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"Newsroom" Newbie Joel Johnstone Talks Creativity and Campaign Strategy

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Photo: Bobby Quillard

Season two of HBO’s The Newsroom has begun with the character of “News Night” senior producer Jim Harper (played by John Gallagher Jr.) fleeing the ACN newsroom and his unfulfilled attraction to coworker Maggie Jordan and hitting the road with Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. The action takes place in 2011, when Romney and fellow Republicans were trying to gain an edge for the New Hampshire primary. The first person Jim encounters on his road trip is Cameron, head of Romney’s advance team. Played by actor Joel Johnstone, Cameron is not happy with some pointed comments “News Night” anchor Will McAvoy made about the Tea Party, and he quickly does his utmost to put Jim in his place. Whether or not he agrees with Cameron’s politics, Johnstone plays him with total conviction. He lets DivineCaroline in on what goes on behind the scenes in this TV show that creates its drama around real-life events.

DivineCaroline: What has been the response you’ve gotten to your appearances on The Newsroom?
Joel Johnstone: My mom called me after the first episode and asked why I was so mean. It never occurred to me. I just thought I have a really strong point of view on who he is and the stuff he represents and I’m going to take care of business.

DC: Did you follow the Presidential campaign in 2011/2012?
JJ: One of my best friends left the film industry—he was working for a big director—and went into politics. He was working for a presidential candidate. He asked me not to say which. He was on one of the campaigns as the deputy finance director. I would get a lot more information than most people. So through him I was following it as of late 2010 actually.

DC: Since this story is based on real life events how does that impact and inform your performance?
JJ: [Newsroom creator] Aaron [Sorkin] makes things really accessible for actors to do their homework. Whether he knows it or not, he does us all a favor by giving us the exact date in history that it takes place. Presidential campaigns are one of the most documented pieces of news out there. All you have to do is Google August 24, 2011, New Hampshire, this town, this candidate and you’ll be shocked at the ocean of information you’ll get. As an actor, if you can start from the place of who am I, what am I doing, what are my surroundings, that will give you the foundation for all good homework.

DC: Are you a news junkie by nature?
JJ: I wish I could say I was. The news junkies I know religiously follow a half a dozen to a dozen different sources on any given day. I follow The New York Times online just about every day, but I think to really call yourself a junkie you have to be responsible and read multiple sources on every story that you are following. Otherwise, you’re not going to get the whole picture.

DC: Your character isn’t part of the newsroom. He’s outside of that milieu, but news is important to him. What do you think he feels about the media?
JJ: The research I did—the media is going to make or break any political campaign. It’s somebody’s job to try and control the media. Usually, that’s left up to the pr people and the advance team.

From my character’s standpoint, media was the most important thing, but also the most threatening thing…. If the media spins out of control and turns against the candidate, his job is threatened. So from the character’s standpoint that’s the hurdle that I saw. Jim is a threat to my job. I’ve got to take care of business.

DC: How much did you get to engage with the cast other than John Gallagher Jr. and your fellow guest stars who are part of the Romney campaign storyline?
JJ: I can’t say too much because it could give away where the storyline is going.

DC: Your relationship with HBO is just beginning. Please talk a bit about your recently picked up HBO comedy series Getting On.
JJ: It’s an adaptation of a BBC series that was successful in England, created by Jo Brand (a comedy about nurses, doctors and administrators caring for patients in a women’s geriatric wing in an overwhelmed healthcare system). Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, who were the creative team behind Big Love, are adapting it and creating the HBO version. It’s starring Laurie Metcalf, Alex Borstein and Niecy Nash. It’s really, really fun and hilarious and I’m really excited about it.

DC: Since you’re now part of the HBO family, you need to answer some frivolous questions about other HBO shows. If you made an appearance on Game of Thrones, what character would you like to have a scene with?
JJ: Tyrion Lannister/Peter Dinklage. I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time, before the show. He’s one of the most exciting and talented guys out there working. I would love to have that opportunity.

DC: True Blood—are you a vampire or werewolf?
JJ: The week I joined my acting class, Joe Manganiello got cast on True Blood. Literally, the first week I was there he tested for it and the next week he got the part. I didn’t get the chance to know him very well, but to show solidarity with my class I’ve got to say werewolf.

DC: You are also a filmmaker. Your short film The Pilgrim & the Private Eye has been making the rounds of film festivals.
JJ: Any creative person, whether you’re an actor, writer, painter, musician you have to stay busy and create something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be linear with what you’re doing…. You have to keep your creative energy and juices flowing. As an actor, I will say I never learned more in my life than making my own film. As an actor you are one small part of a large story. When you make a film you’re kind of forced to learn the macro and how the micro fits into it. As an actor to learn the big picture is really eye opening and I believe it only makes you a stronger actor.

DC: One last Newsroom question. Will Jim get his 30 minutes with the candidate?
JJ: You have to watch and see.

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