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How Simon Helberg Helped Meryl Streep Become a Horrendous Singer

Amanda Friedman

Photography by Amanda Friedman. Styling by Alison Brooks at Exclusive Artists management. Groomer: Elie Maalouf / Jed Root. previous page: Tuxedo available at Palace Costumes. Shoes by Costume National available at The Ruby. Jacket and shirt by Topman. Tie by Ben Sherman.

Simon Helberg’s personal connection to his new film Florence Foster Jenkins begins with New Kids on the Block. “They were my first concert,” says the actor, best known as over-styled super-geek Howard Wolowitz from the hit CBS series The Big Bang Theory. “I knew all their dances. I grew a rattail, and my mom braided it. I thought, I’ll be a singer. All I have to do is stand there, and sing, and I’ll be famous.”

But like Jenkins—a real-life 1940s New York socialite played by an intentionally off-key Meryl Streep—Helberg lacked the skills to back his dream. “I recorded myself and played it for my parents,” says the Los Angeles native, sitting in a chunky knit sweater in Manhattan’s Regency Hotel lounge, “and they told me to learn an instrument, which I think was their way of saying, ‘Do anything but sing.’ ”

Heeding their advice, Helberg turned to the piano, an instrument he “fell in love with,” and one he thinks won him the role of Jenkins’s presumably gay accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. “It seemed like my piano playing was the only factor in my casting,” says Helberg, “which was worrying.” Although the 35-year-old was an accomplished pianist in his youth, he’d put music on hold for years to pursue acting. When Stephen Frears said playing McMoon meant knowing Bach and Chopin, Helberg lied to the director and then dove into a “four-month crash course,” which included mastering the posture and technique of a pro.

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This training also fed into Helberg’s subtle approach to McMoon’s effete mannerisms. The actor was taught that, as a pianist, he should “imagine [his] arms weighted to the floor and [his] fingers dancing over the keys,” a kind of awkward body language that became part of Helberg’s method. He also gave McMoon a wide-eyed fragility, making him seem almost gecko-like. That fragility proved the perfect buffer against playing him as a nelly stereotype—an achievement, considering stereotypes are all one has to go on regarding McMoon’s queerness.

“Everything I read pointed toward it,” Helberg says, adding that, despite the prominence of gay contemporaries like Cole Porter (who is featured briefly in the film), McMoon didn’t exactly come of age in a time of acceptance. “He was fascinated with muscles and [bodybuilding] competitions. He never married. He even worked in a bathhouse. I think it was listed somewhere that he was a ‘file clerk’ there, though I don’t know what he was filing.”

Helberg also learned, from talking to the sort of opera singers Jenkins longed to become, that many accompanists are gay. However, the actor’s chief source material was Nicholas Martin’s script. Like Helberg’s portrayal, Martin’s story is implicit when addressing McMoon’s orientation. It’s not a cop-out—it’s just keeping with the closeted times. This choice lends the tragicomedy a bubbly, innuendo-laced sense of humor (in one scene, McMoon is late for a gig because he was “attacked by lots of sailors”) while also nudging the character’s self-discovery forward (at a party, he’s taken aback but intrigued when a stud’s arm lands on his shoulder).

“I chose to play him as somebody who didn’t know what he was and didn’t give it a lot of thought,” Helberg says. “Maybe he realized he was gay later in life.” So McMoon’s frantic, gecko-esque nature doesn’t stem so much from a fear of being outed as from the anxiety of being affiliated with a hack—Jenkins—while trying to build a career. 

At first, meeting Streep seemed the perfect launchpad for Helberg conveying intimidation, but he says the actress “popped the balloon” of her godlike aura by getting chummy. Soon, they were busy making not-so-beautiful music together. “I relearned the piano, and she learned how to sing opera in German and Italian, and then how to butcher it,” Helberg says. “We did as best we could and then tumbled down the mountain together, shitting all over the music.”

When we speak, Helberg is in New York for CBS’s fall upfront event. After he leaves the hotel, he’ll join his Big Bang cast mate, the gay actor Jim Parsons, to field questions at Carnegie Hall, the very place Jenkins rented out decades ago so she could screech arias at perplexed onlookers. “It takes this blind, delusional confidence to do what Florence did,” Helberg says. “If you love the work, you’ll find it. Or it will find you.” He pauses. “And now I sound like a greeting card.”  

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