In Florence Foster Jenkins Simon Helberg stars as Cosmé McMoon, a young concert pianist who accompanies heirest Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) as she attempts to sing opera despite her off-key talent. We sat down with Helberg at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, GA to discuss his role in the film, and how his own talents as a pianist aided him in developing the character.
Shakefire (SF): What drew you to this role?
Simon Helberg (SH): Well, how could anyone not want to do this role, to be in the same room with these people? The script, I guess, is always the first thing, and it was brilliant. I was moved by it, and I thought it was funny, and I thought it was relevant, and I thought I’d never have a shot to be in anything like this. It kinda just fell out of the sky. Specifically, the character I thought was something in some ways that I felt born to do. The music part of it, obviously, is something that I connected to, and I play music. But also I just love characters that are somewhat alien, and I love characters that are deluded or sort of these troupes you’ll that you’ll see in comedies a lot like the overconfident idiot or the accidental genius or these kind of people that have a misconception of themself but somehow it doesn’t ever seem to stand in their way. I think all of these characters have that in the movie. They’re all kinda unaware of who they are, but they fully embrace what they think they are.
SF: Did you do any research at all for the character since it’s based on a true story?
SH: I did. Ultimately I think the good news is that there wasn’t that much information on him. I say that because I think it’s liberating. I don’t think I’ve ever played anybody that was based on a real character, but what’s always fun for me is reading a script and then trying to figure out like a set of clues what kind of person is this and if they do this thing what does that say about that? I just think of it as having extra clues, but not so much that it was overwhelming. There was very little. Not even any confirmation of his sexuality. He was a master chess player. I know he did have a love for amatuer body building. I think that and his sexuality might have been tied together. I now he moved around to New York when he was 18, and this was the peak of his career. There were just small little clues. And the same with her. The music was actually the biggest insight into his relationship with Florence and what an accompanist does. You can look at the music and listen to the music. You can look at it transcribed and see that she missed a bar here and he jumped ahead to help her or she didn’t come in where she was supposed to because she doesn’t know a note and he gives it to her quietly. Then you kinda abandon all of that and you just try to live in it.
SF: You have such specific mannerisms in the film. How did you create that or what did you tap into?
SH: There were a few things that sort of led to that that I guess make sense and then others maybe were weird moments of inspiration that I don’t know where they came from. Just having fun creating a character. There were a couple key little things that happened. One, I remember I was taking piano lessons and the piano teacher told me about these students who would walk around the conservatory, all the piano majors and these trained pianists that seemed to have these very long arms. She was talking about this idea of imagining you had weights on the end of your arms that pulled your hands down to the floor. So when you played the piano imagining that you had these long arms and you weren’t playing with your wrists. You were imagining almost that your fingers were being pulled through the keys. I thought, oh, that’s like that image when you come back from summer break and someone had a growth spurt (not me, ever, but I knew people like this), and they hadn’t really figured out how to use their body yet. It was like they weren’t coordinated enough to adjust to their newfound height. So I imagined this guy it seemed to fit him being almost alien or out of his element. Also being seemingly gay at a time when that was forbidden or illegal. And I thought maybe he doesn’t know he’s gay, either. Especially if it’s frowned upon by people. And him being born in Mexico and then moving to Texas as a kid, so English being a second language, and then moving to New York. What is that? How does that manifest? I saw it as manifesting as sort of this gecko-like posture, being completely exposed and vulnerable and having your neck out, literally, and kinda your eyes on the sides of your head taking it all in. There was something about him I could see that he was sure pure. It’s fun to watch someone so pure get caught up in something so oddly deceitful but still innocent.
SF: What was your first reaction to hearing Meryl Streep try to sing?
SH: I probably looked somewhat like I did in the film when they would cut to me. Part of her genius, too; it would be very easy in some ways to go into shrill commenting on these people or making fun of these people but she has such a humanity about her and she brings it to these characters. I think I first honestly I just couldn’t believe how incredible and how much it sounded like Florence, but not quite an impression. It was her own version of it. Also how she could actually sing opera. She is coming so close to those notes, and that’s because Meryl knows where those notes are. She’s a really good singer, and that’s really hard. And she was singing in Italian, and German, and Russian; it just didn’t make sense. So I had a lot of moments where I was looking in awe of her as Meryl, in awe of her career, which sometimes I get lost in that. I’m in a scene with her and I’m looking at her and I think, “Wow, she’s amazing!” But I think Cosmé probably had those moments too. Maybe not thinking how amazing she was exactly but how special she was. You have to learn how to paint a still life in order to do something abstract. You have to have a technique in order to undo it. Again, she’s just incredible. How did she do it? I don’t know.
