5 Questions: Simon Helberg
For 208 episodes (and counting) Simon Helberg has killed it as the egomaniacal aerospace engineer whose pickup lines are always left wanting on the megahit TV show The Big Bang Theory. For his new film, Stephen Frears’s Florence Foster Jenkins, Helberg, an accomplished pianist, plays the real-life accompanist Cosme McMoon, who played alongside the flamboyant Ms. Jenkins in the 1940s. Jenkins (played by Meryl Streep), a very wealthy New York heiress with a great love of music, believed herself to be a fine opera singer, as egged on by her much younger husband (Hugh Grant), though in reality she was absolutely abysmal. Full of moxie, Jenkins arranged a live concert for herself at Carnegie Hall, an event her young pianist absolutely dreaded. Helberg recently spoke with Ticket about his musicianship, the delicate nature of ego, and working with one of the towering artistic figures of our time.
How much did actually knowing how to play the piano help inform your performance?
I never felt totally comfortable, which is good for the character, I guess, but I mean, music is not really my forte, especially anymore. Until I was 16 I felt much more comfortable and played so much, but I played jazz and in rock bands. I did that kind of music, so to have a repertoire of classical music and opera, and then to have to accompany, which is its own set of skills aside from just playing. It’s really kind of knowing it like backwards and forwards where you’re able to adapt with the singer. It’s not just sitting with a metronome. Then it’s Meryl Streep, and then it’s Stephen Frears saying, “Hey, you know what? We’ll shoot all the music live. You’ll wear an ear piece.” There’s that, so there was so many elements that were in no way reassuring or comforting to me ever. It was a recipe for just, you know, a panic attack, but it kind of fed into the dynamic.
Was it difficult to play alongside someone who was actually trying to be awful?
That was a challenge for both of us because obviously Meryl is one of the greatest ever, but it’s very hard to do something badly, I think, if you can do it. She had to learn all of these pieces, and had to know where the right notes were to basically hit the wrong notes. She had to kind of do two things, and to sing in multiple languages. Then for me, it was learning the pieces well enough to be able to kind of bob and weave with her, which helped. That was our dynamic.
For an actor, I imagine performing in a film with Meryl Streep would be like a ball player getting on the court with vintage Michael Jordan. Was there anything surprising when you worked with her, or was it more or less as you imagined?
It was sort of simultaneously both. It was like constantly surprising and then constantly the feeling of oh, of course. She couldn’t do what she does if she wasn’t as thoughtful and sensitive and collaborative and humble. I’m sure there’s a lot of jerks out there that are great at what they do, and that’s fine. I just don’t think you could put the kind of human beings on screen that she does, that she’s able to do, without a sensitivity and an awareness of people, and so that was, once again, sort of surprising and also completely obvious. It was fortunate that I got to lean on her because she makes everybody better.
When your character is confronted with the possibility of playing at Carnegie, he’s really conflicted: Is it better to be well-known for something you aren’t necessarily proud of, or virtually anonymous but having worked on projects that really mattered to you?
I think that you hope to hold onto your integrity, I guess. If you feel comfortable doing something that might be considered selling out, but it’s something you believe in, I think it depends on what your integrity kind of dictates. In that moment, I think you’re watching Cosme struggle with integrity, but I think the decision really is actually about whether his love for her actually will overpower his insecurity. I think the decision is, “I love this person, but this could really hurt my career, and I love my passion too. Is there a way to reconcile those two?”
Ms. Jenkins was sort of like a viral Internet character decades before the fact. Because she was so enthusiastic, it seems cruel to laugh at her, but that’s exactly what shows like American Idol seem to really relish, isn’t it?
I think we root for these people, even in American Idol. I definitely think that that show is designed to exploit that. It’s certainly constructed that way, but I think there’s a small part of us, at least, that when they walk in the room on that show, you’re rooting for them. The difference is she aimed so high. She went to Carnegie Hall. That’s big, and she sang the hardest pieces of opera in the canon. To watch someone have such a great aspiration and then to fail, to quote this Susan Sontag essay, “There is a success in passionate failures.”
Florence Foster Jenkins opens Friday at the Ritz Five.
Piers Marchant is a film critic and writer based in Philly. Find more confounding amusements and diversions at his blog, Sweet Smell of Success, or read his further 142-character rants and ravings at @kafkaesque83.