In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Jimmi Simpson has been having one hell of a run lately. When we spoke to the longtime character actor a while back for our Random Roles feature, he was just coming off the success of arguably his highest-profile role ever, as the young version of William in season one of Westworld. He’s kept busy since then, with his latest gig starring in Epix’s Perpetual Grace, where he plays James, a grifter trying to pull a con on Ben Kingsley’s pastor only to find out things are not what they seem. In advance of the season finale this Sunday, we asked Jimmi to answer our 11 Questions, and found him more than happy to expound on his favorite fast food, his love for Planes, Trains, And Automobiles, and his talent for hospitality, even after the apocalypse.
Jimmi Simpson: Jack In The Box tacos.
AVC: You may be the first person to give a Jack In The Box answer. What is it about their tacos?
JS: Well, I’m surprised I’m the first person to give a Jack In The Box response, just because, when I read Fast Food Nation whenever it came out—10, 15 years ago—there’s a blurb where they kind of go through all the fast food restaurants and they cite Jack in the Box as having this kind of devastating food illness—I think it was the late ’80s or the ’90s? And so, since then, they’ve had the most stringent health codes of any fast food restaurant. So I kind of look to them first.
But, specifically, the tacos… my mother, I would describe her cooking as really good, but it was kind of MacGyver-esque. To put it kindly, she built meals out of what we had. And her tacos would often have American cheese on them for this reason, just because that was what we had for making lunch. And I guess Mary Simpson’s kitchen is really the only place I experienced it—a Mexico-Kraft fusion. Until I moved from NYC to L.A., and then I tried the Jack in the Box tacos. And they have slices of American cheese on them. So it’s not necessarily an amazing flavor, but it’s familiar and comfortable to me, and I definitely get that more than anything. Plus, it’s 99 cents for two, so… come on. What are we talking about here? I like value.
JS: I think the moment would be opening night of this play called Trevor, about four years ago. It’s basically Death Of A Salesman, but instead of an aging door-to-door salesman was an out-of-work show biz chimp who had reached maturity and was now living with a human mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, who doesn’t understand why his career fell apart. And it sounds hilarious, because it is, but then it’s also this kind of devastating commentary on the human condition. I had been in a terrible motorcycle wreck a year and a half before, I hadn’t been able to work much, and I had to embody this chimp, so it was physicalization. It was a personal triumph just because it really opened up my craft for me. I got Hap & Leonard, and I got Westworld, all these things, directly after Trevor. And not to sound too artsy-fartsy, but in my craft, that’s when I was able to push myself.
AVC: Was that your first stage work in a while? Because you started out in the New York theatre scene?
JS: Absolutely. And I try to do a play every two years or so, and I had gotten in a hole of maybe six years without doing a play before Trevor, so it was like coming home and being reminded that I did have value. I was in a dark place after that motorcycle wreck, and the physical limitations of not being able to move, like, my upper body for a while—it was not only the play, but just the getting control of my body again. It was amazing. And I’m going to do that play again with Laurie Metcalf whether she likes it or not.
JS: Favorite fictional villain. Captain Ahab? In Moby Dick. Or wait—or Judge Smails in Caddyshack. It’s a tossup between Captain Ahab and Judge Smails.
AVC: What is it about each one that’s putting them in contention with the other?
JS: First of all, they’re two of the most entertaining villains you’ll ever come across. Moby Dick is a white-knuckle read because of this guy and his absolute fury to find this beast. And I think you compare his ship, the Pequod, to Judge Smails’ Bushwood Country Club. And I guess you could compare Rodney Dangerfield to the whale. They’re both trying to get control over things that they’ll never be able to control. You can’t control Rodney Dangerfield if you tried. They both failed. But they both take you through the story in the most entertaining way.
JS: The line I say the most is from BBC’s The Office TV show. The Swinton lot comes in, and their boss, Neil, shows up David Brent baking a cake for a party. And everybody loves it, but David Brent takes a bite of it, and he goes, [Affects English accent.] “Bit sweet. I prefer a flan.”
So anytime I’m given something that is better than what I want it to be because it negates a point I’m trying to make, I’ll say, “It’s sweet. I prefer a flan.” I say that so much that I actually had the experience of working with Mr. Gervais in a movie he co-directed called The Invention Of Lying. So I was terrified. And the role was to be a guy selling Coke on television. In the world of this movie, lying doesn’t exist—everybody just says fact. So the Coke commercial was, like, “Way too much sugar. Probably promotes obesity. But you’ll love it. So just don’t stop buying it.” And then I take a sip, and I was the first shot of the movie. Not only was Ricky Gervais watching me, but also Christopher Guest was in the movie—rolls in, and just stands there looking. So I had two comic geniuses staring at me as I tried to do the first shot of the movie. And I do it. And, after I take the sip—I know it’s highway robbery, but I just couldn’t help but say, “Bit sweet.” Obviously, I didn’t add the flan line, but “bit sweet,” in front of the man who actually said the line. And it made the movie. They kept it in! So my most-quoted line is actually on film. Living proof.
