Why be satisfied with just one J.K. Simmons when you can have two? That’s the appeal of Counterpart, the new Starz spy serial that premieres Jan. 21. Set in an alternate reality where a top-secret spy agency monitors a gateway between parallel Earths, the drama stars the Oscar-winning character actor as two versions of the same man. On one Earth, Simmons is Howard Silk, a soft-spoken cog in the agency’s bureaucratic machine. But on the other side of the portal exists “Prime,” Howard’s suaver, savvier, well… counterpart.
“I fell in love with the character of Howard really quickly, even before I knew he was two characters,” Simmons tells Yahoo Entertainment, adding that the pilot script — written by series creator Justin Marks — was strong enough to tempt him back to live-action episodic TV after several years spent exclusively in the feature-film world. “I had sort of thought that I was done with television, but it was interesting enough to get me intrigued.”
Here, Simmons and Marks reveal four things that should intrigue you about Counterpart, too.
It’s not Fringe 2.0
Although they share a similar “parallel Earth” premise, fans of the cult Fox sci-fi series Fringe shouldn’t look for Counterpart to follow in that show’s footsteps. In fact, Marks says he didn’t follow Fringe during its five-season run. “For us, Counterpart is derived from the traditional John le Carré spy thriller,” he explains. “So we were taking less from science fiction in this case and more from the espionage genre, which gives it its own angle. It’s ultimately a show about identity, and not a sci-fi world in a traditional way.” That said, Marks and his writing staff are obviously paying close attention to world-building as the series unfolds. “We really wanted to understand what makes this other world the way it is. We did months of work building the apparatus and choosing every detail of where a stamp goes on a Visa or what the letterhead of a department looks like. So when you, as an audience member, watch the show, you can see how much care has been put into it. The crazier the concept is, and the bigger the world is, the more it relies on making everything grounded and real.”
Even though they share the same face, Howard and Prime are very different people, and Simmons put a lot of preparation into deciding which traits they share and where they go their own way. “A lot of my original ideas were just impractical,” the actor admits. “Any physical differences and things like that just weren’t possible given the production schedule. And at the end of the day, I think that constraint was a good one, because it provides a subtler distinction between the characters.” A self-confessed spoilerphobe, Simmons declines to outline too many of the distinctions between the doppelgängers since that will be addressed in future episodes. But he does allow that Prime “has developed into more of an alpha” than Howard. “One of the things that I find really interesting about this show going forward is how significant every seemingly insignificant choice can end up being in our life and how divergent paths can result from seemingly insignificant choices,” he says.
For his part, Marks was deeply impressed by how his leading man tailored each character so exactingly. “There were so many moments where he would be one version of the character, and then you could see over the course of the scene how we would transform himself into the other character just briefly and then come out of it,” Marks says. “Episode 3 has one of those moments where Howard briefly becomes Howard Prime, and he learns about the transgressions of the character that he hadn’t seen coming. I asked J.K. after that scene, ‘Was that a conscious choice?’ And it really wasn’t! It was just something borne out of the understanding of where he was in the scene. He’s not coming at this from a very heightened place — he has to understand every detail of the characters so that he can explore them.”
Asked whether he took any inspiration from Tatiana Maslany’s Emmy-winning portrayal of multiple versions of one clone in the recently-concluded BBC America series Orphan Black, Simmons ‘fesses up to not having seen the show. But he and Maslany do have one thing in common: they’re both eager for the world at large to know that their performances are made possible because of their hard-working stand-ins, whose faces are never seen onscreen. Kathryn Alexandre performed opposite Maslany for all five seasons of Orphan Black, while Simmons shared the set with actor John Funk whenever Howard and Prime were in the same frame. “There were some versions of earlier scenes where we didn’t have that luxury because of the technical requirements of the way things were being shot. So we’d be playing scenes with an empty seat on the couch or we’re watching a tennis ball on a grip stand,” Simmons says. “So it was definitely a luxury to have John learn both characters’ lines and play the scenes like we were accustomed to. Of course, from John’s point of view, none of his work will be seen by anybody that wasn’t on set! That’s unfortunate for him, because I really appreciated what he was giving me every day.”
How to spin a spy yarn
Even though he took his inspiration from John le Carré’s spy stories, Marks says that he wouldn’t describe Counterpart‘s structure as particularly novelistic. “I come from features films, so I have to explore every episode and every season in terms of a three-act structure,” he explains. “There’s one major plot that can be distilled in the simplest way so that people can get up to watch other shows over the course of the week and then come back to this show. We really tried to create an engine beneath the surface of the season that makes it very clear what everyone is trying to do at any given moment.” And that engine will power the show into a second season, which was greenlit at the same time as the first year. “It was really nice to have that,” Simmons says. “It’s great to be sitting here talking about Season 1 knowing that we’re going to get to work on Season 2 shortly thereafter.”
Counterpart premieres Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. on Starz.
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