This past Sunday, the series finale of The Newsroom aired on HBO after three seasons spanning over two and a half years. On Monday afternoon, DOWNTOWN grabbed coffee with John Gallagher Jr., the actor who plays lovable senior producer Jim Harper, to discuss his role on the show, his life in New York and most importantly, his music.
After an attempt at grabbing drinks at the 11th Street Bar in the East Village, we realized we would have to head elsewhere since it wouldn’t be opening for another hour. By the time we got to our new coffee shop destination, I had already learned a little bit more about the multi-talented performer. Born and raised in Delaware, Gallagher has always had a passion for music. Check out DOWNTOWN’s interview with the American actor and musician below to learn a little bit more about his life and to see where his adventures will take him next.
DOWNTOWN: So tell me about your band. I tried researching it and I cannot find much information. I think I found an old name but I’m honestly not even sure…
John Gallagher Jr.: (laughs) Yeah there’s not a lot out there. It’s just Johnny Gallagher, that’s what I go by mostly when I play. Sometimes I play alone and do solo shows and do the whole singer/songwriter kind of thing, and at other shows I have a band that does the rock and roll/electric kind of thing. But now, I write all the songs and it’s a solo affair. Even when I have the band and it’s sort of a collaborative effort, I write the songs and it’s just sort of me with a back up band. It’s kind of like Bruce Springsteen…not really, just kidding…I’ll never be as good as him.
DOWNTOWN: Hey well that’s a good act to live up to. Living in New Jersey right now I can completely appreciate the Bruce Springsteen love.
JGJ: Oh absolutely. It’s sort of the Jersey pride. That’s actually part of the reason why I went to Asbury Park over the summer to get a little closer to the music there. They say that he’s still very active there when he goes home. He is very much a pillar of the community. When I was there, I went to some of the bars and hung around and you know obviously everybody there has a “Springsteen” story. But anyway, the music is definitely something that I feel like most people don’t know about me. The acting is the most often recognizable thing I do between the Broadway credits and of course because of The Newsroom.
DOWNTOWN: Speaking of The Newsroom, how about that series finale last night…Do you miss it?
JGJ: I know right! It’s all over. We finished filming that in July so it feels like it’s been over for a while now. As far as missing it, I do and I don’t. I miss the people that I got to work with and I miss the adrenaline rush that comes with being a part of an ensemble like that. The dialogue was always very exciting, but I get bored very easily and I’m always ready to move on to the next thing. So the three-season thing was perfect for me. It definitely changed my life in a lot of ways. It’s helped me get more film roles which is something that, I don’t want to say I was struggling with in the past, but it didn’t come as easily. It put me out there more and it has afforded me some other great opportunities. The Newsroom was filmed in Los Angeles, that’s where Aaron Sorkin lives, but we would shoot some exterior stuff here in New York because we wanted it to feel believable and realistic. So I’ve spent the last three years kind of half and half in New York and in Los Angeles so it feels so nice to be back in New York.
DOWNTOWN: Do you think New York is going to be home for a while?
JGJ: I think so. I’ve been here since I was 18 years old and it feels very much like home to me now, but that’s the weird thing about life as an actor. There is so much traveling. It’s only really this year that I’ve started to sit down and think ‘Where do I want to be? Where do I really want to be based?’ Because it’s just been four years of sublets and temporary apartments. So I really want to pick a place and settle down and make it my own.
DOWNTOWN: How do you see your music playing a role in your future?
JGJ: In a lot of ways I feel like music is my truest passion. I grew up in a very musical family. My mom and dad play music as a hobby and they nurtured me and my sisters on music. It was a big form of expression and communication in our household growing up. So naturally, I’ve been playing guitar and writing songs since I was 15 and in a lot of ways it pre-dates my experience as an actor. Acting is interesting because it’s a form of expression, but it’s filtered. Because the expression is filtered through a director and a producer and a writer and a camera crew…there is less of me in it. Music is a way for me to be like ‘Well there is no filter, this is just me and a guitar’ and it’s my head and my thoughts and my voice and my writing, straight from me to the audience, whoever that may be. It’s very liberating and that’s why it’s so important to me.
