Don Keefer has a problem…or two. The TV news producer is working on a new show, one he doesn’t care for all that much. To make matters worse, the guy who replaced him on the show he left is moving in on his girlfriend and Don may not be able to hold on to her.
Such is the life for the character on the Aaron Sorkin-created “The Newsroom” on HBO. Played by Tony® nominee Thomas Sadoski (Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty), the character is rich in flaws, but he has managed to give the audience a new perspective on one who many view as the show’s “bad guy.” Previously the producer for “News Night” anchored by Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy on the fictional cable news network ACN, Don is now the producer of the 10pm show, one more focused on “fluffier” stories geared toward earning bigger ratings. Sadoski reteams with Alison Pill, his reasons to be pretty co-star, here playing his girlfriend Maggie, who is doing some obvious flirting with Jim (Tony® winner Johnny Gallagher, Jr.), one of the new producers of Don’s old show (along with Emily Mortimer’s Mackenzie MacHale). If the high-stress world of ever-changing and breaking news wasn’t enough, Don now watching from the sidelines as the others play in the big game, he feels his personal world crumbling around him as well.
Yet, Sorkin, as he has done with many characters on other TV shows he has created (“The West Wing,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “Sports Night”) and in the movies he has written (The Social Network, A Few Good Men), manages to redeem those bad guy characters, sometimes with the flip of a dime, and the audience is suddenly sympathizing with this damaged soul, a character now more complex and interesting than before.
He seems to be doing exactly that with Don Keefer, who, in the latest episode (title “5/1″), was stuck sitting on an airport tarmac with financial reporter Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) and the anchor of his show, Elliot Hirsch (David Harbour), while the world was about to learn of the killing of Osama bin Laden (go Inside the Episode with Aaron Sorkin below). The final moments of the episode are huge for Don, and hit home for Sadoski, as he recently told fans during a Q&A on HBO’s website.
“I lived in NYC during Sept 11 across the river from the towers and knew people in them,” Sadoski explained. ”That episode hit me on a deeper level and was bigger than just the show.”
It’s for those reasons of poignancy and authenticity that actors often cite for why they love working with Aaron Sorkin. And Sadoski seems to be no different. In my recent interview with the 36-year-old actor, he explains what he thinks Sorkin has done so well with this show and offers his opinion comparing Sorkin to another famous writer/director, he reveals the original plans for his character, and he addresses the starkly different reaction of fans versus critics.
But first, here’s a glimpse of Don in action:
Gerrad Hall: A lot of news reporters/anchors/personalities are quite active on Twitter these days, as are you (@ThomasSadoski). Do you find that people are mainly offering kind words to you there?
Thomas Sadoski: It’s been incredibly gracious so far. I say that with a little bit of trepidation knowing that putting that sort of chum in the water is going to invite people to now say not-so-very-nice things to me on Twitter about the show, but I’ve been so pleased with how kind and excited people have been since I joined up and started tweeting. It’s been great; I’ve been overwhelmed with kindness, and it’s been a cool feeling.
GH: Quite a bit the opposite of professional critics.
TS: Yeah! And listen, ultimately, if it comes down to it, do I want the support of the “popular kids” or do I want the support of “the people?” The support of the people. The popular kids can go do their thing and say whatever they want to say, and the fact that…people are rooting for us and watching into it like that means more to me. I don’t dismiss anybody’s opinion. I don’t look down my nose at critics or people who have a different opinion of the show than I do. Everyone’s opinion is valid and I welcome legitimate criticism, I welcome worthwhile criticism, but frankly, a lot of the criticism I’ve seen has been snark masquerading as intelligence, it’s just been lazy. And I don’t particularly have any interest in…and unfortunately [it has been] from good – supposedly good – news outlets. That, to me, has been the thing that’s most disappointing about it. But look, I love the show, I’m proud of the show, I love the opportunity I get to go to work with this incredible writer and the incredible actors and these incrediblE directors and this extraordinary crew and work for an amazing outfit like HBO, and at the end of the day, nobody can take that away from me.
GH: I want to ask you about one of those writers, the main guy, Aaron Sorkin. Do you think it’s fair to say he is like Woody Allen in that people really want to work with him, dig into his dialog, which, like Woody Allen, there sometimes is a lot of?
TS: I think that that’s…(laughs)…I think that’s a really interesting comparison. I’m slightly hesitant to back it fully (laughs), but I will say that in terms of how desperately people want to work with Aaron, yeah, there is a lot of similarity there. I think it’s evident from this cast that he has put together. I think pretty much all of us auditioned for this. It’s sort of a no-brainer for me because nobody knows who the hell I am – for some of the other actors in this company, it’s extraordinary to think that people were so willing and so desirous to work with Aaron that they put aside all those years of work that they had done and all the places they had gotten to and said, ‘I’m happy to walk into the room and audition once again.’ I think that tells you a lot. The day I auditioned for this show, sitting in the waiting room with me were Alison Pill and Olivia Munn and Sam Waterston, and we all got cast, which was a great day for all of us. But I think that tells you something, that actors of that quality and that level of experience and everything were more than happy to sit in a waiting room again and audition once again. It is a real pleasure to get to work with Aaron. He’s an extraordinary talent, but he’s also a great guy. We do love working with him.