SF: You have a unique challenge doing this live piano work in addition to acting and reacting. How do you deal with those dual roles and get into that space?
SH: I try to isolate the two things at first and then bring them together later. I got a bit overwhelmed with the music because it was so hard and there was so much music and it was so foreign to me. I played the piano; I play really well, but I play different kinds of music. I don’t play classical or opera. I played more jazz, and I did it a long time ago more seriously. I’m more of an impressive piano player now than I am trained. So it was scary. I just learned the music to the best of my ability. I tried to learn it with the metronome and with the dynamics and the technique. I knew that I’d be going into the space with her and then as an accompanist that’s a different task, particularly when the singer sounds like that, skipping bars and dropping beats and all these things you’re adjusting and adapting. So you kinda have to know the pieces backwards and forwards again in order to dismantle them. You’re almost improvising along with; you’re breathing together. There was the musical element, and then there was the acting which I was hired to do. I kept forgetting in some ways that I really need to be focusing. I didn’t forget, I just couldn’t do all of it at once. I’d dedicate some time to the music and some time to the acting, and then eventually I had to figure out how to play the pieces of music as the character, which is different or at least physically. They were going to shoot me, because it’s a movie. While I could get through some of these pieces, I could do it hunched over and contorted, but that’s not how a trained pianist would do it, and then how would this character be sitting at the piano, too? So it’s sort of a few levels, and eventually I had to bring it all together and hope for the best. And no pressure, because there’s Meryl and there’s Hugh. Luckily my guy was supposed to be pretty sweaty the whole time so it worked out.
SF: How much of yourself is in Cosmé?
SH: I think there’s probably always some part of me and every actor in the characters that they play. It’s sort of the only way in is you because you have no other body or brain. It’s maybe more of what I was like as a child. I think it’s the innocence of him. I think it’s actually quite far away from me now in a lot of ways because he had no judgement or cynicism and no real awareness of, he seemed very naive and very new to everything. It’s fun to take out that judgement. But who I am? I’m somebody like most people who has opinions and can get cynical and I think with what we see in social media and all of this kind of thing it’s a lot people having a real hunger to go on a witch hunt to take people down. You get defensive and then you try to identify yourself as something in order to have an identity or a profile on Facebook; these things that at that time just didn’t exist. I’d say yeah, he’s a lot more like a cherubic, like a rube.
SF: Everyone knows you from The Big Bang Theory. What’s it like getting to step outside of that and introduce people to this other side of you?
SH: It’s so exciting for me because that while I’m aware I’m on the show, I also forget that people quickly identify you with one thing, for better or worse. All of us on the show were hired; we all auditioned. We’re actors, and we played a lot of parts and then we got fortunate enough to play one part for a very long time. It can become challenging for us or other people to find that opportunity to do something different. And to get something like this movie which is so far on the other end of the spectrum. It wasn’t just exciting for me to get to do that, to get to dig in and find those parts of myself that I didn’t know existed or had forgotten about, but it’s fun to show other people. Like, hey, look at this! I got to work with these people and look at these characters we made up based on real people. Look at this story, we’re proud of it. It’s an exciting thing to show people a different side.
SF: This is such a heartwarming story. There’s this innocence and wanting to protect the people you love. What do you think the message of the film is, and what do you hope people take away from the film?
SH: I hope that’s what people take away from it. Because the other version is that they were just doing this to exploit her or to profit or other opportunistic ideas. I actually don’t think that this what the story is at its heart. There are elements. People aren’t always altruistic and you gain these people around her who also insulated her and helped her live out this delusion. They did profit from her, financially but also artistically and emotionally. But I do think it was about nurturing her purity and her passion and her dream. That’s something that in children I think we naturally tend to do sometimes. Usually when you see a three-year-old belting out a song from The Lion King or scribbling on a piece of paper or dancing around the room you don’t tend to say, “No, no, no, that’s not how you do it,” or “Your technique is wrong,” or “You have no future in this business.” Their joy is infectious, and you experience that; you nurture it even if just for that moment. For her, she had that child-like abandon. That’s a rare thing. It’s nice to see that protected, even though ultimately in the end it might have been her downfall, finding out maybe what reality was. But even the moment after that is kinda questioning what reality is anyhow, because the voice inside our head is different than the voice they hear. That’s always the way it is anyhow. It does kinda question this idea of perception. Like she said, the great line at the end of the movie about how people may say that I couldn’t sing, but they’ll never say I didn’t sing. I think that’s the heart of it. That’s the success.
Florence Foster Jenkins is now playing in theaters nationwide. You can read our review of the film here.