John Gallagher Jr. knows a thing or two about drama. The actor, currently starring in HBO’s The Newsroom, has had his share of emotionally charged roles both onscreen and in the theater. For his latest film, Short Term 12, from writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton, Gallagher had to dig deep once again to bring his character Mason to life. It’s the touching story of life in a foster facility for at-risk teenagers seen through the eyes of caretakers Grace (Brie Larson) and her boyfriend and co-worker Mason. The film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year where it won both the Grand Jury and Audience awards. DuJour sat down with Gallagher to talk about the film and why his next role may place him behind the camera.
What attracted you to the role of Mason?
It had been a long time since I had read such an unapologetically generous and kind character. To read somebody that was just so full of love and life, that struck me as brave. He’s not putting on a show; it’s in his DNA, that’s the way he was raised. He’s a hero in that sense, and you don’t see a lot of characters that really have that streak.
How much did you know about foster facilities before this film?
I knew a little bit, but I got to visit one before we started shooting and was able to shadow a line staffer, a person who does a job very much like Mason’s. That was very informative. Even if I hadn’t been working on the film, it would have been an experience I would’ve been really thankful for—just to open my eyes a little bit to the day-to-day of working in a place like that and what a constant effort is required on all fronts for anyone who’s going to go into that line of work.
Did they give you any advice?
The one thing he [the line staffer] said that struck with me—and it actually was a big thing I took into the performance—was to keep it light. He joked a lot with the kids and had a great sense of humor. You can’t imagine how hard it is to be inside one of these kids’ brains, and you’ve just got to keep them on a routine, keep them distracted, but most importantly, keep it light.
Without losing authority, of course.
You don’t suffer any kind of lack of respect or authority by doing that. In a way, I think, if you’re able to relate to children in that sense and show that they can count on you, you can provide a shoulder to cry on when it’s necessary or you can give advice. But at the end of the day, the flipside is that this is a person you can get in trouble with. You want them to be kind of proud of you. That’s my experience—especially with teachers and with authority figures in my life—that the more they endear themselves to you, the more you want to please them. I think that’s something that’s going on with a character like Mason.
Mason is the sort of the ying to Grace’s yang? How much did you rehearse their relationship before filming?
I had never met Brie but was a big fan of hers. A few nights before we started shooting, we went out for dinner and Destin gave us an envelope with all these strips of paper with thematic conversation starters that related to the film. It really was kind of like a first date. I would pick one out and it would say: “What are your fears and hopes about being a parent one day”? What was great about it was that, without it even feeling like work, we had created this life, this backstory for the characters. It was a collective, shared history that we created and we could just draw on that. Destin is a big fan of making sure that things stay very intimate and have a naturalistic feel to them, and he just set the scene for us to be able to do that on set.
What is your favorite scene in the film?
There are so many amazing moments, and that’s the thing that struck me most about the script. Every twenty pages or so, something would happen that would move me to tears. That definitely doesn’t happen reading a lot of screenplays. It’s rare.
The end sequence is one of my favorites. It chokes me up every time that I watch it and—without giving anything away about the last few shots—the last four minutes of the film, I look forward to those every time. And pretty much every scene with Kaitlyn Dever who plays Jayden. I’m just absolutely mesmerized by what she’s able to do—at such a young age, too. That kind of talent, that untapped, natural resource, is freaky.
What’s next for you?
I recently wrapped the second season of The Newsroom. It’s been great to do both the show and the film because they’re very different, the characters are very different, and the pacing, obviously, of doing a six-month television show and then shooting an independent film in twenty days are very different, and I’ve felt really fortunate that I got to do both in the same year. I’m really lucky.
Any theater in your future?
Not just yet. I did write a play, which is in its early stages. We just did a reading of it at New York Stage and Film at Vassar College. I had my first professional job there when I was 15, and so I’ve known the people in the program for years. Now I’ve just got to work on rewrites and see if there’s any interest from theaters in New York to do productions of it.
Short Term 12 opens on August 23 in New York and Los Angeles and will expand nationwide on August 30.