Holy hell (no pun intended) is the actor-writer-producer Timothy Simons ever a blast with whom to speak about the film Yes, God, Yes, in which he plays the multi-layered Father Murphy opposite Natalia Dyer. We actually pushed for this interview in part because quite a number of our interview subjects over the past few months could not stop raving about Simons in our interviews, and that’s usually a great indicator and not simply a talking point. Yes, God, Yes, written and directed by Karen Maine (adapted from her short), is also a really interesting piece of art, likely to incite fascinating conversations.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our recent phone conversation with the reflective and kind Timothy Simons.
*This interview originally ran on July 30, 2020*
Brief Take: Over a year ago, Francesca Reale raved about you for this very film, as well as Charlie Plummer and Denny Love for your work in Looking For Alaska. Do you consider yourself a role model for the future generations of actors?
Timothy Simons: That’s really, really nice to hear, but no, [laughs] absolutely not. Not in any sort of bad way, absolutely not. I feel like I got along really well with Francesca and Natalia (Dyer) and Denny and Charlie, honestly, because they don’t really need mentorship. They’re smart and empathetic and great at what they do and they’re in it for the right reasons and they really care about the work. We have a big age difference, but I like finding ways to connect with them, especially because most of the time, I’m like: “I have no idea about what I’m going to talk about to a 21-year-old.” But then you actually get in there, and I’m like: “Oh. We actually do kind of have more in common than they would think”. And I think that they are surprised that I’m not a fucking goober, you know what I mean?! I think that there’s always that moment in which they’re like: “Ah man! You’re not bad for a guy that’s old”. [laughs] You know, I’m not old. I’ve finally reached that point in my life in which I’m like: “Oh!” One of my best friends from college we called “Old Man Andy”, and he’s 33! That’s ridiculous, to call him Old Man Andy, 33 fucking years old. But anyway, I guess that the short answer is: no, they don’t need it. When it comes to all those guys, I just think that they’re great and talented and yeah. I think maybe the only thing that I can say that I taught any of them is that when it comes to press, this is me personally, I like to almost destroy interviews, but not fully destroy interviews. And I think that they were not expecting that, like when we were on press rounds at South By, I never destroyed them, but I wanted to see if I could get them as close to the edge as I can, I think that they like that.
BT: What is it that you lean into for this movie and for your entire arc when you are selecting your projects?
TS: You know, I don’t know. When it comes to things like this or like Christine, I don’t want this to sound crass, but nobody is going to get rich making Yes, God, Yes. None of us were there being like: “Wow, this is a money job”. We did it because we have a really interesting story, a really specific message you haven’t seen in movies before, an interesting cast, and a great writer and director. And sometimes you have an interesting story and the script is not there, like I’ve read interesting ideas where the scripts are terrible, confusing and not funny, or just not well-done. So I don’t know. I don’t know if I will be able to tell you: “Look, it has to fit these certain criteria”, just most of the time it’s you know when you’re reading it. Like when I read Yes, God, Yes, that was a world I had not seen before, and the way that Karen brought it out, was just, to me, incredibly interesting. But a lot of times, I’m like: “I don’t know what is the exact criteria”. With Christine, that’s a heavy story. But then you have somebody like Antonio Campos, who is an incredible director, who not only has the ability to see the very specific tone of Christine, but they’re also good enough to just hit the dead centre target of that tone. Like that’s a movie that has no business being funny, and there are really some funny moments. And the same thing with Karen, I think that this is the first feature that she’s ever directed, and the confidence that she has and the ability that she has to hit such a dead centre tone. The target is so narrow and she does a great job at it. So I don’t know. But a lot of times, you’ll be reading something, and they’ll be like: “This is a comedy”, and you’ll read it and you’ll be like 15 pages in and not a single funny thing has happened. And the things that are, the things that are supposed to be funny, aren’t funny and that all makes it a little bit easier. [laughs] It’s almost a little bit easier to tell you what keeps you from something, that what moves you to do something. I will also say this: generally, it’s me convincing somebody that I can be involved, than somebody convincing me that I should.
BT: Do you audition for roles any more? For a project such as this one, do you even have to do something like that?
TS: In that way, I mean it all depends on the project. With Yes, God, Yes, I think that I was offered to be in it. I don’t know what their process was on their side, but when that happens, it’s like: “Oh, hey, you’re offered this part. Read the script, if you connect with it then we’ll hook you up with the director”. And then Karen and I, we FaceTimed, I think, I think that she might have been in London at that point? Yeah, we FaceTimed and got along, and then at that point, you just say yes and they get into all the details of it. But no, at this point, I’m still sort of solidly having to audition for some things and not having to audition for others, it’s all still catch as catch can.
BT: How do you look at the perhaps moral ambiguity at the heart of this project?
