You can’t say Simon Helberg didn’t put in the work for his part in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” out Friday.
“The Big Bang Theory” star plays Cosmé McMoon, the accompanist to the title character, an over-the-top socialite (1868-1944) with serious delusions of grandeur. Jenkins, played by Meryl Streep, believed she was an opera star, and despite her off-key, warbly voice drew large, rubber-necking crowds at her (self-sponsored) shows.
Helberg had one advantage over other actors vying for the role — he already knew how to tickle the ivorieso. Director Stephen Frears made sure anyone who tried out could.
“I did know how to play the piano,” said Helberg last week from the Faena Miami Beach Hotel, “but I didn’t expect to pull off a full repertoire of opera and classical music. I mean, at the very least, I knew I could put my hands in the right place, or if they have a professional record the music, I’ll just play along with it.”
But Streep had other plans. Ever devoted to her craft, she wanted everything to look and sound real.
“I figured if Meryl was going to sing it all, maybe out of hubris or something, I would accept the challenge,” Helberg marveled. “It’s a true testament to her. She wanted to tell Florence’s story in the proper way.”
Costarring with one of the best actresses on the planet has its rewards.
“She makes everybody better,” Helberg declared. “There’s something very easy about [her style], but at the same time it raises the bar. There’s something deceptively simple about what she’s doing. When you watch her she’s just living.”
Being so close to greatness also has its disadvantages.
“I only had to carry around her Oscars for a week,” joked Helberg of the chameleon-like movie star, who has three Academy Awards, but has been nominated for 19. “She has a full house to store them all. They’d be great to melt down; she could make a necklace: ‘Oh this is for ‘Sophie’s Choice.’”
In all seriousness, the biggest challenge in the film for Helberg wasn’t the heavy lifting. It was one pivotal scene when he and he cast, which includes Hugh Grant as Jenkins’ supportive albeit enabling husband, shot the historic evening (Oct. 25, 1944) when Jenkins, then 76, sang at Carnegie Hall. She died a month later. The stand-in for the esteemed Manhattan space was London’s Apollo Theatre.
“They did a lot of green-screen stuff. You would have to — because Carnegie Hall looked so different back then,” Helberg explained. “We had hundreds of extras dressed in [period] costumes. It felt real. We were actually playing and we were scared.”
Despite all the pressure, practicing and hard work, Helberg is happy he got to break out and play someone unlike aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz, one of four supernerds on CBS’ wildly popular sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.”
“McMoon was quite a departure in many ways. It’s sort of easy to forget I’m an actor. You play this same character going on 10 years and get used to it. It’s fun to do something different,” said the Los Angeles native. “I get to show people a different side of me — and work with this pedigree of puppies. It was something that kind of happened and had to happen.”
Portraying the accomplished pianist McMoon was indeed a departure, but no worries: Wolowitz is still alive and well.
“I wore his costume under mine,” laughed the 35-year-old.
Breaking out of his geek shell was one thing, but Helberg was also attracted to “Florence” for its heart-tugging message — to never give up on your dreams, the crazier the better.
“I am very drawn to kind of eccentric characters with somewhat delusional tendencies — people who aren’t aware of themselves,” he said. “I could not believe this story was real. It’s very odd and very human.”