SXSW 2014 Interview: John Gallagher Jr. & Kate Lyn Sheil on The Heart Machine

The Heart Machine

Both John Gallagher Jr. and Kate Lyn Sheil have been to SXSW before. Gallagher’s film Short Term 12 won both Audience and Grand Jury Awards last year. Sheil’s film Sun Don’t Shine won the Chicken & Egg Emergent Narrative Woman Director Award for Amy Seimetz. The actors are back in Austin with The Heart Machine, a drama about a long distance relationship that’s not so long distance. Virginia (Sheil) and Cody (Gallagher) met on Skype and she told him she is in Germany. When he notices clues that she lives right in New York near him, Cody begins investigating.

I met both actors for the first time in person on the balcony of the Driskill Hotel, a popular spot for interviews at the Fest. Sheil introduced herself as Kate, and John was, of course, John.


CraveOnline: Have there been any John and Kate jokes yet?

Kate Lyn Sheil: No.

John Gallagher Jr.: No, not until now although I resisted making several on the set because when it would be time to wrangle us to shoot something, somebody would always be like, “Hey, can we bring John and Kate in?” I would snicker. In my mind, but I didn’t out loud.

Kate Lyn Sheil: I welcome them.

John Gallagher Jr.: Yeah, bring ‘em on.


It seems like a new thing that actors have to deal with, doing scenes on Skype because that’s how a lot of people interact now. How do you see this style of acting developing?

Kate Lyn Sheil: There were technical difficulties that we had to address. It was interesting because John and I rehearsed in person all of the Skype scenes before we actually shot them. There was a huge difference for me. I think the connection between the two characters was so important to the film, so it was good that we had rehearsed them face-to-face.


Was it actually on Skype and you recorded it?

John Gallagher Jr.: Yeah, we did all of the Skype scenes towards the end. I feel like the last week of shooting was very Skype heavy and Kate would be, depending on there are certain scenes where the camera is actually in the room with the character and you just see the other character on Skype. Depending on whose coverage was being shot, Kate would be up in a different level of the apartment where we were filming and I would be downstairs. Then when it was Kate’s coverage, I would be down the hall in a different room.

The internet connection would go off and we would be down for like 20 minutes trying to figure out how to fix that, so there were a lot of weird, little things that you don’t necessarily think of that are going to be a hindrance. At the same time, I feel like what it almost enhanced was the looseness to the way that people interact with each other, because things tend to be informal when you’re Skyping someone. It’s very laid back and kind of lackadaisical. So we were able to improvise and keep things very loose with each other.

Kate Lyn Sheil: For me at least that was the most improvisational stuff in the film. Everything outside of the world of Skype is pretty close to the script.


Why did Virginia bother to use her real name if she’s perpetrating this deception?

Kate Lyn Sheil: I don’t think she’s planning on perpetrating the deception. I think that she doesn’t take it seriously at first and then actually meets someone with whom she has a connection with. So I think it takes her by surprise. I think it’s sort of a knee-jerk reaction that then turns into a very calculated lie because she can’t quite figure out how to distract herself from him or whether she wants to distract herself from him. But I don’t think she’s planning on Catfishing somebody. I don’t actually know what Catfishing means, tricking somebody.


I actually described it at Hitchcock meets Catfish.

Kate Lyn Sheil: Oh really?

John Gallagher Jr.: That’s cool.


Did you think about, in constructing suspenseful scenes, how close Cody will get to finding things out or when things might be revealed?

Kate Lyn Sheil: I think [writer/director] Zach[ary Wigon] mostly had that in mind and was keeping track of when specific elements or truths were going to be revealed. For me, I figured that the character was probably constantly on the verge of revealing it to him, was afraid to. This real relationship that had taken her by surprise is now something that’s very valuable to her and she doesn’t want to lose a friendship. So yeah, keeping a constant simmering tension and anxiety.


John, did you have to be careful about how far into obsession Cody might go and keep us on his side?

John Gallagher Jr.: Yeah, I think so. I think that was one of the things from the get go, the first time that I talked with Zach, which coincidentally was over Skype. I had to download Skype to talk to Zach because I’d never had to before. He said one of the most delicate balancing acts of this film is watching somebody really spiral into a rather unattractive bout of insecurity and neurosis, obsession, and still wanting to have that person be the champion, or be someone that at least you’re rooting for more or less.

Zach said that was a really hard thing that they’d been working with to try and find actors who had a take on it that managed to ground the character. I just always wanted to make sure that, even as he gets crazier and crazier, the things that he does are more and more off the handle, that there’s still something kind of relatable to it, where you almost feel like, “Well, who’s to say that I wouldn’t go to those lengths if I was in the same position?”


If he’s even thought about it, what do you think his goal is: to meet her, or just confirm that she lied to him and move on?

