John Gallagher Jr. On ‘The Best Script He’s Been Sent in 14 Years’ (And It’s Not By Aaron Sorkin)

Short Term 12Cinedigm

Fans of The Newsroom have fallen in love with John Gallagher Jr. as the charming, occasionally bumbling Jim Harper. And Spring Awakening fans get to claim that they “loved him before it was cool,” having seen his Tony Award-winning performance as Moritz Stiefel on Broadway in 2006. But in Short Term 12, an intense, emotional film by writer/director Destin Cretton, we’re treated to a whole new side of Mr. Gallagher. 

Gallagher plays Mason, a supervisor at a group foster care facility who is in a relationship with Grace (played by the fabulous Brie Larson), another supervisor with a dark past. While the movie primarily focuses on Grace and her demons, Mason can hardly be called a secondary player. He is a supporting character only in the most literal sense of the word — he is the film’s rock, its foundation, buoying Grace and the children they care for up in their moments of despair and confusion. Mason, thanks to Gallagher’s heartfelt portrayal, is a guy you feel you can relate to and who you desperately want in your life. spoke with Gallagher about his experience on the film — including how he built an on-screen relationship with Larson so believable it had me Googling whether it carried on once the cameras stopped rolling — as well as the harsh critique of his other current project, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newroom. 

Note: This interview contains plot spoilers for Short Term 12. Go see the movie — immediately — and then come back and read this. How did you become involved with Short Term 12 and what appealed to you about the project?
John Gallagher Jr.: I read the script and I knew within five to 10 pages that it was something really, really special and very, very rare. It’s not very often that a screenplay is able to move a reader. Just by the nature of how they’re written, sometimes they can be kind of scientific or clinical. A novel or a piece of music or a play even can do something different on the page, the way it evokes emotion, but I have never read a screenplay that was so concise emotionally. The passion just poured right off the page and the characters came to life in my head immediately. Halfway through the script I realized that I had been moved to tears four or five times at completely different scenes by different characters and that told me all I needed to know about [writer and director] Destin [Cretton] and his ability to walk that fine line emotionally, and be able to have these moments that were so very rich and so very real and so very effective and sad and happy but that never once teetered over the edge into becoming melodramatic or manipulative. Then I watched the short film that it was based on and, as if I didn’t have enough faith and belief in Destin, that took it to a whole other level. To see what he did — I think it’s under 20 minutes, the short film that he originally did — that was so incredible, so I absolutely, at that point, said I would jump through any hoop to get this part.

Most often I read something as an actor and I think, “I can’t do that.” And that’s what makes me want to do it, the terror. But every now and then, you’ll read something and you just think, “I think I know how to play this guy. If they give me the chance, I think I know how to do this.” And this is one of those situations where I thought I had a pretty good idea of how to do it and then it just so happened that Destin and I met eye-to-eye completely on that. I Skyped with Destin for about 40 minutes and we totally hit it off, and a couple days later they asked me if I wanted to come to L.A. to do it. And I said, “Absolutely.” It was a dream come true. It is probably the best script that I been sent, ever, for a screenplay in 13, 14 years of auditioning as an actor.

And that’s a list that includes Sorkin!
Yeah… I should say “film scripts” before I get in trouble. It was definitely the best film script I’ve ever read, and the fact that I got to do it and the fact that now people are seeing and responding to it so positively, I pinch myself on a regular basis about it.

Mason’s relationship with Larson’s Grace is so real and believable. I couldn’t believe that Brie said you only barely met before filming.
Yeah we met only a couple days before we started shooting. There’s something really amazing about the way Destin did it. He’s so smart in this way that he emailed me … and said, “I think it would be really good if you and Brie got together before we started shooting. I know there’s not a lot of time.” Her schedule is kind of crazy, I was just getting [to L.A. from New York], but we managed to carve out an evening where we just went out to dinner and we met each other and talked a bit. Destin had dropped off an envelope at my apartment that was filled with these little strips of paper that he had ripped up; it was just a grab bag of assorted topics and conversation starters. And whenever our own natural conversation would start to run dry during the dinner, we would take turns digging out a little strip of paper. There were things on them such as, “Talk about your fears and hopes about being a parent one day,” “How do you think Grace and Mason started dating?”, “What was their first date like?”, so we were just talking very casually about these things and sharing our own stories of our childhood and things that we remember about being a child. Being taken care of, family, and then throughout there, would also be little practical things about backstory and history for these characters. So by the end of the dinner, without it ever feeling like a chore or feeling like work, all of a sudden we had a life for these two characters and a life together so we took that on set with us. [Brie] is such a naturalistic, wonderful actress and Destin encouraged that kind of believability and the way we approached a lot of those scenes, we all just saw eye-to-eye on it. That’s great to hear though, you always want it to feel like the realest thing possible.

