Note: This interview was taken by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) for The Sunday Guardian. An edited version of the interview can be found here: http://goo.gl/XDEmsZ
[My other interviews this season:
Rupert Friend from Homeland: http://goo.gl/drIeeF.
Joshua Malina from Scandal: http://goo.gl/0FrRV8
Anatol Yusef from Boardwalk Empire: http://goo.gl/drIeeF.
Annet Mahendru from The Americans is here: http://goo.gl/drIeeF.
Coming up next: My interview with John Cho from Selfie]
If you know me well, you’d know the story of how I became a writer, because I must have told it to you a million times. If you don’t know me, quick recap: I was in engineering college, and I saw Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and after getting my engineering degree and getting a couple of jobs, I left it all to go to Mumbai to make a TV show because Aaron Sorkin had corrupted me forever.
So ever since The Newsroom was announced, I was looking forward to it desperately. And the first episode of the show blew me away, just like every first episode of every Sorkin show ever has before. It had all the things I loved about it – the opening where shit hits the fan, the middle where a bunch of fantastic actors try to clean up the shit, and the end, by which you know that *this* show is going to be *the shit* (I really don’t know why I have used shit as a metaphor here, please forgive me).
I was obviously taken aback by all the criticism Sorkin faced for The Newsroom. The Newsroom is perhaps not as accomplished as The West Wing, but people weren’t even giving it a chance! The second season was a solid return to form by Sorkin and the series premiere of the third season, I thought, was terrific. Maybe I’m just biased but I do believe that in a world full of shows like Jersey Shore and Keeping Up With The Kardashians, it really can’t hurt to have a show that speaks of idealism. The Newsroom may not change the world, but at least it’s *trying to*.
Anyhow, just like all of Sorkin’s shows, The Newsroom has some fantastic actors at its helm as well. Pretty much every actor has made an impression (of course, my heart doesn’t stop beating for Olivia Munn’s Sloan!) but I really thought the way Thomas Sadoski, who plays Don Keefer, turned his character around from an anti-hero to a romantic lead, was amazing. Thomas is an actor-actor, and has always brought a lot of sincerity to the role. While everyone loved to hate Don in season one, I did believe that Sorkin could never make him an out-and-out villian… he never does. So it’s been such a pleasant surprise to see Don be one of the good guys now, and he’s definitely among my favourite characters in the show, because Thomas has brought a rare complexity to him that I really admire.
Getting to speak to Thomas was a great experience too. Nothing at all like Don, Thomas is, in fact, quite the thorough gentleman and polite all the way through. If I liked Thomas’ portrayal of Don before, I’m definitely a fan of Thomas himself now, and I can’t wait to see the work he does in the future. For now, five more episodes of The Newsroom and of Don!
Since the unedited interview is long, I’ve divided it into the following segments:
1. INTRO: SEASON 3 & LOOKING BACK ON THE NEWSROOM
2. ON DON KEEFER AND HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH SLOAN
3. ON AARON SORKIN AND THE MAKING OF THE NEWSROOM
4. ON IDEALISM AND HIS FUTURE PROJECTS
So you can skip to the part you want to, or go through the entire interview and enjoy Thomas’ answers.
1. INTRO: SEASON 3 & LOOKING BACK ON THE NEWSROOM
“Idealism is possible if you have the support of the people closest to you.”
You guys have finished shooting the final episode of the Newsroom. The last day of shoot must have been very emotional.(Pauses) It was a sad day. We weren’t all together on the last day so it was additionally sad because the cast got to be very close over the years. We had put together a real family over the course of three years and was difficult to, sort of, let go of the whole experience, one person at a time. But we did end up celebrating a little. Olivia and I went down and watched Jeff (Daniels) and Emily (Mortimer) shoot the last scene of The Newsroom on the last day. We sat with them for three or four hours and watched them shoot it. And when it was all over, we all stood in the middle of a street corner in New York and hugged and talked and laughed… and had a very nice time. Then I walked back to the hotel. It was a sad evening but by the time I had walked all the way back to the hotel, I had, sort of, come back around to this real feeling of gratitude for having been involved in the process from the very beginning. And of course, for learning as much as I got the chance to learn and spending as much time with the wonderful people that I got the chance to spend the time with. It was a real blessing.
The blessing may have been compounded because from what I gather, this is the best season of The Newsroom yet. Olivia Munn and the others have said so in their interviews, and Aaron Sorkin mentioned in an interview that it was only in the third season that he started to learn writing The Newsroom.