DOWNTOWN: So would you rank your interests: 1) Music 2) Broadway and 3) Acting? Because you pretty much cover every spectrum.
JGJ: (laughs) No but it’s funny that you say that because I haven’t done a play in about four years and I really want to get back on stage. I just saw On The Town yesterday on Broadway because my friend Alicia is in it, she’s tremendous, and it was really exquisite. It’s an old-fashioned, classical Broadway musical that they’ve done a revival of. I was sitting in the audience and I was like ‘Wow this is pretty awesome, it makes me want to go back.’ It’s very compelling. But you know, acting is more of an umbrella term to me. Whether you’re doing a TV show, a movie or a play, they’re obviously all so different but at the same time they’re all a part of the same family. It’s hard to rank what I love more. Music certainly feels a little truer, especially because I write all of it myself so I have a real ownership over it. What I love about acting is…well…I was never really much of an athlete so I haven’t really been able to be a part of a team playing sports or anything at any point in my life, but when you’re acting you really do feel like you’re part of a team and it is awesome.
DOWNTOWN: Have you had big audiences when playing your music?
JGJ: It’s pretty hit or miss since I don’t do a lot of promotions and I don’t have a website or anything yet. The goal for me in the next year is to take some time to put that forward. I recorded a record, I have it, it’s made and it’s mastered and ready to go, but I just have yet to release it. I’m hoping for Spring 2015 and if I’m lucky I’ll be able to pull that off. My inability to make that happen is nobody’s fault but my own in the sense that I just have to sit down and make the time for it. I’ve been fortunate enough in the last couple years to not have a lot of free time because I’ve been experiencing a fortunate amount of work and success. I just need to cut out the time and make myself available for it. My audience is pretty modest, mild and small in their size, but they’re loyal. Despite the fact that I’ve never put out a CD, they know every word to certain songs just by coming back to the shows and by watching YouTube videos. My goal is to make my music something that I put up front a little more because it really is important to me.
DOWNTOWN: So besides the music, do you have any other big projects coming up?
JGJ: We finished filming Valencia right before Thanksgiving, so since then I’ve just been kind of hanging out. Every time you finish a job as an actor it’s a little bit terrifying because you don’t know what the next one is going to be, or when it’s going to be. I do like to find things to do in my downtime. I’ve been getting into playwriting the last couple years. When I was a kid I thought I wanted to be a screenwriter for a while but I didn’t follow through on that. A couple of years ago, as kind of a test project to myself, I wanted to see if I could write a play, so I started one. I just went for it and decided not to look back and that was two years ago. It’s done but I’m still working on it. It’s probably my seventh or eight draft now. I’ve done some workshops and some readings of it and in the midst of that, I started working on another play. I truly have no idea what the future holds for those, but I do enjoy doing it and I would love seeing productions of them get done somewhere. I know there are a lot of off-Broadway theatres where I’ve worked in New York that I can’t help but fantasize about getting them done there. I am very much just starting out in the art-field, and I know I have a lot to learn. I know it’s not one of those things where just anybody can sit down and write a play, so I definitely don’t have any delusions of grandeur thinking I deserve to have my plays produced, but I would love to see one done someday. Working on writing plays has been thrilling, terrifying and a neat new prospect in my life.
DOWNTOWN: So you currently live in the East Village. Do you have any favorite places downtown?
