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The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr. on Pratfalls and His First Girlfriend, Aubrey Plaza

John Gallagher Jr. made his Broadway debut in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Rabbit Hole and went on to star in Spring Awakening (for which he won a Tony), Farragut North, American Idiot, and Jerusalem. Most recently, Aaron Sorkin cast him as The Newsroom’s Jim Harper, senior producer and Über-clumsy rom-com hero. Gallagher Jr. rang up Vulture to get real about the show’s lopsided love triangle (he knows, he knows), his traumatic time on The West Wing, and onetime girlfriend Aubrey Plaza. But first, we needed to talk about those pratfalls.

You do seem to be The Newsroom’s designated pratfall guy.
Honestly, I recently looked at my bio and résumé for the first time in forever and it does say “Pratfalls” under a special skills section. Whether or not Aaron Sorkin saw that and thought, Wow, I’ve got the guy for this job, I don’t know. Maybe he just noticed something about me and thought, Yeah, I think this guy could take a couple of good dives ...

Is he as specific about how he wants you to run into a door as he is with how you say your lines?
Sometimes. He’s someone who has a lot of notions in his head already about how things should be done and delivered, both with lines and movement. But once you get on to the set and you start rehearsing, he is still at heart a very playful person. I flubbed a line once in a rehearsal and he actually liked the way I stammered over it better than the clean-cut way it was written in the script, and he asked me to change it to the way I messed it up. So he’s happy to embrace those little accidents.

Running into the glass door looked real and painful.
It’s like Jerry Lewis. It’s an old trick of just hitting the door with your foot and your hand. I was stunned by how real it looked in the end. I’m glad we pulled that one out. If I fail for the rest of the season, or even if I failed already, at least I slammed into that door with all of my heart.

I think we can agree that the Jim-Maggie-Don love triangle is pretty one-sided so far.
I have a lot of friends that watch the show, and they’re saying, “What are Jim and Maggie doing? Why are they not together? They’re so obviously perfect for each other. Don is a jerk. They’re not suited for each other. She doesn’t even seem to like him … ” Jim in the pilot was so obviously an underdog, really smart with a good set of ethics and a moral code, just really sweet and wanting to look out for people, but Don came in seeming like Jim’s foil and archenemy. What’s great about it is that throughout the rest of the season — and last night was a big turning point — you really start to see Don’s veneer begin to crack. You start to see his vulnerabilities and his insecurities, not only about where he fits in at ACN but also in his relationship. You start to slowly see him realize that maybe Jim and Maggie are really hitting it off. The whole thing is constantly being turned on its head. Their roles are always kind of being toyed with and reversed a bit. But what can I say? I’m right there with you. I’m saying, “Gosh, when are they going to get together? It’s ridiculous.”

I don’t think Don’s a total jerk. I think he’s necessary to the show at least. He’s the hard news guy who now has to be beholden to ratings, while MacKenzie and Will are doing their Don Quixote thing, ratings be damned.
I totally agree, and [Thomas Sadoski] is so good on the show. So many people are just quick to say, “Screw this guy. Why aren’t Jim and Maggie together?” But I think it’s one of those great things Aaron does. He gives characters room to surprise the audience time and time again.

Sunday’s episode, “Amen,” the fifth in the season, took place in February 2011. The first episode took place in April 2010. At this rate, are we going to catch up with the present by the end of the first season?
It doesn’t catch up entirely, but it gets pretty close. Within the next few episodes, there’s a nice even pace going from February to March to April to May and then into the summer a little bit. We’ll be almost a year apart [from the present] by the time the season ends.

I’m curious about what the show would look like if the second season took place now.
That’s the question on all of our minds, too. All of the cast, everyone I’ve spoken to, we’re really interested in seeing what the time frame is going to be for the second season. What’s nice about this first season is that it’s all stories that we’ve had time to digest. I wonder if the second season will be more immediate in a sense, if we’ll have things closer to the actual present.

You’d said in a previous interview that Jim and Will get to jam together in an upcoming episode. What’s the story behind that?
I play music and write songs in my spare time and so does Jeff Daniels. So at one point, I did a little concert, just me and a guitar, in L.A. while we were shooting. I invited a bunch of the cast, but I got in big trouble with Sam Waterston and Aaron Sorkin because I didn’t invite them. I’m not very good at being shameless about self-promotion, so I just told some people. It’s one of those things where I thought everyone will tell everyone. I should have put up a flyer. I came back in on Monday and we were getting ready to rehearse and Aaron goes, “John, I heard you had a great show over the weekend. I guess my invitation must have been lost in the mail.” I started apologizing profusely. “You’re writing all of these crazy episodes, I had a feeling you might be a little busy.” But he said, “Don’t worry about it, I’m working it into the show. You and Jeff are going to be jamming.” Everyone laughed thinking he was just teasing us, but sure enough, in the next couple of scripts, the guitars end up getting busted out. Not for a huge moment, but for a brief chance to see another side of Will and Jim. We both do a little singing in that episode as well. It won’t be like Glee or Smash, but you’ll get a little taste. I haven’t seen it yet, so I don’t know how it’ll be cut together. We did do a few takes where we pretty much performed a whole song.

This is actually not your first time working on a Sorkin show. Ten years ago you appeared in “20 Hours in America,” the fourth-season opener of The West Wing. What do you remember about that experience?
I do remember one really traumatic event. I was excited because I really like the actors, Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff and Janel Moloney, and I had to drive them around. I played a staffer taking them on this campaign trail and I was driving them through Pennsylvania down these twisty, windy country roads in a Jeep Wrangler. We did a rehearsal where I was supposed to stop the Jeep and get out, so I stopped it, turned the key, and killed the ignition, but I left it in drive unknowingly. I got out of the Jeep and then the three stars of The West Wing start rolling away down the road. I was just frozen in horror. There was nothing at that point I could do to help. A couple of crew guys got in there in time, thank goodness. At that moment I thought, Well, it’s been nice. I had done some episodic television and I did a couple of plays. I just thought I’ll never get to work again because I will have seriously injured or killed the three stars of one of the hottest shows on prime-time television.

You’re in L.A. right now. Aaron and Jeff will be here next week to face the critics at press tour. Any plans to be in the cheering section? I’m already feeling tense about it.
Yeah, those things can go that way, and it’s no secret that Aaron’s whole career has drawn that kind of response and that kind of attention. If they need me to go in and do a pratfall to cut the tension, I’m happy to. That’s probably the only function I could serve going to something like that.

I noticed in your Wiki bio that you dated Aubrey Plaza.
She talked about us dating in an interview and someone saw it and put it on there. I love that it’s listed as an official fact, like, just so you know since you probably were wondering. Aubrey was my first girlfriend when I was about 15 years old. We grew up together in Delaware; she’s from Wilmington as well. We did community theater together, and yeah, we had quite the young love for a while. We still keep in touch. I still see her whenever I can, whenever I’m in L.A. or when she’s in New York. We go way back. Our families are close. It’s great. You don’t always end up keeping in touch with those first loves, and she said such sweet things about us in that article. I remember I was playing in a band with the guys in American Idiot, and there was a night where we played a show and I was out way too late and had a few drinks and somebody e-mailed me this article and I was reading it and like, “Aaaah, those were the days.” I got all sentimental and reverential.

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images