GH: You made the comment that not many people know you. Maybe TV audiences aren’t as familiar with you, but you’re certainly known in New York from your stage work and Broadway. That is such a different animal than TV because you’re generating the energy right there in front of an audience, so when you’re working on a big scene on The Newsroom, like the end of Episode 4 with the Gabby Giffords shooting, do you manage to generate that energy in the moment or is a lot of that generated in the editing process?
TS: I think that ultimately what we would want as actors is that we wouldn’t have to have a really beautiful score underneath anything in order to translate and transmit a powerful story, that when that score does come in and when the edits are made, that’s just icing on the cake…that we’re not getting bailed out by that. So yeah, we work really, really hard on set to generate that feeling right then and right there. A bulk of our cast is theatre actors; there’s nothing we can really do about that. You get a couple of us together in a room and it just sort of starts to happen naturally (snapping his fingers). The great thing about the folks that haven’t had a lot of experience, a lot of exposure to theatre that are in our cast is that they were so brave and so willing to come along on that ride. We do, we work real hard to generate that stuff in the moment so that, regardless of where you set up the camera, regardless of the tightness of the shot, you’re going to see something; in the background, somebody is always working. You could set up the Matrix cameras in that newsroom – 360˚ – and at any given angle and at any given moment, somebody is going to be doing something in character, in the moment in terms of the story.
GH: There is such unpredictability in the news business, never know what’s going to happen from minute to minute. In watching the show, that same feeling comes across in these characters’ stories – you almost can’t predict which direction they’re going to go next.
TS: Yeah, I think that’s very true. I think that comes from this sort of passion that Aaron has for writing about people who are so utterly capable at their jobs and so utterly hopeless in their lives. There is a sort of unpredictability to that because these are people that, when they’re in their element, are capable, intelligent, focused, driven and brilliant at their jobs. And then the instant they’re out of that element, they’re at sea and they’re flailing – and there is an unpredictability that comes along with that, particularly when the two worlds of personal life and work start to collide in the newsroom. There is an unpredictability that is going to be generated by that.
GH: Actors have told me before that there are characters they have enjoyed playing, but they didn’t particularly care about them one way or the other. When it comes to your character, Don, do you share in that feeling or have you been invested in his journey – almost as an audience member – from Day 1?
TS: I think that was true right out of the gate. The character of Don who I’m playing was originally three different characters, and after our table read in New York, Aaron got in touch with me and said, ‘I’m going to compress these three different characters into your one character. Good luck.’ And I think right out of the gate, that gave me a real – first of all, I was honored – but a real drive and a real focus to immediately and do my best to find the depth and the humanity in this person. I am rooting for him, and as the season went on and things developed and as we got to see more of this person as a person, it was really exciting. It was really thrilling for me, and I was so thankful to Aaron for giving me that opportunity and trusting in me to do that.
GH: And hopefully he combined the salary for all three of those actors and gave it to you as well.
TS: (laughs) You know what, that was not his call. That was on HBO, and God bless them, they did not.
GH: It’s been so interesting watching Don deal with these underlying regrets about leaving “News Night,” wishing he wasn’t on a show that’s all about ratings-grabbing stories. So that was such a great moment at the end of Episode 4 when the Gabby Giffords shooting happens and Will turns to you and says, ‘You’re a fucking newsman.’ How did you feel seeing that acknowledgment finally happen?
TS: I think it was a great moment of acknowledgment for the characters and for the audience. It was an important moment in terms of telling a complete story, which is that Don is actually really, really good at his job, and all of that story is in there. It’s interesting – I talk to people who have gone back and re-watched episodes and, because there is so much going on with each character and each show, your initial viewing you catch one line. Then you go watch again and you catch another. People [who have done that say] are constantly talking about how good of a guy Don is and how good he is at his job and all of this stuff, but it’s funny because I didn’t think of it that way. And then you have this moment where Don does what Don does. From the very beginning, Don hasn’t been anything other than what he is, and he’s a hard news man. He is somebody who is trying to keep his cool while everyone else around him is losing theirs, and I think he is incredibly focused on doing his job well and doing it right. He is a guy who has been lost in the shuffle – I think he definitely, at that point, has felt that. There’s a scene with Jim in which he says, ‘I would’ve loved to have been part of what you’re doing and I’m capable of doing what you’re doing, but I’m tied down by these ratings – I have this mandate I have been given – and I can’t run off and do the stuff that you’re doing, and you guys are out here making me look like an asshole. And I haven’t even gotten started yet.’ I think there is some truth to that, so to have that moment of acknowledgment was important.
GH: As Season 1 starts to wind down, is there anything in particular from an episode that you’re excited for audiences to see on Don’s journey, be it personal or professional?
TS: Yeah, there are a couple moments coming in which I – I haven’t seen any of it – I’m frankly looking forward to seeing it, too! But if I remember correctly, there are a couple episodes upcoming [where] the journey of Don towards being a more compassionate character…is going to continue. And I’m excited to see it. I’m excited to see all these episodes!
One of those was the previously mentioned episode, “5/1.” Go Inside the Episode with Aaron Sorkin in this video:
The Newsroom airs Sundays at 10pm ET on HBO.