Simon Helberg on Realizing his Dreams When Making 'Florence Foster Jenkins'

Meryl Streep (left), Simon Helberg (center), and Hugh Grant (right) in "Florence Foster Jenkins."
Meryl Streep (left), Simon Helberg (center) and Hugh Grant (right) in "Florence Foster Jenkins."

The KCET Cinema Series continued its summer season on Tuesday, July 19 with a screening of "Florence Foster Jenkins." The film, out in theaters on August 12, stars Meryl Streep as a wealthy, New York woman who makes a star turn as an opera singer, despite the fact that she can't sing well. Based on the true story of an unlikely music sensation, "Florence Foster Jenkins" also features Hugh Grant as her devoted husband and Simon Helberg as her accompanist. 

Following the screening, KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond offered the audience a dynamic Q&A session with Helberg. The Los Angeles-based actor is perhaps best known to audiences as Howard Wolowitz from the long-running, hit sitcom "The Big Bang Theory." Helberg talked about his background in music and how that helped shape his performance as Cosmé McMoon. 

The KCET Cinema Series brings audiences advanced movie screenings and Q&A sessions with top-talent. This year's summer season launched at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica on June 7 with "Genius" and will continue on Tuesdays through August 2. Individual admission is still available for the remainder of the summer series without advanced reservations required. Screenings are at 7 p.m.

Mark your calendar! Mark your calendar! The fall KCET Cinema Series continues its run at the Aero Theatre on August 19. The series will screen many of the hopeful Oscar film contenders and the best of festival films. The fall KCET Cinema Series is proudly sponsored by the generosity of the James and Paula Coburn Foundation. 

Below is an edited portion of Tuesday night's Q&A session with Helberg, led by Hammond.

On how Simon Helberg landed the part of pianist Cosmé McMoon

[Stephen Frears is] an amazing director. He doesn't say a whole lot. The only thing he did say in the whole meeting was, 'Can you play the piano? Tell me about, what, how much can you play? Can you play anything? Are you a professional piano...' -- and that was all he asked. 

I just started lying eventually. I play the piano, but I played until was about 16, semi-professionally in jazz and totally different than this. I said, 'Oh, I can fake it so well because I know how to put my hands on the piano and where they should be. It will look very real.' He just kept saying, 'But you can play anything though, right?' I said, 'Yes yes.' By the end, I lied and then I got the part. I had to learn how to become a classical pianist -- I had four months. 

It was also a tricky one too. Aside from the difficulty of the pieces by themselves, then there was the addition of the character. I ended up being an actor and who this character was and how he would play the piano.

I could make it through some of them and I would be contorting and sweating through it, but this guy was a real, trained piano player and then he had to compensate for her lack of ability. He would, if she forgot a note, he would give it to her kind of discreetly or if she skipped a measure, he would adjust. He changed keys sometimes to find what key she was in. He was actually extraordinarily good. She just had to be bad, Meryl, that was easy. No, what she did is also insane, obviously. She actually had to learn those pieces well. We both had to learn them well in order to just shit all over them. 

Simon Helberg in "Florence Foster Jenkins"
Simon Helberg in "Florence Foster Jenkins."

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On rehearsing with Meryl Streep

It was probably about a couple weeks, intensely. I met her in New York and, like anybody, I did not believe what was happening. The way this all came about was very -- I have gotten to do some other movies and I'm on a great show and all that, but Stephen didn't know. Stephen didn't know what "The Big Bang Theory" was. I don't think he knew why he was sitting down with me. 

This casting director, Kathleen Chopin, said 'You have to meet this guy.' She cast the movie "We'll Never Have Paris" and said, 'This is your guy.' He, I really don't think he knew. He was holding two cell phones up to me -- they were from, I think, 1999 -- holding the SIM card. He's just a very eccentric man. He just believed her and he liked me and then the next thing you know, I was meeting Meryl in New York to play opera and we didn't know if it was going to work. It went so wonderfully bad that we knew we had something magical. 

I was nervous, but she is as great of an actress as she is, part of the reason she's so great is because she is that sensitive of a human being and so she's aware that people, when they meet her, they start twitching and convulsing. She immediately disarms you. She came up and she touched my face and said, 'There you are.' I didn't know if she would recognize; I didn't know what she would be like. 'There you are and we're so lucky to have you.' 

On recording at Abbey Road

My two dreams happened simultaneously, which was go to Abbey Road and record an album and work with Meryl Streep. I did both. 

Then they threw that out and we just recorded all of the music live. Everything you see in the film, we were playing in the moment on film. 

It was one terrifying, paralyzing moment after the next. After a week of recording an album at Abbey Road, 'Great, now we'll just shoot all that stuff live.' But, I think that's why it feels very alive when you see the music. 