JGJ: I’m new to this area in particular; I’m subletting a place in this neighborhood as of this summer so I still feel a bit like an outsider. I think the East Village is definitely a destination for nightlife, hanging and partying, especially on the weekends. This probably has to do with the fact that there are a lot of campuses around here, NYU for example. So I do feel that on Friday and Saturday the area definitely comes to life a lot more than during the week. I do love Jesse Malin. He was in a punk band for years and he still writes and records his own creative music, but anyway I met him through Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day because I did American Idiot a couple years ago and I got closer with Billie and met a few of his friends, Jesse Malin was a buddy of his. Jesse lives around here and co-owns a couple of really cool bars in the area, in particular, Niagara over on 7th street behind Avenue A and also Bowery Electric. I’ve played there and Rockland Music Hall, that’s a place I’ve been playing downtown since probably 2006 or 2007 shortly after they opened in either 2004 or 2005. They started as a very modest singer/songwriter club and they have since expanded to two other spaces and two other bars so now they have three stages, and I’ve played them all! Those are some really fun spots, all of Jesse Malin’s bars are really fun. There’s also Lovers of Today and Cabin Down Below, which are two fun downtown spots, and then he also co-owns a bar on 10th and Avenue B called Dream Baby. The South Street Seaport does pretty cool concerts sometimes in the summertime. I was in a band once and we played a show down by the Seaport. They used to have the Spiegeltent which was this old, wooden, performance venue that really looked like an old circus tent. This was back in 2007 and Joseph Gordon Levitt actually opened for us. He knew the promoter that put the show on, they were friends, and he was like ‘Hey my friend Joe wants to play some songs before your band’ and I was like ‘Okay, sure great!’ and he just got up and played some songs. He even did a Madonna song!
DOWNTOWN: Can you name one of the most life changing experiences you’ve had, in any of the industries?
JGJ: The Newsroom has definitely altered my path in a lot of ways. The actors were all tremendous. One of the things I love about Jeff Daniels as a performer is he is constantly surprising people and leaping the expectations that people have for him. The fact that he was able to do seasons 1, 2 and 3 of The Newsroom and also do the Dumb & Dumber sequel in the midst of all that is pretty impressive, especially since they’re two completely different personalities. He’s a hero of mine. But truly across the board, all of my experiences have been great. I did this musical eight years ago called Spring Awakening and that was a big move for me. It was my second show on Broadway but it was what really got me some recognition and notoriety that I didn’t have before, and it started me on a path doing more plays and then ultimately led to me being able to get some roles for film and television. So that was certainly one that set a lot of wheels into motion for me.
DOWNTOWN: The Heart Machine was your most recent movie, correct? When you get these roles, do people reach out to you or do you reach out to them?
JGJ: I did The Heart Machine and a mini-series for HBO called Olive Kitteridge. They both came out right around the same time. Olive Kitteridge aired in early November and The Heart Machine just came out. It got a very limited theatrical release, but it is also currently available on iTunes and Video On Demand if anyone is interested. It’s a great film and 70% of it was actually shot downtown in New York City’s, East Village. But yeah, they reached out to me. That’s the way it’s mostly been happening lately. I get scripts sent to me, often by independent filmmakers that have seen The Newsroom or Short Term 12, a film I did a couple years ago that won the grand jury prize and the audience prize at SXSW Film Festival 2013. I got sent a script when I was filming the second season of The Newsroom and it was called The Heart Machine written by a great guy named Zachary Wigon who wrote and directed it. It’s a modern film about a guy and a girl who meet on a dating website and they start dating and skyping but the guy lives in New York and the girl lives in Berlin, Germany. They embark upon a long distance relationship despite the fact that they’ve never met in person. Throughout the course of the movie, my character becomes convinced that the girl is not being honest and that she is actually in New York so my character sets off on a paranoid Odyssey through New York to see if he can track this girl down and catch her in the act of deceiving him rather than just saying something to her. It’s a cool movie that has a lot to say about how we relate to each other and what technology has done to relationships.
DOWNTOWN: So now you’re just relaxing through the holidays?
JGJ: Yeah I’m headed back to Delaware to see my family and my sisters. I have two sisters, one lives in Los Angeles and the other lives here in New York and is a schoolteacher.
DOWNTOWN: Do you get to see the one in New York often?
JGJ: Not as often as I’d like. Sometimes I think I’m busy but then I remember the life of a teacher. It’s essentially the same hours you keep working on a television show but it’s a whole different kind of work that’s for sure. You have to be a saint.
DOWNTOWN: Have you had to work any jobs in between your performing and acting career to hold you over? How did they go?
