Thomas Sadoski Talks Don, Love Triangles and The Newsroom’s Political Message
HBO’s sharply-written and controversial drama The Newsroom burst onto the scene back in June, and continues to generate buzz from fans and critics alike as the show heads towards its first season finale on August 26. Written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) the show chronicles the behind-the-scenes and on-air events of a fictional television news channel with stories based actual news events of the day including the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the rise of the Tea Party, the Japan nuclear crisis and the various ongoing political wranglings between the Democratic and Republican parties.
Central to events is Don Keefer, played by Thomas Sadoski, a man who may have just quit his job as News Night’s executive producer at a very inopportune time. Pushing ahead with a singular determination to present the news irrespective of network ratings or corporate interest, the ‘new and improved’ News Night team may just succeed against the odds … and without Don.
We sat down with Thomas Sadoski this week to discuss Don’s state of mind, the intriguing love triangle between Maggie, Don and Jim, The Newsroom’s central message and more.
Screen Spy: Aaron Sorkin’s writing and snappy trademark dialogue are highlights of the show for me. Were you familiar with his work before signing on to The Newsroom?
Thomas Sadoski: I was. I was a huge fan of his work. We all were. You see with this cast the joy of a group of actors who really love to work with each other, and with a writer we all respect so much. I hope that joy we all felt working together, and with these great words, translates.
SS: Has working on the show changed your perspective on the News and how News is presented?
TS: Absolutely. I’ve gained such a real appreciation and a great deal of compassion for journalists who are out there fighting the good fight, and really trying to inform to the best of their ability, and the incredible uphill battle that they face in terms of being able to present that news in the way that it deserves to be reported, and the context it deserves to have. Here we are witnessing a 24 hour news cycle. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to have 24 hours in a day to report the news. You would hope that that would allow you the opportunity to really get in depth and contextualize and analyze each side of the argument, or really get in depth with the effects of these stories, but the fact of the matter is that these guys are handcuffed by corporate concerns and by ratings. There’s something that seems almost torturous about it for these guys who really care about delivering the news. I’ve really come to have a great deal of respect and compassion for those guys.
SS: We’ve started to see a more human and humble side to Don in recent episodes. He was kind of easy to dislike at first.
TS: [laughing] It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard that.
SS: But we’re starting to see a little moral outrage in the right places, and a little humility in others. Are these qualities inherent in Don, or are Will and Mac’s ethics starting to influence his behavior?
TS: That’s a really interesting question. I think that these traits that you’re seeing that are starting to come out in Don are inherent in him. It was a question I had early on too, and Aaron was very clear to me about it. He did not want Don to simply be a foil. He’s not simply an antagonist. He didn’t want him to be dismissible. Aaron is actually a good advocate for this character. He spoke about what his character actually had to go through in the first few episodes. He makes a pretty worthwhile argument for why this guy would be so grumpy, why this guy would be so uneasy to get along with, and why he’s so unappealing early on.
He’s dealing with an extraordinary amount at work. He’s dealing with a relationship that is volatile at best, and there’s a lot of expectations as an employee and as a boyfriend. You have to remember that this is a guy who was basically tortured by his boss for sixteen weeks and watched his boss treat his girlfriend and his friends and his staff really terribly, and then he left because he couldn’t take it anymore, and then all of a sudden there’s this change. These new people sweep in, and they’re heroes, and Don is left on the side, saying wait a minute! How did all of this happen, and is my girlfriend actually having an affair? And in the midst of all of it he’s told ‘You’ve got to go to 10 o’clock. You’ve got to get these ratings or you’re fired!‘ So it’s a struggle.
I do think these qualities are inherent in Don, but it’s starting to show through only now because of a little bit of time and space. Things are starting to slow down now in his work and personal life. He’s actually only able to look up now and actually see his personal life. So the humanity of who this guy is is finally starting to come through a little bit.
SS: What does Maggie see in Jim and wouldn’t she be better off with Jim?
TS: [Laughing loudly] No! [outraged voice] No! [laughing] I don’t know. I’m curious to see how it all plays out too, frankly. Don said to Maggie ‘I love you every day,’ in the AMEN episode, and he’s standing there holding flowers. I don’t know if you’ve seen it?”
SS: I have. It was adorable.
