How far would you go to get the answer to a simple question you were just too afraid to ask? In The Heart Machine, now available on iTunes and opening today in select theaters, John Gallagher Jr. plays Cody, a man who suspects that his long-distance girlfriend, Virginia (Kate Lyn Shiel), isn’t actually abroad in Berlin, yet can’t bring himself to ask her for the truth. Instead, he seeks it out among strangers in New York’s East Village, and, in the process, the film explores the boundaries one man is willing to cross during a journey that could be as much about finding himself as it is about finding Virginia.
With The Heart Machine, plus two projects coming from HBO in November (the final season of The Newsroom and the mini-series Olive Kitteredge), we’re going to be seeing a lot of Gallagher Jr. in the next few weeks. But first, the 30-year-old actor and musician takes a break from shooting a new movie to chat with Out via Skype—the same program Cody uses to chat with Virginia—and dishes on false identities, movie traditions, what heaven feels like, and his man-crush.
Out: The Heart Machine is centered around the possibility that someone might be catfishing on Skype. How far have you stretched the truth online?
John Gallagher Jr.: I think the last time I stretched the truth a lot online was circa 1998, when we got a computer in the Gallagher house. Mostly, I went to a lot of movie chat rooms because I was a big movie nerd and really obsessed with Scream and horror movies. I thought that I was going to be able to track down famous people I admired on America Online. One person said she was Rose McGowan, whom I had a big crush on because of Scream. I knew it wasn’t this famous actress, but I was willing to curb my disbelief in order to have this pretend conversation. But I myself tend to be an over-sharer. I’m a heart-on-my-sleeve kind of person, so I actually end up telling the whole, miserable, unflattering truth online.
If you were going to pretend to be from somewhere else, where would it be?
I’d probably pretend to be from Ireland. I have the heritage in my dad’s blood but I’ve never been there, so I have some sort of cosmic association. And who isn’t charmed by an Irish accent? I’d probably have to take some lessons first...
We’re Skyping right now because you’re allegedly out of town filming, but after watching The Heart Machine I’m wondering: Are you actually right here in New York City, avoiding me?
Wouldn’t that be an interesting, meta thing to do? Here, check this out [moving the laptop to show the view out the window], just because I want to be a man of my word. Look out there: That’s the Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans, where I am right now, about to start filming a movie.
While we’re on the subject of being someone you’re not, if you could be in the remake of any film, which character would you love to play?
I don’t know if I would ever want to take up this mantle because I think it’s one of the greatest comedic performances of all time, but Bill Murray as Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters. That’s what made me realize that I wanted to give acting a shot. But now it looks like they’re rebooting it with an all-female cast, so I think any shot I had with that is completely out. Not that I ever had a shot of filling Bill Murray’s shoes anyway; he’s such a genius.
John Gallagher Jr. in a scene from 'The Heart Machine'
Who’s your celebrity man-crush?
Scott Avett, who plays the banjo for the Avett Brothers. Great song-writer, great musician, and he looks like a Gap model.
Every Thanksgiving, my partner makes us watch Pieces of April, your first feature film. What annual movie traditions do you have?
Oh, cool! On Thanksgiving I watch The Last Waltz, which was the Band’s final concert, which they filmed on Thanksgiving in 1978. And at Christmas my family always watches four movies: A Christmas Story, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Scrooged, and Die Hard. Somebody once was like, “Hey, stop saying you watch Die Hard on Christmas. You’re not original! You think you’re being alternative.” And I thought, I’m not trying to be ironic or perpetuate some sort of hipster culture. I just really love that movie, it’s set at Christmas, and we’ve been watching it at Christmas since I was a kid!
In Pieces of April, Alison Pill plays your sister, and in HBO’s The Newsroom she plays your love interest. What will she play next time you work together?
I have no idea! Maybe a friend? A solid friend? Or maybe we can be in some action movie and have to duel, like arch enemies. I’ve known her for 11 years and she’s a lovely, sweet person, so that would be totally different.
Speaking of The Newsroom, what sources do you go to for news?
More than anything, Twitter. I’m not insanely active on it but I do check it a lot because I’ve found that it’s the quickest place to get breaking news and updates, and to feel kind of connected. Obviously I think if you really want to bone up on a news story and try to gain some perspective and understanding, it’s good to turn to multiple facets and look everywhere—print, online, TV news, radio. There’s some great stations out there through NPR and BBC Radio. My go-to thing these days is online, though.
When you accepted your 2007 Tony, you quoted your character from Spring Awakening, Moritz, and said, “Truly, truly, truly heaven must feel like this.” Have you felt heaven since?
Nothing quite like that. I’ve certainly had some otherworldly, out-of-body experiences since then, and there have been things that were really amazing, exciting, and transcendent, but that was one of the last times that I really felt something so very surreal that even to this day it feels like a dream. It really does feel like something that happened to me while I was asleep in the middle of the night.
Spring Awakening was largely about sexual discovery. Let’s figure out your pornstar name. Tell us the name of your first pet and the street you grew up on!
It’s a bad one! I would never get hired. My first pet was a hermit crab that I named Crabit, and I grew up on Grub Road, so it would be Crabit Grub. It’s horrendous.
Bonus: What’s your spirit animal?
A puppy. I’m way too eager, too enthusiastic, I sometimes get ahead of myself and trip all over myself, I’m very curious, and I think that I have more dexterity than I actually do.
Follow Brandon Schultz on Twitter @BrandonAlexandr