If you’ve seen The Newsroom, you’ve fallen in love with John Gallagher, Jr.
The 29-year-old actor, with his floppy hair and nerd-cute, Everyman attractiveness, looks like the Nice Guy. As hopelessly in love news producer Jim Harper on Aaron Sorkin’s hit HBO drama, he acts like the Nice Guy. And after a brief chat with the Tony-winning stage and screen star, it becomes refreshingly obvious that it’s no ruse. John Gallagher Jr. is, in fact, the Nice Guy.
Gallagher first made a splash in New York after winning the Tony Award for his performance as an intensely nervous teen buckling under the pressures of life in the musical Spring Awakening, following up with more good notices for his turn in American Idiot, a musical based on the Green Day album of the same name, and his Newsroom role.
Now Gallagher is co-starring in the indie Short Term 12, which won both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes earlier this year at the SXSW Film Festival. Gallagher plays Mason, the long-term boyfriend and co-worker of Grace (Brie Larson), a supervisor of a foster care center for at-risk teens. The film has a nearly flawless 96 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the Village Voice calls it one of the year’s best: “a nearly perfect blend of pimple-faced naturalism, righteous moral fury, nuanced social insight, and unsentimental but devastating drama.”
Devoting himself to caring for Grace and the center’s residents with almost saint-like patience, Mason is—you guessed it—another Nice Guy, owed largely to Gallagher’s gentle, stirring portrayal. We chatted with Gallagher about Short Term 12, whether poor Jim will ever find love on The Newsroom, and what it’s like to be Hollywood’s go-to Mr. Nice Guy.
This script is obviously very special. What struck you?
I cried reading it, and that’s something that’s never happened for me. If I’m being 100 percent honest, I cried seven times. At seven different scenes. The first big cry was during the scene where my character, Mason, and Brie’s character, Grace, shaved Marcus’s head, and he reveals the story about how he kept his long because that’s where his mom used to beat him and he didn’t want anyone to see the bruises and he breaks down. The way it was written in the script—the whole film, it manages to be emotional without being overly sentimental or manipulative or maudlin or something.
Brie Larson just seems like the coolest person, and destined to breakout in a huge way soon. What was it like working with her?
What’s amazing about Brie is that she really goes for it. She very much disappeared into that role, into that character. She said in the beginning that there were going to be days when it might not be that fun to be around [her] because she’d have to go to this really dark place. So I felt in a way that our off-camera lives on set started mimicking the on-camera lives of the characters. I felt like it was my job to make sure that she was comfortable, that in between takes she had a place to sit or a coffee refill. So I kind of adopted the role of my character, not that she needed it, because she’s a perfectly capable actress and human, but I just felt the need to take care of her.
That’s interesting because, between Mason in Short Term 12 and Jim in The Newsroom, you’re being known for playing almost impossibly nice guys. That story makes it seem like you’re very much the same way.
Compassion and patience and understanding are massively important to me as a person, especially as I get older. I certainly don’t feel I possess as much as these characters, but in a weird way I have to say that I’m learning from them. I was raised in a very compassionate family where we talked about everything and we took care of each other, so that’s something that I definitely try to put forward in my life on a daily basis, whether it’s to strangers or my friends. I think life gets a lot easier if you start looking at it that way and stop maybe holding grudges and being angry. It takes less out of you at the end of the day.
I have to say it’s almost refreshing to see characters as infallibly nice as Mason and Jim, given how popular morally ambiguous anti-heroes are these days.
I agree. These are shows that I love, but you look at some of the most popular shows on TV and you have shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire, and House of Cards with really kind of tragic anti-heroes, who are very driven, self-centered, selfish, and have a closet full of skeletons. That’s great, it makes for very exciting, dramatic television, but I think it’s refreshing once and a while to see the opposite.
Are Mason and Jim too good, though?
When I read The Newsroom and when I read Short Term 12 I was thrilled to see characters that first appeared kind of saintly, but then as it went on you can kind of see why they are how they are. When you first see Mason, you think, who is that good? Who is that kind? Who is that patient? Then you get to the end of the film and he makes that toast to his foster parents, you see this is why this is realistic. This person realizes how important it is to have somebody be there for you and almost didn’t get that chance.
Then you see someone like Jim who can also be sort of unrealistic, but then you start seeing him for the professional workaholic that he is, but he’s still so naïve. He’s barely been in a relationship before. He doesn’t know how to handle himself in social situations. There are elements of it that start to reveal themselves that make the characters more believable. There’s definitely room for both, but I think it’s nice for every couple of evil characters to have a reminder that there are some people out there who are unconditionally good.
Are you rooting for a happily ever after for Jim and Maggie on The Newsroom?
Maybe I’m an idealist, but there’s a big part of that thinks they’re just going to have to get over themselves at one point and just make this happen. They’re just going to be hopeless without each other. I think that they’re soul mates.
My first introduction to you was through Spring Awakening on Broadway almost eight years ago. You guys were all so young and fresh then. Now you, Lea Michele (Glee), Jonathan Groff (Glee), and Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect) have all become huge. What’s that like to have gone through that together?
I always knew that Lea was going to be a superstar and that Jonathan was going to do great things. Everybody that touched that show was so talented and soulful and generous as people and performers. It seemed like a no-brainer. I remember being texted when Lea got Glee and I looked it up and saw the preview and was like, that makes perfect sense.
What do you remember from the night you won the Tony?
I remember very little about the actual acceptance speech. But the neat thing in a weird way about the Tony Awards is that you’re still doing the show as the awards are happening. So we did a matinee Sunday afternoon and then went straight from the matinee to the awards. There’s a scene in Spring Awakening where you find out that my character is failing out of school and it happens in a mime kind of way. Stephen Spinella and Christine Estabrook, who play the two teachers, are facing me and they would say something different every night, because they’re not mic’d. Sunday of the Tony Awards, Christine said to me something like—I wish I could remember exactly—something like “Herr Schiefel”—that’s my character’s name—“I’ve thought long and hard about this and I have one thing to say to you and one thing only: Good luck tonight.” She said to me onstage and it was amazing. I almost just started crying. And then winning was life changing. Even though I can barely remember it, I’ll also never forget it.
It seems like you were destined to perform. I read on Wikipedia, so I take that with a grain of salt, your parents were folk musicians?
It’s true. When I was growing up, and it still is a hobby, my parents get together with some friends pretty much every Wednesday night and do a song circle. My sister and I were dragged to a lot of little coffee shops and community centers and arts and craft festivals and fairs all around Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. I grew up in Delaware. Now, every time they come visit New York or I go to Delaware, it’s an hour or two before my dad breaks out his guitar and everyone starts singing. People used to tease us in Delaware and call us the Von Trapps.