(Chuckles) I am happy that Olivia feels that way about the season and I’m not going to disagree with her. But I disagree a little with Aaron that he has just figured out how to write the show. I think Aaron knew what he was doing from the very beginning and I think he sometimes doesn’t give himself enough credit. Personally, I was happy to be involved in the show from the very beginning in the way that he was writing it. It was interesting to watch it grow over the course of 23-24 episodes. This season is a different season than what it has been in the past and I’m excited to have been a part it and to respond to it. I thought it was fantastic, you know, in that every day that we came into work, we were happy to be there, and we were happy to be getting to tell the story that he was putting out for us.
What are you allowed to reveal about season 3 in general and about Don & Sloan’s relationship in specific?
This season begins pretty shortly after the end of the last season. So all of the things that are up in the air at the end of the season 2 are being dealt with in real time in the third season. So Don and Sloan have to figure out exactly who they are and what the status of their relationship is. Will and Mackenzie have to figure out how their relationship is going to work and Jim is off on his own path sort of trying to figure out how his life comes together, and Maggie, having suffered the loss that she suffered in the second season, is in a place of real change and figuring out how she should move forward with her life and her career. And Neal – well, some things are going to be asked and expected of him this year that he hasn’t ever dealt with before. And Charlie has to sort all this and manage a lot of these difficulties. So it’s quite an exciting season!
Unfortunately I am not allowed to give away exactly the things that happen but I think the teasers they have put out so far have done a pretty good job of highlighting some really interesting storylines and the quirks in them. But I can tell you this – a lot happens to our little gang of misfits this year and everyone leaves the end of the season a completely different person than from what they were at the beginning of the season. I think that’s the hallmark of good storytelling and I hope that people who watch it will feel the same way.
So what was Sorkin’s initial conversation with you guys about what he was trying to do with the show and how has that changed over seasons?
There wasn’t necessarily a big conversation that we all had about what we were going to do with the show, you know. Aaron wrote the first episode and we all came in and did it, and we just sort of handled it moment to moment. There were never any, sort of, great, big cast meetings with Aaron, where he sat down and said, ‘This is the big scene for this season,’ you know. He would write the episodes, and we would discuss it, scene to scene, moment to moment, and the arc would build itself organically that way. So it wasn’t that sort of situation where he said, ‘Well, this is what we are setting out to do and this is how we are going to change it.’ It just happened that way.
Then let me ask you this – after all the backlash that The Newsroom got for its morality and idealism, after the end of the series, what is the message that the audience will finally takeaway from The Newsroom?
My hope – and I don’t know if it’s going to be the case because people are going to respond on the basis of how they view things through the lens of their own personal experience. But it’s my hope that the takeaway from the show for people would be that if you are going to walk against the stream, you have to do it with the support of your loved ones and your friends, and take refuse with them. That, you know, idealism is possible, and an idealistic end is possible, if you are willing to have the courage, and if you have the welcome support of the people closest to you.
2. ON DON KEEFER AND HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH SLOAN
“I always liked Don, from the very beginning”
You’re quite the Casanova on Newsroom – where others are struggling to keep up one relationship, Don’s now moved onto your second! How much do people hate you for getting to be Olivia Munn’s love interest?
(Laughs) You know, I’m really not aware of the hate but I’m sure that I do get some and at some level, I’m just not noticing it. But Don’s really been a great character to play and I’ve enjoyed watching him grow and watching people’s response to him change over the course of a couple of years. I think that Don will continue to change even more in the third season.
Did you distinctly notice the public’s reaction towards Don changing – were people dicks to you when you played a grey character and are they more pleasant to you now?
I don’t pay attention to critics, so I don’t know what their perception of the character’s change or of my work has been, but I have very much noticed the change in the perception of fans and of members of the media who have watched the show and whom I have become friendly with. I have noticed that there has been a softening towards the character in their minds a little bit and I’m happy to not be the person that everyone loves to hate anymore, though that was also fun to do. I don’t know if I have changed everyone’s minds distinctly and I don’t know if I want to. I think that Don’s a fun character to play because he’s complicated and at any given moment you can either love him or hate him.
How did you go about making a character unlikeable first and then likeable? Was there a particular moment in the show that helped you to understand Don?
I think, for me, ultimately, the moment I came to understand Don the most clearly was in the first episode of the series, when Don says aloud, “Am I the only one who’s not dramatically doing anything?” I think that line told me everything I needed to know about that character was, and I just needed to hold on to that. You know, I can’t judge the characters that I play, because if I do, then I can’t play them honestly, and I can’t play them with integrity. So I held on to that and just created a character around that and around whatever I found in that moment. And, you know, Aaron was gracious enough to continue allowing the character to grow. I think, from the very beginning, we both had a very clear understanding of who this person was. Aaron never set out to make him the archetypal bad guy and he wanted the character to grow. So, in collaboration with Aaron and his great work, I was able to get the character to grow and spread its wings and have everyone get to know him a little bit better and add a little bit more depth to him as time went on. For me, he was never any different. I always liked Don, from the very beginning.
