If the first rule of ‘acting club’ is to lie to filmmakers when you really want to get a part, Simon Helberg proudly displays his entry card with aplomb. During the auditions for Florence Foster Jenkins, director Stephen Frears asked the 35 year-old actor if he was adept enough to play opera pieces on the piano. Even though his answer was a resounding yes, truth be told, he could not.
“I knew Meryl Streep was at the other end of that question,” recalls the Los Angeles native about his tryout. “I do play the piano but never performed opera or classical music really. I thought I would scare off the girls just by playing jazz so why go to opera?” he laughs. But that affirmative answer required Helberg to put his talent where his mouth was and after months of lessons, he learned how to play opera not only in front of his director, but his eight times Golden Globe winning co-star and Cecil B. deMille Award recipient Meryl Strep.
That collaboration has brought Helberg his first Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Feature Film for his role as Cosme McMoon, the real life Mexican American pianist and composer who became the accompanist to tone deaf soprano Florence Foster Jenkins. Although much is not known about the man, Helberg did his research and seized upon the concept that this man was an alien in a foreign country and trying to fit in.
“I imagined him as a kind of gecko,” he adds. “You know the way you look at these delicate creatures and their eyes are on the side of their head. That says it all but I brought no judgment to him. He was a fully formed person.”
Like McMoon, Helberg moved to New York as well when he was 18 but his trail took him to New York University, studying at the Tisch School of the Arts and training at the Atlantic Theater Company. Initial success came in the form of a comedy partnership with Derek Waters; with small parts following on MAD TV and the films Van Wilder and Old School. But all that changed when in 2007 he was cast as Howard Wolowitz in the sitcom The Big Bang Theory.
Over nine seasons, Helberg has seen Howard go through many changes, none more dramatic then when he got married and had a baby. “He has to grow up, hopefully. He hasn’t yet, although quite a bit considering he started with such a layer of oily sleaze about him,’ notes the actor. “Considering it took Sheldon almost seven years to even hold the hand of a girl, I think it is remarkable the journey the writers have allowed Howard to gone on.”
With this cinematic breakout performance in Florence Foster Jenkins and the accolades it has brought, one can only presume a remarkable journey is lying in wait for Helberg as well. And how will he take it? “I’m a bit of a manic sometimes,” he attests. “Neurotic, panicked, fearful but also silly … I think all of that helps me deal with being terrified of reality. While I am not as innocent as Cosme, and he was so naïve, maybe I feel somewhat like that. That is all part of just being alive.”