From the mind of Aaron Sorkin (creator of The West Wing and screenwriter of The Social Network and Moneyball), The Newsroom is a behind-the-scenes look at the people who make a nightly cable-news program. Focusing on network anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), his executive producer and former girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), the newsroom staff (John Gallagher, Jr., Olivia Munn, Dev Patel, Alison Pill and Thomas Sadoski) and their boss (Sam Waterston), the series tracks their idealistic and seemingly impossible mission to do the news well, in the face of corporate and commercial obstacles, as well as their own personal entanglements.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Thomas Sadoski (who plays news producer Don Keefer) talked about how challenging The Newsroom is to make, how exhausting it can be to do such fast-paced dialogue for 16 hours a day, how passionate both the fans and haters of the show are, the growth of his character in Season 2, how much fun he has working with Olivia Munn, how much he enjoyed the physical comedy he got to do this season, whether he’d watch ACN, if it were a real news network, and the new appreciation the show has given him for journalists and what it takes for them to do their job well. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
THOMAS SADOSKI: It is simultaneously both. It is challenging. It always will be. We’re operating at a high level of difficulty, when you’re working on Aaron’s words. That being said, I think we came into the second season having a lot more confidence and ownership over the show and over the characters that we were playing, and having an understanding in our bones of what the style is for the show. We had a confidence that we could get it done because we did a season of it already. There was a much more relaxed feeling, and definitely a feeling of ownership in the second season. It didn’t come off as relaxed, it just felt like we were more settled in. We’ve gotten it into our bodies now. Yeah, it was still real hard work, but it was a little bit easier than it was in the first season. We weren’t killing ourselves in our own heads about, “Oh, god, can I do this?!” We knew what we were getting ourselves into. We’re veterans of Aaron Sorkin now.
Is this type of dialogue exhausting to do, all day?
SADOSKI: Yeah, it’s 16 hours a day. I don’t speak a lot when I get home, during the season. It’s great. I just get to sit and listen. My wife gets to tell me whatever she wants to tell me, and I don’t talk. I’m too exhausted to talk, so I’m a very good listener.
You have an extensive theater background, and this show often has a play feel to it. Do you feel like your experience in the theater helped you with that, at all?
SADOSKI: I think it definitely helped. I think it helps a lot. Aaron is a playwright, at his core. I think he writes theater for the television. I think he writes very theatrically, which people either love or they hate. Some people either like that he writes so theatrically, and some people are angry about it and would rather he just stick to writing the way people talk. I am absolutely positive that the time spent in the theater, for all of us who spent time there, which is most of the cast, was definitely very helpful in preparing us for working with Aaron.
Since this show started, it seems to really keep people both riveted and frustrated, at the same time. Are you surprised that people have reacted so strongly to this show, or is it something you expect when you’re working with someone like Aaron Sorkin?
SADOSKI: I think it’s foolish to expect that anything that Aaron does is going to go passed without so much as a whimper and a nudge. He’s a polarizing figure, and this is a polarizing topic that we’re talking about. Journalism and the questions of journalistic ethics, and why certain stories are put on the air, when, how and for what reasons, are big questions in our culture and society right now. People have a lot of opinions about it. We knew, going into it, that it was going to ruffle some feathers, but good art asks questions. It asks questions of its audience and of the people that are involved in it. It challenges us just as much as it challenges the audience, and it’s exciting to be a part of something like that.
And it would be pretty sad, if the show led to no conversations among people.
SADOSKI: Exactly! That’s what you’d hate. The fact is that people are having these discussions, and they’re passionate debates. People who don’t like the show, really don’t like the show. And people who love the show, really love the show. I’m constantly being told, and am amazed at how often I’m being told, that it’s a water cooler show. It’s the show people watch on Sunday night, and then go in and talk about it around the water cooler on Monday morning. And the people who haven’t seen it are constantly going, “Wait, what are you talking about? What’s going on? I’ve gotta see that!” I don’t know what else you want from a TV show. I’d much rather it be this way than the other. Criticism is something that you have to take, regardless of what you do. Even if you go out there and try to make the most vanilla, non-offensive TV show possible, people are going to criticize you for doing that. It’s just part of the game. You can’t let it get to you. It’s exciting that it’s sparked a debate and a discussion.
What was it like to play Don Keefer, this season? Did he feel any different in Season 2, or did it just feel like a natural progression of the character?
