9 Questions for John Gallagher Jr., Star of The Heart Machine

FilmBuff / FilmBuff

The script for The Heart Machine called for his character to ride a bike around New York City's East Village, but John Gallagher Jr.—Tony Award-winning actor, star of The Newsroom, and denizen of NYC—had never ridden a bike in the city. "My comfort level of riding a bike without a helmet was definitely a subject of discussion," he says. "They offered the helmet, but I didn’t know if the character would necessarily do it." Ultimately, film sets are more controlled than the typically chaotic and dangerous New York City street, and, as Gallagher points out, "It’s hard to pensively ride a bike looking for your online girlfriend in NYC with your helmet on and not come across as a dweeb." So he went helmetless in the movie, which premiered at SXSW and opens today. Gallagher plays Cody, a writer who meets a girl named Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) online. Soon, they're officially boyfriend and girlfriend and in love, despite the fact that she's doing a fellowship in Berlin. Or is she? Cody's doubts lead him on a search for the truth.

We sat down with Gallagher to talk about acting over Skype, the one song everyone should have on their iPods, and what it was like to meet Bill Murray.

The movie is very relatable—it feels very much a movie of this particular time, because everybody does at least a little online stalking. Is that what made you want to do it?

Absolutely. One of the things that I thought was interesting about The Heart Machine is the fact that it's very much about the way that we live now. But at the same time, the themes are very timeless and inherent to a lot of humanity. What it comes down to is relationships and insecurities, and trying to frame your best self and create that for your partner or for yourself to feel good at the end of the day. It was very relatable in all that sense. And I loved that it boldly tackled a very modern issue and a modern way that we relate to each other.

Because this is a movie about an online relationship, there are a number of Skype scenes—and you even auditioned via Skype. Did that help prepare you for filming?

It was actually pretty funny because I had FaceTimed before on my computer using the FaceTime app—maybe once or twice. I had never downloaded Skype. I was in Los Angeles filming The Newsroom when I got sent the script for The Heart Machine, and [writer/director Zachary Wigon] lives New York. I loved the script and my agent was like “We want to set up a Skype for you and the director," and I was like, "Can he FaceTime?" And they were like "No.” So I had to download Skype in order to Skype with Zach. I commented as we were talking that this was the first time I had ever Skyped, and it wasn't lost on us that we were Skyping an audition and talking about the script basically for a film that was all based around Skype. It was totally meta.

The Skype conversations were filmed in real time. Is it harder to act with someone via a screen as opposed to having them in the room?

Honestly, the harder part was really just maintaining a stable Wi-Fi connection. It was very much like real life—it would freeze in the middle of the take, and I would be talking for a minute without realizing that Kate's end of it had gone dead and that her image was just frozen on the screen.

[Otherwise], it really wasn’t terribly dissimilar from doing a scene with your partner right there. We got to rehearse for about four days before we starting filming. Kate, Zach, and I went into a room and we read every scene face to face with each other and did a lot of improvising, trying different versions of every scene in front of each other. And then a lot of the Skype scenes we really saved for the end of the shoot. So in a way, at that point, we had really built up this dynamic and chemistry for when it came time to actually do those Skype scenes, so we were able to fall into this ease with it. And Kate is just such a great actress and so naturalistic—you throw anything at her and she’ll go with it.

We would do a lot of takes as written verbatim with the script and we would do a lot of takes where we improvised and what ended up in the movie is kind of a bit of a mish-mash of that. The script is very present throughout the film—we didn’t do anything improvising that sent us in any way that would get any co-writing credits or anything or like that [laughs]—but Zach gave us a lot of freedom and a lot of room to play.

I had this idea when I got the part that I was going to be really method about and I was going to refuse to meet Kate Lyn Sheil. Like, “I will not meet her I will only do the scenes on Skype and then we’ll do the scenes where we meet in person and it’ll be the first time I’ve seen her” and, you know, it didn’t work. And I’m glad it didn’t work. I don’t think the film would have been nearly as compelling without us being able to build that kind of character chemistry.

Your character kind of becomes a detective—an extreme, bumbling detective. If you had to compare him to any of the great pop culture detectives, who would you pick?

Well, he’s surprisingly good—and at the same time, not very good. I would compare him to somebody along the lines of the private detective character in Jonathan Ames' Bored to Death. Private detective-ry—that’s not even a word. Detective-ing? Detectivery. Detectivating [laughs]—is a theme that he uses as a writer, calling from Dashiell Hammett and those great novels about private detectives. But then at the heart of it, you have Jason Schwartzman playing this neurotic person who fashions himself as this slick and sleek private eye, but he's not as perfect as the way he frames himself. So somebody like that, like a Jonathan Ames character. Somebody that has a more grandiose fantasy version of himself as this super sleuth type of person.

