Beyond Cinema - Issue 11, 2016: Act One - Simon Helberg


Words by Elliot Kotek 

Comparisons are often made between the cast of 90’s NBC juggernaut “Friends” and CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory,” currently enjoying its 10th season on air (surpassing 200 episodes).

When the sitcom got started back in 2007, Simon Helberg was a younger man with a long-standing passion for piano, a bunch of sketch comedy under his belt, a number of small roles in bigger projects, and a new fiancée (now-wife) in screenwriter/director Jocelyn Towne. He was a man making his own opportunities from the Hollywood landscape, had pursued his craft formally at New York University, and was creating his own comedic content without waiting for permission.

Despite the comfort that comes from a decade on a hit show, Helberg hasn’t stopped cultivating his career – setting up the production company Wildline Entertainment with Warner Bros Television; writing, starring and co-directing the indie film We’ll Never Have Paris with Jocelyn; and, lastly but not leastly, forging ahead with feature forays like this year’s highly anticipated Meryl Streep & Hugh Grant-headliner Florence Foster Jenkins.

We caught up with the talented thesp and father of two (Adeline, 4 and Wilder, 2) at LA Alteration’s unique boutique-space in Beverly Hills.

Beyond Cinema: Tell us about getting cast as Cosmé McMoon in Florence Foster Jenkins – was being cast as a pianist a case of happenstance?

Simon Helberg:  Yeah. It came about because I had made a small movie, We'll Never Have Paris and the casting director, Kathleen Chopin, was casting this movie.

I almost deleted the email because it seemed like a weird solicitation, like "Hey, hope everything's well, sorry we haven't seen each other in a while." I didn't know who it was at first. I'm thinking, “Oh God, is this somebody I met at a party where I was sort of drunk and said, ‘Yeah, here's my email’?" It went on, "I'm working on a project ... " and then I saw the name “Stephen Frears,” and I know who that is, and I saw “Meryl Streep” and I was, like, “Okay, this is definitely bullshit, there's no way that I'm getting an email asking me if I'm interested in a project with Meryl Streep.”

I reread it, realized who it was, it was a script, I read it. I think I cried and I laughed, and I maybe fainted at some point even imagining myself in the same room as Meryl.

I tried to bring myself down to earth and wrote back to Kathleen, and I said, "By the way, I play piano and the themes in this movie and the subject of the movie and the people involved are all of the things that I want to be a part of in this life." And she said, "Oh, well, I had no idea you played piano, and Stephen will love to hear that, and he's eccentric, and when you meet with him just tell him all that."

Meeting him, I played myself off as being a much better piano player than I am... I was really, really good in high school but in the scope of professional, classical pianists in the world, I don't think I rank high on that list. But I told Stephen I can play anything and that's all he wanted to talk about. I was painting myself as the second coming of Glenn Gould and I just threw out a bunch of fancy terms and he kept asking about piano and my hands, and looked at me.  I was, like, “As far as actors that play piano, I think I'm up there with Jeff Goldblum, who’s maybe a little too old for this part, but he's fantastic.”

I just tried to confuse him, and it worked. I confused myself and I confused him, and then I got the part, over my head, and I crammed for months to learn everything.

The character’s name - Cosmé McMoon – sounds like your character’s name - Dreidel L’Chaim - in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Oh gosh. Yes. But he’s a real guy. His name was McMunn, but he was born in Mexico and people would say "McMoon," and he thought, "Hey, that's a snazzy stage name." And, Cosmé was his father's name, too. A funny name, and funny because there's me playing a Mexican…[who’d] moved to Texas early on, and then later to New York to become a classical pianist... and he became a judge of these sort of muscle man competitions. He was an amateur body builder. I told Stephen... I was not only the obvious link because of the piano but you can tell by my muscle, my one muscle…[laughs]. They kind of nod to it in the film as well, and have me lifting ... “lifting,” which was maybe the hardest scene in the whole movie for me.

It's a very bizarre world, he also worked at a bath house at some point. He was an interesting guy. Played chess. Was a chess master. But when he moved to New York, he walked into this sort of a circus act, this group of socialites and aesthetes who, despite all odds, were all dreamers and were all joyous people who enabled each other to live out their impossible dreams.

It's kind of beautiful but there's also a sadness because there's delusion there, too. But, if you're unaware of that delusion, then what difference does it make? It's just perception, and this movie definitely plays with that theme a lot.

