John Gallagher Jr.: The beating heart of ‘The Newsroom’
“The Newsroom,” which premieres Sunday on HBO, is primarily tied to two names: Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creator, and Jeff Daniels, who stars as Will McAvoy. Although McAvoy is the lead anchorman on a nightly political talk show, the audience quickly learns that the characters working behind the scenes — like lovelorn senior producer Jim Harper, played by Tony Award-winner John Gallagher Jr. — are its true anchors. We spoke to the former “Spring Awakening” actor after screening the series’s first few episodes, which take place in 2010 and 2011.
We love that the show embraces a near-past format that lets you retroactively elaborate on recent, important news items.
When I first read the pilot, that was one of the things that really grabbed me about the format of the show. It’s not five years in the past, and it’s not five months in the past, it’s just long enough to remind everyone of how fickle the 24-hour news cycle has become. Once the cycle is over, we tend to just forget and move onto the next thing.
You don’t have to tell us, we’re a daily newspaper! So what else attracted you to the role of Jim Harper?
I’m a big Aaron Sorkin fan. All the characters jumped off the page for me, in particular Jim. When you read a lot of scripts, you rarely find a character that feels so defined and complete. I love how Jim is so good at what he does professionally, he’s all-in at what he does with his job. And as a result of focusing so much on that, by the time he’s reaching his 20s he’s basically inept with day-to-day social interactions. He was an embedded reporter — he went to Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan — but when he comes home and has to ask a girl out, he has no idea what he’s doing.
It seems like this show is a good fit for you, considering your stage history. In the first four episodes alone, I counted seven theater references.
I think Aaron said that there’s not a single episode of “The Newsroom” that doesn’t include at least one musical theater reference. There’s a pretty funny “Evita” reference coming up that you’ll get to see in a few weeks.
How has it been transitioning from stage to screen?
Aaron’s coming from the theater, starting as a playwright, and a lot of the other actors that I get to work with have spent a lot of time onstage and therefore are naturally inclined to create a very good ensemble dynamic — you just play well together. A gentleman who worked backstage on the set said, “I’ve been doing this 25 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cast be so prepared when they show up.” And I said, “A lot of us do runs of plays where you have to be prepared — you have to go out there and do it without a safety net every single night.” So working with actors with a similar background certainly makes it feel more like home. And Aaron is such a theatrical writer, he writes really long scenes for television. One of his staples is very verbose dialogue. Learning those long scenes, it doesn’t feel completely unlike learning a long scene for a play.
You also worked with Sorkin’s theatrical brand of writing during a one-episode stint on “The West Wing” many years ago, right?
I did the Season 4 premiere, and I didn’t actually get to meet him. The episode shot in Pittsburgh, and I went there for a couple of weeks to shoot. I had never seen an episode of “The West Wing” when I did that; it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I sat down with the DVDs.
And speaking of people you’ve previously worked with, you played Alison Pill’s brother on the 2003 film “Pieces of April,” right? And now you’re playing her character’s love interest? Are you two friends offscreen?
We’d go through periods where we wouldn’t see or speak to each other for awhile, but she’s always been someone I just love and admire. Whenever we did see each other, it’s a great reunion. I was so excited for the opportunity to work with Alison again, she’s so much fun and it’s been a blast. To have someone that you have a lot of history with in a world that feels so much like a new and foreign enterprise — neither of us have found ourselves doing a season of a television show before — is a very refreshing thing.
Wait, was she just on Broadway doing “House of Blue Leaves” when you were doing “Jerusalem”?
Yes! And as a result, we never got to see each other’s shows. But we would run into each other in the neighborhood. It would be great to work with her onstage.
That’s too funny. So what’s coming up with Jim’s character arc on the show?
I think Jim is mainly trying to carve out a position where he can stay put for awhile. He admires his boss, MacKenzie [Mchale, played by Emily Mortimer], so much that I think he really just wants to stick with her and do the best job possible. But he’s also in the market for his second coming-of-age, where he can learn to let his hair down and have just a little bit more fun in life. [It's] equal parts wanting to come into his own as a professional and also come into his own a little bit more socially, get a little bit more of that confidence.