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From ‘Counterpart’ to Farmers: It’s good to be J.K. Simmons

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You may know J.K. Simmons as Dr. Emil Skoda of NBC’s “Law & Order,” as J. Jonah Jameson of the “Spider Man” film trilogy, as music instructor Terence Fletcher in 2014’s “Whiplash” (for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar), as Mac, the father of the title character in “Juno,” as Professor Nathanial Burke in a creative series of commercials for Farmers Insurance or as Howard Silk of Starz’s “Counterpart” – cited last year by the Chicago Tribune as the best series on television.

However you know him … you know him.

As an actor, Simmons finds himself more in-demand today than at any time in his career. 

“That is oddly true,” Simmons told me during an interview. “I’ve been acting for well over 40 years – the first 15 of which were spent doing theatre all over the country.” 

According to Simmons, one of the major turning points in his career was his role as villainous Vernon Schillinger on HBO’s prison drama “Oz” from 1997 to 2003.

“[Series creator] Tom Fontana plucked a bunch of us New York actors for ‘Oz,’” Simmons said. “There have many pivotal roles along the way but I think that was the big one. We had been doing theatre for about $75 a week and Tom had the wisdom/foolishness to put us on HBO.” 

Simmons says his dual role on the sci-fi thriller “Counterpart” has been a fascinating experience. New episodes air Sundays at 9:00 p.m. on Starz. 

“I was drawn to ‘Counterpart’ when I first started reading the script before I even got to character number two,” he said of the series on which he plays two versions of the character Howard Silk.

“One of them is this kind, gentle, sort of milquetoast kind of guy that discovers a portal into a parallel world where there is a much more badass version of himself,” Simmons explained.

The kind and gentle version of Howard Silk is employed by a UN agency in Berlin but is largely kept in the dark regarding the true nature of his work.

“Justin Marks, the creator of ‘Counterpart,’ calls one world ‘the Alpha side’ and the other ‘the Prime side,’ Simmons said. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but many actors get the opportunity to play two versions of themselves as we go along.”

A recent episode of the show’s second season (“Something Borrowed”) offered the first glimpse of both worlds in the same show.

“It was the first time we saw both worlds back and forth,” Simmons said. “Once people get hooked on this show, they seem to really be hooked. The people who have been watching it have definitely been enjoying it. If you aren’t yet caught up on ‘Counterpart,’ I urge you to binge-watch the first season through the Starz app or on-demand. It’s a fascinating show.” 

Simmons’s distinctive face and voice has been featured in a wide variety of commercials over the years. Since 1996, he has voiced the yellow M&M in commercials for that candy.

Since 2010, Simmons has portrayed Professor Nathanial Burke of the University of Farmers in a series of funny television commercials for Farmers Insurance Group. Simmons says he has heard countless versions of the company’s catchy jingle tag from viewers when they recognize him in public. 

“I think more people have seen those Farmers Insurance commercials than every film and TV show I’ve done recently put together,” he said. “I’ve done enough stuff now that I’m not sure what people are going to reference when they approach me on the street. I’ve heard a lot of badly mangled versions of that jingle (“We are Farmers, bum, puh, duh, buh, bum, bum, bum”) when they see my face (laughs).” 

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