THE LEADING MEN: A Conversation With American Idiot's John Gallagher, Jr.

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: A Conversation With American Idiot's John Gallagher, Jr.
 
We chat with Tony Award winner John Gallagher, Jr., known for playing troubled young men in the musicals Spring Awakening and American Idiot.
John Gallagher, Jr.
John Gallagher, Jr. Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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Not knowing the man, one could be forgiven for going into an interview with John Gallagher, Jr. thinking he might be a bit standoffish and/or a little downbeat. After all, he won the 2007 Tony Award for playing the suicidal Moritz in Spring Awakening and is currently living out youthful ennui as the lead in the Tony Award-nominated Best Musical American Idiot. Alas, a more engaging and generous speaker you aren't apt to find.

Like his current namesake role (Johnny, aka Jesus of Suburbia), John grew up in the 'burbs — Wilmington DE, to be precise. But rather than reveling in suburban angst, his creative passions were supported and stoked by his parents. His father's love of folk and Celtic tunes got him into music, and watching (and learning every line of) the film "Ghostbusters" gave him the acting bug. Both passions, including his guitar playing, are on display in the Green Day musical at the St. James Theatre.

In addition to his current Broadway turn, he will be seen on the big screen in June in "Jonah Hex," the comic book adaptation featuring John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Josh Brolin, Michael Shannon and a whole lot of other interesting folk.

It's kind of ironic that the characters in American Idiot are supposed to be such slackers, and yet the show is an insanely physical couple of hours for you. JGJ: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah! And it's the hardest workout! With no intermission to bail you out, either. Yeah, so there's no break. Once you're on stage, you are truly stuck up there. A lot of it is just pacing yourself. Your week falls into a little bit of a routine as it normally does when you're working on a show. You learn your limitations pretty quickly, and I've learned for me that I really have to kind of change my whole lifestyle. During the week, I live a little bit like an invalid.

I've always wondered about that for more physical theatre roles. Are there times friends ask you to do stuff on your off-hours, and you're like, "Sorry, no-can-do"? Yeah, I think that [my friends] all kind of "got it" once the show started. They noticed that I kind of disappeared and fell off the map. But yeah, it's true. I can barely even entertain the idea of going out after this show. That's something that's always been one of the things I loved about doing theatre is that I'm kind of like a night owl naturally, and I always loved the fact that you do the show and you get done and you can go out to dinner, go meet a friend, get a few drinks, but with this show, I really have to go right home and if I can, go right to bed. My new social life usually involves like, lately, the "Civil War" documentary series by Ken Burns. That becomes the thing that I look forward to like right around curtain call. I'm like, "Oh, I can go home and watch Part Four of 'The Civil War,' this is going to be great!"

Would you have ever imagined this for yourself, such a Broadway life? Certainly not, no. I definitely never imagined that I would do anything quite like this show. I mean I had a lot of really, really lucky turns in theatre in the last several years, but I really didn't see this one coming. It's been such a blast getting to work on it.

You have a rock-band background. How excited were you when you realized that you'd be able to actually play guitar in this show? It was really great to be able to bring that to it, and when we first started doing the early workshop, [director] Michael Mayer made it very clear that he wanted to have these three friends play guitar. Part of the thing that gave them such a deep bond was music and the fact that they all could play guitar and they all played songs. And I'm such a Green Day fan that I actually taught myself how to play the songs back in 2005 up in my bedroom when the record came out. So I kind of nerdily knew a lot of the tunes already.

John Gallagher, Jr. in American Idiot
photo by Paul Kolnik

I'm sure you took some ribbing too. [Laughs.] It's like, "Oh okay, he shows up on Day One, knows how to play all the songs." Things go so wrong so quickly in the show for the trio of friends as you head on separate paths, so I'm curious how did you guys work on conveying the tight bond that shows up throughout? I think so much of it has to do with the natural affinity that the three of us have for each other. Michael Esper and Stark Sands… I couldn't think of two better guys to play my best friends in the show. We get along in an extremely positive way. We love each other to pieces, so it makes that familial, tight-knit trio of friends…so easy to play and so easy to jump into.

So, from where sprang your original theatrical ambitions? When I was young, it all really started with me just being really intense with movies. At an early age, I just got obsessive about watching films, and it started with…kids movies and, as I recall, it all started around the time that I saw "Ghostbusters" for the first time, and I thought, "Wow! That looks amazing! I want to be a Ghostbuster, how much fun! Go out with these proton packs and capture these ghosts, and you get to be funny and heroic and sarcastic. It's action packed. What a job!" Then I found out that, you know, there were people that really work in the paranormal field, but it wasn't this glorified comic-book version of being a ghost-hunter. Once I realized that, I realized that what I was actually drawn to was what the actors were doing on camera. I thought, "Oh well, yeah, maybe I don't want to be a ghostbuster, then, I want to be like Bill Murray. I want to be an actor."

