TORONTO - Versatile actor J.K. Simmons has built his career on diverse projects ranging from quirky comedies to explicit cable dramas but there was always one exception to the array of genres he tackled — horror.
Simmons says that changes with his supporting role in the supernatural scarefest "Dark Skies," which is nevertheless grounded by down-to-earth mystery and thriller elements.
If it's hard to pin down a film's genre, that's a good thing, he says.
"That usually means to me that the movie's got something going on," Simmons says in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles.
"There's not really much that's all that grisly in it. It's kind of a suspense thing and to me the thing that drew me to it was really the whole family drama of it and the story about this family just fighting to stay together against these dark forces."
"Dark Skies" comes from the producer of "Paranormal Activity," "Insidious" and "Sinister." It was written and directed by Scott Stewart.
Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton star as financially strapped parents Lacy and Daniel Barrett, whose money woes are soon eclipsed by a series of mysterious night time occurrences at their home.
Increasingly strange visitations lead them to believe their family is being tormented by ominous silent intruders — who may be other-worldly.
"It's really just a smart story about people trying to get by which is what I always look for," says Simmons, who played gruff newspaper boss J. Jonah Jameson in the "Spider-Man" franchise and a pregnant teen's dad in "Juno."
"I'm pretty sure I've never done a horror film kind of thing. It's not a genre that ever appealed to me but this has so many other elements to it and at the end of the day it's just a very human story about this family."
Simmons co-stars as Edwin Pollard, a battle-scarred expert in alien abductions who warns a frightened Lacy and Daniel that they could be in the cross-hairs of an unbeatable foe.
Although this is his first horror film, Simmons has certainly played horrific characters in the past.
Fans of the late '90s HBO drama "Oz" would find it hard to forget his terrifying turn as the brutal Nazi ring-leader Vern Schillinger.
That career-making role threatened to typecast Simmons forever as the villain. But Simmons says he made a point of seeking out diverse parts for his burgeoning resume.
"I'd been schlepping around doing theatre for 15, 20 years and 'Oz' was my first really big exposure and of course, my agent started getting calls for me to play the Nazi-bad-guy-of-the-week on every TV show," he says.
"I was smart enough at the time to just turn down work and say, 'No, no, no. I can't spend the rest of my life playing that guy.'"
Simmons went on to log roles as a police psychiatrist on "Law & Order" and assistant police chief on "The Closer."
His next venture is the upcoming single-camera sitcom "The Family Tools," heading to ABC and CTV Two on May 1. He plays the father of an underachieving adult son who takes over the family business.
"I talked to my agent and we decided that that was the way I wanted to go," says Simmons. "Partly to do just something different than I'd been doing and also partly just as a lifestyle thing."
He admits that "Dark Skies" similarly fit in with his family-oriented lifestyle, noting it only required him to be on set for about two days.
"(I'm interested) when a part comes along that's a small isolated part that doesn't require weeks and weeks of shooting but is a part that is interesting and has a real impact on the story."
Simmons says he recently saw the movie and was impressed by how the young actors — which include Toronto's Dakota Goyo as Daniel and Lacy's adolescent son — handled the script and story.
Occasionally, Simmons has been surprised by the movie he's worked on.
"There have been things in the past where I'll go in and do my two, three, four, five days of my part and the director and I are collaborating on what this is going to be and then I see the movie and I go, 'Wow, I'm kind of in a different movie than some of these other people,'" he chuckles, refusing to name names.
His "Dark Skies" character turns up as the jolts of horror escalate for the Barrett family, and it's clear that a terrifying backstory fuels Edwin's convictions.
The alien-obsessed crusader is a die-hard believer in alien abductions, but Simmons is not as convinced.
"I try to treat everything with a healthy dose of skepticism but at this point I don't dismiss anything. The odds that we are alone in the universe, I think it's kind of arrogant to think that," he says.
"It would not surprise me if there is someone out there. Are they watching? Are they coming? I hope not."
"Dark Skies" opens Friday.