J.K. Simmons appeared in a single episode of “The West Wing” in 2006 and hoped he’d get another chance to work with the series’ creator, Aaron Sorkin. But when that opportunity came in the form of “Being the Ricardos,” Sorkin’s film about one nightmare week in the life of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1952, the Oscar-winning actor wasn’t sure that it was the right project. Sorkin wanted him to play William Frawley, the vaudeville veteran who incarnated Lucy and Ricky’s grumpy neighbor Fred Mertz for six seasons on “I Love Lucy.” The idea gave Simmons stage fright.
“When I was first confronted with the idea of playing William Frawley, it was terrifying,” Simmons told TheWrap in the latest episode of the video series “How I Did It.” “Despite my desire to work with Aaron again, I was leery of it.” But when he read the screenplay, which Sorkin (or “the maestro,” as the actor affectionately referred to him) wrote, Simmons had a change of heart. He said to himself, “I think maybe it’s time for me to do something that scares me.”
Simmons found his way into becoming Frawley by studying some of the physical mannerisms the actor used to play Fred: folding his hands over his stomach, crossing his arms over his chest, putting his hands on his hips and in his pockets. “Once he was placed, he just sort of put down roots and lived there,” Simmons said. “That combination of things was very grounding, literally and figuratively, for me in terms of a base to begin to try to inhabit that character.”
For Nina Arianda, who plays actress Vivian Vance in “Being the Ricardos,” the key to unlocking the woman who played Ethel Mertz, best friend/partner-in-crime to Lucy and long suffering wife to Fred, was studying old photos of her. “I do kind of visual work where I just take images and I put them up, almost like a serial killer wall, in my office and I’ll just stare at them,” she said. One image in particular stood out: a black-and-white shot of Vance, seated and hugging her knees, with a long rope coiled beneath her feet. Her expression bares the slightest tinge of sadness.
“There was something in her eyes that just really got me,” Arianda said. “And it got [at] this inner life that we’re exploring in the story as well. … Part of what’s happening in the film with Vivian is that we find her at a place where she’s really wrestling with the fact that she is no longer who she wants to be or ever will be. She’s kind of mourning her past self, who was an ingénue and a leading lady, and she’s now Ethel and she’s known as Ethel for the remainder of her life. She never gave into her sadness, and she said, ‘I’m a professional, I show up.'”
When the photo found its way to Sorkin, he was taken with it too. According to Arianda, he took one look at it and told the actress, “Play her.”
For Arianda, that meant pushing past the jitters, just as Simmons did. “That’s fearless to me: As unhappy as she might have been at times, it didn’t stop her from giving 100% of herself,” Arianda said. “What I got from it was: Be as fearless as possible.”