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Jimmi Simpson Tackles Sorkin's Farnsworth

Inventions are at work at the La Jolla Playhouse, both in the story of the latest production, The Farnsworth Invention, penned by Emmy Award winner Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men) and directed by Tony Award winner Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys, 700 Sundays), as well as the presentation through the Page To Stage Workshop process.

"The play centers on the bitter conflict that pitted Philo T. Farnsworth, a boy genius who invented television as a high school student in 1927, against David Sarnoff, the head of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). The legal battle between Farnsworth and RCA would later become known as one of the great, tragic examples of legal and industrial force combining to crush a rightful patent owner," state press notes.

"The riveting new drama, which uncovers the story behind one of the world's most powerful inventions, is a part of the Page To Stage New Play Development Program, La Jolla Playhouse's signature program in which audiences experience the "birth" of a play, taking part in its shaping as playwright and director make constant changes in response to audience reactions and feedback."

Stage and screen actor Jimmi Simpson (Loser, Seraphim Falls) tackles the title role of Farnsworth opposite Stephen Lang (A Few Good Men, Defiance) as Sarnoff in the play beginning February 20, 2006.  Simpson took time out of rehearsals to talk about his working with McAnuff again, having been in the La Jolla Playhouse production of Tartuffe in 2002, along with his experiences with Sorkin and his upcoming films set for release later this year.

James Sims:  Tell me a little bit about the role you play in this production, the title character, Philo T. Farnsworth.

Jimmi Simpson:  It's the kind of role where the lead parts are shared by Stephen Lang and I, him playing my nemesis.  It basically tells the story of Philo T. Farnsworth, who is a lone inventor who came up with an essential part for the electronic television in the 1920s.  At kind of the same time, David Sarnoff, who started as an executive at RCA, coming up the ranks from nothing, worked in radio and was the first to come up with entertainment programming and heard about television.  The idea of it was out there and Germany and England were pretty close to a viable mechanical television, and he was hiring everyone who knew anything about television because it was going to be huge.  So right around the time when Farnsworth came up with this essential element, there was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that was published and Sarnoff got a hold of it.  He then tripled, quadrupled his efforts.  It's up for debate, I suppose.  There is a Sarnoff camp and a Farnsworth camp.  The Farnsworth camp says that Sarnoff actually sent somebody in to steal some information and kind of beat him to the punch, so nobody really heard of Farnsworth.  The truth is he quite honestly is the father of electronic television.  and I share the lead parts, him playing my nemesis.  It basically tells the story

Sims:  You sound quite versed in the history of the subject matter.  How much research did you wind up doing before taking on the role?

Simpson:  I did quite a lot of research, and then I brought a lot of stuff down here.  There are some pretty awesome books on Farnsworth.  Obviously some are bias, being from family members.  Sarnoff went on to create NBC, the first television network, and NBC pretty much maintains Sarnoff was the guy.  He got this Russian, Vladimir Zworykin to basically finish the whole thing.  In a nutshell there was this war between this one guy and a huge company.

Sims:  After having read so much on Farnsworth, and as you are playing him, would you consider yourself a member of his camp now?

Simpson:  Pretty much, yes.  He is a pretty sympathetic character, and I would say most people would tend to do that.  However, Lang is all about Sarnoff.  He will kind of make some statement and point something out that I will refute and then get all mad.  It's rather funny.

Sims:  You last worked with Des McAnuff at the Playhouse in 2002.  How did you get involved in this production?

Simpson:  I live in Los Angeles where there is not that much in the way of theatre, so the La Jolla Playhouse is pretty much the only place that is on my radar, and when they have something going on and I am available, I will certainly go in.  This is Des' last show, so it seemed pretty special and I am a real admirer of Aaron Sorkin and his writing.  This is his first play since A Few Good Men.  In Sports Night (1998-2000), Aaron references Farnsworth, so he has had the bug for a while.

Sims:  What has it been like working with Aaron Sorkin?

Simpson:  He was here the first four days and of course the initial read through.  We did some down and dirty work and he was great.  But he has a show up there (Los Angeles), so he splits his time.  He has just come back yesterday, and he has made this kind of special, as he has this hour-long show with NBC (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), of course, so he is very busy.

Sims:  As this marks Des McAnuff's final production with the La Jolla Playhouse, what has your experiences with him been like?

Simpson:  This is just my second time, and it has been five years since the first time with Tartuffe, so this is just a really great time.  I haven't actually stepped foot on the stage since Tartuffe, so he is really great.  Theatre is really difficult, so it's important that you have a director that kind of understands that and is really hands on.  I didn't notice, I don't think, five years ago, how much he cares and how much he loves what he does.  It is kind of a joy to go to rehearsals every day, and he makes it all worthwhile.

Sims:  What are your thoughts on the Page to Stage process that you are doing with The Farnsworth Invention?  

