NEW YORK —
"You know, you're a terrible embed," the man told him, going on to list the ways Harper bungled his job as a reporter traveling with the
It was hardly a comment from some idle observer: the naysayer was
It's perhaps a little incongruous that a high-school dropout and theater rat is being evaluated for his reporting bona fides by one of the most famous journalists in America. But it's also a testament to the lived-in believability of his characters.
First in his stage work and now on the screen, Gallagher, 29, has honed an improbable acting career that centers on low-key likability more than showy emotional displays or other trappings of youthful performance. Though he's different from many of his generation — he's neither as tortured as some (think
For years mainly a stage actor — he won a
For the last 10 days he’s been seen in Destin Daniel Cretton’s indie darling "Short Term 12," which won top jury and audience prizes at
PHOTOS: Hollywood Backlot moments
The real-life Gallagher comes off as similarly nice and down-to-earth — he suggests meeting at a restaurant near his apartment and orders a few beers, sitting at the bar unbothered — if also on the cautious side. (Pumped for on-set "Newsroom" scuttlebutt, he offers mainly that costar
Gallagher plays Mason with a fair degree of nuance. The character is sensitive but strong as the boyfriend, and hard-bitten but hardly jaded as a youth counselor. The movie avoids many of the cliches of the troubled-youth subgenre, and Gallagher's performance is part of the reason why.
"It's a character you don't see very much, even in independent film," he said. "Usually someone like that is just there to be supportive; he's not given this rich history and life."
Gallagher's participation in the film nearly didn't come off.
A few years ago, he had been depressed about not landing a part in what he describes as a big movie. "I was growing my beard, letting my hair go long, eating whatever I wanted. I think I gained about 15 pounds," he said. Then Cretton called — saying, of all things, that he'd been looking for a man with a beard and slightly disheveled look. "The moral of the story is that you should get totally out of shape, and then the roles will come," Gallagher said.
"Newsroom" had a similarly fragile back story. When Gallagher was offered the part in the show in the summer of 2011, he nearly turned it down because he had several months left on his contract in the Broadway production of "Jerusalem," Jez Butterworth's play about a group living largely off-the-grid in the British wilderness. He says he struggled for weeks with the idea of forsaking his commitment, eventually having the "intense" conversation with producers in which he told them he'd be leaving early.
Theater is a world, it should be said, that the actor knows well. Growing up in Delaware, Gallagher would regularly take the train to New York to watch and eventually audition for plays. He landed his first gig when he was 15 in an off-Broadway show. He eventually parlayed that into bigger stage roles; his résumé also includes the
Gallagher has lived in New York since he was a teenager, currently residing in a West Village building and flying to Los Angeles the last two springs to shoot "Newsroom."
Though he plays educated, even erudite characters — Jim Harper is known for a deep knowledge of obscure policy issues — Gallagher himself never finished high school. (He says he's thought on and off about getting a G.E.D. but hasn't been moved to do so yet.) He's been able to attract an audience thanks to a boy-next-door charm.
In fact, his Jim Harper character was initially more slick — think a wunderkind-ier version of Thomas Sadoski's Don — but Gallagher says he read the part and believed he could bring more depth playing it sympathetically.
That doesn’t mean he’s beloved by those who watch the
The actor, who says he has grappled with the question of how much social-media engagement to practice (he does it largely to promote side projects as a musician and songwriter), will nonetheless reply to comments about the plausibility of the show. He says he remains surprised by the passion — to wit, those who excoriated his character for giving up a key interview for the sake of a girl. He sometimes plays along, sometimes gently reminds Twitter dart-throwers that the show is fictional — and, oh yes, he didn't write it. (He generally offers a kind of self-deprecating persona on Twitter. Sample Tweet: "Eating dinner alone. Both Sides Now is playing in the restaurant. Feeling lots of feelings.")
For all the disdain "Newsroom" takes, Gallagher's performance is rarely included in the targeting. Playing nice is harder than it looks, requiring an ability to generate compassion without sacrificing complexity.
It's the kind of role Gallagher says he's interested in continuing. He has begun shooting the lead love interest in the New York indie romance "The Heart Machine," and is crossing his fingers for a "Newsroom" renewal. And then, with a kind of nice-guy shrug, he questions that direction. "It's an actor-y thing to say," he noted, "but I really don't want to repeat myself."
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