I had just screened “Florence Foster Jenkins”, a well acted and decidedly entertaining film, when I was honored, along with a few others, to have a chance to then speak to one of its stars, Simon Helberg, most known for his work as Howard Wolowitz on the hit show “The Big Bang Theory.” I say that I was honored because not only was Helberg courteous, friendly, open and honest but he was extremely attentive and gave a lot of thought to his answers, never once giving the impression that doing press for the film was the last place he’d want to be. He was warm and pleasant and very thorough in his responses; being careful to answer the question to its fullest. Here is that interview.
Q: Outside of some other great films, your father, Sandy, was in “Spaceballs”, “History of the World pt 1”, “High Anxiety”, This is Spinal Tap, not to mention the great television he has done. Once you saw this quality in him, was it his comedic talents that encouraged you to follow in his footsteps and would you encourage your children to follow in yours?
SH: Encourage is a tricky word cuz I think you want to be supportive but I’d never want to suggest to my children (and my dad never did to me) in any sort of way, push someone into something. You’d be kind of a fool if you did that because it’s so hard to make it as an actor or a comedian or anything in the arts so, I’d be very supportive and my dad was very supportive of me and I think he was more inspiring. I watched him at “The Groundlings” and, obviously, those were great movies that you named and I think it definitely shaped me in many ways and I also say that it was very hard to, sort of, get success and make it. Even though my dad worked and did well, it… that’s kind of, that’s sort of grounding. It kind of helped me as I went into it to have a pretty good handle on the difficulty of it and then to sort of be appreciative of the successes.
Q: You character and performance has tons of facial expressions they’re a huge part of your performance; they range from very subtle to overt. In the scene where you hear Florence sing for the first time, were you already aware of what Meryl was going to sound like or were those expressions real?
SH: Both, I guess, which is kind of a trick in doing this which is, it has to be new, sort of, every time. She’s doing something every time and she made my job a lot easier. We’d already rehearsed for about a week and a half with the music and we’d actually recorded at Abby Road, as well, which was amazing. So, we had a lot of time to laugh and figure out what we were doing and then, of course, they ended up wanting to shoot it all live so all of the stuff that we had recorded was thrown out and because of that we’re playing all that music live as you’re seeing it and as it was being shot which I think both helped… well, it helped us contain our laughter and, sort of, focus but it also made all of it very authentic; so those reactions… that was really happening, for the most part, in real time. I mean, obviously the editing is pretty masterfully as well, but what you’re seeing is actually what is coming out of us… for better or for worse.
Q: You speak in a higher pitched voice in this film and kind of change your speaking patterns, what was behind your decision to do that? Was there something you pulled from your research of him?
SH: Some of it… not from his voice, actually. The most that I could find in doing this research was some fact and little tidbits of information that were in the movie but there is a recording of him, actually, but he’s much older and he talks about that night at Carnegie Hall and I had a moment of thinking, ‘Hmm… do I want to use this as inspiration?’ because he was probably, I think, in his seventies at that point and it was a bit different than I had pictured it and his outlook was very different than it was in the script. I thought, ‘you usually always want to start with the script.’ So, to me I just saw it vividly and heard him vividly in this way but as far as the voice, I saw him as being very pure and chaised and very innocent and having no sense of cynicism and hadn’t been corrupted in any way whatsoever like a little bird or a gecko or something. And I thought, there’s something very childlike and I feel like he’s probably unaware of his sexuality and, I don’t know, he didn’t seem to me to be… uh, that’s just how I guess I heard him. I guess there are people in my life who I know kind of have… I don’t know, there’s something very chaised about him and very alien at the same time. And then there’s also the fact that it was the forties and he was walking into this elevated high society, cosmopolitan lifestyle and people actually did take speech classes and there was this sort of dignified way of talking back then and it’s just kind of all of those things combined, I guess, that led me to that.
Q: Why did you choose to be in this film?
SH: I couldn’t think of one reason why I wouldn’t be interested or want to claw my way into this movie. There’s the obvious people that were making it and involved with it who are probably the best, you know, ever at this. Between Meryl and Stephen and Hugh and… Alexandre Desplat did their music, Consolata Boyle (costume design), Alan MacDonald (production design) did the sets. I feel like I’m accepting an award. But all these people who are the most brilliant at doing this, I mean that was in and of itself a dream. I mean, the script was so unique and the scenes, I guess, really speak to me and not just the love of music but this idea of perception and sort of disparity between our perceptions of ourselves and what other people perceive and the question therein, I guess, being, ‘Does it matter that we hear one voice in our head and other people hear a different one when we all leads to the same place?’ I don’t know, there’s just something that was beautifully poetic about her journey and I felt that the script did an amazing job celebrating this woman and celebrating this love and this joy that she found in music.
Q: With it being a period piece and being based on real life events, what was the most challenging aspect of making this film?
