Henry Simmons – Building a Playground
Henry Simmons – Building a Playground
by Jay S. Jacobs
Originally posted on July 8, 2008.
“I’ve always had a love for theater,” says Henry Simmons. “Out here in Los Angeles, it’s more geared towards movies and television.”
With a career that is just over a decade old, Simmons has made significant inroads on both TV and the movies. The strikingly handsome actor turned heads for five seasons on NYPD Blue and two more on the recently cancelled series Shark, as well as appearing in several movies. However, growing up in the New York area, Simmons had missed the immediacy of the stage – both as a spectator and as an actor.
Many people feel such a sense of loss when their lives move on, but surprisingly few are willing to put their time and money to rectifying the condition. Recently after returning home for Christmas and catching up on some plays, Simmons returned to work on his then-current series Shark with James Woods. He started discussing his trip with his co-star Sophina Brown and was surprised to find she was a Broadway baby, too.
“She was like, ‘Oh, you go to see theater?’” Simmons recalls. “It turned out that she loves theater as well… During the process of work on Shark, she’s become one of my best friends. She’s absolutely wonderful. Smart actress. Smart woman. When we found out the show wasn’t coming back, we both had this hunger to do theater and said, ‘You know what? Let’s produce something of our own.’ We started to tackle projects and plays that we normally wouldn’t have a chance for. We were going to get the most growth and the most challenges at that.”
Brown introduced Simmons to a small theater company that she was involved in. It is called The Playground. The Playground quickly became a passion for both actors. The first fruit of this passion is about to reach the stage, with Simmons, Brown and Rick Wasserman (of the TV series Swingtown) starring in and producing a run of Harold Pinter’s notoriously difficult play Betrayal – which tells of a love triangle destroying three people’s relationships. What makes Betrayal different is the time structure, the play starts at the end and works backwards to the beginning.
Betrayal is playing at the Matrix Theater in Los Angeles from July 10 to July 27, 2008.
It is interesting that Simmons has found this passion, because growing up he had no clue that he would ever try acting. The son of an IRS agent and a school teacher who grew up in suburban Stamford, Connecticut, he was a business major in college as well as a basketball star.
It was his coach who first opened Simmons’ eyes to the idea of acting.
“He knew I had a love for classic movies,” Simmons recalls. “I don’t know how he found out, but he knew it. Just out of the blue one day – and I think it was really an act of God – he said, ‘You should take an acting class.’ I looked at him like he had three heads. I mean, it just came out of the blue. I thought about it and I thought about it and I said, yeah…. He kept saying, ‘Hey did you enroll in that class yet?’ and I’d say no. Finally I did and I loved it.”
Still, after graduation, Simmons took the sensible road and joined a Fortune 500 company in a ground-floor position – and he hated it. Simmons quickly realized he wasn’t built to be an exec. Soon he was going on auditions for acting roles during his lunch hour. Eventually he was ready to take the leap. He quit his job and decided to give everything to acting. It wasn’t easy – during the first year Simmons was nearly destitute.
“I’ll tell you; really that was one of the most difficult periods of my life,” Simmons recalls. “Here you are. You go all your life and you train. You go to school saying; okay what I’m going to do is I’m going to get a career where I can be comfortable. Especially in New England, [which is] pretty conservative…. When I do this job, I realize comfort does not translate into happiness.”
That was not the only thing which did not translate into happiness for Simmons. He spurned offers to become a model, saying he was uncomfortable with just posing in front of a camera with nothing else to do. In fact, Simmons is refreshingly down-to-earth about his chiseled looks, humbly saying “thank you for that” when I referred to him as a handsome man – almost as if the idea had never been brought up before.
Eventually things started to go Simmons’ way, and ironically it was basketball that gave Simmons his first two big breaks. He got a role in the Tupac Shakur movie Above the Rim. Soon afterwards, he got the opportunity to appear in a bit on the long-lived series Saturday Night Live.
“That came about because [of] friends of mine from a movie,” Simmons says. “It was a basketball movie and they were supposed to play basketball in this particular skit. They asked me to come along. I said, yeah, I don’t want to do any extra work. But I needed the money, so I sat in. A basketball player at the time, named Derrick Coleman, broke his ankle the night before. So the day of, [the producers] said, ‘Would you mind filling in for him?’ Saying his lines and everything. Yeah, sure! That was my first stint on television.”