By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Report: Simon Helberg on Meryl Streep And Florence Foster Jenkins

If you’re, like me, one of the 15 million viewers who every week watch the long-running CBS series The Big Bang Theory, you don’t need any introduction to the multi-talented Simon Helberg. You already know him as Howard Wolowitz, perhaps the most insecure (and endearing) of the IQ-chart-topping science geeks on the long-running sitcom. Despite having one-upped his egghead pals by flying on a NASA mission, the hyper-competitive Howard seems to be in a permanent state of over-compensating for any number of deep-seated eccentricities (okay, neuroses). Helberg so wins you over in his portrayal, you can’t help but identify with Howard’s stratospheric angst.

So you can understand how thrilling it was to read that Helberg had been cast with third billing, no less, opposite Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Stephen Frears’s biopic Florence Foster Jenkins, the much-ballyhooed Paramount Pictures release opening this week. Although he has acted in quite a few films before this, Helberg enjoys his heftiest big-screen role yet as the hungry young classical New York pianist Cosme McMoon, so far into the closet he doesn’t even know he’s there. Hired by the titular music-mad heiress to accompany her during her delusional pursuit of a singing debut at Carnegie Hall in 1944 (delusional because her wildly off-pitch pipes could shred bark off a tree), he is a latter-day Sancho Panza to a female Don Quixote, following an impossible dream out of loyalty to, and eventually, affection for his patroness. The money, of course, does comes in handy, and did Cosme mention that he also composes?

Initially Florence comes across as a dreadful culture vulture, an overbearing wealthy lady who lunches while indefatigably waving the flag of whatever and whomever she deems as improving a less refined populace. How Streep can make her every warble more horrific than the last is a testament to the actress’s powers of invention and her command of her own singing voice. As her younger, philandering common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield, Hugh Grant fleshes out his familiar screen persona of the quintessential charming, self-effacing British sophisticate with a new dimension: layers of grit, regret, and menace, as he schemes relentlessly to hide from Florence the truth about her vocal gaffes. And as the impecunious Cosme, Helberg follows his costars’ leads; as the film progresses he matures, becoming warmer and more humane. As with “The Big Bang Theory,” in Florence Foster Jenkins the stage-trained (New York’s Atlantic Theater Company) Helberg again proves a very funny and sensitive supporting actor who helps up the game of everyone around him. During his recent swing through Chicago the surprisingly open performer impressed me as a born communicator, more articulate about his process than any other actor I’ve ever met.

Fans of “The Big Bang Theory” already know that you have musical talent, but it’s gratifying to see it so prominently featured in Florence Foster Jenkins. That mode of performing—you played the piano live for the camera, while still in character—posed what kind of challenge?

It was a great challenge; it required sort of a juggling act to get there, because, first of all, the music was incredibly challenging just to learn. I play piano, and I play it well, but I don’t play classical music, and I don’t play opera music, and I never have, really. To play somebody who is a classically trained pianist, I had to be really good, or at least I had to pretend to be good. But Stephen wanted to do it live: Meryl’s singing, and I’m playing, and that was important to him, and I didn’t want to let him down. So I bluffed a little, and said I can do it, and then I really had to put my money where my mouth was. I learned all the pieces very well, as best I could, because I knew we were going to decimate them when we got together with Meryl and she sang. You have to be able to bob and weave, so you really have to know it backwards and forwards. And then came figuring out who the character was, and how he would play, and how he would sit, and how he would live in that—and so it was [about] two components, and merging them. It was tough; it’s tough just to act anyway, and especially when you’re in the presence of so many great people. There’s a pressure there, and then to add opera to it almost sent me to the hospital, but it worked out.

You’re a very physical actor, and the differences in your body language are notable, from early on when Cosme is auditioning, versus how you comport yourself later when you’re sitting at the concert piano–perfect posture, that. Did you study various pianists to see how they moved when they were on stage?

I did watch some, like Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein—and Lang Lang also; he’s on the other end of the spectrum, he’s very flashy—but when I took lessons for this movie, I really wanted to learn about the classical technique: how your hands, and your arms, and your posture [contribute]. One of the things the teacher that I studied with told me was how these young piano players at the conservatory always have these very long arms; they’re always told to imagine that they have weights at the end of their arms that sort of pull them down when they sit at the piano. You would imagine that your fingers are being weighted down through the keys, and you don’t use your wrists or your elbows. And I thought, ooh, this is interesting: those gangly people are like a puppy, or someone with a growth spurt, unaware of their bodies; they haven’t figured out how to coordinate their movements. And I thought about this guy Cosme who’s probably not fully in his body, or in his element at all, and just kind of floating through there with his arms, almost as if they were separate entities. So that helped.