JGJ: You know luckily I haven’t, but in a way I feel like playing my free gigs sort of is. I play a lot of free shows and sometimes you pass around a donation jar or a tip jar and there have been times when that tip jar has come right when I needed it. You don’t make a fortune doing plays on Broadway and you don’t make a fortune doing independent films, but I’m keeping my head above water though which is all that matters! Back in the day I did some catering and I was really awful at it. I catered at a Montessori school in Brooklyn once when I was like 21. It did not go well. I got really drunk. Everybody did! Back in the staging area they had all this wine open and all the caterers were just like ‘Here have some wine!’ And I was 21 so of course I was like ‘Okay!’ But also I’m not fast. I would be an awful bartender because I think I’m really slow. I actually started as a bartender with the catering gig and I couldn’t open bottles of wine fast enough and I couldn’t mix drinks quickly enough so then they moved me over to the staging area. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least, one that thankfully for the patrons I didn’t do ever again. However the caterers did all go to karaoke afterwards so all in all it was a fun experience.
DOWNTOWN: Out of all the movies you’ve done so far, which was your favorite?
JGJ: It’s hard to pick because they’re all so different. They’ve all given me gifts in a variety of ways. I had a really special time making Short Term 12. It was really amazing getting to meet and work with Destin Cretton, the guy who wrote and directed it. I think he’s a phenomenal filmmaker and he’s going to be a filmmaker that years from now people are going to still be talking about.
DOWNTOWN: Have you been able to incorporate music into your roles at all?
JGJ: Last night I actually got to play some music on The Newsroom series finale. Aaron Sorkin figured out in Season One that Jeff Daniels and I both play so he had us play on the show a couple times. We did it once very briefly in Season One and then we did again for Season Three. So that was kind of a neat worlds colliding, paths crossing kind of moment. Aaron liked it so much he insisted we work it into the show. So that was really fun being able to go into the studio with Jeff to learn the song. When we played it on the set that was one of our last days of filming and so it was really special for all of us.
DOWNTOWN: How did it feel on set when one of the main characters in the show, Charlie Skinner, passed away?
JGJ: Devastating! It felt very real. When you’re acting like that stuff is actually happening it feels very tragic. We all know it’s not really happening but that character is such a joy, and Sam Waterston as a person is just an absolute delight, so it weighed heavily on everybody’s heart when it came time to read that script and realize that was where the story was going. It was heavy for sure. But it did help wrap up the story as a whole.
DOWNTOWN: How was it working with Aaron Sorkin?
JGJ: Oh, it was great. It’s a luxury to wrap your head and your mouth around his dialogue. He started as a playwright and so it has that kind of classical element to it where it really feels like you’re digging into a piece of music or something. There’s something addictive about it. I loved The West Wing and I never really thought what it would be like to be a regular on one of his shows. When it came time to try out for the pilot back in 2011, I did the scene a couple times for my audition in my apartment and it’s an adrenaline rush. Suddenly you’re like ‘Oh that’s fun to say! I want to do more of that.’ It’s kind of like the same way you feel when you pick up a guitar for the first time. ‘Oh this is really fun, I think I want to get better at this.’ The pacing and the timing are very important so you kind of have to bring your a-game.
DOWNTOWN: The Newsroom seems to have a major cult following but then it also has avid critics. Why do you think that is?
JGJ: I think Aaron Sorkin’s writing, I absolutely love it, but I think and understand that it can have a polarizing effect. It has happened in the past. If you look at the history of his television series, despite the fact that The West Wing was a critically acclaimed show that won tons of awards, there have been people that have said ‘That meal isn’t for me, that’s not my taste.’ So I understand that in the same way that some people like things that others don’t. It’s never come as much of a surprise to me because they’re really is nobody else that does anything quite the way he does. He has a distinct style, a speed, a tone and that is a trait that reminds me of certain guitar players. You can hear it from across the room and be like ‘Oh that’s Keith Richards!’ or ‘Oh that’s Jimi Hendrix.’ You can hear a piece of his dialogue and go ‘Oh that’s Aaron Sorkin!’ He has a calling card. He touches on subjects and topics that are very modern, relevant and sometimes controversial. Sometimes people are scared to touch those subjects, and sometimes people have very visceral reactions. But you know, I think that’s great. I think we need more art like that. Anything that gets people talking is beneficial at the end of the day and it’s been really cool to be a part of something that does that.
