Seriously, Funny: Simon Helberg on Endearing Lunacy of Breakout Florence Foster Jenkins Performance
The idea of playing Meryl Streep’s right-hand man in any movie must be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you get to work with the best; the other, try not to be eclipsed when she gives a performance as wonderful as her comically tone-deaf songstress in Stephen Frears’ lovely new Florence Foster Jenkins. And both hands, in this case, belong to co-star Simon Helberg, playing classical piano alongside Streep’s self-deluded art patron and would-be artiste who parlayed her passion for music beyond mere benefactress and into a rather infamous singing career in Manhattan nearly a hundred years ago.
As Cosme McMoon, the diminutive piano man and accompanist to Florence’s madness, Helberg gives a zinger of a comic performance that registers his—and our—disbelief at his partner’s musical ineptitude, while gradually coming to appreciation for her generosity of spirit and intention. Theirs becomes a quietly affectionate professional and personal partnership that leads all the way to Carnegie Hall.
I recently caught up with Helberg, also the star of television’s popular The Big Bang Theory, to discuss his scene-stealing performance in one of the summer’s most surprising movie pleasantries.
You are in what they call a breakout role in a movie with one of the biggest stars in the world, who also happens to be the best actress of all time. I don’t think that is even subjective. And you nearly manage to steal the show. I’d like to hear about the terrific comic performance you give in the movie, and how you found the right pitch to modulate the tone of the comedy. It is unique, and vocally and physically distinctive, and I wonder how you found that balance between not overplaying or underplaying, and what those mechanics were.
Simon Helberg: Thank you! When you are doing something like this, the less that you think the better. The thinking has to happen at home when you are researching and figuring it out. But when you are actually there, hopefully you can throw out the voices in your head and the judgment and trying to figure out tone. I don’t know who is responsible for tone in a movie; I think it’s everybody. I asked Stephen how he makes movies like High Fidelity, The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters and Philomena. All of them have grit and are moving and funny at the same time. And he said, ‘It would be boring to just do one thing!’ He is selling himself short because he is brilliant. I wanted to make sure that I was grounded and that was all I asked him. He didn’t talk a lot. He didn’t tell me not to do too much. Occasionally he would gesture, but not a lot of talking. When you are working with great people, there is an unspoken understanding of what movie you are making. But maybe you just hire people from all walks of life and get a script with vivid characters that are plucked out of the ether, and therein lies this strange blend of comedy and tragedy.
And then there’s the piano playing, which you are actually doing. I can’t imagine blending those disciplines of precise comic acting and musicianship.
When I was shooting, I couldn’t think, ‘How would he look right now?’ I had to just sit in the room and play and look at Meryl, and not overthink things. It was arduous, but I knew I needed to get through it comfortably and have a tasteful approach rather than just getting the notes out. So I tried to have a crash course in classical technique, or at least how you would look if you were classically trained. And then I had to figure out the character and what he would do. Because there are many- if you watch Rubenstein play there is no movement, but if you watch Lang Lang play it’s like he is doing a show like a magician, like fireworks are coming out of his ass. And there are moments to pick and choose from, but I had to think in terms of what Cosme McMoon would be. Why did he pick The Swan as his audition piece? What does that mean about him? How good of a piano player is he? It was a lot to juggle at the same time. I drove everyone at home crazy and had to get an apartment so I could practice.
In sum, your performance charts the stages and development of the professional relationship and friendship between Cosme and Florence; much of that evolution is in your modulation of your reactions as the story progresses. When you first meet, you depict Cosme as flabbergasted at the suspension of disbelief at how terrible she is, yet although she does not improve in talent or much in self-awareness during the film, your reactions to her do. Get what I am saying?
Yeah. You’re right. She doesn’t ever become aware of her own voice until obviously the ending and then she accepts it in a beautiful way. I think initially he is signing up for a dream job and it is money and his passion, but by the end it’s like the speech that Hugh gives about the ‘tyranny of ambition.’ He frees himself and ends up actually finding something deeper than this idealistic kind of career; he is innocent and it is about his passion, but it’s the sacrifice that you have to make in doing the things you love. He realizes that he loves this woman and that her love of music is bigger than his concerns about his reputation.
Obviously shooting out of sequence with such a finely tuned character with an evolving manner must have been a challenge in terms of his trajectory.
I was aware of his trajectory. He is kind of always pure and naïve and innocent, but he certainly gets a little bit of life experience and is corrupted just a tiny bit by the end, but not quite cynical. But I think you know the story and you know how each scene is contributing to that story. It is weird when you are shooting a movie—and I have never done anything this big—and you are shooting out of sequence. There is a natural progression of finding- no matter how much you work on it, you are not going to walk onto the set the first day and have the kind of familiarity that you will have after doing it for a few weeks. Meryl very humbly always says she owes everything to the kindness of strangers, meaning editing and directors, and she’s brilliant. But I think that she is never doing it in the same way because you can’t, because then it wouldn’t be honest. You have to throw out the arc and too much thinking, and let the director tell you.
So you sort of throw it out and just act-react together?
It takes an amazing amount of trust to do that. If you have done your homework and figured the story out, ultimately you really are just standing there reacting with the person; it takes a lot of balls to do that. But then you are really standing there with Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep, and someone really did sneeze off camera or something did fall on the ground. And that truth is as important as whatever idea of truth you think you are supposed to convey in that moment. And I think what Meryl really does is she is there. She has done so much preparation. And then these real-life moments happen because we are playing it all live, and because it is happening live for us too; there is just something that goes on in the reactions and eccentricities.
You’re not a stranger to giving a comic performance given your history on one of the most popular television shows of all time. This time you were doing it with Meryl and Hugh, however.
They are iconic people that I grew up watching. (Working with them) is like training at a high altitude because you know that you are going to be scared and more so than other times you have worked. And to add music into that too was its own thing. In terms of the style of acting, I don’t think there really is a difference between a sitcom and movie. The only thing is if (shooting a sitcom) they are really tight on your face, you can do less than when the cameras are all the way out by the audience and you are being shot head to toe. The audience changes the energy too. There is a tendency when you are in front of an audience to- it’s not over-the-top, but it is different. That’s why I asked Stephen to tell me if I needed to do less, which I was excited to do!
What is something you love to do that you are not good at?
I like to dance because it makes people laugh when I do it in front of my kids. But sort of somewhere in me I think I might have gift, but also be bad. It would be fun to be a dancer but people would laugh. But they laughed when they heard Florence, and she kept on going!