The “Big Bang Theory” star dishes on his delightful performance in the new film adaptation of “Florence Foster Jenkins”
This film is a hilarious and touching take on the New York City socialite whose passion for singing was just as strong as her voice was bad. Shielded by a supportive husband and surrounded by those who wanted to protect her (motivated either by love or greed), Jenkins was never aware of just how terrible her voice was.
In the film Simon Helberg portrays Cosme McMoon, a pianist hired to accompany Jenkins (Meryl Streep) as she begins returns to her singing classes. We were surprised to learn that not only is Simon playing the piano in all of his scenes, but the performances we hear on screen were captures at the time of filming! This and other great insights into these fascinating characters are in our interview below.
Be sure to read our review to learn what makes this one of the most delightful films in months.
TCF: In your character’s performance, there’s tons of facial expressions. They’re a huge part of your performance and they ranged from very subtle to overt. In the scene when Florence first sings, were you already aware of what Meryl Streep was going to sound like or were those expressions real?
Simon Helberg: Well, both I guess, which is kind of the trick, in doing this. Which is it has to be new sort of every time, and she is doing something new every time and it made my job a lot easier. We had already rehearsed with her about a week and a half, the music, and we had actually recorded at Abbey Road as well, which is amazing. So we had a lot of time to laugh and to figure out what we were doing.
And then they ended up wanting to shoot it all live, so all of the stuff that we had recorded was kind of thrown out. And because of that, we’re playing all of that music live as you are seeing it and as it was being shot, which I think both helped – well, it helped us kind of contain our laughter and sort of focus because we had to actually get through the music, but it also made all of it very authentic.
So those reactions, that was really happening for the most part in real time. I mean, obviously, the editing is pretty masterful as well. But what you’re seeing is actually what is coming out of us, for better or worse.
In your portrayal of McMoon, you speak with a slightly higher pitch voice and you kind of changed up your speaking patterns. Is that something you pulled from actual recordings of his voice, or things that you researched about him? What came about to make that decision?
Well, some of it, not from his voice, actually. In fact, the most that I could find in doing this research were some facts and little tidbits of information that were in the movie, but there is a recording of him, actually. But he’s much older and he talks about that night at Carnegie Hall. And I had a moment of thinking, “I don’t know how much I want to want to use this as inspiration,” because, you know, he was probably in his 70s at that point and it was a bit different than I had pictured it, and his outlook was very different than it was in the script.
I thought, you really always want to start with the script. So to me, I just saw it vividly and heard him vividly in this way. As far as that voice, I saw him as being very pure and very chaste and very innocent, and having no sense of cynicism or – and he hadn’t really been corrupted in any way whatsoever. Like a little bird or a gecko or something. I thought, well, this is something very childlike and I feel like he’s probably unaware of his sexuality and I don’t know. That’s just how I heard him. There is something very chaste about him and very alien at the same time.
And then there’s also the fact that it was the ‘40s and he was walking into this elevated high society, cosmopolitan lifestyle and people actually did take speech classes and they were sort of this Anglicized way of talking back then. Just kind of all of those things combined led me to that.
There’s this great moment when McMoon asked St. Clair about his arrangement with Florence at St. Clair’s apartment and then later, McMoon speaks to Florence at his apartment. I thought McMoon really wanted to insert his opinion on Florence and St. Clair’s relationship, but thought better of it. He was protecting her like everyone else in the movie. But towards the end, at Carnegie Hall, he says to her, “We can do it,” in a very confident voice. I think at that moment, at least to me, it turned from protection to support. Is that how you see it?
Wow. You have really tapped into so many things that I thought but didn’t know that anyone else would necessarily pick up on. All that you said is actually something that at some point, I was cognizant of and, particularly the moment in in McMoon’s apartment when Bayfield was there and he says, “I love her. Do you love this woman?”
And there was a real moment there where I felt like, “How dare you, sir, ask me. Of course, I love her.” But because he is protective and she’s come to his apartment and sort of you see kind how broken she is by Bayfield. And so, this innocent little McMoon is now somewhat corrupted by the sort of harsh and strange reality of this type love, the relationship that these characters have with each other and he all of a sudden he has to step up and that he does feel this protective desire.
And then in Carnegie Hall, there is that is the moment I guess too, you know, she’s scared. It’s just so beautiful the way the script in the movie that you see – you just see all the colors of these people I guess. And that’s his moment. He has that bond.
McMoon is the only one that understands the music, really, with her. Bayfield doesn’t. You know, they don’t play music together. And so I think it is the transition from, “OK. I’ll help this woman to – you know what? Let’s do this.” Like this is important not just for her but for me. We’re in it together. We have something greater than this kind of career minded or reputation focused frame of mind that we have the love of music and it doesn’t matter – nothing else matters.
It’s amazing how everyone around Florence continued to just kind of keep up her fantasy, so protected. And people truly did love her, but why do you think people fell in love with her so much?
Well, I think that there’s a very human quality and I think there’s almost nothing more human than failure. And I think it’s funny and it’s tragic and it’s comforting. But only when it’s done passionately, you know. Only when somebody is putting themselves out there genuinely and ironically, and you know, aiming for the fences and kind of falling flat, no pun intended.
But you know, so I think that that is one element of it, and the fact that she was so filled with joy, and so moved by music and wanted to share that joy and that love of music with people. I think it’s just magnetic. I mean, it’s like watching a little child just with total abandon singing out and dancing and the part of your brain that has any kind of judgment or criticism of this sort of overwritten by the joyous part. And whether people were laughing or their jaws were on the floor, you know, I think they were enjoying themselves.
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