‘Counterpart’ Creator Justin Marks Takes Us Inside the Two Sides of J.K. Simmons in New Starz Series

J.K. Simmons has been winning audiences over for years in supporting roles in films such as “Spider-Man,” “Juno” and “Whiplash,” as well as on the TV series “Law & Order” and “Oz,” and now, at age 63, the Oscar winner has finally been elevated to leading man status, playing not one, but two roles in the Starz sci-fi thriller series “Counterpart.” No, he is not playing brothers, like James Franco in “The Deuce,” but two versions of the same man living in parallel universes. Simmons really gets to show off his chops here as Howard Silk, an American man working a low-level job at a spy agency in Berlin, and Howard Prime, his brasher, more successful counterpart.

To say that Howard is surprised to learn about Prime and the other universe, for which he has been helping to decode secret messages for years without even realizing it, would be an understatement. Prime, for his part, is disappointed in Howard, who has been at his job for 29 years with no promotion. The two men were the same person until about 30 years ago ago when the East Germans stumbled upon the parallel universe. Now, Howard and Prime are forced to work together stop Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco), a female assassin who has figured out how to go back and forth between the two universes. The cast also includes underrated British actress Olivia Williams as Emily, Howard’s wife.

“Counterpart” is the creation of Justin Marks, a writer and producer best known for penning the screenplay for the most recent adaptation of “The Jungle Book.”

“[Simmons] plays the ‘Juno’ version of J.K., and he plays the ‘Whiplash’ version of J.K.,” Marks told Entertainment Voice over lunch. “As the season went on, that’s when we really started to kind of build, and there were ideas I had that J.K. would sort of push back at, and ideas that he had that I would do, and we sort of found this version that was an accurate portrayal of where his center is between both characters.”

So dedicated to playing these two different characters was Simmons that he, according to Marks, made sure to shower before switching over from one to the other.

“As soon as he walks on set, I know which side we’re doing first that day,” explained Marks. “It really comes down to one is broken by the world, and the other has turned his brokenness towards the world. That’s why the Prime version is two inches taller than the other version, because he’s slouched …And J.K. doesn’t go over the top with one versus the other. Within the same scene, I see both.”

With which Howard does Marks himself identify with more? “It depends what day we’re shooting. And how late in the day it is,” was his reply.

Marks collaborated on “Counterpart” with a long-time friend, executive producer Jordan Horowitz. Horowitz, who has been a producer on a number of films, including “La La Land,” gained notoriety last year after he ended up presenting the Best Picture Oscar to “Moonlight” following the infamous snafu at the 2017 Academy Awards. The two former high school classmates had lost touch and reconnected 15 years ago after Horowitz literally almost ran into Marks.

“I was driving, I think it was in Beverly Hills, and I stopped at a light and suddenly someone jumps out in front of my car, and it was Justin,” Horowitz recalled. Horowitz ended up driving Marks to a doctor’s appointment, thus rekindling a friendship that eventually led to this first professional collaboration a decade and a half later.

“I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi stuff, and he’s always been a fan of spy stuff,” said Horowitz. “The influence for all of this came out of the Cold War spy thriller universe.”

Inspiration for Howard came from a personal place for Marks. “My grandfather was a civil servant who spent his entire career working for the treasury department,wore the same pair of shoes to work every day, and when Howard walks to work, I see my grandfather in every sense. He passed away, and we found left behind his own memoirs that he had written after his retirement, and I don’t come from a family of writers, I come from a family of lawyers, and yet, here is a writer who had hidden himself from the rest of the world. …There was a soul of an artist there that just never came out and sort of failed.”

Marks went on to explain how his family background sometimes led him to feel torn about pursuing his current career. “I’ve been writing professionally for 12 years now, and my father still thinks I’m going to law school someday. I would say, I see the Howard in me, but I also feel the Prime calling, the one who lights bridges on fire… At the end of the day, they are both different shadows of the same core. And which one is which, it depends on circumstances.”

Horowitz discussed his experience working on a television series following years of producing films. “It flexes a different muscle. A little bit more of a pure producerial muscle, which I like. It’s more higher level issues, than also talking to the studio, the network. For me, as a non-writing EP, it’s very much like a 35 thousand-foot view of the project, which is good, and I don’t have to get as deep into the nitty gritty as I do on the features side.”

Counterpart” premieres Jan. 21 and airs Sundays on Starz.