SADOSKI: Well, the thing with it is that I never saw Don any differently, from the very beginning. I didn’t go into the season thinking, “Okay, Don is a bad guy. He’s a jerk. He’s a douche.” I saw Don as a fundamentally good person who, when we meet him in the first couple of episodes, is in a moment of great crisis. He is losing his job. His relationship with his girlfriend has been on again/off again, on again/off again for the better part of three or four months, which is not a particularly long relationship. And then, all of a sudden, she’s like, “And now it’s time for you to meet my parents.” He’s quit his job and he has started a new job, and in that new job, he’s told, “You have to get X number of viewers, right out of the gate, or you’re fired,” so there’s a lot of pressure on him there. And then, on top of it all, his old mentor has come in to replace his old position, and brought her staff with her. She’s running around telling everybody that the way he was doing the news was awful.
It was pretty condescending and there was pretty biting criticism of Don, in the first season. On top of everything, this girlfriend that he has, who he’s trying to work out this relationship out with, on top of all this other work stuff going on, starts having this wide out in the open emotional affair with this other guy who just walked into the newsroom. That’s pretty stressful shit! There was a lot going on with the poor guy. I would be a dick under those circumstances, too. So, I never really thought of Don as being a bad guy. It was heartening for me, as the season progressed, to see other people come around on the character and say, “Oh, he isn’t such a bad guy.” They gave him a shot and, by the end of the season, a lot of the thinking on the character had turned. At this point, we’re settled into who this guy is. I was really happy with the twists and turns we got to take this year, with the character.
What’s it been like to get to work with Olivia Munn more in Season 2?
SADOSKI: Olivia is a really good friend. I love working with her. She’s a lot of fun to spend time with on set, and I think that we work really well together. For whatever reason, that’s something that Aaron picked up on, last season, and we got to share some scenes together this season, too, which is always a good time. It’s really interesting. I like those two characters, precisely for the reason that the banter between them is different, in some way. These are two people who are very restrained with each other, and who are trying very hard to pretend like they’re not flirting, even when they are, or deny themselves the joy of flirting with each other, even though they want to. There’s a great restraint and tension that’s created by that, that’s a lot of fun. You’re also dealing with two characters who are totally socially inept, and there’s something beautiful about that. They’re socially inept in a really charmingly aloof way, and not a goofy way. The relationship that the two of them have with each other is a lot of fun to work with, and it’s great to work with Olivia on it.
You had a moment of great physical comedy this season, with that scene where Don is fixing the wheels on his office chair, but just can’t do it right and instead keeps falling over in it. Was that fun to shoot? Do you enjoy that kind of physical comedy?
SADOSKI: What was challenging about that scene was keeping a straight face, sitting in that little chair. I get such a kick out of that. I’m grew up a huge fan of The Three Stooges and Monty Python, so somebody getting slapped in the face with a fish, or falling out of a chair, or running into a door, or tripping over their own feet and eating it, is all stuff I find really, really funny. So, that was a good time to shoot that stuff. I got a big kick out of it. And it is in keeping with the character. It’s not just a piece of comedy for the sake of comedy. There’s something in keeping with the character in that. Don was like, “You know what? I’m going to fix my chair!” And he screws it all up, but he refuses to acknowledge that he didn’t know what he was doing. Or maybe, even funnier, he knows exactly what he did wrong and that he screwed it all up, but as punishment to himself, he’s forcing himself to sit in this little chair until he gets it right. There’s something interesting about it. But yeah, I had a great time shooting all of that stuff. It was really fun!
Have you ever thought about, if ACN was a real news network, whether you would actually find yourself watching it?
SADOSKI: I think I would. I think I would watch it as much as I would watch anything else. Since working on the show, I’ve become much more discerning about where I get my information from, and I make sure I get it from multiple sources. I don’t just trust one place with all of it. I think that I would definitely spend some time watching ACN. It would definitely be part of my news diet.
More than just the effect that this show has on where you get your news from or how you watch news now, does it also affect the way you see the people who deliver it and the people behind them who are responsible for getting it done?
SADOSKI: Oh, absolutely! I have so much more compassion for journalists and the work that they have to do, in order to do the jobs that they have to do. I am much more in awe of and am celebratory of great journalism when I see it, and I’m much more critical of bad journalism, or crap masquerading as journalism. It’s not something that I frankly spent a whole lot of time thinking about, before I started working on this show. I have always been politically active and vaguely dissatisfied with the state of news, but I wasn’t sure why. And working on the show has made me invest in that question a little bit more, and look into why I had those feelings. Through that investigation, and through the time that I’ve spent talking to and being around journalists, it’s really enlightened me, as to how hard it is to do the job and how important the job is to do well.
The Newsroom airs on Sunday nights on HBO, with the Season 2 finale airing on September 15th.