The whole movie felt so real in a way that I haven’t seen on film before. So, congratulations!
Thank you! Someone told us the other day that if it weren’t for the fact that they recognized a couple of the actors — like if it weren’t for the fact that they’d seen me on TV or seen Brie in other films — they would have thought it was a documentary or … they hired the people that actually do this. That’s fantastic talk.

It was interesting talking to Keith Stanfield; he said he purposely avoided making connections with you guys during filming. How was that from your point of view?
What was amazing about it was how smart that was. This was his first acting job other than the short film, and he’s the only person to return from the short film to the feature, and it was so smart the way he did it. He wasn’t showing off about being a method actor and he wasn’t purposely being rude. He just made it very clear from day one that this was his kind of mission statement for the role, that he wanted to stay in it the whole time and create that feeling of being disconnected from us and being slightly mistrustful and slightly weary. We would be having lunch — and we shot at this location that was once a foster care facility and now it’s used for other things — but they would set up tables and chairs outside in the field that you see in the film for us for lunch, and Keith would be at a table by himself over at the far end. We would go over to sit down there and he would pick up his lunch and go somewhere else. Then you would go do these scenes with him and they came to life so instantly because that was all we knew of him. At that point [in the film] when I knock on his door and ask if he wanted to share some of his rap lyrics with me, that was the first time I talked to him that day, so it felt very alive, real, and those moments with him just crackled to life in a way that they may not have had he not had the insight and the proactive nature to go for it in that sense. So much of the magic of his performance and what happens when he’s on camera is because he was 100% committed. It was amazing to watch.

You mentioned the rap scene, which is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Keith is so incredible in it, and it was such a close shot.
Yeah, we did several takes but they used one. The whole rap is done in that one take.

I loved Mason’s line at the end of it when he says, “I don’t know what to say.” I was wondering if that was in the script?
That’s actually a really good question. I’ll have to check on that. That might be an added line.

The whole time Marcus was rapping I kept wondering what on Earth Mason was going to say at the end. 
I didn’t know how to respond in that moment. Being moved to a loss of words is a very profound thing that happens kind of regularly, especially in a moment like that. We’ll have to check with Destin [as to whether it was in the script]. I don’t know where it is, but the script is online somewhere, the original screenplay for the feature. Maybe we can look it up online before you leave so we can have a proper answer for that. [Editor’s Note: This didn’t happen…] If it was an improv, and I can’t remember if it is, I certainly wouldn’t want to claim credit without knowing for sure.

I thought it was such a great response because, especially with Marcus, a big theme is, “You don’t understand me. Don’t pretend like you know exactly what I’m going through.” So you can’t really say that. 
It’s a respect thing, too. It’s like, “I’m just going to tell you that I don’t know what to say now because I’m not going to play the adult and pretend like I have answer, pretend like I can tell you what to do next with all these emotions and with this dramatic past that you had.” I think, in a way, that’s Mason’s way of giving understanding and respect: “I’m going to be upfront with you. I don’t know how to respond.”

Was there a scene that was particularly difficult for you to film or one that you were nervous about filming going into it?
Yeah, the break-up scene in the parking lot with Brie and I where you think it might be over for us. That was a bit of a challenge. That was one that we actually had to do a couple passes at. And we actually did a reshoot of that scene because we shot it once and there was something too fraught about it. In the original draft, my response is much more verbose and I go off on many more tangents when I’m talking to her about feeling that she doesn’t trust me and waiting for her to tell me what it is that happened in her life. It was too much and it caused me to go over the top and become a little too fraught and a little too angry with her, which is not something you really want to see at that point in the film, so it turned more into a fight that Grace and Mason were having, where it’s not. Some very hurtful things happen obviously, and Mason, at the end of the conversation, does throw his hands in the air and say, “This is the end.” It’s not, obviously, as you find out, but it might be in that moment. I think when she says, “I can’t be with you. I can’t have your baby,” I think that’s the worst thing you can hear.

