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John Gallagher Jr., Skype-age Romeo

The "Newsroom" star takes on modern-day long-distance relationships in new indie drama "the Heart Machine"
John Gallagher Jr. in "the Heart Machine"

While he's not whipping out Aaron Sorkin dialogue on "the Newsroom," John Gallagher Jr. has been keeping busy building up an impressive roster of indie film roles. He follows up last year's critically lauded "Short Term 12" with "the Heart Machine," by first-time writer-director Zachary Wigon. Gallagher stars as a young New Yorker who starts to suspect his long-distance, Skype-only relationship with a girl living overseas (Kate Lyn Sheil) isn't as it seems.

A Skype-based relationship seems like an odd and emotionally taxing endeavor.

It really is. Also, I was just thinking about this, I met the director over Skype. I remember when Skyping with him I had all these ideas about who he was as a person for whatever reason. Just from seeing him for, like, 30 minutes on my computer screen, I was like, "I think I've got this guy pegged." And then four months later when it came time to meet him in person, it was so startling because it was not anything like I'd had in my mind. It's one thing when you're talking over a computer screen. When you get somebody in person, in flesh and blood, it's obvious there's so much room for it to be something completely different.

Do you think he did that on purpose, or was it just a scheduling thing?

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It was just a scheduling thing. (laughs) He was in New York and I was in L.A.

How was it exploring the level of paranoia and suspicion that can crop up in romantic relationships?

Someone once told me if you're playing poker, one of the worst things you can do is go full tilt, which is when you start spiraling out of control. You start second-guessing everything, and it's really an altered state. You're not yourself. That is something that I've certainly felt in past relationships when I've become suspicious or jealous or convinced that I'm not being told the full story. Logic just goes absolutely out the window immediately. It is like this altered state, and I loved the idea of my character in the film spending the whole movie in that place. Because it's a terrible place to operate from, and it's an awful feeling. The idea that he's going through this the whole movie and yet when it comes time to go to the one kind of safe, nice place in his life — which is this computer screen talking to this girl — he keeps up the appearance of, like, "Everything's great! I'm, like, a cool boyfriend!" And then the minute he shuts his laptop, it's like, "Oh my God, I am freaking out and being lied to and have to get to the bottom of this." I've felt that even in relationships where you're together and you can talk about it.

Do you have to get into a pretty uncomfortable head space for that kind of stuff?

Oh yeah. But I feel like I've gotten really lucky. If you make a movie where you have to go to kind of dark places, one of the nicest things that you can hope for is that you have a good group of people to do it with and that it doesn't feel too heavy or too lofty. The hard part's already over if you just get there and are like, "Oh, this is a good place to be." It makes going to extremes and dark places easier because you feel protected.

On a purely technical level, using Skype on set must be tricky.

I remember the reading script and being really scared that you'd have to shoot them separately or something or that you actually wouldn't be able to do it in real time together, but Zach made it very apparent immediately that the intention was fully each time we would always be acting with each other on the screen. It's funny because you don't think of it as being unique or modern or different, people keep saying, "I've never really seen a film like this before." Right, because this has only started existing in the last few years, this idea of we talk like the Jetsons now, where we only see each other on a screen — something that used to seem so futuristic and far away is now here in the day to day.

When you think of how much technology has changed daily life, it's a bit mind-boggling.

I remember there's a scene in "the Cable Guy" where Jim Carrey talks about the future and is like, "Someday we'll be able to order food online and you can play 'Mortal Kombat' with somebody in Southeast Asia." I remember seeing that when I was in sixth grade and being like, "Wait, really?" And now it's like, "He was way off, we have even more than that." There's also a part in that Cameron Crowe movie "Singles" where Campbell Scott hasn't left his apartment in days and he's like, "You don't need to anymore!" But now you look back at 1990 and you're like, "Yeah, you did." Now you really don't have to leave your apartment.

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter: @nedrick

 
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