John Gallagher Jr.: I think much like what Kate said about it really catching Virginia by surprise, I think it really catches Cody by surprise too. For anyone that’s ever had a kind of breakdown of trust or paranoia, especially in a relationship, I think everybody knows that logic goes completely out the window, usually within a matter of seconds. So I definitely don’t think that he even really knows what he’s doing. It’s really just one foot in front of the other to try to unravel this.

Then he obviously gets more and more calculated and starts keeping a record of everything and becomes like a private detective trying to figure it out, but I do think that ultimately at the end of it is confirmation. You know what’s really weird, he wants to get the truth and confirm it without asking really. Because he could just come right out and ask, but he doesn’t. He goes to this other place which I think speaks to I think his insecurities and probably ultimate belief that he doesn’t believe such a good relationship.


You’ve each had some amazing roles lately, with Short Term 12 for John and even a small role in You’re Next and Sun Don’t Shine for Kate. Has this been a creatively fruitful time for both of you?

Kate Lyn Sheil: Yes. Yeah, it’s really great. I’m lucky enough to work on a number of really interesting projects and it’s been a very creatively fruitful time.


There’s clearly a group of filmmakers in the industry who know you and use you a lot, but do you feel like the industry as a whole is becoming aware of you?

Kate Lyn Sheil: Oh gosh. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I know that there is certainly a world of filmmakers that I’m very familiar with and who are familiar with my and my work but it’s hard for me to say how that world extends, to what corners and which people. I just keep working.


John, for you to have found these two films in between seasons of “The Newsroom,” did they both come to you or were there active searches to find the right material?

John Gallagher Jr.: They both just kind of came to me. Short Term 12 was just a very last minute thing. They lost the cast that they initially had for the two leads in that film, so they needed people rather last minute and that’s how Brie Larson and I got cast in that.


I thought that was always Brie Larson’s role.

John Gallagher Jr.: She got cast first, but we were second choices. [Laughs] Really just through circumstances, it had been set up with some other producers and then Brie got cast and then she recommended me for it and I got cast. It actually is kind of organic because I filmed that and then I went back to do season two of “The Newsroom.” It was somewhere towards the end of season two that Zach saw an early screening of Short Term 12 and that was when he sent me the script for The Heart Machine.

I hadn’t really been searching or entertaining too much because I was still working on season two and I didn’t know when I was going to be done. Zach made it clear that the timeframe would work out. Yeah, I feel incredibly lucky in the last couple of years, because I do a lot of theater in New York and I’ve always dreamed of doing more films. There was a period a couple years ago where I thought, “Maybe this is not in the cards for me.” Then the last couple of years have started to prove me wrong. It’s been really great and met so many cool people along the way.


We always hear, and I usually agree, that there aren’t enough roles for women, let alone good roles. Have you found there’s a lot of extraordinary material available to you, Kate?

Kate Lyn Sheil: I think I’ve been lucky enough to work with the right people. I’ve worked with a lot of female directors who obviously are writing complicated roles for women. I think there’s a dearth of complicated roles for both men and women.


Does it have to do with some of those great roles were written and directed by women who are also actors?

Kate Lyn Sheil: Most of the directors I’ve worked with have also been actors and I that they understand what is going to be a juicy part for a fellow actor. I wish there were more interesting roles for women, that would be great.


I know John’s background in theater but what is your background in acting?

Kate Lyn Sheil: I studied acting at the Lee Strasberg studio for four years. I was a drama major at NYU and I did mostly theater but I began acting in film probably two years after I left school because I sort of gave up acting for a little while.


What did you do in that time?

Kate Lyn Sheil: I worked for a very wonderful woman who owned a clothing company. So I worked for a fashion designer for a while, only because I met this woman at a party and she was nice. Then I found my way back into acting through friends and what you see now is the culmination. I started working with Joe Swanberg and Alex Perry. Those were the two, Silver Bullets and Impolex were the first two features. It’s been very linear. 


The internet allows stories like The Heart Machine to exist. Does it help actors in the industry, like instead of sending tapes you can Skype?

John Gallagher Jr.: I think there is more and more of that happening, Skyping, or just making a very homemade audition and e-mailing it in. That’s definitely something that that I’ve noticed. Definitely this movie and Short Term 12 began because of Skype conversations with the directors because we were in different places. So I think it closes a little bit of that gap. You can have kind of a face to face conversation when you’re really far away.


Why is the next season of “Newsroom” the final season, because you’ve caught up to the present?

John Gallagher Jr.: I don’t know why it’s final. No, I feel like Aaron [Sorkin] is a busy man and he’s doing a million other things, and the way that he likes to write his series is to do it all himself. I think it takes a lot out of him and rather than pushing it I think he and HBO feel like they wanted to end strong.


Do you know anything about the story yet?

John Gallagher Jr.: I know nothing. I haven’t gotten any scripts or anything, and no hints about character developments, so anything can happen.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.