When Simon Helberg was in Chicago recently to talk about co-starring with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the actor — best known as Howard Wolowitz on the hit CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” — admitted he faced a “triple threat” acting in the film.
“First of all, just any ONE of those factors of playing Cosme McMoon would have been enough to send me into cardiac arrest,” the actor said with a laugh. “I had to play the piano convincingly and well. Secondly, I had to be funny. And thirdly, I had to act opposite Meryl Streep!
“Oh yes, and on top of all that, I had to act with Hugh Grant too! Talk about intimidating!”
In the film (opening Friday), Helberg’s McMoon signs on to become Jenkins’ accompanist, not realizing that while she thinks she’s truly a talented operatic singer, her singing in fact is really terrible. The movie is based on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy New York socialite in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s who generously supported musical groups but also performed at regular recitals. Her lifelong dream was to perform at a sold-out Carnegie Hall concert.
Helberg explained that while director Stephen Frears and his producers enthusiastically cast him for the role of McMoon, the accompanist to the eccentric Jenkins, “my actual background is playing jazz piano. I’m good, but classical music was not my experience,” said the actor. “I played in my high school jazz band and I played in rock bands and at clubs and restaurants around L.A. growing up, but this was going to be totally different.”
That said, Helberg did acknowledge his ability to play the instrument was a huge advantage to making his character more realistic in the movie. “Plus, I think there was special karma: The casting director’s last name was Chopin,” Helberg quipped.
Of course, along with having to portray a character who initially cannot believe the atrocious singing of the woman he’s accompanying, Helberg added that the chance to play opposite Streep “was the acting opportunity of a lifetime.
“I obviously knew she was the greatest actress of her generation, and knew how she totally becomes the people she plays. However, not until I worked with her did I truly realize how she both inhabits the lives she portrays, plus how she totally invests herself in the total production.”
Helberg pointed to just one example of Streep’s concern for all aspects of any film on which she works. “One of the climactic scenes in the film is the one where Florence Foster Jenkins gives her big concert at Carnegie Hall — which was actually filmed in London, not New York, ” Helberg explained. “Now usually for scenes like that — where you have an audience filled with movie extras — those extras would have to sit there all day while we, the performers on stage, would be filmed first.
“Naturally, given the nature of filmmaking, that process would take many, many hours. So, by the time, they would turn the cameras around to capture the audience reactions — those extras would be pretty bored and tired, having us do our scene over and over.
“But leave it to Meryl! It was her idea to suggest they film the audience reaction first — and then film us afterward. First of all, Stephen [Frears] captured some pretty great spontaneous reactions from the audience — the very first time they heard Meryl intentionally singing badly — but those extras were still fresh, as it was shot first thing in the morning.”
Helberg would have loved to have met the real McMoon, who died at age 79 in 1980. “If I could have had the chance, I would have liked to talk to him about the real relationship between himself and Florence. There’s really very little evidence of what that was really like. I did listen to a seven-minute audio recording of Cosme, but that really didn’t shed much light on that aspect of his life.
“I also would have loved to know how he related to St. Clair Bayfield [Jenkins’ longtime companion portrayed by Hugh Grant in the film].
“Finally, I would have to also ask him about that bodybuilding thing that he became so obsessed with during the later years of his life. … Bodybuilding and concert pianist — quite the intriguing and seemingly mismatched interests!” said Helberg.
In the course of making the film, Helberg said he came to “really love Florence and all she represented. The thing about her was how generous she was. She truly loved music and loved performing. The genius of Meryl is how she showed how Florence almost would get there — almost hitting the right notes — and then she didn’t.
“I also think I became enchanted by Florence’s confidence to continue to sing, no matter what.
“When I first read the script, I experienced all kinds of emotions — ranging from hysterical laughter to such poignancy and sadness that I was moved to tears. … But at the end of the day, I fell in love with Florence, and the total idea of Florence. There’s such purity of spirit in her life. She’s not the least bit cynical or cruel — even though she experienced both great cynicism and cruelty in her own life at the hands of others.
“She lived for music and pretty much nothing else. She was the ultimate dreamer. And to play opposite Meryl Streep playing Florence was such a gift I received, for which I’ll always be so grateful.”