to me. I mean, part of her genius too is that it would be very easy in some ways to go into shrill commenting on these people, making fun of these people but she has such a humanity about her, Meryl, and she brings that to these characters. I think at first, honestly, I just couldn’t believe how incredible and how much it sounded like Florence but not quite an impression. It was her own version of it.
How she could actually sing opera … I mean, she is coming so close to those notes and that’s because Meryl knows where those notes are. She’s a really good singer, and that’s really hard, and she was singing in Italian, German and Russian. It just didn’t make sense, and I had a lot of moments where I was just looking at her, in awe of Meryl and in awe of her career and sometimes I get lost in that. I’m in the scene with her and I’m looking at her and I think, “Wow, she’s amazing!”, but I think Cosme probably had those moments too … He was probably not thinking how amazing she was exactly but how special she was probably.
There’s kind of a unique challenge you have in this film with doing a lot of this live piano work and a lot of really complex pieces in addition to acting and reacting and dealing with the whole film. What’s your process getting into that? How do you deal with those dual-roles in the film and get into that space?
Simon Helberg: I try to isolate the two things at first, I think, and bring them together later. First, I got a bit overwhelmed with the music because it was so hard, and it was so much music, and it was so foreign to me. I play the piano, I play really well, but I play different kinds of music. I don’t play classical or opera, I played more jazz and I did it a long time ago more seriously, so I’m more of an impressive piano player now than I am trained.
It was scary, and I just learned the music to the best of my ability. I tried to learn it with a metronome, and with the dynamics, and the technique and I knew that I’d be going into this space with her, and then as an accompanist that’s a different task. Particularly when the singer sounds like that, skipping bars and dropping beats and all of these things that you’re adjusting and you’re adapting, you kind of have to know the pieces backwards and forwards to dismantle them or almost improvising along with your breathing together.
So there was the musical element, and then there was the acting, which is what I was hired to do and I kept forgetting, in some ways, that I really need to be focusing … I didn’t forget, it was just that I couldn’t do all of it at once, so I’d dedicate some time to the music, and some time to the acting. Then, eventually, I had to figure out how to play the pieces of music as the character, which is different, at least physically.
They were going to shoot me, because it’s a movie, so while I could get through some of these pieces, I could do it hunched over and contorted, but that’s not how a trained pianist would do it, and then how would this character be sitting at the piano? So it was sort of a few levels, and eventually I just had to bring it all together and hope for the best and … no pressure, you know, because there’s Meryl – but luckily my guy was supposed to be pretty sweaty the whole time so it came naturally.
What would you say is part of you in Cosme? How much of you shines through him?
Simon Helberg: Well, I think there’s probably always some part of me and every actor in the characters that they play. It’s sort of the only way in, is you, because you have no other body or brain, but I think it’s maybe more of what I was like as a child or something. I think that the innocence of him is actually quite far away from me now in a lot of ways because he had no judgement or no cynicism or no real awareness of … He seemed very naïve and very new to everything, and it’s fun to take out that judgement as a person.
Who I am is somebody that, like most people, has opinions and can get cynical. I think what we see in social media and this kind of thing … it’s a lot of people having a real hunger to go on a witch hunt, or to take people down, and you get defensive and then you try to kind of identify yourself as something in order to have an identity and a profile on Facebook. These things at that time didn’t exist and I’d say yes, he’s a lot more like a cherubic … I don’t know, like a rube.
It’s such a heartwarming story.. you just feel good watching it, and you want to protect the ones you love. Can you talk a little bit about the message and what you hope that people take away from that? The innocence, and how wanting to protect someone you love is such a core message.
Simon Helberg: I think that … I hope that’s what people take away from it. The other version is that they were just doing this to exploit her or to profit or opportunistic ideas, and I actually don’t really think that is what the story is at it’s heart, and I think there are elements … People aren’t always altruistic and you gain these people around her who also insulated her and also helped her live out this delusion.
They did profit from her financially, but also artistically and emotionally, but I do think that it was about nurturing her purity and her passion and her dream That’s something that, in children, I think that we naturally tend to do, sometimes, and usually when you see a three-year old belting out a song from The Lion King, or scribbling on a piece of paper or dancing around the room you don’t tend to say, “No, no, no! That’s not how you … “, or, “Your technique is all wrong!”, or, “You have no future in this business!”.
Actually, their joy is infectious and you experience that, and you nurture it, even if just for that moment. So, for her, she had that child-like abandon, and I think it’s a rare thing, and it’s nice to see that protected, even though ultimately in the end it might have been her downfall … Finding out what reality was, but even the moment after than I think is kind of questioning what reality is anyhow, because what we hear in our head is different from what people hear.
The voice inside our head and the voice they hear, that’s the way that … that’s always the way that is anyhow, and it does kind of question this idea of perception. Like she said, that great line at the end of the movie, “people may say that I couldn’t sing but they’ll never say that I didn’t sing,” and that is the heart of it, so that’s the success.
I was curious a little bit about working with Stephen Frears. He’s got a reputation as an actor and as a director, so how did he work with you? How did he push you?
Simon Helberg: It’s funny because … His movies … He has some of the best … Well, his movies are so unbelievable. The performance is too specifically … Everything about his movies kind of pop out as being incredible, but he is also very quiet, and sort of laconic. He doesn’t say a lot, but it’s not for lack of … I don’t think he’s disinterested in the movie he’s making. I think he’s so trusting of who he’s hired and everyone’s ability around him that there’s really not any kind of micromanaging, and it’s almost … Forgive the pun, but he’s conducting sort of quietly from the side, and you’re living out his vision and also yours at the same time.
It’s seamless. I don’t know really how he does it. We didn’t talk about character. He didn’t give a ton of direction after we would do a scene. It was just … I don’t know … He had so much faith in us that it was almost uneasy. It made me uneasy at times, “Why does he trust me so much?”, I don’t trust myself half as much as he does. That probably comes with experience. He also has the ability to hire the most amazing people around him that he can trust, and I think he’s a little playful.
His absentminded kind of image and this sort of self-aware curmudgeon, it’s a little … He’s feigning at it a little bit too. I think he’s very, very sharp about everything, but he pretends to be … His whole thing is like, “Oh, all I can do is fuck it up,” you know, “The director’s supposed to stay out of the way,” but he is … Look at his movies. That’s kind of a sign of greatness: that sort of calm, comfort, confident, no-need-to-over-talk, like I’m doing now. See, I have no confidence. Sorry, I’ll stop.
Everybody knows you from The Big Bang Theory, so, what’s it like getting to step outside of that and kind of introduce people to this side of you that they might not know very well?
Simon Helberg: It’s so exciting for me, because I forget that, while I’m aware that I’m on the show, I forget that people quickly identify you with one thing and that’s just … For better or worse … All of us on the show were hired, we all auditioned, and we’re actors, and then we play a lot of parts and then we got fortunate enough to play one part for a very long time. It can become challenging for us or other people to sort of find that opportunity to do something different, and to get something like this movie, which is so far on the other end of the spectrum, not just for me.
It wasn’t just exciting for me to get to do that and to dig in and to find those parts of myself that I didn’t know existed or had forgotten about, but it’s fun for me to get to show. It’s fun to say, “Hey, look at this! I got to work with these people!”, and here’s this character that we all made up based on real people. Look at this show. We’re proud of it … I mean the movie … I’m saying show … Look at this story, and It’s an exciting thing to show people a different side. Yeah.
Florence Foster Jenkins opens in theaters August 12, 2016!
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