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Simon Helberg is well-known for his role as Howard Wolowitz, the nerdy nebbish on “The Big Bang Theory.”
But fans of the actor might not realize that he possesses yowza levels of musical skill – piano, to be specific – which he showcases in the charming new film, “Florence Foster Jenkins.”
In the movie, now playing at area theaters, Helberg stars alongside the not-at-all-intimidating Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. Streep portrays the title character, a New York socialite with an affinity for opera singing but devoid of anything resembling talent or ability. Helberg is Cosmé McMoon, the sweet-natured pianist hired by her husband (Grant’s St. Clair Bayfield).
“Florence Foster Jenkins,” which is rooted in reality, was filmed last summer in England.
A year later, Helberg is making the rounds to promote it and recently sat down at the Fox Theatre to chat about music and the experience of working with Streep and Grant.
Q: I think a lot of people are going to say wow, we heard he was a musician, but not quite THAT level of playing. ..Was music something that you thought about pursuing more so than acting at some point?
A: I was very ambitious, I guess. Acting is no easy feat, either. But I wanted to be a jazz pianist – just to make things as hard as possible. It’s a very narrow field for a little white guy like myself…and I don’t know what I happened. I auditioned for a play at school and it was a drama and I didn’t get it, but there was a tiny little part for the delivery boy and I just hammed it up. Instead I went to school and studied how to actually do that thing and hopefully not ham it up as much as I did when I was 17 and I just did music for fun.
Probably from 14 to 17, all I did was music. I was in a bunch of bands. I didn’t ever really fit into the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. I was really good, but I played with a bunch of handsome blonde gentlemen with long hair who never wore shirts – and never wore shoes. I guess when you’re that good looking even your feet are good looking. I just tried to get better and better because my feet were never going to be as gorgeous as their feet. They would hit one chord – the one they knew – and I would solo for 20 minutes. My dad would take me to gigs and drop me off in the lobbies of office buildings. Between orthodontist appointments I would play jazz.
Q: When they were casting the movie, did your name come up because they knew of your musical talents?
A: I still don’t know how my name came up exactly. Well, I do. Probably because of Kathleen Chopin who cast the movie and (director) Stephen Frears trusting her when she said, ‘Here’s your guy.’ I don’t even think she knew I played music – it was like a perk, I guess. But when I met (Stephen), he was totally obsessed with having a piano player play this role. He didn’t know my work as an actor. He didn’t know ‘Big Bang.’ He said something like, ‘Is that the kind of show where you just stand there in front of an audience and say jokes?’ But all he asked about was, Do you play the piano and could you play all this music?’ I started out by saying, ‘I don’t play opera but I can put my hands in the right place,’ and by the end I said, ‘I’m a classically trained pianist and I can play anything you put in front of me.’ But that was a total lie. I just wanted to meet Meryl Streep.
Q: How much prep did you do for the role?
A: A crazy amount. Probably about three months of intense practicing. I got a little apartment to be alone and play and work on the role as well. I took a handful of lessons, just to try to have a crash course in technique and figure out what it looked like, at least. And then I learned the pieces to the best of my ability.
Q: Did you do any research on Cosme?
A: I did not know anything about any of this before I read (the script). I did as much research as I could. As far as him as a real person, there was very little information. I think they released a biography now, which was very nice of them to wait until we did all the work! It was kind of liberating to have a select few facts. Really, the clues were from the script so I was able to find certain things that existed on him even if they weren’t in the film, just little things that opened some doors.
Q: When you found out you were going to be in a movie with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, was that something that you had to wrap your head around?
A: I didn’t really believe it. It’s still hard to fully believe that these people I’ve grown up watching and are probably some of the best in the world at this, and Stephen Frears… It almost ruined me in some way because you start to get so scared, but then you’re there and you’re all kind of doing the same thing, which is kind of encouraging when you realize we’re all trying to figure this thing out together.
Q: Do you still have time to play and what kind of music do you listen to?
A: I’ve tried to play as much as I can now. With kids, it’s like a drive-by piano solo because I don’t really have time to sit and work through things. I do love jazz and I do love the Beatles and I got into listening to more classical music during this (movie). I have a deep appreciation for all things musical.
Simon Helberg talks about working with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant
Simon Helberg talks about his musical background
“Florence Foster Jenkins”
PG-13. Now playing at area theaters.