As his HBO series The Newsroom begins, Wilmington’s John Gallagher, Jr. prepares to release his first album.
This is the entire interview with Gallagher. The edited version appears in the printed edition of the November 2014 issue of Out & About.
The Newsroom, the HBO series that goes behind the scenes of a fictional New York City news show, will return on Sunday, Nov. 9. Prominent in the ensemble cast is John Gallagher, Jr., a native of Wilmington, who plays Jim Harper, a senior producer on the show. While the 30-year-old Gallagher is primarily an actor (winning a 2007 Tony for best featured actor in a musical — Spring Awakening), he’s also a talented musician, and he returned to Wilmington recently to perform at the Open Space Music Fest to benefit the Save The Valley movement, held in Bellevue Park. Photographer/Writer Joe del Tufo covered the event and later caught up with Gallagher by phone to discuss growing up in Wilmington, the tricky balance of music and acting, and the final season of The Newsroom.
Your work has often combined music and acting. If you could only choose one, would you choose acting or music?
That’s a hard one, they serve such different functions for me. If I had to pick one or the other, and I’m being frightfully honest, probably music. It’s such a part of my DNA growing up. My parents got me involved in the arts in the first place, and have performed their whole lives. It’s just such a part of who I am. It feels like family and it feels like home. In a very real way it smoothes me out and grounds me. I often tell people that I don’t know if I could do what I do as an actor if I didn’t have the release of being able to write music.
As an actor so much of the time you are waiting around. You call none of the shots, really. You wait around to see what is going to take hold and who might want to work with you and what part you might be able to get. So you have so little if any control over anything. With music there is something that is very pure about being able to say, I can pick up this guitar no matter what is going on in my life, I can sit down and make this thing happen. I can make this spark all by myself. And nobody may ever hear it, it may never get recorded, but it matters to me that I can sit down and create it. And share it with whoever wants to hear it, or just myself. There’s something about the music that is very personal. If home is where the heart is, then home is the music.
So I guess Spring Awakening was kind of a perfect storm for you since it allowed you to play both sides of that.
Definitely. And funnily enough that’s the thing that got me into Spring Awakening in the first place. I was about 20 years old, 10 years ago. I’d been living in New York for about two years, and I was trying out for a few small independent films, and off-Broadway theater. I was not on the lookout to do musicals. I got the audition notice for Spring Awakening and it said they are looking for “some younger people who are untrained and haven’t all of the voice lessons,” people who haven’t been taught the grandiose way of performing that is usually called for in musical theater. So I just went in with my guitar, and sang some Beatles songs. I really hadn’t been singing a lot at the time, so my voice was cracking and raw. It just so happened that was a benefit for them. So it was really kind of a happy accident falling into Spring Awakening that way.
And now you are on the cusp of releasing your Imaginary Album, as you referred to it during your Save the Valley set.
It was funny because I was talking to people after the show and I realized I probably didn’t do myself a favor by saying that. But it does exist. It’s recorded, it’s mixed, it’s mastered. The hardest thing is just scheduling — finding a time to put it out when I can get behind it a little bit. I don’t want it to be something I just slip out and say, “Here’s a thing you can get on iTunes.” I’d like to actually get out there and play some shows with it, and do promotion, and show people this is a real side of me. Because of the fact that there is so little control over my schedule acting-wise, it makes it a hard to thing to step up and say no I’m going to carve out the time to do this because it’s important to me.
Do you have a name for it yet?
Yes, it’s going to be called Six Day Hurricane. I can’t wait to share it with people. I’ve been doing the solo singer songwriter thing for a while. But as long as I’ve written music I’ve heard arrangements in my head, and always heard it being a little bigger and a little louder. So with the record I put a band together and fine-tune arrangements. It’s the closest I’ve come to recording music the way I hear it in my head. I’m super proud of it.
How would you describe the music to someone who hadn’t heard it before?
It’s always weird to talk about yourself in this respect. It’s pretty eclectic, a little all over the map. I’ve had people tell me it has a little bit of a throwback, kind of a ‘70s Laurel Canyon kind of sound. And then there’s some stuff that’s kind of rootsy, Americana kind of feel. And then some of it is more power pop. I drew on a bunch of different influences. What happens when you write music for years and don’t record any of it, is that all of sudden you have a wealth of songs to use when you are making a record.
A greatest hits debut album.