But now that Don’s a nice guy, what’s the conflict in his character?
Umm, I don’t think there is any conflict in his character. I have seen Don since the very beginning in the way that the rest of the people see him now. Don is a character of great integrity and I think he has very specific ideas of how he wants to do the news and why he wants to do it. His ideas obviously change and grow, you know, with the influence of Mackenzie and Will and everybody else, and with growth comes conflict. I think with Don a lot of conflict is internal: how is he going to change his beliefs (to align with the rest), and how he will go about handling things. So I think it’s the same conflict that Don was dealing with in the beginning when we first met him in episode one, and to some degree, it’s the same fight he’s fighting later on.
3. ON AARON SORKIN AND THE MAKING OF THE NEWSROOM
“You can’t have an off day on an Aaron Sorkin set”
So what is the process of an Aaron Sorkin show like? How did an episode work?
Oh! We get the script very, very close to when we begin shooting. So you spend almost all of your time trying to learn the lines till they are absolutely perfect, because that’s the way Aaron wants them. I actually found Aaron to be a really gracious collaborator in that you come in with your ideas and talk about a scene and he’s willing to hear them and he’s willing to watch your choices. And, most of the times, if you can make a good argument for why you are doing what you are doing and why you are choosing to say a line a certain way, Aaron is absolutely willing to let you, and also to support you. He certainly has his ideas on who these people are and what stories he wants to get across. So as long as your choices aren’t standing in the way of the story he is ultimately trying to tell, I found him to be a really gracious collaborator. He’s incredibly intelligent, very gracious, and obviously really cares about what he’s doing and what he’s putting on to the page. So it’s been a really great experience working with Aaron.
I would imagine working with Aaron Sorkin for the first time would be an interesting experience because you have to get used to his sing-song dialogue. You can’t possibly have an off day on a Sorkin set, right?
Yeah, he makes them wordy (laughs). His pace and his rhythm and his meter certainly make it very difficult to have an off day. (Chuckles) But we all have them, and they don’t feel good. You know, it takes time to get used to it. For all of us, the first few episodes of the first season were tricky because we were trying to learn who these people are, how to speak the words that were written and how we were going to shoot those words, and how it was all going to work out. By the end of the first season, I felt like we were up on our feet and had moved along quite well. But then, at the beginning of every season after a hiatus, it’s like a muscle trying to stretch out again (chuckles).
It take a long time and a lot of work to get all of those words in your head and then to speak them out. But it’s a great payoff as an artiste because you have that skillset now. Also, you know, because of the pace and the density of the dialogue, you are almost forced to be a team player and that takes a lot of pressure off. There are no big solo moments you have to worry about. No one’s solo on set and no one in any scene feels like they are bigger or grander or that anything they are saying is more important than anybody else is, because we are all just there for each other, you know, saying these words out as honesty as we possibly can and playing off of each other to the best of our abilities. It’s a great time.
You had trouble with the material even after coming from a theater background, I can imagine how difficult it must have been for the non-theater guys.
Well, you know, the majority of us on the show come from a theater background actually. So that helped us greatly to be ready for Aaron’s writing. Aaron is a playwright first and foremost and what he does is that he writes theater for the screen. But for people who weren’t accustomed to that required, you know, some extra work that they may not have necessarily been accustomed to. The great thing about our cast, though, was that everyone was up to the challenge and everyone was willing to put in the work and the effort to make it all happen. I know from the beginning of my career as a theater actor how difficult it is to, you know, get used to that sort of verbal dialogue, and to just the amount of stuff you have to say. I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be later on in your career when you’ve already got habits that you’re in or things that you are accustomed to. But I think it speaks to the quality of the actors that we have, who weren’t necessarily from a theater background, that they were able to pull off the show as easily and seamlessly as they have.
How does the table read at The Newsroom go, with all the back-and-forth dialogues you are reading for the first time?
Well, Aaron is there, and we all come in and sit down with most of our crew, our producers and people from HBO. And Aaron gives a little speech before we start, introducing all of the new people that we have in the show that week and then we sit down and we read it. For most of us, it’s the first time we have heard it, and certainly the first time we have heard it out loud; it may probably be only the second time we have read it, since we usually get the scripts only a few hours before the table read So it’s exciting, you know. It’s always fun, and we have a lot of fun. Like I said, it was a big family by the end, and everybody really enjoyed working with everyone else, and we had a great time. So there was a lot of joking and a lot of laughter, you know… people appreciating what other people were doing and appreciating storylines that other actors were getting to have. I remember that in season 2 when Maggie went to Africa and we all heard it for the first time about everything that happens to her, you know, everyone in the room was upset. There were a lot of tears and people were really choked up, because we all love Alison. We are big fans of hers, and of course, we were excited for her to get to play such powerful work. But, you know, we were heartbroken about what was to happen to poor Maggie too (chuckles). So you know our table reads are sort of a big family dinner without too much of the negatives of a drama.