As for your perception of yourself, starting in sketch comedy and creating your own comedic projects, was your ultimate landing place alongside a land of comedians, or were Stephen Frears and Meryl Streep on the horizon for you, too?

I don't know if they were on the horizon for me. I think I'd be as deluded as Florence Foster Jenkins. But at the same time it was so wildly out of reach, and out of the realm of something I could materialize that I could have hope to meet Meryl Streep, and have hope to work with her, and have hope, even, to take a tour of Abbey Road. I didn't expect to make an album in Abbey Road with Meryl Streep!

I can't say I went home and read “The Secret” and put Post-Its around my house, believing that this would happen. But I do believe that, in actuality, if you can create your own work, your work will beget work.

Also, I hoped to become successful so that I could, you know, show more people the work I did, and make money to live and do all that. But, when I was doing sketch comedy in small theaters or paying a theater to let us do Chekhov’s One Act plays, I mean, I enjoyed the hell out of that experience as its own experience. I never did the things that I did in the beginning to become anything other than what I was doing at that moment.

But it was, I think, that because I dreamed a little bit outside of that, that I made We'll Never Have Paris, and made it from blood, sweat and tears, with my wife, and we directed it together and it was our story. We were involved from the first breath of it to the end and it was painful and wonderful – and the link is clearly there – that movie led to this movie just because we happened to work with Kathleen.  It isn't unlike the movie, Florence Foster Jenkins… she wanted to sing, and though she wanted all of the accolades, too, she sang because she loved to.

When you were at NYU studying acting, was there a specific piece of material that you felt gripped by-

Simon:  I got to do “Angels in America.” I auditioned for that. It was a senior project at NYU and I did that whole play. That changed my life.  After that, I did study at this theater company called the Atlantic Theater Company. They do amazing theater all the time and I studied Chekhov, and specifically “Uncle Vanya,” and I'm way too young to play Uncle Vanya, but I'd say the character of Uncle Vanya is the only thing that makes me look forward to getting older and more crotchety.               

Saying Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” changed your life. What did you mean by that?

Simon:  That play is maybe one of the great pieces of writing ever… I studied in this kind of conservatory setting, that's the way NYU works, so it's very intense - the first year is sort of like military school, and they try to scare you and try to strip away all of your bad habits… wear you down to your raw essential being, and you don't know which way is up at the end of that. Then the second year they kind of put you back together a little bit, and you've learned a bunch of things and you don't know how to use them. So, when I got to do that play, I got to try it out. Though you're doing five scenes a day and all of this rolling around on the floor grunting from your center and your taking speech class and doing all these embarrassing, nerdy things, you don't know how it's going to come together.

So [Angels in America] was the first time I got to do that, and it’s a fairly serious play. A whimsical one, but more serious than anything I'd ever done, and it worked, I guess. I felt like, “Ohhh.” And it was really hard. I was young and I was confused about what life was going to be. I was in love with people that didn't love me, I was lonely, I was panicking in every way imaginable, and then I found this sort of outlet and that play is so beautiful and the themes in that play resonated quite a bit. So, I don't know, I guess I felt like “Okay, I made the right decision.” And my parents came out to see it, and all my teachers ... It was a very seminal moment, even though it wasn't meant to be. It was just a play.

Despite Florence Foster Jenkins world being the New York scene, you shot most of Florence Foster Jenkins in the UK?

Simon:  Yeah, I went to London, shot there for three months. Most of the movie was interiors, and it's a British film, so they flew us to London to shoot New York interiors. And most of the exteriors were shot in Liverpool, which is amazing. I guess one of the architects who had sort of built New York had built a handful of buildings in Liverpool, so we used them to double for the financial district in New York.

To shoot a brownstone area they, literally, in all of England, didn't have it, so they went to Glasgow for a brownstone. Then they did blue screen. I had the time of my life being in London and shooting there – this beautiful city - historical, romantic, amazing.

Did you take the whole family out there?

Yeah, we lived in Richmond Hill, which is gorgeous. it's been painted for four hundred years. I was like, "Sure, yeah, Henry the Fifth, great, but, wait, so, where did John Lennon eat that cheeseburger? Right there? Oh my God!" I was smitten. And I got made fun of for being such a big Beatles fan, because everyone there lives it all the time but, when I went to Liverpool, I went to the Penny Lane barber shop and kind of geeked out about that. It was a dream.