SH: Well, the most challenging part of it was combining the music and the acting. It’s sort of being hired as an actor and having then kind of having the music take over in many ways because it was so hard and challenging and also it was such an enormous part of the film that I knew that ultimately whether I played the piano or not really wouldn’t matter. People are going to see it in my performance as an actor but then it all got tied together because Meryl was going to sing and they want to do it live and for it to be live, they want the piano to be live and it was going to be different every time so, there was just… part of the pressure of getting this music done live while they were shooting us, working with Meryl and Stephen in this incredible movie and it was just built in pressure and it was just challenging and then on top of that to find this character and do it simultaneously. It felt very, you know, it’s very hard not to play piano with two hands so it felt like I had like eight arms and I was trying to do multiple things. And then, of course, you want to be faithful to these characters because they’re real but at the same time there wasn’t a ton of information on them so that was sort of liberating because the script was really the bible. It was just ultimately great fun even when it was sometimes brutally challenging.
Q: “Florence Foster Jenkins” is about someone who is an opera singer but not very talented. Luckily there are a lot of talented people on this movie, yourself, Meryl Streep being one of the best actresses of all time and so on, how do you all bring out the best in each other?
SH: (laughs) I was probably the odd man out in a sea of talent. Well, it was both like every actors dream when you can jump into a part with, honestly, the greatest people working today and maybe ever because ultimately you are only as good as the people around you and these people make you even better. I think that’s a sign of greatness… so with that also came quite a bit of paralyzing fear as well because you don’t wanna be the one that brings Meryl Streep down… not that that’s possible but it’s scary to kinda get to work with people who are your heroes but then what you kind of realize when you, and I hope this is true for everything and everyone, when you get around people that are that great, usually they’re there to make the best thing they can make and they bring their whole self to. And in order to make something wonderful I think you have to be sensitive and you have to be generous and you definitely have to be passionate; in this experience I was very warmly welcomed and it was very collaborative and I feel like and hope and think that’s true of truly great people.
Q: There’s this great moment when Cosme McMoon (Helberg) asks St Clair Bayfield (Grant) about his arrangement with Florence at St Clair’s apartment and later McMoon speaks to Florence at his own apartment and I thought McMoon really wanted to insert his opinion on Florence and St Claire’s relationship but felt better of it and that he was protecting her like everyone else in the movie. But near the end of the film, at Carnegie Hall, he says to her, ‘We can do it!’ in a very confident voice and I think at that moment it turns from protection to support. Is that how you see it or what do you think?
SH: You have really tapped into so many things that I didn’t know anyone else would necessarily pick up on and (inaudible). That is all that you said; and something at some point that I was cognizant of. That being the moment in the apartment when Bayfield is there and he says, ‘I love her. Do you love this woman?’ There was a real moment there when I thought, ‘How dare you, sir, ask me? Of course I love her!’ Because he is protecting her. Florence comes to McMoon’s apartment and he sees how broken she is by Bayfield and so this innocent little McMoon is now… he’s been sort of somewhat corrupted by this harsh and strange reality of this love… this relationship these characters have with each other and all of the sudden he does have to step up and he does feel this protective desire and I think that in Carnegie Hall that becomes the moment, you know, she’s scared and it’s just so beautiful the way the script and the movie, kind of… you can just see all the color in these people, I guess, and that’s his moment. He has that bond. McMoon is the only one who understands the music, really, with her. Bayfield doesn’t. They don’t play music together so here’s this transition from, ‘Okay, I’ll help this woman’ to ‘You know what, let’s do this.’ Like, ‘this is important not just for her but for me. We have something greater than this kind of courier minded, reputation focused… you know, frame of mind. We have the love of music and it doesn’t matter. Nothing else matters.
Q: It’s amazing how everyone around Florence continued to keep up her status. She was well protected and people truly loved her but why do you think people loved her so much?
SH: I think there’s a very human quality and I think there’s almost nothing more human than failure. I think it’s funny and it’s tragic and I think it’s comforting but only when it’s done passionately. Only when someone is putting themselves out there genuinely and un-ironically and (inaudible) kind of falling flat (no pun intended). So, I think that is one element of it and the fact that she was so filled with joy and so moved by music and wanted to share that joy and that love of music with people… I think it’s just magnetic. It’s like watching a little child with total abandon singing out and dancing. The part of your brain that had any kind of judgment or criticism is overridden by the joyous part. Other people were laughing or their jaws were on the floor or; they were enjoying themselves.
Q: The world is about to find out that you’re a very talented pianist from this. I was wondering what else do you with the world knew about you and the things you bring to the table?
SH: I’m not that much of a showoff. Well, I don’t know, I guess I can answer sort of as opposed to what I want people to celebrate about me, because God forbid I am somebody looking for a parade, there are different things I want to do. I love acting and the great thing about that, especially in a case like this is, sometimes that requires other talents and sometimes you don’t have ‘em and you learn to have ‘em. Look at Meryl and the things that she’s done. She has all the talent in the world but look at the things she’s learned to do for a film; violin and languages and she played a Rabbi and a man. I think that’s what’s great about acting. You get to know other people and find other interests and so, yeah, I’m interesting in discovering what else I might be able to do and when I find things I think I can’t do it’s torturous sometimes but it’s very gratifying to push through that. This was no exception. I didn’t expect that I’d be able to play all of these pieces. There were times when I felt like, ‘If Meryl can do it…’ I was working with that company and I felt, ‘Geez, she’s going to sing all of this live?! I better do my best to get there.’
“Florence Foster Jenkins” is enchanting! The cast is delightful. This is an absolute must see!