I’m also very interested in knowing if it was particularly difficult for directors, particularly the ones that come in for a single episode, to shoot The Newsroom, with the way it’s written, as you mentioned, like theatre.
Well, being a television director just by itself is always a little bit difficult because you are often times walking into someone else’s world, and you are only there for a few weeks. So it becomes your job to get a very clear understanding of what the world is and who its characters are before you even step on set and that’s before you even start dealing with the actors, which, you know, (chuckles) is always another story altogether. But we were fortunate to have, over the course of three seasons, brilliant directors every episode. Putting that stuff and putting Aaron’s dialogue on film is a tremendous task and the fact that every single director was up to the challenge and every single director did as great a job as they did, I think, speaks to the quality of the person who was involved in our show and who wanted to work on our show. We were also very fortunate that our executive producer Alan Poul directed a lot of our episodes, and in this last season we were very lucky to have Anthony Hemingway, who had directed one of our episodes in our second season too. So there was a continuity that was really helpful there as well. But you know, you can go down the list of directors we have had, from episode one with Greg Mottola all the way to the very last episode that was directed by Alan Poul, every single one of those directors is incredibly capable and incredibly talented and we were really lucky to have every single one of them.
4. ON IDEALISM AND HIS FUTURE PROJECTS
“As an artiste, If I’m asking my audience to be challenged, then I have to be challenged too.”
I’ve always wanted to ask this to an actor from an Aaron Sorkin show. Do you think, with all the idealism in them, working on a Sorkin show makes you a better person?
(laughs) You know, Aaron is a romantic. He is unapologetically romantic. And you know, it’s something that I appreciate very much about his work. As an artiste, you ultimately want your work to be influential to the people who see it, but you also want your work to influence you too. As the artiste, you want to change just as much as you are inspiring change in your audience. What I mean is that whatever growth you want to inspire in your audience, you really want to grow at least that much as an artiste too. And so, when you are dealing with great writers and great collaborators like Aaron and this cast and the great directors that we have had, it’s hard not to grow a little bit. That’s my take on it any way, other people will have different takes on it. Some people just want to be entertainers but as a storyteller and as an artiste, I feel like it is important and essential that if I’m asking my audience to be challenged, then I have to be challenged too, and Aaron definitely challenged us as artistes and I think we did grow. I know that I did.
I’m just curious here, so please indulge me. You’re working closely with two Indian actors – Dev Patel in The Newsroom and Hannah Simon in an upcoming romantic comedy, Lemonade. Have you picked up anything about Bollywood yet?
Oh yeah, I have fantastic relationship with Dev. Dev was always, (chuckles) well, he was the one cast member who was universally loved. You just can’t not like the kid. He’s a great guy and, you know, Dev is obviously very, very proud of where he’s from and he was constantly, sort of, giving people pointers into the ways that we could expand our knowledge of cinema and music. Many of us are still in the process of trying to take him up on it (chuckles), but he is a great guy and we loved working with him.
Unfortunately, the movie with Hannah hasn’t been shot yet and we’re still waiting for to get our dates and set up, but I’m really excited to be a part of it. I think she is fantastic and we’re both really looking forward to working with each other. I’m a big fan of her work and we’ve got together quite a few times to talk about how we’re going to make it. And we’re both really excited to get going whenever that happens to be!
Apart from Lemonade, you have a bunch of other indie films lined up after The Newsroom.
I think the other movies that are coming out are really special to me as well. I think Wild is going to be a big movie. I think a lot of people are going to be moved by it and I am hopeful that the movie will inspire people to read Cheryl Strayed’s amazing book. Then I have another film that’s coming out in December, which is just a charming romantic comedy with myself and Leslie Bibb. It was written and directed by Liz Tuccillo, who wrote Sex and the City for years and also wrote a book called ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’. So it’s this really fun, quirky, charming romantic comedy about two people trying to find their way back to each other after a couple of tragedies. You know, we made the movie on a shoestring budget but it’s a really fantastic movie. It got into South by South West and did very well there. It got sold and it will actually be out on demand and in theatre on December 5. I’m really excited for people to see that. I think it’s a great, charming piece of romantic comedy that people are really going to enjoy.
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Note: An edited version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian in the November 16, 2014 issue.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
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