"Let me hop off my skateboard," says Jimmi Simpson, arriving at the Music Box Theatre for a recent performance of The Farnsworth Invention, the epic historical drama by Aaron Sorkin, in which Simpson plays the title character. It's hard to imagine Philo T. Farnsworth, the farm-boy genius from Idaho who first envisioned the science of television back in the 1920s, scooting through the streets of New York on a skateboard.
And though Philo grows increasingly rumpled and drink-sodden as the play progresses-as Simpson puts it, "My life is falling apart before your very eyes every night"-he remains clad in a three-piece suit. That's "not my normal attire," Simpson confesses. "I'm a bit of a ragamuffin."
That's why they call it acting--although with this particular play, it's closer to an Olympic sport.
"This is 10 times the size of the largest role I've ever played before," Simpson says, still marveling that he's pulling it off every night. "It's like acting exercise. The work keeps coming. Everything happens at such a pace, and you can't really lock it down like you could in a musical-it needs to be fresh, painful and hilarious every time. Every single show is like scene work; it's great. For an actor to get this much experience-it's daunting but great."
Indeed, he and co-lead actor Hank Azaria are onstage almost without a break, as they both enact and narrate the intertwining stories of Farnsworth and media mogul David Sarnoff, who scrambled to beat the young inventor to the patent office. The job of being in a scene, then stepping out of it to set up the next one, is proving to be a challenge Simpson relishes.
"One of my favorite things to do is the moment when, right after all my funding people see the first picture televised and explode with excitement, I barely get to bask in that-I then clamp that celebration down completely and start to narrate the scene about Sarnoff's patent pool. The stage goes from screams of joy, then nothing-I love that, to just shut it off."
The effect eerily resembles channel-switching, or cinematic cross-cuttting. "Well, I love plays and I also love movies," says Simpson, who has mentioned in previous interviews that he's enjoyed his share of video games, as well. "This play appeals to the people who love both. It's almost like you get to watch a film live. I wish I could watch it."
Simpson has felt the conflicting lures of stage and screen in more than hypothetical terms: He's been in enough demand (My Name Is Earl, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 24, Carnivale) that he's occasionally had to choose between projects. In the case of Farnsworth, he landed the role at the same time he got a part in the Bruce Willis actioner Live Free or Die Hard. He calls opting to do the play "the best decision I've ever made-well, in the Top Three. I am married, after all."
But even a good decision can be nerve-wracking.
"When I read the script, I freaked out at how good it was," Simpson recalls. "When I was asked to read it, I freaked out that they were considering me. Then, when I got the part, I freaked out because I didn't know how I was going to do it. There were many freakings out."
When the play, directed by Des McAnuff, had its out-of-town tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse, Simpson says the freak-out went deep.
"There was a period in La Jolla there when, to be quite frank, I was terrified," Simpson says. "I was sure I was going to mess it up. I convinced myself that I was. At one point I went to Blockbuster to look for some kind of character inspiration, and I just couldn't find it. I just had to abandon that and go within myself to build the character."
And into his family history: "There's a little bit of my grandpa in Philo-that's how I got the kind of rolled-shoulders stance."
This one-time business major first got interested in acting when he starred as John Hinckley in a high school production of Assassins. Given his blonde, all-American look, that's not hard to imagine. Less easy to square with his type is the performer he calls his favorite.
"Richard Burton was kind of the reason I became an actor," Simpson says. "He's the bee's knees."
Bee's knees? This latter-day ragamuffin seems close to Philo Farnsworth, after all.