So the Beatles fandom came before your Beatle-y haircut in “The Big Bang Theory”?

That was a decision I made on the way to the audition that has not been shaken for nine years.

I did kind of wear my hair like that, I guess, probably, because of the Beatles, but it’s a little bit more Moe Howard [from the Three Stooges] than John Lennon.  I kind of wore it that way, then at the audition they're like, "Great, that is such a great choice. You can't get dorkier than that. Thanks! Will you do it for the show?" And I was like, "Yeah, no, that's exactly why I made the decision… for the character." So I've lived with that.

What's your relationship like to the physical set of Big Bang Theory now? Where is it?

Yes. We shoot in beautiful Burbank, California. We shoot on Warner Brothers. We’ve shot on the same stage for the whole run which is, you know, the one used for movies like Casablanca and other historically revered things have shot on our stage. I guess that’s the way it is in LA, you're kind of always walking where Charlie Chaplin banged some girl: “That's where he got syphilis, in that corner.”

So, it's a lot of history, just like England.

Does it look like “The Big Bang Theory” Lego set--

I was given one of those. I haven't opened it though. I haven't played with myself in that respect.

When you shot your own movie – We’ll Never Have Paris – you shot in Brooklyn and in Paris, France? Is that because those were the places where the real events of you and your wife’s story happened or because it was easier somehow?

A bit of both. It was happening in LA and Paris. We went to Brooklyn for multiple reasons. One, you can turn the camera on and you’ve got the most beautiful, culturally rich city around you, just aesthetically, but also financially it was an amazing opportunity for us.  When we heard you can shoot in Brooklyn for this tax credit, we were there. It was so cool.

We shot Brooklyn for Brooklyn. Then we also shot interiors for Paris in Brooklyn, which was a great opportunity to use these Victorian kind of turn-of-the-century buildings to double as Paris, and then you go outside and it's Brooklyn. We did that and it's incredible and I think it would fool anybody that we were actually shooting all that in Paris.

And then we shot Paris, and we shot it quickly. A third of the movie or so takes place there. One scene originally took place on the steps of the Louvre. But it was tough to get that location unless you're, you know, a Da Vinci Code. Our budget was their craft service budget for a day. So, instead we shot the Naval Museum which we actually fell in love with even more because it has these amazing ... we were sitting on these cannons, and it was just this really beautifully picturesque place – plus we’d never dreamt you could sit on a cannon and talk about the explosively volatile situation that romantically you were in. It seemed kind of fitting. The only sort of caveat was if somebody of high standing in either the military or the government passed away within a week, they would have to close the Naval Museum down and drape flags and have men in uniforms and whatever. So I became very involved in French politics, making sure the military was safe because there's a scene we need to do here, guys, so, please, stay alive.

And the crew was incredible. And they did work “French hours,” which I thought was a saying in LA but it's a real thing because they work quick and they have one lunch and they don't mess around and you're done. I remember one day they wanted to be done, because they were tired, and it was like ... “Well, that's kind of honest… and annoying” But the quality, seriously, when we got in the editing room we were like, “Holy shit.” We lucked out.

It was shot sort of guerrilla style. We shot in Mont-mart-re ... I'll say it quickly so you don't judge me – and all these other iconic places because that was the thing, I was a tourist in Paris in the movie and I didn't know where I was, so we got to hit these great places. I just wanted to look like a fool and a fish out of water, and I did, and it was wonderful.

Is there any place that you and your wife would like to make another movie?

Every time I see another comedy that takes place in Hawaii, I'm like ... “Okay, Ben Stiller, you want to go to Hawaii? Owen Wilson is on Hawaiian vacation???” I get that, that's awesome. “How did they get DeNiro, Jason Bateman, Judi Dench ALL to be in this movie? ... Oh, they shot in Hawaii.”

I feel like it would be great to go to somewhere in Asia. I've never been to Asia or India, or Vietnam, these places that I really want to go, or Africa, but the luxury of going to shoot seems great because you're always shown around. And, shooting places, you get to live there. Like, in London, we fell in love with London, and now we're going back to vacation there this summer because we loved it so much last summer.

And you can also have your kids grow up in these different places and experience different things.

I know. Yeah. Someone like Meryl who's worked all over the world and it's just… that experience alone is really appealing.

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