TS: I actually just rewatched it, I hadn’t seen it since we were all at South By together. And I just rewatched it last night because my wife still hasn’t seen it. And I remember thinking that the things that stuck out for me last night were like one of the best scenes in the entire movie is at the lesbian bar, toward the end of the movie, and they start talking about the things that they thought that they were going to go to hell for, like: “I thought that I was going to hell because I ate gumdrops”. She was like: “I thought that I was going to go to hell because I rewound a scene in Titanic“. And I guess that this really stuck with me, in the sense of having these kids that are being screamed at that every single thing that they’re doing is entirely wrong and you should feel awful about it and every adult in their life is echoing that, and for somebody of that age and somebody whose body is screaming at them, they’re like: “No! [chuckles] I’m really into dudes with hairy arms and I have no fucking idea why. But that’s all I want in the world.” But that’s got to be really hard, and rather than supporting it in a real way, they’re just being told that it’s bad and awful and you should feel ashamed of yourself. I don’t think that it’s morally ambiguous, I think that the morality actually is firmly on Alice’s side, like she’s doing the right thing. I think that she’s the morally correct one. But you could also argue that I’m not a religious guy, so I’m going to see it that way. I just love that there’s one review that our movie received an “O” for morally offensive, and I thought that was just lovely.
BT: You were attached to be making a series for HBO about assisted suicide. How much do you think content should push the envelope?
TS: I’m actually still in the process of writing it. I think that I’ve turned in all the drafts that I’m going to turn in, just waiting to hear an answer on if it will end up being a real thing, so that’s sort of still there and I’m actively writing and hopefully that becomes a real thing. But no, I don’t know, I mean that’s my sense of humour and I think that’s just the way I grew up, that’s what I find funny. I think that almost everything that I do, and I’m not necessarily saying that it’s a positive, but everything that I do does sort of have some sort of…either it begins in darkness and I try to find comedy from it, or there’s something that’s fucked me and I try to put an underpinning of darkness to it. That’s just what I like. And there’s plenty of things that I think are just dumb and fun, but when I say that, I’m not saying that something that’s dumb or fun isn’t good. There are 20 things that I love that are dumb and fun, and because I don’t think that I can help bring a weird darkness to stuff, that’s just what I really like. But just because I liked it, it’s not necessarily what the thing needs, so sometimes I have to talk myself out of that.
BT: As an actor, what is your absolute “I did it” moment?
TS: For me, only because you never know how things are going to…there are two answers to that question. The first one is: you never know what the end product is going to be like, because you have producers and editors and who knows? Maybe it’s studios and they’re all going to have a say in what the final product looks like. You don’t have any control over that. The things that you have control over are like how the scenes go the day that you are filming them, how you work together with the rest of the ensemble to make something great. It’s really fun when scenes really hum and really start somewhere and end somewhere great, and you make discoveries on the day. I was just in a show—and I wasn’t even in it. I think that I shot…two days? Or I shot one day and then did a bunch of voiceover work for it, but there was a show called Briarpatch that was made by my friend Andy Greenwald. And I wasn’t in that a lot, but it was so immensely rewarding. The kind of work we were doing was so immensely rewarding, that for weeks after I left that show, I kept wanting to do more of it. All I wanted to do was get back to it, because it was so much fun. So that’s one answer. The second answer, like Yes, God, Yes was received very well at South By, like the screening went great, the reviews were great, you’re there with all these people with whom you worked hard and whose company you enjoy. And we got to walk around South By and things had gone well and that feels fucking great. Like we would go to whatever, big fucking parties, and people you didn’t know, people who hadn’t seen it, were like: “Hey, we heard it went really well”. And that’s fun. And like a therapist might not tell me that this is the greatest thing, [laughs] you know what I mean? But as a middle child who is desperate for attention, that’s also a great feeling. That’s a great feeling, and those are the two answers to that question.
BT: You have Home Alone on the way, and some other awesome projects coming up too. How does that feel?
TS: I mean it feels great. All I’ve ever wanted to do since I started this, since I was in college, was be a working actor, like I want to do stuff with which I agree and think is good and find ways to enjoy myself in doing it, and that’s happening right now. So it’s awesome! The Home Alone thing is really fun, [laughs] hopefully some day we’re going to finish it. We were in the process of filming it when the shutdown started, so yeah, I hope all these things happen, I hope. Right now, it’s hard to see how some day it will all come back on, but right now, it’s kind of hard to see that. The joke that I made was that in February I was a working actor, now I run a home school. Yeah, it’s all very different now. [laughs]
BT: What sort of projects have moved you?
TS: Good question. Let me think about it for a minute. Over the past couple of years, both Paddington movies, whenever I see things that are just perfectly done [laughs], it’s inspiring and like: “Why do I even try?”. Like if something as perfect as the two Paddington movies exist, how do you even try to make stuff?! Fleabag is an example of something that is just fucking perfect. That second season of Fleabag is perfect from top to bottom. I guess that the things that inspire me is when you get into the nitty-gritty of the business, of like auditioning, or like xyz director, here’s what you could do, all the things that you could do to try to further your career or whatever, you kind of get lost in the fact that the whole goal is to ultimately make something good. Recently I watched The Last Picture Show and that’s one of the best things that I have ever seen, and watching that is as inspiring as Fleabag, which came out last year. Whenever I go to plays, that’s inspiring. Even if you go to a bad play, to be physically sitting in the presence of artists and artistry makes you a better artist, even if it’s a bad play. Because you learn something from it, you learn: “Oh, that was attempted, it didn’t work, so what made it not work?”. That’s something that I find to be incredible. And of course right now we don’t have access to it, which is terrible, but I don’t know, we’ll get back there.
BT: Any time you can link Fleabag and Paddington, that’s really it.
TS: [laughs] I contain multitudes.
Yes, God, Yes is now available on EST, VOD and DVD