A version of this story about Simon Helbert first appeared in the “Dark Horses We Love” feature in The Oscar Race Begins issue of TheWrap Magazine.
Simon Helberg didn’t know what to make of the email. He’d been making a living as an actor for years, and he had a co-starring role on a huge TV show, “The Big Bang Theory” — but he wasn’t a movie star by any means, and yet there was this message in his inbox that seemed to be offering a crazy opportunity.
“It had Meryl Streep’s name in it, and Stephen Frears’ name, and it said something like, ‘Would you consider reading this script and possibly playing this role?’” he said, shaking his head. “I didn’t understand. Honestly, I almost put it into the Nigerian-prince file of emails.”
But he didn’t, and so Helberg ended up in “Florence Foster Jenkins” as Cosme McMoon, the long-suffering and somewhat bewildered accompanist to Streep’s title character, a formidable society woman who insists on performing opera in public despite the fact that she’s an absolutely wretched singer.
Streep and Helberg make a marvelous pair, tremendously funny with a tinge of poignancy–and while you can’t really say that anybody has ever stolen a movie from Ms. Streep, Helberg holds his own and is the film’s biggest surprise.
“It was kind of tailor-made for me in many ways,” said Helberg, an accomplished pianist who nonetheless wasn’t familiar with the classical repertoire he’d be playing, though he lied to director Frears and said he was. “I could particularly relate to Cosme being thrust into a situation that is bigger than anything he’s ever seen.
“It is that mix of shock and awe and bewilderment, and it takes a lot of processing. The sweating and the giggling came naturally, and it’s a gift when the situation you’re in lends itself to the story you’re telling.”
Getting the job after that initial email, he added, was quick and easy. “I thought I’d have to do an obstacle course or a six-year experiment where they could vouch that I could go on the set and hold my own,” he said. “But it was shockingly easy and fast. Part of it, I think, is because Stephen doesn’t have a very long attention span, so he doesn’t want to sit around while people audition and do this and that.”
And when he talked about working so closely with Streep, Helberg still sounded as if he’s trying to process what happened. “I literally got to make music with her,” he said, “which was intimate and terrifying and really rewarding.”
Read more of TheWrap Magazine’s The Race Begins Oscars Issue.