Simpson:  I guess you can call it a device to free the Playhouse and Des, or whoever is directing, from the confines of being judged in a script kind of fledging period.  When you are trying to please people and reviewers, in a nutshell, you are kind of hurting the project.  So this gives him the opportunity to change things, and Aaron can keep writing beyond opening night.  If you are going up for reviewers, you are not going to throw a whole bunch of stuff at the actors because it could hurt the presentational quality.  Page to Stage kind of liberates everyone to get the best possible play together.  And the Playhouse is not a moneymaking situation at all.  It's a non-profit organization so it does it because it loves it.  It is also on everybody's radar, theatrically, so everyone is going to hear about it but no one is going to put their fist down.  That way, the production can hopefully move on somewhere else and make larger amounts of people happier because it had the opportunity to be the best it can be out here.

Sims:  And how comfortable are you with the audience feedback aspect of the process?  Some actors might be weary of getting immediate and often nightly comments from the playgoers.

Simpson:  I know that an asset to an actor is to "know."  That's what it is, because you've done it, you "know."  Pretty much, I am always open to input from everyone, although I don't require it, the feedback is conducive to getting the play together.  And I feel like I am here to serve the play.  I want to do the role, but I also want to make sure the play goes very smoothly, so help me out, because I am just the actor.

Sims:  How did you get started as an actor?

Simpson:  I got my degree in theatre at a little school in Pennsylvania, Bloomsburg University.  It was one of those situations where I went into the major because I loved it, but didn't really expect to see it as a moneymaking situation or career.  I pretty much got into theatre to do community theatre and things, but then I went to Williamstown and found an agent.  I then went to New York and did a lot of theatre there, so I started doing only theatre.  When I was in NY for about five years, I started getting a couple movie and television roles.  Then I moved to Los Angeles, and it was kind of ironic because the first job I got here was Tartuffe.  Then in L.A., there just isn't much theatre to be done, so I have worked only in television and film for the last five years.  I am really happy to get back out there (on stage).  It is so hard but so rewarding.

Sims:  Having worked in all three mediums, television, film and stage, is there one that appeals to you more than another?

Simpson:  I would have to say it depends on the production.  I have had really positive experiences in every medium, as well as horrible experiences in every medium.  There are a lot of pros to doing a film, as far as it helping your film career, and it is completely different financially.  But theatre is the only place where you get to actually be the character, and nobody is going to come around and change it later.  You are your own director as well, but of course I bow to my theatre director, but it is completely up to you.  You also get to live the whole journey at once, instead of going line by line over a few months and then getting cut together by somebody else.

Sims:  Speaking of film, you have a few set for release later this year, including a rather interesting sounding one, Itty Bitty Titty Committee.  That's a rather fun title, but I see that is focuses on feminism and is being produced by the gay film nonprofit group Power Up.

Simpson:  The title is really sarcastic, but it turns out to be something else.  I have done some work with Power Up, and they are a great organization.  They are really the balance between men and women in Hollywood, where there is a big difference between the two.  These mostly women are all about getting women's work out there, and if a woman is creative and has a great idea, they will help find her money and get the movie made.  It is kind of special that way.  I did a picture with them a couple years ago called D.E.B.S., and just got a call maybe a year ago to come in and do a little part in this movie.  I believe it is going to the Berlin Film Festival, but as far as major release, I am not sure, as you never quite now with these smaller films.  

I know Patriotville should be coming out towards the end of the year.  That's with Justin Long and another guy, from Farnsworth, Brian Howe, he's in it with me, so I met him when I shot that about four months ago and we hit it off, so we where happy to see eachother here.

Sims:  And then Zodiac has you working with some big names, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.  How was it working on that film?

SimpsonZodiac is a David Fincher movie about the Zodiac killer.  He's a pretty great filmmaker, and I was pretty pleased to have any part in something he is doing.  I come in at the very end, well I won't tell you what I do, but I met the whole cast at the read through and they were all great.  I had done a television show with Ruffalo when we both lived in New York, where I was a perp and he was a cop, so I couldn't believe he remembered me.  He is just an amazing actor on stage or film.  I heard some great stories of him on Zodiac, so I can't wait for that.  I also have a little western coming out called Seraphim Falls with Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson.  I was so impressed with Pierce Brosnan because he was James Bond to me, but then I saw him in the scenes and he was just so cool and gritty.

Sims:  Now, what is on the lineup for you after you finish The Farnsworth Invention on March 25?

Simpson:  Directly after that I am going to New Zealand to get married, so I am very excited.  That is kind of the highlight this year for me.

The Farnsworth Invention begins performances February 20 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, located at 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, Calif. 92037.  Ticket prices range from $29 to $35 and can be purchased by phone at 858-550-1010, online at or in person at the box office.

Photos (middle) Thomas Sadoski, Zak Orth and Jimmi Simpson in The Loser courtesy of Columbia Pictures Inc. (bottom) by Merrick Morton of Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo in Zodiac courtesy of Warner Bros. Ent. and Paramount Pictures.

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