As a youngster, Johnny Simmons dreamed that he was on set shooting a movie. It remains one of his most vivid childhood memories.
Now that he’s a seasoned actor, being on set is literally like a dream come true. And while the W.T. White High School graduate may be on the verge of a career breakthrough, the craft remains the most rewarding part of his work.
“I’d love to have more lead roles, but it’s about the story,” Simmons said. “I like challenging myself. I love working and being on set.”
Those who remember Simmons from his W.T. White days might not recognize him anymore. The young actor who played Steve Carell’s son in Evan Almighty, and later had supporting roles as a teenager in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, among others, is all grown up.
Simmons, 29, already has earned acclaim for his first lead role in Transpecos, in which he plays a morally conflicted border patrol agent. The film won an audience award at the South by Southwest Film Festival and the Dallas International Film Festival this spring.
“It was a challenge every day, just trying to do it justice,” Simmons said. “I was scared of it, but that’s a good sign.”
Simmons has been busier than ever during the past year, with several independent films on the festival circuit. In addition to Transpecos, he has lead roles as a pitcher in the baseball drama The Phenom — alongside Ethan Hawke and Paul Giamatti — and as a pianist in the romance Dreamland. And he recently finished shooting Late Bloomer, with J.K. Simmons and Jane Lynch, in which he plays a doctor.
“They all come with unique challenges,” Simmons said. “I don’t know that I intentionally broke out of high school. I just got older and was lucky enough to be able to transition to those kinds of roles.”
The actor was born in Alabama, but his parents relocated when he was very young to Dallas, where they still live.
His start in the acting business was modest, to say the least. Simmons’ middle-school years were spent at Greiner Exploratory Arts Academy, a magnet school in Oak Cliff. At 14, he saved up some money from his job at Tom Thumb to get some head shots at the mall. After a couple of talent agencies responded, he booked some commercials.
Two months after graduating, he moved to Los Angeles with $5,000 he’d managed to save.
“When you’re 18, that’s a lot of money,” said Simmons, who still has a fondness for his high school years, recalling a Dazed and Confused vibe. “I had a great time growing in Dallas, but I knew I wanted to live in L.A. That’s where I was headed.”