We took another stab at it, thankfully, and we cut some lines and we paired down what actually gets communicated because there’s enough there in the final scene. He says enough, and there was some added stuff that we sat down, Brie, Destin, and I sat down on a floor after we had done it a few times and said, “Do we need to start from scratch?” And we did. We went through and both made suggestions, all three of us had suggestions, and we both basically rewrote the whole scene with pens on our scripts and most of what you see in that final cut of the feature is the stuff that we did together, so it had that really great kind of collaborative feeling, which was good because I had walked into that scene being really, really scared, feeling like I didn’t know exactly how to do it. But through trial and error, I felt like all three of us collectively reached a good result by working together, which is, at the end of the day, what you hope for.

Brie was telling me that the day that you filmed the scene where she finds Marcus was the hardest day for her. Do you have a scene that really hit home or affected you?
Yeah. The last day the we shot was the whole scene at the anniversary party for my foster parents, so we shot all of that on the last night of shooting, the proposal when I propose to Grace, when I toast my foster parents, and you find out a lot about my backstory, and that was a hard one because I hate good-byes and I hate endings. It was perfect in a way because that’s one of the loveliest moments in the film and we ended on that note. That really was perfect and very, very smart of Destin because everybody walked away from it with absolute love and affection and positivity in our hearts. That was really tough because you go to that beautiful, vulnerable place and then to have to drive home alone at 3:00 in the morning and go to your empty apartment and sit there after feeling so connected and part of a family, to just go and sit with yourself can be like a crash landing. It can be so depressing — and it was. It had been this amazing experience and all of a sudden it’s 4:00 in the morning and I’m sitting on the couch watching mindless TV and feeling so sad that you’re gonna have to put this thing to bed and say good-bye to it. That can be super traumatizing sometimes. At the end of the day it was a good experience because I know I had done something that, no matter what happened next with it, I knew that I could be proud of it. And lo and behold, what happened next was so amazing, going to SXSW and realizing that I was right about this. This is going to affect people in a good way.

There were a few moments in the movie where I was worried that it would go too far into melodrama, but it never did. I expressed this to my boyfriend, who saw it with me, and he just said, “It’s not that kind of movie,” which is right. How do you think it walks the balance between hopefulness and the potential for really terrible stuff to happen?
That’s great to hear. That’s what we want. You want to be able to have it feel very real and you want to resist the toppling over the edge into becoming manipulative or melodramatic. But with that said, it does end on a very hopeful note, getting the sense that maybe it’s going to be okay and maybe there’s hope and happiness in the future for these kids, and that life will go on, but at the same time without telling you what happens. In the kind of Hollywood blockbuster version of this drama, this might be one of these films where right before the credits roll, it says, “Sammy served the next five years,” and there would be these little addendums and epilogues. So you don’t actually know what happens to any of these kids. Right now you find out at the end that Marcus is in a good place. He got out and he’s dating someone, but at the same time, you don’t know what’s going to happen a year from then. It’s a lot like addicts, in a way, where someone has a vice that’s a danger to them and so they give it up, but it’s a day-to-day process that’s going to last for the rest of their lives. And I think that anyone that’s in recovery, it’s a similar struggle, so there isn’t a magical “Oh the veil is lifted and now I’m fine.” I think that the film captures that in a way that you know that, in this moment, Jayden got help and is going to be removed from a traumatic and abusing situation. Marcus got out, and it looks like he’s going to have a shot at a good, normal life, and, at the very least, you know Luis is happy because he’s hanging in his room and throwing a ball against the wall which is all he really needs. And then Sammy is having this triumphant superhero with the American flag moment of running through the field and you actually see him smiling and enjoying it.

