If you could put a sci-fi drama like Westworld in the blender with a spy thriller like The Americans, you might end up with a show as intense as Counterpart. The Starz series features Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons as Howard Silk, a low-level worker in a high-security government office in Berlin. Silk’s life takes a disturbing turn after he learns the building’s real purpose, which we won't be spoiling here. Counterpart premiered to acclaim in January 2017, and the second season kicks off on Sunday, Dec. 9.
Counterpart’s plot is hard to summarize, but that’s not why Simmons avoids explaining it to people. He prefers that people experience the show’s intricacies for themselves. He says when he’s on the audience side, watching a film or TV show, he doesn’t want to hear a synopsis or read any reviews. “I’m the ultimate anti-spoiler kind of guy from both sides of the business," he says. "So I just tell people, ‘It’s intricate, it’s complex, it’s smart, it’s entertaining, and even though I don’t really see it as an action show, there certainly are action sequences that are brilliantly done. But more importantly, to me, from an actor perspective and an audience perspective, there are great characters.’”
Simmons stars as two of them, and he’s joined by Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense), Harry Lloyd (The Theory of Everything), Nazanin Boniadi (Homeland), Sara Serraiocco (Worldly Girl), and Nicholas Pinnock (Captain America: The First Avenger). He plays not only Howard Silk but also his identical counterpart from a parallel world. The duplicate was created in 1987, and since then, the two Howards have followed different paths. Thirty years later, they have very little in common aside from their appearance. Simmons is such a skilled actor that whenever he’s onscreen, it’s immediately evident which Howard he is playing. When he signed on for the role, he had read only the first script, which included the reveal that he would be playing two versions of the same character.
The show’s creator, Justin Marks, warned him that there was yet another layer to the challenging dual role. “We spoke at the beginning about how they’re going to end up having to masquerade as each other, and in fact, in some ways, end up — even though they seem diametrically opposed psychologically and emotionally — sort of taking on aspects of each other, ” Simmons tells L.A. Weekly, revealing that early on, he and Marks discussed giving one of the characters a physical difference, like, “This guy’s got a different tooth.” But that idea was ultimately discarded.
While Simmons’ portrayal of both Howards is impressive, he credits the show’s writers, including Marks, for differentiating them. “I think it is really good for the storytelling that audiences can generally tell when a scene starts and we see one of my characters on camera, sometimes even before he’s speaking. They kind of get a sense of which guy he is, which to me speaks first of all to what’s on the page,” says the actor. And he knows good writing: He was a regular on Law & Order, Oz and The Closer while also making an impact in film, with Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy and his Oscar-winning performance in Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. He's also in some pretty memorable insurance commercials.
The contrasts of his characters are most noticeable when both Howards are in the same scene. They even seem to move differently, which Simmons says comes from who they are on the inside. "It’s all psychological and emotional," he says of his dual role. "And in fact, it was not a significant effort for me consciously to go, ‘Oh, I’m playing this guy, so I have to physicalize it this way.’” He plays both roles so effectively that’s it’s almost as if he knows what it’s like to live inside different bodies — and in a way, that’s true.
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“I’ve been so back and forth over my life with being overweight and then in shape, and this and that," he reveals. "Really, in just the last several years, I’ve kind of become a gym rat and really enjoyed it, so it doesn’t feel like work anymore. It’s my drug of choice.”
As an actor, his body is his instrument, and he finds that he’s able to do more with it when he keeps it in better condition, including playing both “the man-of-action version of Silk and the kinder, gentler, more sort of nebbishy version.”
As anti-spoiler as Simmons is, it’s no surprise that he won’t reveal any plot points from Season 2 of Counterpart. When talking about the new episodes, he’s enthusiastic but vague. “We certainly see more of both Howards, but equally exciting to me is some of the new cast that are joining us,” he offers. Among the new faces in Season 2 are Emmy winner James Cromwell, Betty Gabriel (Get Out) and German actress Christiane Paul.
If you’re new to Counterpart, Simmons suggests watching the first season to prepare for the second season. He cautions that the show will require your full attention. “It’s definitely one of those shows that you have to put on pause if you’re going to go the bathroom or the refrigerator,” adds the actor, whom you'll see a lot of this month (he narrates the new doc DRUG$, coming out Dec. 14 and he's stars in American Renegades, out Dec. 21). That said, he hopes the show’s multilayered plot won’t intimidate or scare off potential viewers. Those who put in the effort and focus will be rewarded as they familiarize themselves. “The second season in a way gets more complex, and we certainly add new characters, but it also has more of a clear throughline that I think people will find really fascinating and satisfying.”