John Gallagher Jr. talks about playing Mason in Short Term 12, debuting in theaters August 23
John Gallagher Jr.'s career is most certainly on the rise. He can currently be seen on the HBO hit series The Newsroom as Jim Harper, and his new film Short Term 12 hits theaters on August 23 after receiving rave reviews at the South by Southwest Film Festival. This drama, directed by first-time filmmaker Destin Cretton, centers on Grace (Brie Larson), who works at a facility for at-risk teenagers with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). The plot thickens when a young woman comes to the facility with a plight that mirrors Grace's own troubled childhood, forcing her to confront the past.
I recently had the chance to speak with John Gallagher Jr. over the phone about this upcoming film. Here's what he had to say.
Just in going through your filmography, you have quite a diverse amount of different projects. Is there something in particular that you look for, when you get a script? What was that particular something that stood out with Short Term 12?
John Gallagher Jr.: I never really know what I'm looking for. I certainly never set off with a mission statement, like 'This is the kind of project I want to do next.' I kind of wait until I'm pleasantly surprised by something that grabs me and challenges me, something that scares me and excites me. I'm such a lover of film myself that, a lot of times, as an actor, I just look for projects that I would want to see. I look for films that I'm interested in the story of, and things that I'd be interested in seeing, regardless of my involvement. That's what happened with Short Term 12. My agent sent me the script to take a look at, for the role of Mason. Within three pages, I had fallen absolutely, head over heels in love with it. It was such a strong script. I laughed, I cried... I know that sounds like a cliche summary from a film review, but I mean it. That's what happened. I was so moved by it, and I instantly wanted to know who this person was who had written it. I watched the short that it was based on, and I did a Skype call with Destin, the director, then I got to meet him and talk with him. I was just absolutely positive that it was something I wanted to work on.
I know a lot of filmmakers will make a short film with the intention of using that as a springboard for the feature version. Was that the case with Destin's short?
John Gallagher Jr.: That's the funny thing. It definitely wasn't. He made the short as an assignment for film school, his thesis film. It wasn't until he started getting such incredible feedback with the short, that he thought about maybe taking it beyond just a school assignment. That lead it going to Sundance, and it won the Best Short in 2009 or 2008. That got such an incredible response from people, and I think it wasn't until the dust had settled from the success of the short, that people started telling him they wanted more, to see more of that story and know more about the kind of characters that he had in that piece. I think it's a surprise for Destin. It was an assignment for him, and he started looking back at his journal entries from the time that he had actually volunteered at a facility like the one portrayed in the movie, and in looking back at that time in his life, thought that was the story that he'd like to tell as a filmmaker. It was a very natural and organic evolution.
Did he introduce you to anyone he had worked with, or did you do any other research into people who work at these facilities?
John Gallagher Jr.: Yeah. The producers organized it so that I could go to a facility and shadow a line staff member, and follow around somebody who does what my character does in the film. I got to spend the better part of a day on the floor in a foster home, very much akin to the one we show in the film. It was enlightening and inspiring on a variety of levels, some of which are things I'll think about for the rest of my life and take with me in other ways, but other elements were very informative to the character. I learned a lot of things from the guy I followed around, and I took those things to the process with me and brought to Mason's personality. A lot of it was there. Destin had written a very clear and concise character with Mason, and when I met this gentleman and followed him around the facility, he had similar traits to the character that Destin had written, which was amazing because Destin had never met this person. He captured something in the characters of Grace and Mason that is kind of universal to the kind of selfless people who devote their lives to this line of work. We also met a gentleman who was a friend of Destin's, who he had met when he was volunteering. He came in and told the whole cast some stories and gave us some information about some by-the-book stuff, the manuals and what you have to learn to do something like this. He was the one who showed us how to do the restraint properly. Any of the scenes where you see us restraining one of the kids, when they're losing their temper or having a tantrum, there's a guidebook for the proper way you're meant to deal with kids, physically, in that line of work. He taught us that and he gave us a lot of valuable information that we took to the film's process.
