John Gallagher, Jr. is a Tony-Award winning actor and musician. He won a Tony-Award in 2007 for his portrayal of Mortiz Stiefel in the rock musical Spring Awakening and was recently back on Broadway playing Edmund in the Tony nominated revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.
On screen, Gallagher is known for his role as Jim Harper in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom and Emmett DeWitt in 10 Cloverfield Lane. In addition to acting, Gallagher, Jr. has been a lifelong musician. He released his debut album Six Day Hurricane in early 2016.
John Gallagher, Jr. is currently on tour opening for Anaïs Mitchell and we caught up with him before his performance at the Hamilton in DC to talk about his music, Broadway and more.
Nicole: Tell us about your tour with Anaïs Mitchell. What kind of music can we expect to hear? Will you be performing songs from your album Six Day Hurricane (Rockwood Music Hall Recording, 2016)?
John: I will be playing a lot of songs from Six Day Hurricane, which is my first solo record. It’s a solo tour so it will just be me with an acoustic guitar. The album is a bit more flushed out with full band arrangements but when I perform it’s usually as a solo performer. Touring is something that I haven’t done as much of as I’d like to so I’m very excited to get to play in Annapolis and DC this week!
You and Anaïs are unique in that you both have one foot in the folk rock world and one foot in musical theater. It seems like that would make you a good performing duo! How did you end up touring together?
It was a pretty organic process. Last year she was playing at a festival and an opener cancelled at the last minute. I knew the booker so he called me and I didn’t hesitate. I headed right up there from New York. We hit it off and had a great time. Then she very graciously asked me to join her on the road for this tour and I leapt at the opportunity. I’m psyched to get out there and meet some of her fans and play my music for them.
There is some aesthetic overlap in our music and performance styles that makes sense for us to be on a bill together. Before I even met her I was a fan of her music and the album Hadestown which recently got turned into a successful Off-Broadway show in New York which I got to see. It was fantastic. Getting to play with her has given me a whole new level of respect and admiration for the music that she writes and performs. I’m excited that I just get to go and see her five times in a row.
I don’t feel like Six Day Hurricane can be labelled with any specific genre. How would you describe your music stylistically?
When people ask me about style I normally throw out a couple of classic buzzwords for lack of anything else to say. Americana, Rock and Roll, Folk, stuff like that. But for a record that clocks in at only 35 minutes I feel like we were very evasive in getting pinned down to one style. Some of it wasn’t even intentional but rather that we randomly picked nine of my songs to be on this album and they ended up being very diverse.
Your parents are both folk musicians and you have been writing songs and playing guitar since you were a teenager. What kind of music are you influenced by?
I grew up going to a lot of bluegrass and folk festivals and some of my early influences were songwriters like John Prine and Kris Kristofferson; of course Bob Dylan. I got to see a lot of really amazing performers at a young age. I saw Jackson Browne for the first time in middle school. Then I went through the classic rebellion phase when I started buying Nirvana records and punk rock and everything. I feel my music today is somewhere in the middle a little bit because I love pop and punk music as much as I love folk and singer-songwriter music.
I’ve never felt like carrying some sort of torch or having a mission statement about it but I definitely fall somewhere in the middle. My record is really loud and aggressive in certain ways whereas the stuff that people see when they come to my solo acoustic shows is much more in the vein of a classic singer-songwriter. It’s much more acoustic, a lot more finger picking which makes it slightly difficult to quantify, but for me it keeps me engaged because I get to do a lot of different things and try a lot of different stuff.
You’ve sung on Broadway in Spring Awakening and in Green Day’s American Idiot. Has musical theater crept into your solo music?
Yeah, in a way I feel like doing musicals for several years has helped me as a song writer. I feel like it really got a part of my brain working that likes to tell a story in a song because you know, in musicals you’ve got three and a half minutes and you’ve got to move the story forward. You have to keep people engaged. I really like that because I love story-telling songs that take you on a journey. In a way, I’ve starting looking at songs as little theatrical pieces, almost like crunching a musical into three and a half minutes. I don’t know if there is anything heightened or theatrical to the music I write but I do feel like theater has given me more insight into the economy of storytelling within a song.
Hurricane Sandy hit NYC (in 2012) just as you started recording Six Day Hurricane. What was it like recording during a hurricane?
Yeah, that is actually how we came up with the name for the album, because it was recorded during Hurricane Sandy. That was obviously such a massive moment for the East Coast. There was so much destruction and sadness and it took a lot of people by surprise. We started recording the day it hit and then we found out that they were going to shut down all the subways.
My producer and guitar player Thad DeBrock was the only one in my band who had a car and he very kindly drove us all home so we could stay in the studio longer without having to worry about getting stranded. Luckily the area where we were recording in Brooklyn was pretty much unaffected but there was a real melancholy in the air. We were all pumped to be doing this album so we were in a little bubble in the studio, but you couldn’t help but think how many people were hurt or had lost their homes. I do feel like some of that cyclone of energy and manic happiness and sadness came into the record as a result of making it during such a crazy force of nature.
Why didn’t the album get released until 2016? What made you decide that was the right time?
We made the record quickly in 2012 because I was going off to Los Angeles to film another season of The Newsroom for HBO. It wasn’t really until 2014 when I finished The Newsroom that I was able to step back and think “what do I want to do with the music?” I reached out to Rockwood Music Hall, where I have been performing for about ten years. They had just started their own record label and they really fell in love with the record and wanted to produce it but it took a while to figure that all out. It’s ironic that an album that took six days to make took three and a half years to get released! That’s not really normally how it works but in the end I feel like it came out at the right time, even though it had been sitting and ruminating for a couple of years.
You started your stage career as a young man in a slew of shows that in my mind are instant classics written by some of America and Britain’s best contemporary writers: David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, and of course, Spring Awakening. What did you see in these shows that attracted you to them at a young age?
