Over the past two seasons, fans of Aaron Sorkin's polarizing HBO series "The Newsroom" have discovered what theatregoers and Broadway aficionados have known for years now: John Gallagher, Jr., who plays lovelorn, hyper-intuitive senior news producer Jim Harper on the show, combines boundless acting talent with an endearing, nice-guy likability that is irresistible and impossible not to love.
While he sparkles on screen, the 29-year-old, floppy-haired Gallagher got his start on the stage — capturing a Tony Award in 2007 for his powerful portrayal of tortured teen Moritz Stiefel in the hit Broadway musical Spring Awakening. He had made his Broadway debut the year before as another angst-ridden teen in David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole. Following those successes, Gallagher, who is also a musician, appeared in a diverse array of roles in productions ranging from Beau Willimon's political drama Farragut North and Jez Butterworth's transcendent British drama Jerusalem to the hit Green Day rock opera American Idiot, in which he played a stifled suburban youth grappling with anger and ennui in post-9/11 America.
Chock full of talented stage actors, the once-critically-derided "Newsroom" is in the midst of a rejuvenated second season and enjoying boosted ratings for HBO. While that's been good news for Gallagher, the actor isn't resting on those laurels. This summer, he's been busy promoting an indie project, "Short Term 12," that has the potential to be a sleeper success. The buzzed-about film captured both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best narrative feature at the South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival in March and has generated enthusiastic word-of-mouth since then. It has opened in New York and LA and will be followed by a national rollout.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, "Short Term 12" centers on the day-to-day "line staff" toiling at a foster care facility and the at-risk kids and troubled teens in their care. The film is loosely based on Cretton's own eye-opening, life-changing experience working at such a facility when he was just out of college. Gallagher plays good-hearted guy Mason. A staff member who himself was raised in a large and diverse home by loving foster parents, Mason is the patient and adoring boyfriend of Grace, the tough-as-toenails staff supervisor of the facility. While Grace (up-and-comer Brie Larson) remains fiercely devoted and protective of the kids in her care and commands great respect from them, she's struggling with a tumultuous past of her own.
Gallagher talks about the rejuvenated season of "The Newsroom," the passion-project quality of his new indie film "Short Term 12," and challenge of playing an endearing, easygoing character without many flaws.
What do you like about working on small indie films like "Short Term 12"? And what drew you to the project?
John Gallagher, Jr.: From the minute I read it, I just thought that Destin told a story via screenplay probably the best that I had ever read as an actor. I was really blown away by the script. I fell in love with all the characters and with the story. And once I got to meet Destin and talk to him, it became very quickly apparent that this was a special person and a special artist. I'm drawn to likeminded people that have a good story to tell, and we really hit it off. It was a labor of love. But as intense as a lot of the material is in the film, I don't know if I've ever had as much fun on a film set before. It was just a really great environment — and it all started with Destin, who's such a wonderful person. He picked such an intricate ensemble of not only great actors but great individuals, people that you just want to be around. And it's all the more sweet now that audiences are actually taking to the film and the word is getting out.
Why was it such a fun set to work on?
JG: It was just very relaxed. We didn't have a lot of money to make the film. And so we didn't really get to labor over things too much. You had to kind of keep it moving. We didn't get to do a ton of takes. And we didn't have a ton of time to rehearse. So there was something very easy and very freeing and fluid about the style in which it was made. But at the same time, Destin always had a very, very clear vision and was very much in control as a filmmaker. I think to be able to strike that balance of putting your stamp and putting your mark on something, which Destin clearly has done, and at the same time taking a step back and making sure that the actors have room to play. Because you get so many happy accidents that way and so many kind of naturalistic moments if you keep the heat low and the pressure off a little bit.
What kind of scripts are you usually looking for as an actor?
JG: I never have any real sense of what I'm looking for. Mostly I look for something that I would want to see, that I think I would like. When I'm reading a script, if my imagination starts getting carried away and I start imagining the film coming to life and picturing it and thinking, regardless of my involvement, is this something that I would want to go to a movie theatre and see? That's a very important part for me. And within two to three pages of "Short Term 12," I wasn't even thinking so much about how it pertained to me as an actor considering taking on a role. I was just thinking that I love the story so much and thought I want to see this happen. If it gets me excited on that base level as a film lover, then chances are it's something I'm going to really want to be available to do as an actor. So I like to just read it and see what it has to offer and see if it inspires me or not.
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