Based on true events, “Florence Foster Jenkins” is the story of a socialite (Meryl Streep) who has always dreamed of becoming an opera singer. With the help of her husband (Hugh Grant) and her accompanist, Cosme (Simon Helberg), she hopes to achive her goal. Just one problem, she can’t sing a lick. I got to talk to Simon Helberg at the Fabulous Fox Theatre about playing a part very different from his “Big Bang Theory” character and working with one of the greatest actors of our time. Our roundtable was directly under a very elaborate skylight that bathed us in a swatch of sunlight
Hi Simon, welcome to Atlanta
Simon Helberg; Thanks (pointing at the skylight), is that the sun? I mean I have heard of the sun but never been so close to it. Well, thanks for joining me.
So tell us what drew you to this role?
Simon: How could anyone not want to do this role? To be in the same room with Meryl and Hugh! Well, the script is always the first thing, because it was brilliant. I thought it was funny and relevant. And I thought I never had a shot to be in it because it fell out of the sky. Specifically, I felt the character was someone I was born to play. I play music, so I felt connected to the character. I love characters that are somewhat alien, somewhat deluded. I am drawn to the characters that are the overconfident idiot, or the accidental genius. People that have misconceptions of themselves but somehow it never seems to stand in their way. All of the main characters in this film have those qualities, unaware of who they are, but they embrace who they think they are.
You have some very distinct mannerisms and demeanor in the film. How did you create that character?
Simon: Well, there were a few things that led to that. One is when I was taking piano lessons; a teacher told me about some of the piano students that walked around the conservatory that seem to have these very long arms. She talked about imagining you had weights at the end of your arms, where your hands were pulled down to the floor. She asked about imaging when playing the piano that you weren’t playing using your wrists but that your fingers were being pulled through the keys. I thought of when you came back from summer camp, and someone had a growth spurt, where they just haven’t quite figured out how to use their body yet. It seemed to fit my character if I imagined this guy was always out of his element. Also, he is seemingly gay at a time when was looked down upon and was illegal. I thought, maybe he doesn’t know he is gay. Also, him feeling out of place because he was born in Mexico but then moving to Texas so that his first language wasn’t English. I saw all that manifesting in sort of gecko-like posture, being exposed and literally having your neck out. He was so pure, and it’s fun to watch, because when someone like him becomes so caught up in something so deceitful and is still able to be so innocent.
What was your first reaction when you heard Meryl sing as Florence?
Simon: I probably looked like I did in the film. Part of her genius is she has such humanity about her. It would be easy to make her character very shrill, but she brings that understanding to her parts. I think at first I couldn’t believe how much she sounded like Florence while giving it her own version of her. I was also astounded by how close she was coming to the opera notes. It’s because Meryl knows where those notes are because she is such a good singer. Also, it’s amazing because she was singing opera in Italian and German and it just didn’t make sense. So I had a lot of moments when I was in awe of her as Meryl. I would be in a scene with her and think “wow, she is amazing.” I think my character, Cosme, would get caught up in the moment too, though I don’t believe he was thinking how amazing she was. I don’t know how Meryl did it because she had to do almost a carbon copy of what an opera singer does on stage. Meryl works incredibly hard, and we worked hard together. It was fun to watch.
This was a rather complicated part you had to portray because you had to play some rather difficult piano pieces while also acting. What was your process to be able to do that?
Simon: At first I tried to isolate the two things, the music and the acting, and then brought them together later on. I got a bit overwhelmed with the music because it was so hard and there was so much music. I play the piano well, but I don’t play classical or opera, so it was scary. I learned the music to the best of my ability, learning it with a metronome and going into the dynamics of the music. And I knew going in it was going to be a difficult task because I was accompanying her, someone who was skipping bars and dropping beats, so I had to conically adjust the accompaniment. I had to learn the pieces backward and forwards in order to kind of dismantle or improvise due to her singing so badly. And then there was the acting that I had to do, which was difficult to do while playing the music. I had to eventually figure out a way to play the pieces of music as the character. It was difficult because it’s Meryl, but luckily my guy was supposed to be sweaty all the time, so that worked out.
How much of you is in Cosme?
Simon: I think there is always part of any actor in the characters they play. The only way into the character is you. It’s probably more of what I was like as a child because the innocence of him. He probably is very different than what I am in real life because he had no judgment and was naive and new to everything. He is almost a rube.
It’s such a heartwarming story. You feel good when you leave the film. The message of the movie is to protect the ones you, love. Talk a bit about what you want people to get from the film.
Simon: I hope that’s what people take away from it. These people around her helped her and insulated her from the outside world. I think it was about nurturing her purity and her passion and her dream. She had a childlike abandon, where she just did it for the joy of creating music. There is a great line at the end of the movie that she says “People may say that I couldn’t sing, but they can never say that I didn’t sing.” I think that’s the heart of the film.
Since your character is based on a real person, did you go back and do research on him?
Simon: Yeah, I did. The good news was there wasn’t that much known about him. What’s fun for me is reading the script and trying to figure out the clues to what kind of person I am portraying. We knew a little about him, so it was just extra clues, but we didn’t know too much so that it wasn’t overwhelming. We know that he was a master chess player. He had a love for amateur bodybuilding, but I think his sexuality was tied into that. He moved to New York when he was eighteen, and this was the peak of his career. There were these small clues that gave me some insight. And the music helped. The music was the biggest insight into his relationship with Florence. You could study the music and see that she missed a bar here, and he had to jump ahead. She doesn’t know the note that she is supposed to hit here, and he gives it to her quietly. Meryl is like watching a magician when she performs. She is so intellectually brilliant, but when she is on the set, it feels that she just trusts all the work that she has done. That she is living the part, and it’s real.
What was it like working with Stephen Frears, who has a reputation as an actor’s director?
Simon: His movies are just so fantastic, and he always has some incredible performances in his films. He is very quiet and laconic. He doesn’t say a lot, but it’s not due to a lack of interest. He is just so trusting of who he has hired and everyone’s ability around him; there isn’t any micromanaging. He conducts quietly from the side. You are living out his vision and yours. It’s almost seamless, and I don’t know how he does it. He had so much faith in us; it almost made me feel uneasy. I would think “why does he trust me so much?” I don’t trust myself as much as he trusts me. I also believe he is a little playful on set. This almost absentminded image of this self-aware curmudgeon is almost as if he is playing a part. He is very sharp.
Thank you so much and much luck to the film.
Florence Foster Jenkins comes out on Friday, August 12.
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