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Michael Musto

Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg on Working with La Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins

Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg on Working with La Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins


"You’re watching a gorgeous lady get messy."

In the upcoming Florence Foster Jenkins, Meryl Streep plays the real-life socialite who longed to be an opera singer despite a distinct lack of rhythm or talent. Simon Helberg--who plays Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory--is her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, who has no idea what he's bargained for.

At a special screening and reception for the movie at Paramount last night, I told Helberg that the situation is a bit reminiscent of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, the old Grand Guignol thriller in which Victor Buono played the piano for demented Bette Davis, quickly realizing she was out of her element--and mind.

"But I'm old school," I added, laughing. "Stephen Frears [who directed Florence] is an old school director," replied Helberg. "He talked about Lubitsch and Billy Wilder." Helberg has a scene where he breaks into giggles, so Frears told him to watch the 1939 classic Ninotchka, which was advertised with the line "Garbo laughs." "She's great and the movie's great," said Helberg, "but the laughing scene doesn't hold up in the same way. You're watching a gorgeous lady get messy. Laughing is really hard." I agreed--much as I worship the Garbo allure, I didn't buy her momentary elation and am happy to finally find someone who agrees on that.

Just then, one of the Broadway performers in attendance was heard from across the room, trying to emulate the wacky sound of Florence Foster Jenkins, and I started doing a Garbo and cackling. "A Tony winner is trying to sound bad," said Helberg, smiling, "and it's not working."

So how did he prepare for the laughing bit? "I asked Meryl--I didn't ask her much about 'How do you do what you do?'; she doesn't want to hear that--but 'How do you laugh?' She'd had a laughing fit in Adaptation. Her answer to things is 'I just thought it was funny' or 'I just did it'. She said, 'Try to cry. That always makes me laugh.' But it didn't work. I wanted to cry anyway! I ended up surrendering to the moment and the exhaustion and the fear.

"Much of what you see in the film came naturally--gobsmacked, terror, flop sweat. I think threw up in the movie." Nonsense; Variety called Helberg "deft"--and they're always on key.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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Michael Musto