Exactly! And luckily I had the guy who produced the record, Tad, who was essential in helping pick the songs and making it all work together. It’s only nine songs, but there are interesting peaks and valleys. We picked some songs that might not sonically all fit together, but there’s something cohesive about it. I think, I hope… that ultimately is the goal.
Well, we’ll have to figure out how to get you back in the Arden Gild Hall at some point.
Absolutely, I’d love to. That is one of the biggest things, as soon as I put it out I have to get home and do a show. It’s always fun to come back to where I first started playing and commune with everybody.
When we first met you were performing there with Old Springs Pike way back when.
Yup, in 2007.
Are you still in touch with those guys?
Not really. They obviously went one way, and are doing their thing, which is terrific. I have nothing but support for them. But we run in some different circles now. I run into them every now and then in New York, but I haven’t seen them in a while.
Tell us a little about growing up in Wilmington. Where did you hang out, what were some of the best memories?
Growing up in Wilmington was super fun. I went to O’Friels Irish Pub a lot as a kid. It’s no longer there, but it was kind of like my dad’s clubhouse. We would see Danny Quinn and Seamus Kennedy and a lot of Irish performers, and my mom and dad would play there. That was one of the first times I saw real live music. Going to all of the gigs with my parents, at the time that was something that I took for granted. As you start getting older you realize how incredible it is. It left a big impression on me.
Discovering theater when I was about 12 or 13 was a huge deal. Doing shows at the Wilmington Drama League and the Delaware Children’s Theatre totally shaped me in so many ways. I’d had a hard time making friends in school, I was kind of shy and had a hard time finding my people and fitting it. When I started doing community theater it changed everything. And getting together with the guys in Old Springs Pike, I met Heather (Robb) when I was 12 years old and started playing music with those guys when I was about 15-16. Getting into that was massive, forming that band in high school. The first band I was in was an acoustic trio that was me, Seth Kirschner and Adam Wahlberg. The band was called Not Now Murray, from a Kids In The Hall skit. The first time we ever played was at O’Friels. And The Urban Wombat played after us, and that was Heather, James (Smith) and James (Cleare). That was their first band. It was mind-blowing meeting people, playing music, and be encouraged the way we were.
All of that was happening at the same time that I was starting to go up to New York for auditions. It was such a creative coming of age. I have so many memories of driving around in the summertime with those guys, singing songs, and playing anywhere that would have us. One summer we had a residency near Newark, a place called The Blue Crab Grill. We would play every week, which was a pretty big deal at the time.
Of course there’s The Charcoal Pit; I think I spent more time there as a kid than I did at my own house. Rita’s Water Ice. There are places that when I get home I feel like I have to go. Mrs. Robino’s. That’s one that’s in the family. My mom and dad had their wedding rehearsal dinner there. And funnily enough, doing the concert for Save the Valley, all of my memories of driving around the valley started cruising back. I told a story at the concert about my dad driving me and my mom and my sister Joanie through Beaver Valley and telling us the urban legend about this guy who had a hook for a hand. I have a vivid memory of my dad telling us that story as we drove through Beaver Valley and reaching out of his window very suddenly to knock on the side of the van as we drove along through the woods, and being totally terrified and absolutely excited at the same time.
Speaking of your parents, they are performers as well and have long been involved with the arts here. What’s the greatest lesson they taught you?
I think patience. And understanding. And kindness. Those are thing that I really place value on. And they are things I try to carry with me on a daily basis. If you try to keep a center of patience and understanding and kindness as you make your way through what can be a very rocky terrain, it serves you. Particularly when you are getting into a creative pursuit that can take you far away from home. To have some gratitude and respect about it. That was always a big thing with my parents, and it starts as small as saying please and thank you, and holding the door open for somebody.
I was really lucky that I started all of this when I was a kid. It’s a weird thing to get to 30 years old and be able to say I’ve been doing something for professionally for 15 years. I did my first off-Broadway play in New York when I was 15. And it certainly felt like work, but at the time I didn’t necessarily know that I was starting what would be a 15-year career.
Which play was that?
It was a play called Current Events, at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York City. It was written by David Marshall Grant, who now writes for a series of TV shows; last year he was writing for Nashville. The play was not terrifically received by critics in New York, but it absolutely changed my life and set the wheels into motion. It’s responsible for what happened over the next five years of my life. Making friends in theater in New York and becoming part of that community, meeting playwrights and becoming a teenage actor in New York City on stage. I was really lucky that my parents supported me. They could just easily have said no, this is a foolish notion that you want to be an actor, you need to go to school. And there would have been nothing wrong with them saying that. But their support and allowing me to pursue those things at such an early age is everything. I owe them everything.