Cody just digs himself deeper and deeper. One thing that I’ve learned about it by watching it at SXSW is—and this is actually a great relief—is that people were laughing at it. The discomfort of watching this person just continuously approach the edge and refuse, or be unable to prevent himself, from going further. There’s something very relatable about that in this day and age, knowing that it might really not do you any good to snoop any further, but it’s a bit of a drug in a sense, once your adrenalin takes over like that.

Speaking of detectives: You've been on three Law & Orders. I have my favorites, among those three, but can you rank them?

Oh, good! Do you wanna go first or should I? I’ll go first!

It’s hard to argue with the original, despite the fact that I was only in one short scene. I was about 17 years old, I think, and my scenes were with the late, great Jerry Orbach, who was just a gentleman and a great man, and even though I only met him very, very briefly, he was very sweet. And then Jesse L. Martin was on the show at the time as his partner, and I—much like many nerds of my generation—was obsessed with Rent as a teenager. So meeting him was very exciting.

I just remember he sang a lot between takes—a lot of Lyle Lovett, and Pontiac is one of my favorite records. I remember having this moment of standing there in a high school in Harlem where we were filming and thinking, “Wow, who would have thought—here I am with Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin, and he’s singing Lyle Lovett, and I’m on Law & Order.

So that has kind of a great place in my memories, number one. Number two, Special Victims Unit. I had a great time doing that—working with Mariska Hargitay was very exciting. And being tackled by Christopher Meloni and Ice-T as my character attempted to kill BD Wong is a career highlight that I’m still trying to outdo. I think that it may be impossible, but I had a really good time doing that.

And then, Criminal Intent. Not to say that there’s anything less about that experience—it was pretty incredible. Getting to work with those great actors ... Kathryn Erbe is a great actress, and Vincent D’Onofrio—I mean, come on. I was so excited to get to meet him and have scenes with him. And John Savage played my stepdad, and that was really exciting because Deerhunter was probably one of my favorite movies of all time.

Each show was very different, very exciting. But only one time did I get to be the killer, and in a way, he gets let off the hook because he has a mental deficiency as a result of child abuse and also eating lead as a child. I had to eat a pencil in SVU and we had to do about 10 takes of eating this marzipan pencil. But marzipan’s great—very sweet after you eat it a while, though. I was about to go into a diabetic coma.

So that’s, right now, my official ranking—just going on my experiences working on them. As a fan, I would have to give it more thought. What’s your favorite?

Criminal Intent, no question. Vincent D’Onofrio is so good. OK, next question: If you only had to eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Pizza is kind of a boring answer, but I think I might go with it because it is versatile. You can put a lot of things on it, you can shake it up. Is it thin crust? Is it deep dish? Is it vegetarian pizza so you can feel like you’re being semi-decent to yourself, or is it like meat lovers? I feel like picking pizza means you’re under a safe umbrella.

Wait a minute, can I change my answer? Cobb salad! Cobb salad is the gift that keep on giving, really. Is there a Cobb salad pizza? Does that exist?

It should! On Twitter, you've been recommending a horror movie a day for the whole month of October. If you were in a horror movie, and the killer was coming after you, would you go up the stairs, out the front door, or into the basement?

Up the stairs, because I like the people who are fearless in their attempts to escape. I would be the one who runs up the stairs and jumps out the window. Maybe I hurt my leg, maybe I don’t. Maybe I can shimmy down a drain pipe. Maybe I can get up to a point on the roof where I can hide or confuse them. I feel like front door is dangerous because it’s too safe. Normally you’ll think you’re all right, but then you’ll open up the front door, and there’s the killer. The basement is just a death trap, let’s face it. It’s hard to outsmart someone in the basement. The basement would require fighting back, which I don’t think I would be good at. So I would go up the stairs and hope that there’s a window I can go out of.

What’s one song everyone should have on their iPods?

Since I brought him up, let’s say "If I had a Boat,” by Lyle Lovett.

You're in the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge. Bill Murray is also in it. Please tell me you have a good Bill Murray story.

We don’t have any scenes together, but I met him one time, on his last night of shooting before he left. I just about died. We had a little gathering at this bar to say goodbye to him when he wrapped. I had just gotten off the train—I was in Salem, and [the cast and crew] were all half an hour away in Gloucester, and the costume designer texted me and was like "Drive to Gloucester, because it's Bill Murray's last night and you won't get to meet him!" I was literally in bed because I had to shoot the next day and I got up and I was like "Where's my rental car?" and I drove to meet him. He was so nice and warm and kind to me. He asked me what my background was, and I told him I’d done a lot of theater—and he gave me a hug and said, “I’m so sorry.” [Laughs]