DOWNTOWN: Who are some of your big musical influences?
JGJ: I was raised on a lot of folk music. My parents have been taking me and my sisters to folk concerts since I was a kid. I grew up listening to a lot of John Prine who is probably my favorite singer/songwriter. My parents covered a lot of his music and for years I thought my parents wrote all these songs. My parents would play music by Woody Guthrie, John Prine, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel and the list goes on and on. For years I thought these were all my parents songs.
DOWNTOWN: Were you devastated when you found out the truth?
JGJ: No! Because it meant that I had this whole other world to go to and discover. It meant I had to go buy all of John Prine’s records and track down the songs I loved. He has definitely become one of my biggest influences. There’s never a wrong moment to listen to a John Prine song. He is a songwriter that just absolutely captures the human experience in such an effortless way. Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen both cite him as being a huge influence on them. So it’s a chain of influences. Everybody that writes songs, whether we like it or not, is part of a continuum. As far as modern artists go, I really like the Avett Brothers. I’ve seen them about 10 times. I saw them in 2005 back when they were just a trio and they played at a folk festival in Philadelphia when they were on a small independent label out of North Carolina where they’re from and I was like ‘These guys are going to be stars.’ I just knew it. It was one of the most incredible shows I had ever seen. Titus Andronicus is one of my favorite bands; they’re a New Jersey band. I almost got injured at one of their shows. I saw them in Los Angeles and somebody leapt off the stage and almost landed on my head, it was great. The lead singer Patrick Stickles, I don’t know how his brain functions the way that it does, but the songwriting is masterful. Their second record is an allegory loosely based around The Civil War so there’s some quotes from Lincoln on that album in the beginning an ends of some of the songs, but they’re definitely one of my favorites. Another New Jersey guy who I like, I played a show with him a couple months ago, Anthony D’Amato. He just put out a record a couple months ago. Dawes is a really good band. The Japandroids are great.
DOWNTOWN: They were at Bonnaroo a few years ago. That’s another great place to get your face out there and your music recognized.
JGJ: Well hey, I’m waiting for them to call me! I’ve been to South by Southwest, which has a film portion of the festival and a music portion of the festival. They’re kind of separate festivals but they do overlap. The film festival starts and then ends right as the music part is beginning so there’s always a funny transition moment when you’re there. If you’re there for the movie part, there’s a lot of film nerds and as it switches over to music there’s a lot more leather, more cigarette smoking, more tattoos and suddenly you can see the nerdy filmmakers getting chased out by all the rock ‘n’ rollers coming in. It’s really funny actually. I’ve never been to Bonnaroo but I have been to Coachella. I went last year just for one night to see The Replacements, you know because they’re probably top five rock ‘n roll bands of all time. It was awesome. I was gonna go see them with Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day because I was in California and he was like ‘Let’s go see The Replacements!’ And when I got there he was like ‘Change of plans, I’m playing with them now! Paul Westerberg hurt his back so I’m gonna go play guitar with them.’ And so he got up and played like 80% of their set with them. We were just going to go watch them and then he got up and played with them, it was pretty awesome. Just being able to meet Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson…idols, heroes!
DOWNTOWN: Do you see yourself anywhere else besides New York in the future?
JGJ: Yeah, I’m figuring out where I really want to call home all the time. I actually had a really good time living in LA the past couple of years. My friends actually just opened a vegan-restaurant-café-spa-everything in downtown Los Angeles called “The Springs” and they’re New Yorkers. My friend and his girlfriend moved to LA and have carved out this beautiful little life for themselves so I look at that sometimes and I think, ‘Do I want to do that? Do I want to do the California thing?’ Then there are days where I just want to go buy a farm in North Carolina and live in the middle of nowhere, I do think about that all the time. So I’m working on it, it just depends on the day. I’m still figuring it out.
DOWNTOWN: Well you still have your whole career ahead of you to figure things out.
JGJ: (Smirks) If you say so.
-Writing, interview and photography courtesy of Lauren Price
Actor and musician, John Gallagher Jr. with DOWNTOWN’s Online Editor, Lauren Price