Roundtable Interview with Simon Helberg

Actor, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

July 29, 2016, Dallas, Texas


Ron Salfen:  You really played the piano in this movie, didn't you?

Simon Helberg:  Yes, I did.  And I do.  I wasn't as good as I had to be in the movie;  I got to be that good.  I played jazz and rock and pop and stuff, really well, when I was in high school, and then played for fun, so I guess I could impress somebody, as a piano player, but not really as a classical pianist.  But Stephen (Frears, the Director) had his mind set on that, and so did Meryl (Streep, the star of the film).  So you really had to have someone accompanying her “live” because it would be different every time.  No lip-synching or playing to something pre-recored.  So what you're seeing on screen is happening in real time.

RS:  I was really impressed by the level of your piano playing.

SH:  Thank you.  I was too.  (laughs)  I surprised myself.  I worked really, really hard.

RS:  But you must have some sort of predisposition toward that.

SH:  Well, from the time I was about ten, to age sixteen, that's all I wanted to do.  I played music really seriously in jazz bands and rock bands.  I could never really get into the classical.  It wasn't that I didn't like it, I just liked the other stuff more.  I was never that good a music reader.

RS:  You're playing it all by ear?

SH:  No, I can read music.  Slowly.  I was never able to really sight-read, I just didn't put my effort into that.  Jazz is a lot of improvisation....

RS:  Sure.

SH:  And learning technique and chord voicings.  And rock stuff is a bit more simple, so yeah, here came this movie, and I had to make up for all those years of not...

RS:  What a great stretch for you.

SH:  Yeah, it was, and I thought this was a good opportunity.

RS:  Well, Meryl, in “Music of the Heart,” learned to play....

SH: Yeah, the violin.  She told me about that.

RS: She said she practiced six hours a day for six months or something like that....

SH: Yeah, it was insane.  And we talked about that a lot, because this one, for both of us, was so unusual.  We didn't know how it was going to end up.  We kind of lost ourselves in it. It was sort of a butchering of the canon of classical music, but then you want it to be genuine.  It can't just be generically bad, you have to sort of learn it well, so that you can almost hit it, each time.  The real Florence actually had a kind of nice delicate voice.  It was off, but it was so close to right.  And then her spirit was what people were drawn to. So it's not just shrieking, it's that earnest attempt, and coming so close.  Like when you're bowling, and you start to lean with the ball, as though it's going to help move the ball.  You want it, and it's so close.....The “real” accompaniast, Cosme McMoon, was an accomplished pianist in his own right, but you can only hear glimpses of that during the interludes.

What's appealing about him is that he's so selfless.  They're all really trying to help this woman.  They live for her dream.  True, they gain from the experience.  But they're all about trying to help her achieve her goals.

RS: How did you get the musician inside yourself not to just cringe?

SH:  Who said I didn't?  (laughs)  It helps that Meryl and I both know music.  But my part was in a way easier, because I played it all straight, and she was the one who had to know it well enough to be just a little off.  Now that was amazing.

RS:  And your character was certainly cringing when he learned about the dallying of Florence's husband.

SH:  Yes, he was such an innocent that he's really just trying to understand what's going on around him. 

RS:  “One in whom there is no guile.”

SH:  Yes, exactly.  And he just accepts things as they are and goes with it as best he can.  But that “deer-in-the-headlights” bit is something I enjoyed playing, as well.....although I did tell Stephen as he was considering casting me that the reason I'm right for this role is that there aren't many actors who can actually play the piano.  There's Jeff Goldblum, but he's a little old for the role, and Dudley Moore is dead, and I don't know what else to tell you!  (everyone laughs)  I did wind up having to send a video proving I could play, but Stephen told me later that he made up his mind as soon as he met me, and the rest was just a stall! (everyone laughs)

RS:  Thanks for your time..

SH:  Thank you.  That was really fun.  Thanks for watching, and for being so kind.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association