He's a Tony Award-winning musical-theater veteran, one of the stars of the hit HBO series The Newsroom, and now, a playwright. John Gallagher Jr., who wowed Broadway in Rabbit Hole, Spring Awakening, American Idiot, and Jerusalem, jumps to the other side of the footlights with Slàinte, a new work that will receive its premiere as a staged reading on Saturday, June 22 at New York Stage and Film's Powerhouse Theater.
On a break from rehearsals, we chatted with Gallagher about this story of friendship, his trepidation to put his baby before an audience, and what Aaron Sorkin has in store for him on season two of The Newsroom.
How is it going so far?
It's been great. I'm having a really wonderful time. The cast is kind of dream come true: Vincent Piazza, Theo Stockman, Betty Gilpin, Peter Scanavino…I'm so, so flattered that they all wanted to do it. It's a new venture — obviously — for me. I've never written a play before; this is my first pass at it. To have people jump in and do it makes me want to cry.
What is Slàinte about?
It's the story about a group of friends; a group of pals in present-day New York City. Several of them are unemployed actors trying to figure out what to do with their lives and how to lead a healthy lifestyle. Should they give up on their dreams or change around the way they're doing things in order to find success? It's the story of friends struggling to figure out the meaning of a healthy lifestyle and the meanings of healthy relationships. It's a lot of…You spend some time with a group of friends and learn their relationships and lives.
Was becoming a playwright always a goal?
I've always wanted to write something. One of my favorite films is Withnail and I. It's a touching portrait of two friends: these alcoholic out-of-work actors trying to find a meaning. I've always been charmed by that film for the ways it shows these two friends who can't live without each other. I wanted to kind of write something like that. I was tired of seeing films and watching plays that dealt with a group of guy friends and feeling [that] I couldn't relate to any of the characters. I haven't seen my friendships on stage or screen in a long time. I wanted to write something that accurately depicted that.
Are you nervous?
Oh god, I am. I've been absolutely shaking for several days. It's a big leap of faith and was met with a large leap of faith by Johanna Pfaelzer who welcomed me here to work on it. My anxiety calms day by day, as we edit it and make it stronger and make it cleaner. I will still be absolutely terrified when there's an audience coming to check it out, but you have to go for it.
What makes you more nervous: premiering this play or premiering new songs at, say, Rockwood?
I've always felt confident about premiering new songs. They have such a life on their own; it's like releasing a bird. You let it fly and send it off into the world and let people experience it and assign meaning to it. A play is a much more critical landscape, where everybody has opinions. Especially with new plays, people love to talk about and dissect it and pick it apart. I'm gonna have to meet all of that head-on. That's the world in which we live. It feels more kind of personal. There were some scenes that were hard to write because they were emotional. To put them on their feet in front of people is scary, but also great.
Switching gears: You're finished filming the new season of The Newsroom?
We just wrapped a couple weeks ago. We have some really good guest actors this season: Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Grace Gummer. We all had a lot of fun doing it. It's a good season. I think it definitely has a very strong footing.
I'd ask you to give away spoilers, but Aaron Sorkin will track you down.
He might. He probably has a tracking device on me right now.
Can you give us a preview?
I spend half of the season out of the newsroom. My character goes on the road and starts covering Mitt Romney's campaign. I have a road adventure. The show goes back and forth between the newsroom and Jim stuck in New Hampshire. I strike up an unlikely friendship with a conservative reporter on the road played by Grace Gummer, so we strike up a friendship and get into trouble.
Is Broadway in your cards for the near future?
I'm desperate to get back on stage. I really miss it. I have a film coming out this summer Short Term 12. It's gonna come out at the end of August. I'm really excited for people to see that. It's set at a foster-care facility, a group home. Myself and Brie Larson star as some of the people [who] look after these kids. She's trying to take care of [them] and their emotional wounds while failing to take care of her own. It played SXSW and won the Grand Jury Award. We just premiered it at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It went over really well.
And there's Broadway Idiot — about the musical American Idiot — coming soon, too.
Broadway Idiot! I was gonna try to go to that at SXSW, but I had to go back to L.A. to film scenes for The Newsroom. I did see a cut of that documentary last summer and it was really cool. It was strange trip down memory lane. Doug Hamilton, who shot it — he's been a friend of mine for years. [He captured] the whole process of doing that show. He just filmed so much and cut a great story to it.
Don't show this again.