The opening episode of the CBS All Access series, titled Meet in the Middle, follows Phil (Simpson), a loner who falls in love with the woman whose voice he hears in his head. The courtship, which appears to the rest of the world as a man talking to himself, culminates in a gory climax. The first and second seasons of The Twilight Zone are streaming on Voot Select in India.
This isn’t the first time Simpson is playing an off-kilter character. The 44-year-old American actor appeared in a range of unconventional but minor roles in film and television for the most part of the last two decades. He gathered notice as hacktivist Gavin Orsay in House of Cards, followed by the major role of William/The Man in Black in Westworld.
After 20 years in showbiz, Simpson finally headlined a series in 2019: the screwball noir Perpetual Grace, LTD. In The Twilight Zone, the episode featuring Simpson is entirely focused on his character, Phil. Among the traits that lead Phil to his devastating end is his sense of entitlement with romantic relationships, which is what Simpson tapped into, he told Scroll.in.
“I’ve met a lot of men like him,” Simpson said. “They have this princess syndrome, where they expect everything from their partners and nothing from themselves. I tried to play into the insecurity and myopia of a mind like that. The foolishness and entitlement. But even more than all those negatives, Phil has the most shared of all human traits, hope.”
The present version of The Twilight Zone, executive produced and hosted by Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele, is the third reboot of the Rod Serling series that ran on American television from 1959 to 1964. Serling’s series combined pulp fiction, particularly science fiction, with political themes and moral concerns.
The macabre nature of The Twilight Zone was in contrast to the economic boom and optimism of post-war America. How could something similar appeal to a contemporary audience that doesn’t need fiction to be more precarious than it already is?
“That fertile post-war ground Rod Serling built The Twilight Zone on was perfect for a hey-life’s-good-imagine-if-this-happened show,” Simpson said. “In 2020, the purpose may not be as carefree but it’s still there. More like, hey life sucks, but imagine if this happened for a moment before you go back to the news. In times of trauma, art can be used to distract as well as inspire.”
Simpson is frequently cast in big-concept science fiction, with his characters trapped between reality and unreality. In season four of Netflix’s Black Mirror, a series with its roots in The Twilight Zone, Simpson starred in the episode USS Callister. He played a man whose clone is secretly debased by his resentful professional partner inside a video game.
“What I love about the original The Twilight Zone was how it excelled at stoking long-established human fears like isolation, xenophobia, and madness,” Simpson said. “What I love about Black Mirror is its ability to predict human fears of the future based on current tech, politics and media.”
Then there’s Westworld, in which Simpson plays William, a sensitive man who transforms into the savage and deadly Man in Black, after spending 30 years inside a computer game-like amusement park. Simpson earned an Emmy nomination in the Outstanding Guest Actor category for his work in season two.
“Westworld offered me the four-leaf clover of a great role on an epic show plus an Emmy nomination.” Simpson said. “You can’t really beat that for exposure. I learned so much about my own abilities under the pressures of that first season, learned even more by being surrounded by actors I’ve always looked up to.”
Westworld paved the way for Perpetual Grace, LTD, in which Simpson plays a con artist who attempts to a swindle a rich pastor out of his money, but realises he has bitten off more than he can chew. Although season one charmed critics, the network cancelled plans to shoot season two.
“I’ve tried to maintain surprise by always keeping my head down and focused on what’s currently at my feet,” Simpson reflected on his long journey to television stardom. “Make that thing its best possible version instead of worrying about what other people are doing or especially judging my own progress. I’ve found a lot of relative freedom in this industry by not expecting specific outcomes besides the best of myself.”
Among Simpson’s standout performances from the first 15 years of his career are his appearances as the insufferable intern Lyle in The Late Show with David Letterman, the weird Liam McPoyle in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the genius psychologist Lloyd Lowery in Breakout Kings.
In David Fincher’s true crime thriller Zodiac (2007), Simpson’s character had barely five minutes of screen time. He played one of the earliest intended victims of the serial killer known as Zodiac. Fincher later cast Simpson in a key role in House of Cards.
“We met at an audition for a movie he was prepping,” Simpson recalled. “It was a buddy comedy and David had narrowed it down to me and Zach Galifianakis for a work session. The movie didn’t make it to production, but a year later he gave me one of my first ever straight offers to be in Zodiac. Later, he helped me get into House of Cards. He’s one of the people I look up to the most in this industry, and he’s just a peach of a fella to boot.”
Simpson added that a dream project would be to act in Fincher’s adaptation of the Edward Albee play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “Expectations, no. Dreams, yes,” he quipped.
At present, Simpson is awaiting the theatrical release of the thriller Unhinged, starring Russell Crowe. “Finding inspiration in other people and voices” is how Simpson is getting by during a global pandemic. “I’m both a mask fanatic and a Black Lives Matter protester,” he said. “I’ve read some Philip Roth and reread some Ray Carver. I also built a multi-leveled, carpeted cat tree for our cat PB. If I had more room, I’d build one for myself.”