The story also deals with Grace's turmoils and her own struggles. Did you find in meeting with these real people who have these jobs, that they have similar plights? That they choose to work in these jobs because they have somewhat of a troubled past?
John Gallagher Jr.: Yeah, I'd imagine so. I've never really met anyone first-hand that had that kind of experience, but I can only imagine that you would want to help others who are going through similar things. If you look at any number of 12-step programs or rehabilitation facilities, people who are helping addicts are those who had been through that themselves. It's only natural that a lot of people who have dealt with this kind of trauma or abuse or affliction in their lives, I think it's a natural progression that some people would want to reach out and pay it forward and help people who are going through that as well. I'm sure there are other people who may have had more of a charmed life, so to speak, and want to be able to dig a little bit deeper and do something more nurturing. I'm sure that it works both ways.
As for Mason's relationship with Grace, they are in a loving relationship but there's something that she's hiding. Is there something you can say about working with Brie and portraying that dynamic?
John Gallagher Jr.: One thing that was kind of cool is that Brie really dove in to the filming process head first, taking on this character. She went in pretty deep, when we were on set. She let us all know, early on, that, 'I'm going to go away, at times, and I might not be super forthcoming and super friendly, and please don't take it personally, but I've got a lot on my plate, a lot of intense, emotional things to tackle.' As a result, there would be times when we were filming when she would be more reserved, and that was fine by me. It played out as a similar dynamic to our characters in the film. It meant that whatever her energy or her vibe was on a given day, I just made the decision that I was going to be completely supportive and there to help her and facilitate anything, whether it was making sure that she had a coffee in the morning, or whatever. It played out in a way that was very organic, and almost a slight mirror to our characters. It made those characters feel very real and believable.
Is there anything you can say about Destin's style, and how organic the whole process was?
John Gallagher Jr.: I think it was something that he didn't know was going to happen, but once it started happening, he definitely shows up and does the work and takes responsibility. What I love about him is he's a very hands-off director. He lays the groundwork and sets the scene. He's always there for you and very detail-oriented and is into creating back stories for the characters, but when it comes down to it, he just creates a really, really great environment on set and he surrounds himself with really like-minded people that want to just tell a story and tell it well and do it justice. He was just really there for us on set. It was a very low-stress, low-pressure atmosphere. I never once saw him lose his cool. He was totally unflappable. That's something that comes across in the film. He creates a family on set, so it's a real labor of love. The fact that so many people have been moved by the emotions in the film, it all trickles down. If you follow that heart and you follow that emotion all the way back to the source, it all comes back.
Is there anything you can tease about what's happening with Jim Harper on The Newsroom coming up?
John Gallagher Jr.: For the viewers at home who are following along, he's finally coming back from covering the Romney campaign. He goes back to New York to rejoin the news team, but he makes a new friend on the road, a reported named Hallie played by Grace Gummer. There's a bit of a budding romance that's happening there.
Is there anything you're looking to shoot later this summer or this fall?
John Gallagher Jr.: We are done with Season 2 of The Newsroom. I'm just waiting to hear about if we're going to go back for a third season. I've been reading more film scripts than have ever been sent my way before, which I'm super thankful for. It's kind of a new adventure for me, and I'm thrilled about it. There's nothing concrete on the horizon yet, but there are a couple of maybe's that I'm eyeballing. I don't know what's next, but I look forward to any new opportunities that may come my way.
What would you like to say to anyone who might be curious about the film to get them to see it on August 23?
John Gallagher Jr.: It was a real labor of love. We all made the movie because we all believed in the story. It's a story about family, it's a story about love, and it's a story about taking care of one another. I think if you've ever been through any kind of struggle in your life, and if you've ever felt like you've had to go something alone, I think one of the many messages is that you should never have to do that. I hope it's a film that people will see. Even the act of of going to see this film will help people feel a little less alone.
That's all I have. Thanks so much. It was great talking to you, John.
John Gallagher Jr.: My pleasure. It was great to talk to you. Thanks, fellow Gallagher.