One should probably not use the phrase “steals the show” to describe the performance of an actor in a movie featuring Meryl Streep as the leading lady, for such a thing is almost certainly impossible. But if it were possible, Simon Helberg’s turn as Cosme McMoon in Florence Foster Jenkins would serve as the ideal template.
Helberg may not get enough credit as an actor for his best-known role as Howard Wolowitz in the Big Bang Theory. But his performance as McMoon in Florence Foster Jenkins should cause even the least sympathetic critics to take stock of his talent. He not only demonstrates his virtuosity as a concert pianist (yes, that is actually Helberg playing on screen), but is able to convey entire stories through his facial expressions alone and summon an emotional depth other roles might not allow.
I got the chance to join other entertainment reporters on a call with Helberg recently, and it was a terrific opportunity to learn more from him about his part of the film. Without giving too much of the plot away, Florence Foster Jenkins tells the story—based on factual events—of a New York heiress (Streep) who, sheltered from critics’ ire by her husband (Hugh Grant), believes herself to be a superb operatic prima donna but is, in reality, anything but.
Helberg’s Cosme McMoon is the pianist hired to accompany Jenkins’ performances and help maintain her fanciful self-perception.
In depicting McMoon, Helberg told us that he didn’t have much to go on. One of the best attestations of McMoon’s life comes from an audio recording of him as a septuagenarian reminiscing about the decades-old events central to the film. Helberg describes McMoon’s voice as having a childlike wonder and possibly ambiguous sexuality. In Helberg’s words, “there’s something very chaste about him, but very alien at the same time.” Helberg’s McMoon is exactly that: with his facial expressions, voice and demeanor, Helberg embodies McMoon as someone who is aloof, a little ethereal, and not emotionally connected to other people in a way we would consider normal—someone who is almost learning to be human.
In that context, the evolution of the relationship between McMoon and Meryl Streep’s Jenkins is perhaps the beating heart of this film. McMoon starts as yet another person paid to be in on the act, with hilarious results. The scenes showing the practice recitations are comedy gold, as McMoon tries desperately not to burst out laughing while Jenkins gives uproariously bad performances of well-known arias. As an aside, these scenes are maybe the best testament to both Streep’s and Helberg’s talents as performers. When I attended the screening of Florence Foster Jenkins, I had simply assumed that the piano and vocals were pre-recorded. But in the interview, Helberg told us that he and Streep had originally recorded audio in advance—but then director Stephen Frears decided to shoot everything live:
“We’re playing all of it live as you’re seeing it, which helped us contain our laughter and focus, but also make all of it very authentic. Those reactions are really happening, for the most part, in real time.”
Think about it: Helberg is playing the piano accompaniment in real time, hearing what Streep is doing, often for the first time, and having to also channel his facial reactions through the context of McMoon trying desperately to pretend that nothing is amiss—all shot live. That’s amazing.
But McMoon’s relationship with Jenkins grows over the course of the film from another paid agent of a 40s-era Truman Show into someone who becomes emotionally invested in her success, like an Aldonza giving life to The Impossible Dream. This transition and development changes the role into one that demands emotional complexity. Ever self-deprecating throughout the conversation, Helberg referred to himself as the “odd man out” in the sea of talent that is Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Stephen Frears, and mentioned that his greatest paralyzing fear was bringing Streep down. Speaking of Meryl Streep, Helberg mentioned that a true sign of greatness is making the performers around you better—and it sure seems like Helberg himself is doing that throughout the film.
I got the chance to close the interview by asking Helberg what else he wanted the world to know about his talents and skills, seeing as how many cinephiles will soon be finding out about his skills as a pianist. He simply said that one of the joys of being an actor is the chance to explore other interests and pursuits to be able to perform roles, figure out what you can do, and overcome the challenges of what you think you can’t do. But not being the type to show off, he wouldn’t name a specific talent he had hidden up his sleeve just sitting around waiting for the right role to use it.
And that’s perhaps the most refreshing thing about Helberg: his humility. As someone who has been around the industry all his life, he knows how difficult and challenging it can be to make it, and he seems grateful for every opportunity.
As for me, I just want to see whatever he’s up to next.
Florence Foster Jenkins opens in area theatres August 12, 2016.