That’s a great question! I found all of those pieces so exciting and new to me. I remember the moment that I read each and every one of them for the first time and thinking “Wow, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything quite like this onstage before.” If something feels fresh and unique and new I kind of jump at the chance to be involved.
Rabbit Hole, I got involved with first and foremost because I had already done two plays with David Lindsay-Abaire and had known him for a while. I find him one of our greatest modern playwrights and that play was a big shift for him. He had done sort of surreal, absurdist dark humor for most of his career until he did Rabbit Hole which was a real departure for him and a beautiful and somber drama.
Something like Farragut North, I had never done any shows addressing politics. I knew it would be an exciting play because when I read it, it felt like a thriller. It was really a page-turner. You don’t always get that feeling reading plays but I just remember tearing through that script and being so excited about it.
Then sometimes you hear about the people who are going to be involved. I read Jerusalem and I knew it had had a successful run at the Royal Court, which is a theater I’ve admired for years and I knew that Mark Rylance was attached to it so I joined when it came to New York.
Spring Awakening was something that just came completely out of left field. I heard the music and thought “Gosh, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like this in a musical before!” So yeah, mostly I guess I just keep my ear and eye out for things that excite me. I’m a theater fan, you know, I like to go as well. I’m drawn to projects when I feel like if I weren’t involved with them I would still really want to go see them. That’s part of my creative compass.
You then returned to theater, after a five-year hiatus to take on the classic of all classics, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. What made you decide to return to theater for this show?
I had been wanting to come back to theater and do a play pretty much ever since I left Jerusalem. I spent some of that time in LA working on The Newsroom and I did a couple of movies and a lot of onscreen stuff which I really do enjoy. But there is just nothing quite like the challenge of live theater, for better or worse. There are things that are hard about it that you can’t find anywhere else and things that are magical about it that you can’t find anywhere else.
For a while, I was waiting for the right role to come along. I had been offered a few roles onstage in the previous years but nothing that I felt would be the right role to return with. The more time you spend away from theater the more protective you become about what you are going to do to come back. You know, I couldn’t end this five year absence with any old show.
Then, out of the blue, the Roundabout Theatre Company asked me to join their production of Long Day’s Journey into Night. Eugene O’Neill is probably my favorite playwright and Long Day’s Journey has been my favorite play for years. I had always dreamed about doing it but it really felt like a pipe dream because I hadn’t done a lot of classic plays. I had only ever developed new works so I thought no one would think of me for a classic American text. When they asked me to do Long Day’s Journey, it was the shortest amount of time I ever had to think about joining a project. I took one look at the fact that they were asking me to do my favorite play and said “absolutely!”
Was Long Day’s Journey into Night a one-off or can we expect to see more of you on Broadway soon?
I would love to come back! I am always open to coming back and doing something onstage in New York. It’s where I started and it’s where I have the most experience as a performer but there is nothing specific on the horizon now.
I have actually been working on writing plays. I started writing about three or four years ago and I have about three plays in various stages of early development. So my next goal and dream is to get one of those produced somewhere and to get my work onstage in a different way.
Talk to me about movies. I know you are a big movie buff and your October horror movie countdown is one of my favorite things on Twitter. You recently played the killer in the horror flick Hush. Was that sort of a dream come true for you as a horror buff?
Oh, absolutely! 100%! That was another offer that just knocked me out of my chair. I had been wanting to play a mad man since I first started watching scary movies as a kid but because I have played a lot of mild-mannered, sheepish people onscreen I didn’t think anyone would ever think of me for a psychopath role, but Mike Flanagan who wrote and directed Hush for whatever reason did. He just reached out to me out of nowhere, sent me the script and asked if I wanted to come to Alabama for three weeks, shave my head, get a tattoo on my neck and shoot this movie. I was thrilled! I couldn’t believe it. I thought I would have to beg for that kind of role and be like “please, no, I can do it! I can play a crazy person!” But I didn’t even have to do that with Mike (Flanagan). It was so fun!
We did about three and a half weeks of night shoots. Doing those night shoots you flip your entire schedule. You really do become a vampire. We went to bed around six or seven in the morning, slept until three or four and then they would pick me up at the hotel, we would go out into the woods to this house. We shot it all on location at night and stopped when the sun came up. It was a strange experience. Mike is a fantastic film maker. There are a handful of really great horror film makers that we have now and he is definitely in the club.
What have you been up to lately that our readers might not be aware of? What’s next for you?
I recently shot a film called The Belko Experiment. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and got purchased and is going to be released in March. It’s got a really great cast (Tony Goldwyn) and director (Greg McLean) and screenwriter (James Gunn) behind it. It’s another horror movie! I don’t know why I went from doing no horror movies ever to suddenly doing three in a row.
That was shot in Colombia, right?
It was, it was shot in Bogota, which was really fun and crazy. One of the exciting and terrifying parts of this job is that when you take a job you never necessarily know where they are going to send you or what it’s going to be like, but this one was an adventure that I decided I couldn’t miss out on. I was like “Ok, they want me to go to Colombia for a month and a half? That’s not really how I intended to spend the summer, but what else am I gonna do?”
Where can our readers buy Six Day Hurricane?
iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, all the digital platforms. I sell vinyl and CDs at my shows and hopefully I’ll get an online shop up soon so people can buy physical copies if they can’t make it out to the show.
John Gallagher, Jr. and Anais Mitchell are currently on tour through the North East. They play one night only TOMORROW, Thursday, September 22, 2016, at 7:30 PM at The Hamilton – 600 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 787-1000, or purchase them online.
An Interview With Anaïs Mitchell About Appearing With John Gallagher, Jr. at The Hamilton in DC by Nicole Hertvik.