What single moment has been the professional highlight so far?
They’ve all been so thrilling in their own way, but doing Spring Awakening was so incredible not just in the way that it affected my career, but in the way it affected me. I was about 20 years old when I started that, about 23 when I came out the other end of it. It was a three-year process of doing workshops, the off-Broadway run, going to Broadway and winning Tony Awards for the show. It was so unexpected. When I got involved with the show it was just a reading. Then the reading became a workshop, and the workshop became an off-Broadway run, which had an extended run. And then they sat us down and told us we were moving to Broadway, and we thought we’d be lucky if we could stay open for a couple of weeks because we didn’t think anyone would want to come see it on Broadway. It was a show that tackled some touchy and slightly taboo subject matter. I certainly didn’t see any of that coming. I knew it was good, and I believed in it from the beginning, but if you’d told me when I started where it would go over the next three years I would have absolutely thought that was just a pipe dream or total fantasy. You really don’t know what’s coming next. That was a ride that took me to so many unexpected places. I look back on it now and think, oh, my God, I was just a child, I had no clue what I was doing. Because I didn’t go to college, in a way those years were very formative. The Class of Spring Awakening, I look back and feel that was like my collegiate experience. So that one sticks out for sure.
And now flash forward and we’re on the cusp of the third and final season of HBO’s The Newsroom. What can you tell us about the new season?
The new season is kind of a shortened, truncated season. It’s only six episodes. I think people who are fans of the first two seasons are really going to like it. It’s obviously bittersweet that it’s not having a longer life, but I do feel like in the third season there is something really great about the way Aaron Sorkin, the writer, wraps up all of story lines and manages to infuse the character development and the personal journeys of the heroes of the show with what is happening in the world at that time. The balance between the real life news events serving as a backdrop for what is happening with the characters’ lives is done in a very graceful way. People will find it a very pleasing finale.
What has it been like working with Sorkin, and what have you learned from him?
It’s been incredible. I loved The West Wing, and I’ve been a fan of his for years. But it’s still very surreal when you find yourself on set with him shooting a pilot for his new HBO show. This is one of the numerous times in my life that I absolutely had to pinch myself. It’s incredible to work with somebody who is a wordsmith in the way he is. To have an assignment week in and week out for a five-to-six month period when you are shooting a season, to have to show up every day and really sink your teeth, quite literally, into that material. Because it is so verbose and linguistically challenging. It has been a really cool thing to be involved with, especially with an ensemble like that. It’s almost like doing a play every week. When you are doing film or televisions there is a less is more feeling that gets asserted into it, theater can be really language heavy. It’s rare (in film or television) to find characters just talking as much, the way that they do in the Aaron Sorkin universe. So being part of scenes that are imbued with such intellect and eloquence, it can be a little terrifying to do every day on set. But it’s also really fun and challenging and kind of like an intense workout. You show up for it, and you’re a little scared and tired, but if you lock into it and trust your partners and trust the writing and let it happen, you come out the other end of it with that adrenaline rush from having done it.
That dialog seems incredible challenging. I guess at a certain point you get into the flow of it.
It is like a muscle memory kind of thing. But sometimes, into the second or third season, you are like, “I’ve got this.” And then you get the next script and you realize you are having a hard time memorizing that one paragraph that won’t stick in your brain. So it really keeps you on your toes.
Give me three adjectives to describe yourself.
Oh, man. Nervous. It’s not very flattering, but it’s one thing that jumps to mind. I would love to paint a picture of myself as being the most cool, calm and collected dude on earth, but I spend a good amount of time trapped in my own head nervous about things. Interested. I am interested in talking, being talked to, listening, sharing. And grateful. Grateful to be alive, first and foremost. But deeply grateful for everyone I know and everything I have.
If you could share a stage with any performer, who would it be?
John Prine. He’s my songwriting hero.
What album are you listening to most right now?
The Jeff Tweedy album, the one with his son. I’ve been really into that. Let me look at my Spotify to see what’s in heavy rotation. This guy Anthony D’Amato just put out a great record called The Shipwreck from the Shore. That’s one I haven’t been able to stop listening to. And weirdly I went to Asbury Park a couple weeks ago, and I’m a diehard Springsteen fan, but Born In The USA, I can’t get enough of that album right now. I’ve always liked it, but something about it, it’s all I want to listen to right now. And I’ve been really into the new Ryan Adams one.
