Actor Simon Helberg to do Audience Q&A at ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ Screening

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Simon Helberg

Acclaimed film “Florence Foster Jenkins” is coming up on the Malibu Film Society schedule, showing next Wednesday evening at the Malibu Screening Room.

The film, starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg, is the real-life story of New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, who decides to become an opera star and recording artist despite her terrible singing voice. She hires accompanist Cosmé McMoon, played by Helberg, who actually does play the piano in the movie. Hugh Grant, playing her long-time partner St. Clair Bayfield, a British Shakespearean actor, tries to shield her from audience guffaws and bad reviews. The pinnacle of her singing “career” is a live, sold-out concert performance at Carnegie Hall. 

The Malibu Times caught up with Helberg to find out what his experience was like working on the film. Helberg, probably best known for playing the character Howard Wolowitz for the past nine seasons on TV’s hit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” will be doing an audience Q&A after the Malibu Film Society screening on Wednesday, Nov. 16. 

Helberg described how it felt to shake off the nerdy Howard Wolowitz character he’s been playing in the “Big Bang” sitcom for the past decade (an aerospace engineer and former NASA astronaut who works at Caltech in Pasadena), and become a completely different character — 1940s New York pianist Cosmé McMoon.

“It’s a relief to get to take off the neon skintight jeans and to expose my neck for the first time,” he laughed (referencing his “Big Bang” character’s penchant for turtlenecks). “It was a joy. I’ve been very fortunate with ‘Big Bang,’ and my character has evolved, but it’s still limited to one character.

“It was a huge, delicious meal to pick up this other character, who was so unique and odd,” Helberg added. “I’m a fan of nuance and eccentricities in real people. And it was a dream come true to land a role acting with Meryl Streep and playing the piano.”

Although his portrayal was partially based on the real-life Mr. McMoon, there wasn’t quite enough information from 72 years ago to give a complete picture. 

“There was just enough information to make it manageable and inspiring, but not so much as to be beholden to him,” Helberg explained. “I was not doing an impression of him; we were making an interpretation of him.

“We included his affinity for body building, listened to his recordings, and included the platonic love affair between him and Florence, where he elevated and sacrificed some of his dreams to fulfill her dreams. He really improvised around the sinking ship that she was to keep her afloat.”

Helberg said he studied the piano for six or seven years while growing up, and was obsessed with it. He played jazz and said he played “somewhat professionally,” but as a teen, was “a great piano player, but never at the concert level.” 

When he landed the role in this film, “I locked myself in a room for three months to learn these pieces of music, because you have to be able to do it well in order to play them under an incredible amount of pressure [during filming],” he said. 

Part of what makes it so difficult is that Streep, who is actually a good singer in real life, had to sing badly for this role. The accompanist then has to make adjustments to compensate for her tempo variations and rhythm mistakes.

According to Helberg, the film’s composer, Alexandre Desplat, had advised director Stephen Frears to find someone to play Mr. McMoon who was comfortable doing comedy and an actual piano player. He felt the music was just too complex to be able to fake the playing with movie magic. When Helberg met Frears for the first time, he said Frears “was all about the music.”

After Helberg was cast, he was asked to go to New York and play music with Meryl Streep’s singing “to see if the music worked.” Luckily, he and Streep hit it off. 

“Florence Foster Jenkins” will be screened by the Malibu Film Society on Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. Q&A with actor Simon Helberg afterwards — Malibu Screening Room at MJCS, 24855 PCH, Malibu. Non-members can purchase or reserve tickets at malibufilmsociety.org.