Where do you make the transition between, "This is what I want to do," and "Hey, I think I can actually be successful at this"? I did a lot of community theatre and met a manager that worked out of Philadelphia, and she started sending me up to New York for auditions, and I got the part in a play at Manhattan Theatre Club when I was 15. That was my first professional production that I ever did, and that was a play called Current Events by David Marshall Grant. What was funny about it was, because I was kind of young, I never took it for granted, but I don't think I realized the scope of, "Wow, I am 15 years old and living in Wilmington, Delaware, and I get to come up to New York for six months and be in a show at MTC!" It wasn't until I moved up to New York when I was about 18 and had not gone to college that I reached the point where I thought, you know, all my friends are going to go to college, and they're visiting these schools, and I was so much more interested in getting up to New York and really giving it a go. And whether or not it was good advice, a lot of the directors that I had worked with as a teenager told me, "Don't go to acting school because that’s what everyone is going to tell you to do," and for some reason, they really felt like it would mess me up in some way. They seemed to think I was on a good path as a teenage actor, and that if I stayed the course and kept working with good directors and learning from experience, that I would turn out okay. So I got the role, I got a part in David Lindsay-Abaire's play Kimberly Akimbo at MTC.

Did you think you had it made then? Even then, it felt like this lucky thing that was happening to me. I really didn't know if it was going to work out or not. I went up to New York and I thought, okay, here's this play I get to do, and I didn't have an agent at the time. I just had a manager, and I thought, I remember telling myself, if I go up there and I finish the run of this play, and I don't have a real agent by the end of the run, then I'll go back to Delaware and start looking at schools and get real. Figure out what I'm going to do, and this fantasy life can end. But lo and behold, I found an agent by the end of the run, and she's still my agent today. Ups and downs, you know, definitely periods of artistic flatlining came and went, and a lot of auditions, but I stayed at it, and I never went and looked at those colleges.

John Gallagher, Jr. in Spring Awakening
photo by Doug Hamilton

You made a lot of lists early this month as someone who was maybe snubbed for a Tony nomination. How do you address that, people coming up to you and saying "you should have been nominated," that sort of thing? It's one of those things... I personally don't read any reviews of the shows I'm working on. It means the world to me when I hear that they're good, that's very exciting, and I love that, and it's a great feeling to be part of a show that gets a good response and is well received, but I get paranoid even if [the response is] good, it's going to go to my head or affect what I do on stage, and that's just the last thing that I want to happen ever. A lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into making any show happen on Broadway, and that certainly happened for us. The fact of the matter is that as amazing as the accolades and the awards are, that can't really have anything to do with why you go out on stage every night… When I won a Tony Award for Spring Awakening, it absolutely changed my life, and I certainly don't take it for granted or take it lightly or pretend to say that it's all a charade or it's all nonsense. There's a lot of people who say, "Oh award season, whatever," but I still inherently believe in the magic of it because I experienced it and it meant a great deal to me… I've gotten some emails and calls from friends and peers of mine saying, "You know you were robbed." Which is very kind of them, but I certainly don't feel like I've been robbed of anything in this experience. It's been utterly rewarding and continues to be nightly. And the audiences are still coming! Can you talk about "Jonah Hex," because that sounds like an amazing cast and a big-time project. That was really something else. I was really happy to get involved in that. It comes out in just about a month; I think June 18 is the release. I've done some film, but it's traditionally been pretty low-budget affairs and smaller roles. This was definitely the first time I worked on a large-scale film, let alone an action film based on a comic book. One of things I think is going to stand it apart from other blockbusters is that they really did assemble a pretty stellar cast of actors. I'm a huge fan of John Malkovich and Josh Brolin, and Michael Shannon has got to be one of my favorite actors. He can do it all — stage, screen — he's brilliant. Michael Fassbender is an amazing British actor who is definitely well on his way to being a huge movie star. Megan Fox, and Will Arnett from "Arrested Development." It's also a very strange group for the type of film that it is. I was really lucky that they asked me to come on board. I got to go out to New Orleans and learn how to ride a horse. It was a really fun change of pace.

It's been great chatting with you. Enjoy the rest of the Ken Burns documentary My pleasure, thanks a lot. I've got Part Five to look forward to next!

Small World Gallagher has been in three plays written by David Lindsay-Abaire: the aforementioned Kimberly Akimbo, plus Fuddy Meers, and Rabbit Hole, in which he shared key scenes with Cynthia Nixon. Nixon, of course, has the "Sex in the City" sequel coming out, with her co-star, Sarah Jessica Parker, who starred in Lindsay-Abaire's Wonder of the World at MTC in 2000. Coincidentally, Lindsay-Abaire fans, take note that a production of Wonder opens May 26 at the Wings Theatre, 154 Christopher Street in Manhattan, featuring Kimberly Yates in the role originated by Parker, and Sue Galloway of TV's "30 Rock" essaying multiple roles. John Keabler, Arthur Harold and Scott Janes are the men in the cast. Go to www.moxiestreetpictureshows.com for full sked and ticket info…I first learned who Lena Horne was as a kid watching her sing with Grover on "Sesame Street." More recently I heard her majesty singing Harold Arlen's "Dat Ol' Debbil Consequence" with Eddie "Rochester" Anderson from the film "Cabin in the Sky" on an old record of Arlen's film music. She was a talent that spanned generations, to be sure. Fave Lena memories? Drop me a line.

Tom Nondorf can be reached at tnondorf@playbill.com.

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