Pete Hammond and Simon Helberg discuss "Florence Foster Jenkins." | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.
Pete Hammond and Simon Helberg discuss "Florence Foster Jenkins." | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

On recording the film's big performance

Part of what also makes her such a genius is that she sees the movie, the entirety, in every moment. It's not just about her, her performance. It's about getting the story and telling it the best way that it can be told. One of those ways was she knew that that sequence was going to be 45 angles of her singing badly and at the end, because they want to treat her as a star, they save all of the background shots, the extras, the 300 people in the audience, they would save that for last usually. They would make these poor people sit in '40s outfits all day for 15 hours and try to get the camera around at the end and what they get is a bunch of sleeping people who are angry that they sat there for 15 hours and watched someone sing badly, even if it was Meryl Streep. She said, shoot them first, first thing in the morning. Simon and I will go out and we'll give a full performance and don't tell them anything about what they're about to see. Shoot them and we'll walk out. 

So, we walked out and we did it live for them and I almost wish they could have shot both of our sides because we, Meryl and I, were so scared because we had never performed this and it felt real. We were in London and it was the Apollo Theatre and it was filled with people, but they got this genuine reaction from the audience. That was something that she would look at. Most actors would look at the call sheet to see how high are they on the call sheet, when is lunch and how early can I go home. She wanted to see the order in which things were being shot because she knew that it would serve the movie to be in the crowd of extras first and she was happy to do all the off-camera, full performances of all those to get good reactions. She's a consummate pro. 

On Helberg's facial reactions in the movie 

I'm sorry about that, but this is the face that I was given and you were given vicariously. I think that developed -- I saw that in the script, but I think in the editing room and when we shot, it became more consistent, sort of consistently throughout, they cut back to me to be the eyes of the audience. Particularly the first time we hear her sing. It was in the script and I do remember the one area where I knew, I think the whole thing unfolds on my face because it said, 'We see Cosmé and he looks like a stunned mullet.' I had to look up mullet. 

It was tricky. Stephen doesn't talk a lot, like I said. I kept saying... 'Bring me down if I'm going too big,' because it was hard to tell what we were doing sometimes with the movie, with the tone. That's because he's so brilliant. He can jump around from comedy to drama, but also because we were really playing the music in those moments that you see, it also grounded us and me. I had a lot of work to do with the piano and she did with the singing, so it wasn't like I could just mug all day long because I had to get through these songs too. 

Meryl Streep in "Florence Foster Jenkins."
Meryl Streep in "Florence Foster Jenkins."

On listening to Florence Foster Jenkins recordings

I think we hit our limit fairly quickly. I do remember early on, when I first met Meryl, we listened a lot in New York. Then they transcribed the actual arrangements that Cosmé and Florence sang...

When there was a bar skipped and Cosmé adapted, that was written out, so we could really look at their relationship through music. You could see where he helped her when she faltered. When it was his turn, he had four measures, he took them and he shined. It was like his moment to say look at me mom and then he would go back into the murky waters of trying to help her float. There was this love there, but we abandoned that, honestly, pretty quickly, partially for our own sanity, but also to depart from really being loyal to -- the script was so brilliant and these characters were from the script that Nick Martin wrote. We didn't want to, there's not a ton of information about them and we weren't trying to do impressions of them. 

On Helberg's own musical background

Yeah, until I was about 16, I wanted to play in rock bands and I wanted to play in jazz and I never went into the opera world. It was uncool enough to like jazz, I didn't have to go to opera when I was 16. I was good. I was really good, for a 16 year old. I always had dorky features and braces and was this savant sort of keyboard player in a band of blonde haired Adonis-looking men who would take their shirts off and the girls would run up and kiss them and their muscles and they could only play one chord. I would be soloing and I would look up and it was a scene from "The Bacchae," it was this orgy, except for me. So, I had a lot of time to practice. 

On working with Hugh Grant

I had a really wonderful time. He's very nervous too, like me. He's a little more charming than I am. I wish it came out that way with me, but he put me at ease at first. He's very neurotic. Then we realized that our neuroses combined and formed a super neuroses, so we had to keep our distance. He's so good in this movie and he cared so much. 

I just think that anyone who gets the chance to work with someone like Meryl, like I said, it can eat away at you. We both showed up with this utter terror of working with one of the greatest actors of all time, but you get to see this side of Hugh in this that I don't think you've ever really seen. I've always loved him. He's a fantastic actor and always has been. I think, sometimes, people that do romantic comedies don't get a fair amount of credit. It's not looked at as acting or something. That's what he did. He's like Cary Grant. He's really phenomenal. 

Hugh Grant (left), Meryl Streep (center), and David Haig (right) in "Florence Foster Jenkins."
Hugh Grant (left), Meryl Streep (center), and David Haig (right) in "Florence Foster Jenkins."

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