It’s wonderful how you straddle the divide between comedy and poignant dramatic moments. I love Stephen Frears’ work, and this is a great script by Nicholas Martin, and it’s a measure of their respective skills that early in the film we’re not too sure about how we feel about the three main characters, who aren’t shown in their best light. But then the movie unfolds, and we see them more clearly. My favorite scene is the one you have with Meryl in Cosme’s apartment. I don’t know where you go as an actor to get in touch with that kind of vulnerability, but it’s beautiful.

Thank you. It was a scene that always existed as you see it, that’s sort of in the middle of the movie as an anomaly; I think Meryl said that at one point, “Well, this scene’s an anomaly.” Because we were going to shoot it first, but she thought we probably shouldn’t, because our characters are doing something they’ve never done, really, in the course of this movie. Eventually for one reason or another it got shifted a little bit later into the schedule. It was still early on, but it wasn’t the first day, it wasn’t our first scene. And I already was excited about that scene, and scared; it was challenging, and it felt like it kind of beat us up a little bit—even Meryl, I think, that day, found it was hard, and it was emotional. And it was amazing to be with her, thinking she must always feel, like, “Well, another brilliant day in the life of Meryl Streep,” but when we left, we both were sort of, I don’t know, bogged down by it, how it came out. But sometimes that trouble is what the scene is, and it was a vulnerable, raw moment in those characters’ lives in this movie, and then for us, I think, it just kind of spun us around. And that was a big moment, coming away from it, and seeing it [in the finished film] I think it’s beautiful, too. But I certainly left that day feeling unsure. It’s an interesting lesson in surrendering.

Because of your TV show, many people associate you with a contemporary persona, but you appear to fit very comfortably in a period piece. What kind of tools did you rely on to get into character? Did the costumes help you embody a person of that time?

Well, I’ve always felt sort of out of time, in some way. I used to think about the different eras where I might have fit in better. But I’ve always loved period pieces, and loved theater that let me, say, step into the Forties, or into Oscar Wilde’s world. I think you just listen to what the story is, and, sure, the costumes help create that, for the audience, at least. And then you step into it, and you do move differently, and you do feel different. I didn’t consciously over-think the period [aspect] of it, aside from what the state of the world was, in terms of wartime, and in terms of him being gay. But it’s so fun; it’s a beautiful-looking era, cinematically.

So now you’ve worked with the Coen Brothers and Stephen Frears, terrific filmmakers. What are the differences between working on the sets of Florence Foster Jenkins and A Serious Man?

Well, on the set of A Serious Man, we shot [my stuff] in only a day. I did go a few times for a rehearsal and a table read; it was brief, but intense. The similarity is that the Coens and Stephen don’t say a lot to the actors. The Coens write it, they edit it, and they do everything, so that story in its entirety is 100% their vision. They’re in charge of facilitating that: from the script to the screen what you see doesn’t change much. And Stephen doesn’t write his movies, and doesn’t edit his movies, and so his vision is just executed in a different way. And [in both cases] it’s seamless; you don’t even really know how they’re doing it, because there’s just not a lot of talking. It feels effortless, from both sides, although obviously there’s a lot of effort in it, and they surround themselves with people they trust and who they know are going to tell the same story. There’s very little micro-managing, at least from the point of view of the actor. The directors, if they want it again, might ask if you would like to do another take. Or they might say, “I’m happy.” I think the Coens asked me to lean forward once, instead of leaning backward. I don’t know–they just trust.

That’s nice, really.

[Laughs] It’s nice, but also there are moments where it’s kind of disconcerting, where you’re just left [thinking], they trust me that much? I don’t trust me that much.

Your father, Sandy Helberg, is also an actor with an interesting career. Did he take you along to movie sets when you were a kid?

I definitely went to a bunch of different sets, when he’d be on TV, and my mom [Harriet B. Helberg] was a casting director, and so I’d go and watch tapings of sitcoms. And my dad was in The Groundlings, and I would go to The Groundlings, and just watch these great, brilliant people. And I know that that all shaped me, for sure. It just wasn’t something that I thought about, or really even considered doing, until I was 16 or 17. I wanted to do music, really.

You also have training in karate. What kind of a belt do you have?

A very small one, now, because it’s from when I was ten. Black belt—but again, it would probably be like a bracelet for me at this point. I was very little. The biggest thing that I probably kept from that—aside from that tiny belt—is discipline. I learned about focus and discipline. I never wanted to beat anybody up–luckily, because I probably would have failed. But that wasn’t what it was about for me. It was about the passion of doing it. That was what I wanted to do; I didn’t think beyond that about anything else. There was a period when I was, like, nine, where I went to karate six days a week.

So, when you watch action movies, and see the fight scenes, given what you know do you ever wince and think, that is so not how it’s done?

[Laughs] “Yeah, I could have done better. Yeah, Steven Seagal, he knows nothing.” Oh, no, I don’t tend to lord my past in karate and martial arts over anybody else’s careers these days. I think we’re all in the right field. I have no input into anything that Jason Bourne is doing.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon