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‘Newsroom’ Breakout Joel Johnstone on Aaron Sorkin, Social Media and Why NYC is a Filmmaker’s Town

With a small but showy recurring role on HBO’s "The Newsroom," this actor/filmmaker is one to keep your eye on.

The second season of "The Newsroom" is underway and up-and-coming actor/filmmaker Joel Johnstone caught our eye. Playing the leader of the advanced team for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, Johnstone goes toe-to-toe with left-winger ACN’s Jim (played by John Gallagher Jr.), making every effort to thwart Jim’s ability to cover the Romney campaign.

We got the opportunity to speak to Johnstone about working with Aaron Sorkin, his award-winning short film The Pilgrim & the Private Eye starring Tom Noonan, and the advice he’d give to young filmmakers wanting to shoot in NYC.

Tribeca: I just caught up on "The Newsroom" last night and I love where the show is headed this season. How familiar with the show were you before you auditioned?

Joel Johnstone: Before I ever auditioned, "The Newsroom" was my favorite show on TV. I probably watched every episode twice, at least. I never thought that I was going to get the part because I was such a huge fan. I just cared too much. As an actor, you want to go in to every audition and have fun and be carefree and not care too much about the job. It’s about doing good work. If you focus on the job, you’re going to fall on your face more often than not.

Tribeca: You play Cameron, a Romney staffer who Jim first encounters in New Hampshire. Had you followed the race to the 2012 election closely?

JJ: I did. One of my best friends is in politics and worked for one of the national campaigns. I can’t say which one but I would get daily updates throughout the process.  Before that, I didn’t know  what an advance team was even though I ended up playing the head of  Romney’s advance team on the show.  My best friend also filled me in on a lot of specialized knowledge that you don’t find on the Internet. It’s really eye opening and fascinating, but at the same time, is a little disconcerting to learn the ins and outs of how a presidential campaign is run.

You really have to search for that diamond in the rough when media is so easily accessible and relatively painless to make.

Tribeca: You’re one of the lucky actors who gets to speak dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin. In fact, you have the most Sorkin-esque moment in the season 2 premiere of the show when you first encounter Jim outside the Romney bus. What was that experience like for you?

JJ: I was a huge fan. Aaron Sorkin is an actor’s friend. He makes the set very open and inviting. I remember on my first day on location at 5:30 in the morning in late November—the sun wasn’t even up yet—Aaron came up to me and welcomed me to the show and told me that I was going to be great. That was all I needed; that was it. [laughs]That opened me up and made playing the role very easy. Plus, John Gallagher Jr. is just the nicest person on the planet, and Alan Poul is an incredibly talented, wonderful director.

Tribeca: Were you always a fan of Sorkin?

JJ: I’ve followed him pretty religiously since I was sixteen years old. When I was a teenager, I just kind of fell in love with his writing. He’s got his own stamp. There’s a musical quality to his writing—a wonderful rhythm—that’s just masterful. Plus, he’s the most enthusiastic person on set. You really get that sense that there’s no other place in the world this guy would rather be. He loves the whole process of telling this story, from the writing to the acting to the crew to everything. He’s enthusiastic and it’s contagious.

Tribeca: You directed, co-wrote and starred in The Pilgrim & the Private Eye, a short film that won the jury prize at the Long Island Film Festival. So, in addition to being an actor, you’re also a filmmaker. Is it hard to juggle both professions? Do you ever feel like you’re neglecting one for the other?

JJ: I felt that making this film helped me to become a stronger actor. The actors that I’ve always admired the most were the ones who also have created films themselves. I grew up watching guys like Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Warren Beatty and Kevin Costner. I feel like it’s an intertwined relationship, and one only makes the other stronger. If you know how to tell a story as an actor, you will be a better director and vice versa.  To have your eye on the bigger picture and not just be focused in one area benefits all sides of storytelling.

So I never felt like I was juggling or sacrificing one for the other at all.  I will say that as doing the film festival circuit as a filmmaker requires a giant time commitment that I didn’t anticipate. It’s a fulltime job to be on the festival circuit. Submitting the film is just the beginning. You also have to prepare to go and talk at events and promote your film, and that is an education all by itself.

Tribeca: Set in Coney Island, The Pilgrim & the Private Eye is a modern twist on old-fashioned noir that is filled with some unexpected laughs. Did you ever consider turning to kickstarter or indiegogo to raise funds?

JJ: I beat myself up every day for not using Kickstarter, I didn’t know about Kickstarter or Indiegogo when I started all this. My writing and producing partner Matt [Kubacki] and I got to the point where if we didn’t make the short right then, it wasn’t going to happen. We’d always talked about it, but we really began aggressively writing it when we realized that everywhere we wanted to shoot in Coney Island was closing down.

Tom Noonan was filming "Hell on Wheels" at the time, but he had one weekend free in New York, so we had to rush to get things into action. It was 100% self-financed on an ultra, ultra shoestring budget. And if I could do it all over again, I would absolutely do Kickstarter because that would have allowed for more freedom financially. We wouldn’t have had to cut some shots and ideas.