I’ll tell you what, every time I’ve come home for the last couple months I’ve been going to Jupiter Records, that record store that opened last year. That place is great! I find better stuff there than I find in New York record stores. The last time I was there I got After the Gold Rush by Neil Young, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, and Excitable Boy by Warren Zevon. Every time I’m there I end up walking out with a stack of stuff.
If you could have a do-over of anything you’ve done professionally, what would it be?
I try not to look back in a regretful way. I am a firm believer that things happen the way they are meant to. Some you come to enjoy the rough edges of things that you like you maybe didn’t do perfectly. But then you look back on it and think, no, that was the way it was supposed to be.
If you could only choose one, would you prefer to be critically acclaimed, loved by the masses or respected by your peers?
Respected by my peers. So many of my heroes are underdogs, artists that weren’t always in the limelight. I think that if you are doing it because you love it, no matter what it is, that’s a good place to operate from. But they all sound very nice.
Can you talk about the influence of Duncan Sheik, who wrote much of the music on Spring Awakening?
When Duncan’s first record came out, with She Runs Away and Barely Breathing on it, my sister Joanie got really into it. We listened to it a lot. I remember driving to Cape May and she played it in the car the whole way there. So I really liked him, but never really kept up with him until I met him and got involved with Spring Awakening. I think one thing that Duncan really opened my eyes to is the idea that nobody can really pigeonhole you but yourself. People might have claimed “that guy should have stuck to writing Top 40 pop hits,” but here’s a guy that probably had no clue when he started that he was going to end up making a big name for himself writing musicals, of all things. No one saw that coming, and I love that. Like I said before, you never know what’s coming. Which is so magical and awesome.
Let’s talk about your film Short Term 12. That was a real highlight for me in terms of films that were released last year. It’s not a film that I suspect a lot of people have seen, but certainly it’s something that has stuck with the ones who have seen it. How did it come about?
I am super proud of that film, and happy that it came out the way that it did. That’s a highlight for me as well. I had just finished season one of The Newsroom, and I was just hanging out in New York having a summer vacation. I was getting sent scripts and auditioning for some things. It was getting close to the time I was going to need to film the second season of Newsroom, and my agent emailed me the script for Short Term 12. And this never happens to me, I must have read 10-15 pages and I knew I wanted to do it. It’s really hard in a screenplay format to evoke an emotional response. Halfway through the script I had already wept at three different parts of the film. Just the way that it was written. It was so emotional and touching and rich. I could tell whoever had written it was a smart person with a lot of compassion and a lot of depth. So I ended up Skyping with the director in LA, and he ended up sending me a short film that it had been based on that had won an award at Sundance. I watched the short, 20 minutes or so, and it was incredible. The story was so alive and compelling and heartbreaking. I knew I would have jumped through any number of hoops to do that movie. Luckily enough the director had seen season one of The Newsroom, and thought that I was guy for the part. So we shot it really quick, 20 days or so, out in LA. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had making a film, just such a labor of love. Everyone who was there was there because they really wanted to make this movie. And if you have someone like Destin Cretton, you can’t go wrong. He created this set, despite the fact that this movie deals with some pretty heavy subject matter, that was like a playground. It was amazing watching these kid actors — young, probably 13-14, doing their first thing. And the maturity they displayed bringing these characters to life was astounding, mesmerizing. It was moving to me as I suddenly found myself standing there thinking wow, I was about that age when I was getting my toe in and thinking I might want to try doing that. So it had this full circle kind of feel.
I tell a lot of people that Short Term 12 could be a companion piece to the original Spring Awakening play. It’s a similar story about the challenges of growing up and fitting in, of broken homes and families. Those works act as windows into things that seem like “young person” problems, but by the end of it are actually human problems. That everybody is struggling in their own way, and how everyone needs a home and family.
You make movies like these and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Whether everyone or no one is going to see it. And this one got into the South By Southwest Film Festival, and most of the cast and crew flew out to Austin, and we ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize. We couldn’t believe it. It’s similar to how Spring Awakening happened. You start these things with no idea what’s going to become of them, and it’s a tremendous feeling to pour your heart into something and realize that it resonates. Then you suddenly realize that we are all in it together and feeling the same thing.