Right. It felt a bit like we were watching Sammy play the game that he described in the beginning. What at the beginning was so sad and intense —his trying to run away — is now a game.
Yeah and they kind of play it with him and are able to take joy in that moment and in that ritual, so everybody does have kind of a happy moment at the end. But I think it’s not definitive in a way which I think is helpful to remember that this is an ongoing thing and tomorrow is going to be a different day. Tomorrow might be a much harder day for everyone. But it’s very brave, I think, to stand up and tell a story where you’re not afraid to end it on a hopeful note. There’s a lot of snark and irony and coldness and too-cool-for-school kind of mentality that permeates a lot of film now, especially in independent film. I was thrilled to find something with Short Term 12 that was very unapologetically emotional and hopeful, but I never felt manipulated by it while I was reading the script and that’s the thing, you just said it yourself by saying “it’s not that kind of movie,” that really goes back to Destin. That’s what he created. It all trickled down through us, the actors and everyone who worked on the film, so that’s one of the highest praises that we can be told. So, thank you.

Something we’ve talked a lot about with the script was the subtlety of it, and how a lot of the emotion and action was in-between the words. What was it like to go back to Sorkin [on The Newsroom] where everything is written, written, written?
It was a strange awakening for sure. It had been really nice to be able to be doing something where the pressure of being word perfect was not on in the way it is on a set for Aaron Sorkin material. It’s such entirely different kinds of writing that they do so it’s kind of like wearing different hats, so it took me a little while, I think, during Season 2 of The Newsroom to get back into that rhythm, because it’s very musical, and Aaron writes in a way that every word is chosen very, very, very perfectly. Whereas Destin writes in a way where he’s like, “I don’t know if this is the perfect word. If you want to try a different one try it and if it doesn’t ring true I’ll tell you to go back to the other one,” so there’s room to go out on a limb and try other things. That room doesn’t exist on an Aaron Sorkin project. He’s a much more scientific kind of writer. But I find challenges and joys in performing both kinds of work.

The first season of the Newsroom had very mixed reviews. Going back for Season 2, did that criticism change the way you approached things?
Not really. Not for me. I think the person that has to deal with that the most is Aaron, who writes everything. He’s always been kind of a lightning rod for people’s opinions, especially politically. There’s a big divide in the world about what people believe politically and he taps into that a lot and so he gets very strong reactions. For me as an actor, the thing that I have to remember is to tell the truth as I best know how to do it. And, whatever that truth is, tap into it as it exists in the text and try to be honest about it and tell a real story and then see what happens after it’s out in the world and let the chips fall as they may. The liberating part is now when it’s actually airing, when it’s out and I have several months of distance from having shot it. Now I love just having it out there in the world and knowing whether it’s positive or negative, it’s going to be inspiring conversations until the season ends. As long as people are talking about it, it’s a great thing.

So, I’m not going to lie, I was a huge fan of Spring Awakening fan and you were great in that. And you’ve been able to transition gracefully from stage to film — in both movies and TV. So many stage actors are so over the top. How do you think you avoided doing that? Did you train to go into film?
No I didn’t, but I was a lover of film my whole life. And when I started doing theater as a child, I don’t think I’ve ever done a play where I wasn’t told to be louder and be bigger, so I think naturalistically, my impulse has always been to underplay things and downplay things, and to be a little more quiet, a little bit more intimate, and draw people in and let them do the heavy lifting in a way. Not that I’m trying to shirk a duty or a responsibility but I think it’s much more effective when you feel like you can kind of come into it in a way that just happens and feels very natural in that sense. Film and television is a leap that I was happy to make and doing things on camera where it does requires you to take a little bit more subtle liberties was super refreshing and very liberating. It is something that comes very naturally to me. Being on stage is something that I grew into, in a way, and I think my time on stage was super informative in the way that I approached film and television. It took a while for it to happen, but I think it all happened at the right time. I don’t know that I would have been ready for a film like Short Term 12 four years ago. I don’t know if I would have been ready for a show like The Newsroom when I was 23 or 24. It really wasn’t until 27, 28, the last few years, where I actually felt like the opportunities that started coming my way were finally the opportunities that I was ready for.

And are you still working on music?
Yeah, I write music. I recorded some music in the fall and I want to try to get it online some time soon. But anytime I have spare time [I work on music]. I play at this place Rockwood Music Hall a lot here in the city when I can. I haven’t done one yet since getting back from L.A. or the second season of The Newsroom, but I’m always playing guitar and working on songs. It’s a huge outlet for me; I’d go crazy without it.

Short Term 12 is playing in limited release now and opens nationwide Aug. 30.

Keith Stanfield Teaches Us About Rapping and the Beauty of Life 
‘Short Term 12’ Director Reveals Intense Story Behind the Film 
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