JS: I’m going to say Scarlett Johansson. It may be a strange call. She’s a beautiful person, whereas I’m a regular person. But there’s a similar bone structure. She’s always great. I loved Ghost World and I think she could pull it off.
AVC: Do you see her going full method for it?
JS: I expect nothing less than method from her. Just for this particular role. She can use her own process for others, but I’ll be there demanding the method experience. And I’ll be showing her through the nuances of my relatively boring life so she can live it. She can eat snacks past 2 a.m. most nights, and I spend a lot of time with the cats.
JS: Well, Caddyshack’s a given. So I guess I’d go Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
AVC: So you like the ’80s comedy classics.
JS: [Laughs.] Yeah. I tend to like—most of the movies I love are from that time or before. I kind of stopped listening to music around the ’90s. I’m really stuck in a lot of ways, but I’m happy there. So, just leave me alone.
AVC: [Laughs.] Apologies.
JS: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is just a perfect film. It’s two comedic icons being possibly the funniest they’ve ever been, and then the most poignant—and, you know, John Hughes has never created a film that wasn’t special in some way. But I think this is one of his most special scripts of all time.
And John Candy’s emotional connection with this lost salesman, the twist at the end… I’ll watch the whole movie just to get to the end and see that reveal. And to see his face and see those two kind of frenemies become brothers. Ah, I’m getting chills just thinking about it. I love that movie.
AVC: When you get to that ending, that climactic moment, it’s so tough to watch sometimes.
JS: It is tough, but then it’s basically Steve Martin’s wife welcoming him. The idea of, like, you will have family, John Candy. God, that’s a great story—that third-act fucking heartbreak. And then to find this way to kind of soften the blow. It’s all in those actors’ performances. That smile she gives coming down the stairs, the welcoming, the look on her face, Steve Martin’s pride at the way she welcomes John Candy, John Candy’s gratitude. Ugh! Gorgeous.
Oh, god, and then that flashback—it puts Usual Suspects to shame. Steve Martin is riding the elevated train home, and he starts remembering all the little quirks about John Candy that leads him to understand that he is alone. I’ll stop talking about Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
JS: Possession you cannot get rid of. I really don’t have a possession I can’t get—oh! My leased car. Because I signed a thing.
AVC: You’re somebody who doesn’t hold onto things for the most part?
JS: No, I’m not someone who generally stays organized in any way. Like, my wife would be, “Oh, shit, he does not stay organized.” When I do have a break and can cull through stuff, I let stuff go very easily. And I don’t have any gadgets that I need. Obviously, the phone I have to have for a lot of contemporary reasons, but, ideally, we’d all put them down for every other day or something like that. I’m not hooked to anything that you can hold or that you own, but, you know, my relationships, my friendships, my marriage, my cats—all these things, I wouldn’t call possessions. But they’re most dear to me by far.
AVC: Were you always somebody who preferred a spartan lifestyle, or have you grown into that more as you’ve gotten older?
JS: I think a lot of stuff happens when you’re being raised—a lot of things that determine how you choose your day or your future—or just a moment. My folks, they loved me so much—like I implied with the American cheese thing, we didn’t have much money, and we had phases where we had very, very little. And I honestly, my life experience never dipped in those moments. We would get some toys for Christmas, for your birthday, but it wasn’t a possession-laden childhood. But, that being said, I never wanted for anything. So maybe the other kids had the Nike sneakers and the whatever, but I was just such a kind of happy camper that it never really attached as something I needed to be happy, stuff like that. So the result is, I don’t need it. I lucked out that way. I thank my parents deeply. And audibly to them, often: “You guys really knocked it out of the park. Thank you.” [Laughs.]
AVC: That got unexpectedly heartfelt at the end of that question.
JS: I know! I know, man. It started out with a joke about a fucking leased car and ended with my truth.
AVC: That was such a bait-and-switch. That was a real Planes, Trains, and Automobiles answer.
JS: Definitely not organization. I’m a relatively good host, so maybe, as we’re all gathering together by a little fire to formulate a way to navigate our species 2.0, I could handle passing around some hors d’oeuvres made out of Spam and Twinkies and whatever else is left over in our quarry or cave. So I could tend to folks.
AVC: So you would be the one to sort of restart the service industry requirements for the new society.
JS: Well, less service industry, more hospitality. Like, I don’t know if I would actually want to run a diner in the post-apocalyptic nightmare world, but I would certainly be a welcome rest stop for travelers. And again, I would stockpile all the Twinkies, Spam, and the cockroaches—I’d find way to flay them, sauté them lightly, and make them part of the new world’s menu.
AVC: So in a way, you’d be entertaining still, just in a different form of entertaining that you currently do.
JS: Exactly. Yes, because people will be so over watching actors dance around like assholes. They’ll have too much shit to do. So it’s a mild form of entertainment while they’re getting shit done.
