One would think that sharing the gift of telepathy would be a surefire way to solidify a true connection, but then again, nothing is as it seems inside… The Twilight Zone.
In the Season 2 premiere, titled “Meet in the Middle,” (read our recap here) Phil (Jimmi Simpson), a lonely, fish-out-of-water in the dating world, meets what could be the woman of his dreams (Gillian Jacob’s Annie), but it turns out she’s all in his head, literally. As the two form a telepathic bond, romance sparks until a plan to meet in the real world goes horribly awry. (This is The Twilight Zone, after all.)
Here, Simpson talks to TVLine about his character’s high standards, the challenge of acting against a voice inside his head and what it was like stepping into Rod Serling’s legendary sci-fi world. (Spoilers ahead!)
TVLINE | So, were you a fan of the original Twilight Zone?
I was a huge fan. I feel like The Twilight Zone is in my DNA. Growing up in rural Jersey, I think WPIX-11 was the station that would play the original Twilight Zone all the time, and they would have a 24-hour roundup on New Year’s Eve. When the ’80s one came around, I fell hard for those, too. I think some of those are amazing stories.
TVLINE | What was it like working on this revival then?
I’m such a fan of [EPs] Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld and Simon Kinberg. They’re the perfect group to bring this series back to life. The whole team of The Twilight Zone… it was like one of the greatest movies I’d ever worked on. It wasn’t just the cast who were fans, but the directors, the creators, the producers and the crew were all fans. There were so many people working together to keep The Twilight Zone wonderful.
TVLINE | What initially drew you to the script for “Meet in the Middle?”
I love stories about ESP. I love stories about broaching that boundary we all know to be true, and all of a sudden there’s a whole world of connection with another person, with yourself and with reality. In most ESP situations you’re begging the question, “Is this a whole other level of reality or is this person nuts?” and I think the show does a beautiful job of really flushing out that other reality. Yes, of course once in a while you’re like, “F–k, maybe he’s nuts!” but they tell the story perfectly. Emily [Chang] and Sarah [Amini] are the two writers and I thought they knocked it out of the park.
TVLINE | Phil’s a lonely guy who’s desperate to connect, but he also seems entitled and a bit snooty. How would you describe him?
He’s petty and he wants exactly what he wants, like a lot of us do. Sometimes that gets out of hand, and you start defining everybody by the standards you have, standards you don’t hold yourself to. I think that’s exactly Phil’s issue. He’s holding other people to standards that maybe he doesn’t meet. That’s his major flaw. It can completely swirl around in this self-pity whirlpool of, “No one’s good enough for me.” I think we can all certainly relate to having bouts with that.
TVLINE | For a lot of this episode, you’re acting and reacting to a voice inside your character’s head. What was it like working solo like that?
The director and I, Mathias Herndl — I think he’s legendary already, he’s so good — we talked about it a lot and how do we best achieve the drama that is happening in a scene when it’s literally just me. So we tried a bunch of different things and they all worked for different reasons. We had a wonderful woman who read Annie’s lines, and that was helpful for some scenes. For others, it was helpful for me to just memorize the entire scene, and then play Annie’s lines in my head. So I was approximating and creating her in my brain, and then responding to what my brain created. It was a lot like the show! I think those ones were especially effective because there’s nothing but me in my brain.
TVLINE | So many of your scenes felt full, just like a real conversation.
Thanks for saying that, man. That was our goal, to make this a notch above other ESP TV shows you might see.
TVLINE | What is it about Phil’s connection to Annie that’s so different from the other women he meets?
I think it’s that meet-cute. We all want to be defined as having a special connection. Phil’s got walls upon walls, so he’s not even listening when most real humans are speaking, but he can’t ignore Annie. She’s broken through without asking permission. Every couple wants their connection to be special and magical. When something happens in the beginning of a relationship we’re like, “Oh, that’s different!” We cling to it. We fall immediately and passionately in love, and probably only one out of 10 of those things is actually an indicator of long-term love. But we all grab onto that thing that seems to make us more special than any other couple. I think Phil and Annie are a perfect example of that.
TVLINE | After we find out that Annie set him up to help kill her husband, Phil’s arrested. He starts to believe for a split-second that he’s actually crazy. Do you think Phil always had that darkness in him or is Annie the sole villain here?
I don’t think everything is quite so bifurcated like, “Annie’s evil, Phil’s a victim.” Phil casually victimizes people’s time, people’s investment in him, and he’s so careless with other people’s feelings. If you can just imagine a whole lifetime of discarding people like that… I’m not saying that justifies him being tossed into jail, but nothing is black and white. I don’t think Annie was an evil human being. I think she was abused, she was taken advantage of and she was twisted into having to do whatever she could to save herself. I don’t think that one act of trying to free herself deems Annie “evil.” I think she had to do something pretty Twilight Zone-y to get out of her situation, and I think Phil was a decent little whipping boy.