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Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016 09:31 pm

“Big Bang’s” Simon Helberg Rubs Shoulders with Movie Heavyweights in “Jenkins.”

Thanks to the phenomenal success of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, Simon Helberg is a familiar face in millions of homes around the world.  As Howard Wolowitz, the luckiest engineer in the world (he’s married to Melissa Rauch’s Bernadette Rostankowksi after all), the actor has been able to hone his comedic timing and amass a small fortune while starring on a television mainstay that shows little signs of slowing down.

Simon Helberg in Chicago promoting Florence Foster Jenkins.
Photo by Chuck Koplinski

In addition to all this, the show has afforded Helberg opportunities that would not have come his way if not for the success of Bang.  The actor was able to write, direct and star in a small independent comedy “We’ll Never Have Paris in 2014 but perhaps his biggest professional opportunity came his way in 2015 when he was presented with the script for “Florence Foster Jenkins.”  Directed by English filmmaker Stephen Frears (Philomena, High Fidelity), the film tells the story of a New York socialite who sings in self-produced revues with the intent of ultimately performing at Carnegie Hall.  The only problem is, she can’t hit a proper note to save her life. 

With Hugh Grant also in the cast, as Jenkins’ husband St. Clair Bayfield, Helberg realized he’d be foolish to pass up this opportunity and signed on to play the heiress’ accompanist Cosme McMoon.  On a recent stop in Chicago to promote the film, I was able to sit down with the actor, sporting an unfamiliar beard and natty sweater adorned with small surfers. I asked if he did any research on his character in order to get some insight on what made him tick.

“He was a real person but there was so little information on him that it was rather liberating,” the actor said. “His name in itself was such an insight.  But the script that Nick Martin wrote was so brilliant.  Because I played the music I just had to delve into the world of classical music and talk to opera singers about accompanists. They tend to be rather odd fellows.  Cosme’s job is to make Florence shine and that tells you something about him. There’s an innocent, a chaste quality that I saw in him that I tried to bring to the screen.”

Hugh Grant, Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg in Florence Foster Jenkins.
Courtesy Paramount Pictures

The actor succeeds wonderfully in fleshing out a fully rounded character despite little background information, punching up many scenes he’s in with well-timed humorous reaction shots.  This is familiar territory for Helberg, but what proves to be a revelation is his prowess at the keyboard and his ability to sell a poignant moment.  Having begun playing the piano at age seven, he appears relaxed and natural as he accompanies Streep on screen, while his education at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts holds him in good stead, when he’s required to share scenes with the Oscar-winning actress in two quiet, touching moments late in the film.

Working with Streep and Grant paid its own dividends as Helberg came away with a new appreciation for their talent and picked up a tip or two on the craft of acting along the way. “I eventually learned they’re human and that was a good moment when I learned that and with that again a sense of vulnerability and the willingness to expose that,” recalls the actor. “That can be scary and I think we all felt a little scared, which was kind of nice.  But I really learned, especially with Meryl, the willingness to surrender in front of the camera and live in that moment. You can do all the work and do all the preparation, but when you get to the set, your job is to be alive there and not do what you did at home or thought you should do.  She’s brilliant obviously, she’s alive and every take is different. There are no mistakes, you’re just alive, you’re floating when you’re working with her.”

Meryl Streep, Simon Helberg and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins.
Courtesy Paramount Pictures

So much of Florence Foster Jenkins is about having the courage to follow your passion, to risk looking like a fool while pursuing something you believe in.  Helberg knows about this all too well in making “We’ll Never Have Paris.”  I asked him about how he overcame any doubts he might have had before embarking on that film and how it might relate to his current project.

“It’s a vulnerable feeling,” he said.  “To make that movie put me in a very vulnerable position.  It was about my wife (actress Jocelyn Towne) and our experiences with a disastrous intercontinental break-up.  Then we directed it together which was unnerving in a way.  But being an artist and like Florence, what humanizes the experience and makes it inspiring and hilarious is when someone really aims for the stars!  She aims for Carnegie Hall and she gets it though she has no ability whatsoever.  That makes it very human and that brings out the joy instead of the snarkiness.”

I pointed out that there must be little trepidation on the set of Bang, what with the show entering its tenth season.  He responded with a good-natured bit of sarcasm aimed at his co-stars saying, “I don’t look up to any of those people, I mean what have they done?”  He continued with a laugh, “What’s strange is this movie was a collaboration.  Everyone weighed in fully, whether it was about dialogue or about certain moments and even though these are some of the greatest people working, it felt very even.  Everyone’s ideas were welcome.  And on “Big Bang,” we’re handed the scripts and they’re incredible and we all do our own part. It is like a family but it’s a different experience, one I hope never ends.” 

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