There will always be mini disasters on shoots. That's the only thing you can count on. 

Tribeca: Do New York City and its boroughs lend themselves to filmmakers? Was it difficult to get permission to shoot at certain locations, especially the Coney Island boardwalk?

JJ: I moved to NY right at the end of the Giulliani administration. The New York I thought I knew when I was growing up in Milwaukee was a dirty, but at the same time, glamorous place that almost made the grime appealing. When I arrived, a lot of the grime so to speak was cleaned up and gone.

I remember going to Coney Island for the first time and thinking this still is the NY that I saw in movies. It sounds so weird, but there’s this comfort and nostalgia to Coney Island, even though it isn’t now what it was ten years ago.

Tribeca: Twice you’ve starred in a short film opposite character actor legend Tom Noonan. Can you talk about your relationship with him?

JJ: We’ve been friends for years now. My freshman year of college, I interned for a casting director and they asked me to be a reader one day for the director coming in, who just happened to be Jodie Foster. I think I was 19, and I had a mini heart attack. Unfortunately, the movie never got made. They were auditioning people and Tom Noonan came in and just scared everyone in the room when he took on the persona of the  villain-esque character. I had never seen an audition like that. I didn’t know you could do what he did. He has an incredible presence in a room. He’s so unbelievably talented. He’s one of those actors who can’t work enough.

When someone in the casting office told me he taught acting at his theater on East 4th, I immediately signed up for classes from him. I did that for about two years, and then I did plays there. He wrote and directed a piece and put me in a small role alternating with another actor on certain nights. We did another short film directed by somebody else years ago, and then we just always kept in touch and have remained friends.

He’s been a mentor of mine. A lot of my favorite films have and continue to be ones he recommended to me. He’s the person who told me to go watch The Conversation, and to this day, it’s one of my top five favorites. When we wrote The Pilgrim & the Private Eye, he was always the guy we had in mind. He’s been a friend and mentor for over a decade now. 

Tribeca: Do you have any advice for filmmakers who want to shoot in NYC?

JJ: I would tell any filmmaker wanting to shoot in New York on a small budget to go to the NY Mayor’s Office of Film and Television and get a walking permit. It only takes an hour or two of your time, and it is your get-out-of-jail free card, so to speak. If you do have equipment out on the street, it completely legitimizes your project and you’ll be left alone.

The first day we started shooting, our production van got broken into halfway through. Amazingly enough, the thieves left 50,000 dollar’s worth of rental equipment but stole my 4 and a half year old Macbook Pro, along with my backpack. Unfortunately, the backpack had all of our pre-production notes, storyboard, everything. When I won the director award at The Art of Brooklyn Film Festival, I thanked whoever stole that because it would have been a different film otherwise. We really had to think on the go. We scrapped our plans and improvised.

If nobody had stolen this laptop, it would have been a different movie.  But the reason I tell that story is that we showed the police who investigated the robbery our permit and that sped up the entire process. We were able to finish the day and get some shots and move on; otherwise we would have had to go back to the precinct and fill out forms. There will always be mini disasters on shoots. That's the only thing you can count on. 

Tribeca: In the age of streaming content, how do you consume media? Are you an old-fashioned television guy or do you watch on portable screens?

JJ: I love my Apple TV. That’s where I watch most of my streaming television. I have Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO Go, so I just hook those services directly to my Apple TV. When I’m traveling, I just bring my laptop.

Aaron Sorkin is an actor’s friend. He makes the set very open and inviting.

Tribeca: Have you been exposed to new video technology like Vine or Instagram Video? As a filmmaker, what is your take on these short-form video platforms?

JJ: I’ve seen them but they just haven’t appealed to me that much yet. I think that every so often someone will show me something that’s really cool, but for the most part it’s like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. You really have to search for that diamond in the rough when media is so easily accessible and relatively painless to make.

Tribeca: As an up-and-coming actor in the industry, do you feel like you need to make your presence known on social media?

JJ: I’m slightly social media impaired. I’m not great at it. I’m so jealous of friends that are better at it than me. It’s a skill that I’m still learning and trying to improve on. It’s not just learning the technology, but what’s the most effective way to get the word out. Anybody can tweet, anybody can make a Facebook page, but then using it effectively is a totally different thing.  Some people have a knack for it and I’m doing my best to learn that knack.

Tribeca: According to your IMDB page, you had a role in the pilot of "Getting On," the new HBO show from the creators of "Big Love". Will you be continuing on the project? What’s next for you?

JJ: I’m really excited about “Getting On,” which is an adaptation of this great BBC series. I go back to film that recurring role next week. Also, Matt and I are currently trying to adapt The Pilgrim & the Private Eye into a television series. For our proposed series, we have introduced a third character and written a few drafts of a pilot script that we’ve turned in to our producers.

Plus, we’re always talking about our next film, but right now were still focused on the series because we love the story and want it to live on. Learning what we’ve learned thus far, I also think we’re ready to make a feature at some point which would be even more rewarding. The time just has to be right. 


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