Jimmi Simpson has played a lot of things in his 20-year film career — a debauched weirdo who gives limp fist-bumps and has sex with his siblings, a murderous ghost straight from the mind of Steven King, a hacktivist who'd do anything for his pet guinea pig — but the one thing he hadn't played before now was the straight man.
In Epix's new neo-noir Perpetual Grace, LTD, Simpson stars as James, a former firefighter who becomes embroiled in a plot to scam a corrupt pastor, Pa (Ben Kingsley), as part of his quest to make amends for the past. While James is surrounded by an ensemble of eccentric characters — including a grifter with a love of magic (Damon Herriman), a Texas Ranger named Walker who doesn't get the joke (Terry O'Quinn), and an ex-con with a background in rodeo and a murderous vendetta stemming from his Lens Crafters franchise going under (Chris Conrad) — James is the stabilizing cog that connects the cast of misfits. This is a new experience for the seasoned actor, whose roles are most often associated with the words "creepy" or "psychotic."
"I'm used to being a little bit of the spice in the dish," Simpson told TV Guide at the ATX Television Festival earlier this month. "But it was such a pleasure to have my first absolutely straight role be from the brain of [creator] Steve Conrad. Because as you can see, his straight man is as messed up as the weirdest character you've ever seen."
Crushed by the guilt of a co-worker's death, which orphaned 11 young girls, James has given up all hope when Perpetual Grace begins. So when he's approached by Pa's (Kingsley) equally corrupt, but less capable, son Paul Allen Brown (Herriman) to take part in a scheme that involves locking Pa and his wife Ma (Jacki Weaver) in a Mexican prison, taking on Paul's identity, and stealing millions of dollars, James jumps at the chance to do whatever it takes to make financial amends to those young girls.
But, as they tend to do in these situations, things quickly escalate out of hand, as Paul failed to mention in advance that he's suspected in the murder of a teenage girl and that his father is a ruthless psychopath who will kill a stranger with his shoe and saw off his own thumb with a soda can if it means protecting Ma and getting revenge. As if these details didn't sound outlandish enough, this is all still only scratching the surface of the intricate world of this bizarre drama, which blends off-kilter humor with a dreamy sense of surrealism (including the still-unexplained reveal that James' father wanders the streets in a full astronaut suit).
"[The show] is really hard to describe because it's not riding on any kind of previously set trope," Simpson said. "I normally describe it as eight people all trying to save their own ass and unwittingly discovering that they're better people than they ever imagined."
More than the story, though, what really attracted Simpson to the project was the cinematic vision of Steven Conrad, which the actor described as a mix of Terence McKenna, Michel Gondry, and Paul Thomas Anderson. There is a rhythm to everything in Perpetual Grace, from the music, most of which Conrad composed himself, to the framing to the dialogue, a fact echoed in Pa's catchy mantra, "Get it. Get the rhythm. Get the f---ing rhythm. There we go. There we f---ing go." But while the unusual direction and unique tone could easily feel like heavy-handed pastiche, instead Conrad manages to create a sense of intimacy between the viewer and his characters, most of whom feel larger than our reality yet still portray enough emotional depth to captivate your sympathies. And what holds all off this together and grounds Conrad's creative ambition is James, the character at the center of everything who watches as the plan begins to crumble but instead of backing out says, F--- it. I'll do whatever it takes now and work on being better tomorrow.
"James is living his life and in the periphery of his vision are these 11 orphaned girls," Simpson explained. So while James understands the hypocrisy of his actions — such as bludgeoning a kid in a pawn shop and interfering in a murder investigation — all he can focus on is trying to fix "the greatest fail he's ever had," as Simpson put it. "He's right in shooting for that goal because it's worth it. But goddamn, is that the truth. The things we need to do to become who we need to be, it's not easy and you make little mistakes and all you can keep trying to do is make up for it. All you can do is keep trying to be the man that this little kernel of hope is implying you might be."
"I think it's that struggle that we all feel when our life has gotten away from us," the actor said. And it's this universality of James' journey that makes him the perfect surrogate to bring the audience into this fascinating new world. Because while most of us likely wouldn't purposefully get bit by a rattlesnake in order to evade the authorities, allowing our head to more than double in size before going to the hospital, it's hard not to empathize with James' slow evolution from someone who had made peace with giving up into someone who has rediscovered his faith in himself and the world. And Simpson excels in this role, bringing so much heart to James with his soft voice and subtle expressions that you have to wonder how it's taken so long for the actor to get an opportunity to play a role like this before.
"I'm proud to be a part of something that's trying to raise the bar of television. And I think [Steve Conrad] really, really does," Simpson said of the appeal of Perpetual Grace, LTD. "TV's always really been, mostly, about revenue. And Steve Conrad is not concerned about that. He's concerned about art. I'm ready for some art."
Perpetual Grace, LTD airs Sundays at 10/9c.