TS: [laughing] Oh thank you. Well, he’s telling the truth. He really does love her every day. He believes in her. He knows that she’s young and that she gets flustered. He wants to take her under his wing because he believes in her and he knows how capable she is. I think there’s a lot of that that’s in there but you have to look for it. It almost bears re-watching and listening to what they’re really saying to each other – not necessarily how they’re going about saying it to each other, y’know? There are moments of genuine support that he has for her.
The thing that people keep bringing up with me is ‘Well, he let her sit out on the terrace by herself while she was having a panic attack!’ But Maggie is supposed to carry her medicine around with her all the time, and Don is under the understanding that she is. He doesn’t know that Maggie’s roommate’s boyfriends are stealing all of it. What he says is ‘You know what? She’s a big girl. She’s capable of taking care of this stuff on her own, and she just needs to be left alone to clear her head.’ I think there’s really something respectful about that. He’s a guy who is willing to treat a woman like she’s capable of taking care of herself and not needing to be doted on. When you actually start looking at the facts, it’s not that Don doesn’t care, it’s just that Don doesn’t know. He doesn’t know that she’s out there without her medicine. He’s been operating under the same assumption time and time again. Maggie has a panic attack. She takes her pill and she goes and sits quietly somewhere and then she get’s better. And this is how we deal with this. Don goes about his business and Maggie, being the adult that she is, goes about hers.
There’s a level of respect between them, so that when she screws up, he’s not beyond saying ‘You screwed up!’ Then she argues ‘I want support.’ But his point of view is ‘Do you want the truth, or do you want support?’ There’s a respect for her in that, that actually says ‘You’re a capable intelligent woman who can handle criticism and move on.’
Is it all handled in the softest, cutest, fuzziest most gentle way? No! And that’s Don’s failing. That’s Don’s downfall, I think. He doesn’t understand the difference between someone who wants to be treated with respect and someone who wants to be treated with support. He doesn’t quite get that you can actually do the two things simultaneously. It’s true of all The Newsroom characters. They’re incredibly gifted at their jobs and incredibly hopeless in their lives.
SS: I have to say, you present a very good argument for Don.
TS: [laughing] I had a lot of time to prepare it!
SS: Do you think that The Newsroom has a political message. And if so, what is it?
TS: I think it’s difficult to say that we don’t. [laughing] I think that there’s an argument that can be made that our political message is that we are the opposition party to lying and dishonesty and mean-spiritedness. You can’t just get away with outright lying about various different things – as politicians have done – without shining a light on it. If certain political parties find that offensive then maybe they should scale back the lying a little bit. We’re not making up facts. We’re a fictional TV show but we use the real news, and real quotes. It’s there. It’s fertile ground. We’re not trying to tell anyone to vote a specific way. Aaron is an acknowledged independent. I don’t think he’s particularly thrilled with either political party, despite what some people might think. Every discussion I’ve ever had with the man has revolved entirely around him wanting nothing more than truth and civility in politics, and if there’s not going to be truth and civility in politics then he’s gong to point that out. That’s our political agenda. But ultimately, at the end of the day, our agenda is to make a TV show. That’s it! We don’t talk on set saying ‘let’s stick it to this person’ or ‘Let’s get that person elected.’ There’s none of that. What we talk about on set is let’s make an entertaining television show and that’s all we are. That’s literally as seriously as we take ourselves.
SS: In episode 6, BULLIES we get to see Don questioning Sloan about Maggie’s relationship with Jim. Is his insecurity going to bring out a better or worse side to him in episodes to come?
TS: You want me to give it away? [laughing] I can’t just give it away!
SS: How about a hint?
TS: [laughing] I think it’s true what Maggie says about Don, which is that Don is actually a really good guy. I think that his realization that he may be losing the person that he loves will impact him the way that it does all people who mean well – which is that it will probably simultaneously bring out both the best and worst in him. I think you can’t get information like that without it hitting you on a really deep level. That fear is going to impact all of you. Not just the angels of your better nature but the devils of your worst are going to rise up too. It’s one of the things I love so much about working with Aaron and how he writes his characters is that there is this complexity there, and if I keep on listening, and I keep on mining I get more out of it. I see more things. I hear differently. There’s just so much depth to what he’s doing. And that’s one of the things that’s so exciting about playing this part.
Catch Thomas Sadoski as the complicated Don Keefer in The Newsroom, Sundays on HBO.