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J.K. Simmons, nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of a demanding music teacher in "Whiplash," rehearses a program with the Missoula Symphony Orchestra in 2012.

Before J.K. Simmons signed on to play a sadistic jazz teacher in the indie drama "Whiplash," a performance that could earn him an Oscar on Sunday night, he'd already done much of the homework.

"Really, I did a lot of my preparation in the mid-'70s at the University of Montana when I got my degree in music," he said in a phone interview last week.

He looked over all charts for the music in the film, which he said were "quite complex" and "spent a lot of time familiarizing myself with that music, like any good conductor would."

His character, Terence Fletcher, is a jazz band instructor at an exclusive conservatory who terrorizes an ambitious student drummer played by Miles Teller.

When Teller can't perform those charts, Fletcher unleashes torrents of abuse.

Simmons already knew how to conduct from his UM days, and adapted those skills to the movie's favored genre of big-band jazz.

"The good news is that there's a wide range of styles of jazz conducting, so I really felt like I had a lot of freedom to just create my own organic version of how Fletcher would conduct," he said.

As far as Fletcher's abusive tactics – throwing chairs, screaming epithets, slapping his student in the face, etc. – those came straight from first-time director Damien Chazelle's script.

Simmons said he never had "any teachers who were like Fletcher," but did feel a "real connection with the character" when he read the script.

He and Chazelle didn't have an "in-depth discussion" about how the parts would be played regarding Fletcher's authoritarian streak.

"The writing was absolutely clear," he said.

The intensity of his performance has earned positive reviews. Pete Travers wrote in Rolling Stone, "Beat the drums for a Simmons Oscar, and add a cymbal crash for 'Whiplash.' It's electrifying."

The film and Simmons have accumulated numerous awards, including the Golden Globe for best supporting actor.

An Oscar win would be a milestone for Simmons and the state of Montana.

The last person with significant Montana ties to win an Oscar for acting was Gary Cooper.

The Helena native won for best actor back in 1952 for "High Noon."

***

Simmons, 60, grew up in Ohio and Michigan, and transferred to UM in the early 1970s after his father, Don Simmons, was hired as chair of the music department.

Simmons' parents put down roots in Missoula, where they were well-respected figures in the arts and community at large and participated in a prodigious number of local and state organizations.

J.K., short for Jonathan Kimble, majored in voice at UM and took only one drama class, according to a 2007 profile in the Montanan, UM's alumni magazine.

He graduated in 1978 and went to work at the Bigfork Summer Playhouse, where he shifted into acting. He's previously credited his time there for shaping his approach to theater.

He then went to Seattle to pursue his career, and eventually moved to Broadway in search of bigger roles.

In TV and film, Simmons earned a reputation as a scene-stealing, journeyman character actor.

He portrayed the white supremacist Vern Schillinger on one of HBO's first original series, the prison drama "Oz."

Simmons said he's been acting long enough that he doesn't carry his character off-set anymore, unless it's to do homework.

There were cases in the past when he did, such as the part in "Oz."

It was an intense first year for the entire cast, he said. Often, he quite literally took his character home – leaving on the makeup Nazi tattoos so he wouldn't have to go through makeup again the next day.

His wife "did not appreciate it," he said.

"I made sure to keep my sleeves rolled down when I was riding the subway," he said.

He also played humor well, such as his incarnation of abusive tabloid editor J. Jonah Jameson in the "Spider-Man" series, an explosives expert with irritable bowel syndrome in "The Ladykillers," and the gruff father of a pregnant teen in "Juno," directed by Jason Reitman.

Reitman became a serial collaborator, and Simmons hopes Chazelle does as well.

He and the first-time feature director have already discussed future projects, including a cameo in a musical starring Teller and Emma Stone.

Outside of a few benefits and the UM Odyssey of the Stars in 2002, he hasn't really returned to the genre of his roots in some time.

"It's been 20 years since I did a run – a real run onstage of a play or a musical," he said.

He's also discussed a period drama with Chazelle, who was nominated for best picture.

***

Since "Whiplash" premiered at Sundance in 2014, he's been working steadily and has signed on for some big-budget films.

He has a small role in the upcoming sequel "Terminator: Genysis," in which Arnold Schwarzenegger reprises his most famous character.

Simmons couldn't say much about the film, due for release in 2016, but he said that beyond the action there's some dry humor, and it's more of a piece with the original two films.

"Fans of the first two movies especially are really going to enjoy this take on it, and of course, really enjoy Arnold," he said.

He also signed on for a "King Kong" sequel, which will be filmed in Detroit next summer.

Simmons was returning home to Los Angeles for the Oscar ceremony from a shoot in Atlanta for "The Accountant," a thriller directed by Gavin O'Connor.

Ben Affleck stars as an accountant, "a complex character with some shady aspects to what he does," said Simmons, who plays a U.S. Treasury "bigwig" who pursues him.

"If it was 'The Fugitive,' I would be Tommy Lee Jones," he said.

He's been sent numerous indie film scripts since "Whiplash." Many are also "two-handers," featuring two main characters.

However the rest of the awards season plays out, he says he'll always consider himself a supporting actor.

Every once in a while, though, "you get a big juicy role you sink your teeth into," he said.

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