JS: Underrated is a little too specific. I would say underexposed is Steven Conrad. He’s a writer-director-creator. He’s been writing for years and years very successfully—Pursuit Of Happyness was him—a bunch of cool movies. He did Walter Mitty. But he started creating television recently, and he created a show for Amazon called Patriot, which I’d literally never heard of until I read the script for Perpetual Grace, which is his show that I’m on now. So I read the script for Perpetual Grace—was floored. One of the best scripts I’ve ever read. And I couldn’t wait to meet the man, the men: Bruce Terris and Steve Conrad both wrote Perpetual Grace. They said to watch Patriot first. I’m like, “The Mel Gibson movie?” And then I find out, no, it’s a series on Amazon.
And I watch it, and I’m just floored. It’s visionary. Not just the writing, the execution. It’s like your favorite directors of all time, like Kubrick, and Paul Thomas Anderson, and Michel Gondry, who have these innate abilities to communicate their style so completely, but somehow it feels effortless. You don’t feel like you’re being pushed to just absorb something. It feels like you’re watching a piece of art. And it connects to each person differently.
And so you can’t ask a critic about him who’s not over the moon about Steve Conrad, calling him the next phase in television creators. But, in general, most folks—the public—don’t know about him as much as they should. Luckily, I’ve become very close friends with him, and creative partners to a degree, and so I’m going to keep doing whatever I can to keep showing people how amazing Steven Conrad is. He’s more amazing than I’ll ever be, so just being next to a genius like that is good for me. And I feel lucky. And I think other people should feel as lucky as I do, just by getting to see his stuff.
JS: I think if I could be in any band, past or present, it would be The Cure. Defining not just me, turning from a child to an adult, but just across the board, so many clever artists that I know—we all tuned into Robert Smith. Just the depth of the music of The Cure can go—they’re one of my favorite bands of all time. I’ve seen them live.
And it would be to be a part of such a powerful point in music, but also just to watch Robert Smith’s hair defy gravity in real time over the course of 30 years. Because it hasn’t flattened one inch. He just got into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame and I was amazed. [Laughs.] Just the stronghold, it’s still there. It’s impressive as it ever was. It’s like the Eiffel Tower. It seems like it’s made out of iron, but it’s made out of Robert Smith’s hair. And I want to see how he does it, and just be near him.
JS: God. I think what I would do during The Purge—I would try to be, like, a panic home. I would try to be a wanderer’s panic home. I don’t know how I would be able to differentiate between lost wanderers and people out there trying to kill people, but I would try to somehow get the subtle word out that it’s a safe space. And some kind of human doggie door that would let good guys in, but then we’re all safe for the 12 hours. I definitely wouldn’t be pillaging. I don’t have that kind of deep-seated anger I need to let out—not a super angry or violent fellow in general—but, again though! The hosting. It all comes back to hosting, doesn’t it? I would be there, you know, with passed hors d’oeuvres, and this won’t be post-apocalyptic—we can get some frozen pizza from Costco—and just be ready for everybody. We need blankets for my birthday, y’all.
Bonus 12th question from Marc Maron:
AVC: This is a very Marc Maron-esque question: “Do you know the difference between happiness and relief?”
JS: That’s a beautiful question. Listen, modesty aside, I would say I have an inkling. You know, I’m a 43-year-old man; I’ve seen some shit. And I’ve also had some highs. I would say yes, I do. To me, relief occurs at the end of unhappiness or discomfort. You know, it’s the end of something difficult, whereas happiness is the beginning of something good—it’s an uptick, as opposed to, relief is solace. At least in my mind.
AVC: So it’s the difference between the absence of negativity or pain, versus the addition of positivity or pleasure.
JS: Exactly. And I guess it all comes down to—if I were someone who was really attached to possessions, it would be a little more confusing, because for people who have all these things, maybe they think happiness has to do with something else than just joy. But, yeah, it’s a really smart question from a very smart man. I’ve listened to Marc Maron forever.
AVC: Now it’s on you to come up with the twelfth question that we’re going to ask the next person we interview.
JS: I’m going to go way not-Marc-Maron-y. Just curiosity for the next person you’re talking to—and we’ve all asked this question at times—but I’ve never really seen it on paper. If you had to eat only one meal three times a day for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
AVC: And what would your answer to that question be?
JS: Shit, man. It would probably be something having to do with gnocchi. [Laughs.]
Gnocchi is a soft, potato-based pasta that, if done right, is definitely worthy of three times a day for the rest of your life. Plus it’s the hardest thing that I know how to cook, so, I feel like if I’m left to my own devices, I would be able to pull that off.
AVC: You do the full-on making it from scratch?
JS: Yes, and I actually make it even harder for myself because I’m so specific with how I want it to be because I’m always trying to create the perfect gnocchi. So, yeah. It’s a process. But goddamn. When it comes together? Like Planes, Trains, And Automobiles, man.