Simon Helberg may be synonymous in most people’s minds with Howard Wolowitz, the nerdy character he’s played for years on the astronomically successful CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” but in Stephen Frears’ “Florence Foster Jenkins,” he gets an opportunity to showcase his comic talent in any entirely different way, as well as demonstrating his pianistic skill, by playing the would-be opera diva’s initially aghast, but ultimately devoted, accompanist Cosme McMoon. As an added bonus, he got to work not only with one of Great Britain’s most formidable filmmakers, but alongside Hugh Grant, playing Jenkins’ husband, and Meryl Streep—in her case literally, as she mimicked the notorious stylings of Jenkins, the elderly New York socialite famous for giving vocal recitals despite what surviving records reveal as a distinct lack of talent.
How he got the role, Helberg explained, was serendipity. “It was sort of a lucky moment of happenstance,” he recalled. “I did this little, tiny movie that the casting director, Kathleen Chopin, had cast, and I was just in her head. And a year later she told Stephen, ‘I have your guy.’ He didn’t know the [TV] show—which was great, it’s nice to meet somebody who doesn’t have any preconceptions (and also humbling)—so I met him in Los Angeles. I’d read the script, and saw who was involved, and I could not believe that I was in this moment. And I thought, ‘I’ve got to be at the back of the line.’ But I also had this overwhelming feeling of confidence that I was born for this part. I think that the way Stephen works is that he trusts the people he’s around, and one of those people was Kathleen Chopin.
“I talked his ear off—he doesn’t talk much anyhow. I’d done a lot of research. All he wanted to know was how well I could play the piano. I think that in a moment of half cockiness and half self-deprecating tones I said, ‘You’re not going to find an actor who is a better piano player and more right for this role than me. You’ll find better piano players who maybe can act, but as far as the actor who happens to play piano…. I don’t know how I got away with saying that. I did end up sending him a little video of me—I had to learn a few pages of the Queen of the Night [aria], since I told him I could play anything—which is not true. I learned that and sent him the video, and I talked to him afterwards, and he said,
‘Oh, the part was already yours after I met you.’
“They didn’t CGI my hands” at the piano, Helberg explained. “The budget couldn’t afford it. We learned all that music. 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, and really well, when I was in high school, and then for fun. From the time I was ten to about sixteen that’s all I wanted to do. I took music very, very seriously.”
But, Helberg added, “I never could really get into classical music. It’s not that I didn’t like it; I guess I liked playing the other stuff more. It was so hard, and I was never a very good music reader. I was never able to sight-read. I guess I didn’t put my effort into that. Jazz is a lot of improvisation and learning technique, and rock stuff is a bit more simple. I can impress somebody as a piano player, but not a professional classical pianist.
“Here came this movie, and I had to make up for all those years,” Helberg said, noting that Frears was adamant about filming the music in actual concert format. “Stephen had his mind set on that and Meryl wanted to sing live, and in order to do that, we had to have someone accompanying her, because it would be different every time. She didn’t want to do lip-synching or playing to anything pre-recorded, so what you’re seeing on screen is happening in real time. I surprised myself. I worked very, very hard. You want it to be genuine.”
One point at which Helberg had to stand out as a soloist comes early on in the film, when McMoon auditions for Jenkins and her husband by playing a single-piano reduction of Saint-Saens’ “The Swan.” “It’s a beautiful piece,” he said, “and maybe one of the hardest to play, though it sounds simple. It is simple and sweet and kind of saccharine on the surface, just like these characters are simple, in some ways—very earnest. But it covers the whole keyboard—the left hand is incredibly complicated—so that was the one I thought I might not be able to learn. And then you’re acting on top of it—a juggling act.”
While his part of the duo was difficult, Helberg said, Streep’s was even more so. “He was actually good, he was a good musician. He played well, even with her. She had to do it badly, but not too badly. What she did was unbelievable—singing in all those languages, and to have such a good ear and be able to come up just next to the note. Your instinct is just to hit the note if you know how to. You can’t be just generically bad. You have to learn it well so that you can almost hit it each time. But that made it fun.”
During their time together, the real McMoon became rather protective of Jenkins, and Helberg spoke warmly about her as well. “She actually had a kind of nice, delicate voice,” he said. “It was off, but it was so close to right. And then her spirit was really what people were drawn to. It’s not just shrieking—it’s that earnest attempt and coming so close. It’s like when you’re bowling, and you start to lean with the ball—it’s so close.”
Helberg also spoke warmly of McMoon: “I think when he first hears her sing, it’s just confusion—it’s not judgment, it’s just shock. Everyone he looks to is smiling. What twilight zone has he walked into?” But he became enormously supportive: “I felt that he made a very noble effort. He was really good. He did things that most men should never have to do, like change keys to make the singer sound better, and sacrifice his own ability. I don’t know where he would rank in the polls of classical pianists, he was always accompanying this sort of train-wreck of a singer, but he did a lot of really nice things. I really appreciate that ability to make someone shine, even at your expense sometimes—which is sort of what the heart of the movie is in a lot of ways for these people. It’s what makes these characters more selfless than selfish—they’re really trying to help this woman live her dream. He gains from this—when he’d get a four-measure break to play the piano, he’d shine, he played flawlessly and very quick, probably so that she didn’t jump in and mess him up. And then he’d go right back in there. He’d wait, and then hit the note because she didn’t know it or skipped a few beats, and he’d compensate. It was actually a beautiful relationship they had.”
Helberg closed with praise for Frears, whom he had earlier referred to affectionately as “a madman” but for whom he showed genuine admiration by comparing his approach to that of Joel and Ethan Coen, with whom he worked on “A Serious Man.”
“The creation is all theirs,” he said of the Coens, “every element of it, very well worked out. They’re brilliant, and so is Stephen. He leans on people and welcomes a tremendous amount of input, but really he’s guiding the ship much more than he appears to. He feigns being, as he would say, ‘just the director…I just want to get out of everyone’s way,’ but that’s not really true. His magic is that he’s conducting it—no pun intended—almost indetectably. You’re fulfilling his vision while also fulfilling yours.”
Frears’ vision of “Florence Foster Jenkins” will delight audiences, and also give greater insight into the considerable talent of Simon Helberg. He’s not just Howard Wolowitz.