Meet the ‘Goliath’ Choreographer Who Helped J.K. Simmons Get Back to His Song-and-Dance Roots

Fred Tallaksen is nominated for his fourth Emmy – this time for crafting Season 4’s surrealistic “Pain Killer” musical number, led by Simmons

J.K. Simmons in "Goliath" (Amazon Studios)
J.K. Simmons in "Goliath" (Amazon Studios)

There’s always going to be at least one Emmy nominee in the TV Academy’s annual list that leaves us doubling back to make sure we read it correctly. This year, that recognition goes to “Goliath,” which is unexpectedly nominated in the Outstanding Choreography category.

The even more curious thing is that it’s not even the first time the legal drama series has had a musical number in it – and choreographer Fred Tallaksen created that one, too.

“Did you see the third season with the drug dream and Beau Bridges with all the Marie Antoinette people dancing and stuff?” Tallaksen asks. “It was the first time that I worked on ‘Goliath,’ and this time it said in the script, ‘This is a subversive departure from our regularly scheduled programming — the effect is ‘A Clockwork Orange’ meets Willy Wonka.”

They even wanted to use ‘The Candy Man’ from the latter’s film, but the drug subject matter put the kibosh on that.

So thus, the nearly five-minute musical number that opens Season 4, Episode 2, titled “The Pain Killer,” was born. A David Lynchian sung interlude is not unusual on this show (guest star Dennis Quaid even warbles “The Rose” at one point in the season), but this one required some major organization due to its large scope, filmed in a massive warehouse with an original song called “Pain Killer” written by the late Adam Schlesinger (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”, “That Thing You Do!”).

The set-up is a high school auditorium in which a young cheerleader suffers an injury and finds herself in need of painkillers, and the shifty big pharma CEO George Zax (Oscar winner J.K. Simmons) steps in to tunefully remind her she’s in good hands.

“People don’t know the extent that he can do this,” says Tallaksen, referring to Simmons’ considerable background in musical theater (his Broadway credits include “Peter Pan” and “Guys and Dolls”). “He was very open to my idea, but he’s very serious. And he has a very good sense of what he would like to do or not do. So, he and I got together to come up with kind of a vocabulary of what would his character do.”

Tallaksen’s time in the choreographic trenches has given him an interesting perspective. “I find that dancers don’t necessarily make the best actors, but actors make the best dancers, because through movement, they’re able to define their characters and their intentions, and you can show that in a well-choreographed sequence. And the fans love it.”

“Dreamgirls” vet and guest star Obba Babatundé also makes an appearance in the sequence. (“He was a blast. He had a whole bit with a cane that sadly got cut, but he was so smooth and slick”, Tallaksen remembers warmly.) The entire number was shot in five days, during the pandemic, no less.

The Emmy nominee adds: “It was just when things were coming back, with the first COVID rules on set. So, we’re all in masks and face shields, and six feet apart. You’re working with these great artists practically in hazmat suits, but it felt like we got it done.”

This is Tallaksen’s fourth Emmy nomination after his work on comedies “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Real O’Neals.” He’s been in the profession since 1990, and the landscape for choreography in television has changed considerably in that time. Streaming, for instance, has added much more opportunity for choreographic creativity. But Tallaksen and his colleagues are continuing to strive to get recognition like other professional unions do today.

“I just joined the executive board of the Choreographers Guild. We don’t have a SAG contract the way directors or cinematographers or even stunt people do, yet we are authors of movement, and we want to be above the line,” says Tallaksen. “Imagine you’re on your feet dancing all day long, you don’t have a chair, you’re not even guaranteed a place to sit. We have to negotiate to be credited much of the time. We decided it’s really time for us to be recognized just the way everybody else is on a production.”

“Goliath” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.