Filming is about to begin on episode 9 of HBO’s much-anticipated new series The Newsroom (premiering June 24), and the drama’s biggest star looks like he just came from cleaning out his garage. But no one seems to care about Aaron Sorkin’s sloppy sweatpants and oversize sweatshirt as he weaves his way through the 10,000-square-foot L.A. soundstage that houses the fictitious network Atlantis Cable News.
That’s because he’s Aaron freaking Sorkin.
”Just having him walk in the room…he’s a genius,” coos Emily Mortimer, who plays ACN’s quixotic executive producer MacKenzie MacHale. ”It’s amazing getting to work with him.” Adds Jeff Daniels, who plays blowhard News Night anchor Will McAvoy: ”On so many big-budget films, you see the fingerprints of many junior execs. You don’t see that with Aaron. The writer is the star in TV.”
”I don’t think that’s true,” protests Sorkin, 50, a few days later. He has since replaced the sweats (”That was a writing day”) with a more professional ensemble of a button-down shirt and slacks. ”There are many people who stay away because I’m writing it!”
Well, that’s hard to swallow. Even if Sorkin misfired with his 2006 NBC dramedy Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (canceled after just one season), he remains the hugely sought-after, six-time Emmy-winning creator of The West Wing and Oscar-winning writer of The Social Network. (He also just signed on to adapt Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography for the big screen.) Now, with Newsroom, Sorkin returns to the behind-the-scenes-of-live-TV conceit he embraced on Studio 60 and Sports Night to explore the reawakening of a veteran news anchor who has built his entire career and reputation on playing it safe. ”He doesn’t want to offend anyone, so he always has good things to say about Sarah Palin,” explains Daniels. ”He’s living a lie by not being a journalist. He moves farther and farther away from heroes like Walter Cronkite and Sam Donaldson, who used to stand up in the White House and badger Nixon. Will had a dream that he could have been that guy.”
He still could. In the pilot, a college student asks him why America is the greatest country in the world — and he fires back with an army of damning statistics proving how ungreat we actually are. It’s the type of public meltdown that can kill a career — or restart one.
Will’s journey to respectability/instability is further complicated when his perceptive boss Charlie Skinner (a bow-tie-wearing Sam Waterston) hires MacKenzie, a crackerjack British producer who spent the past few years covering the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — and used to date Will. ”It’s fine for MacKenzie to come along and say she doesn’t care about ratings and how they’re going to do the news well. But Will does care,” says Sorkin. ”He cares not just because his job depends on it, but he’s a guy who is in a lot of pain and considers the audience out there his only friends. If they start leaving him, it’s going to be like other people in his life who have left him. That’s how he has become the Jay Leno of anchors.”
To help spin his serialized yarn — which also stars Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) as Will’s personal blogger, Olivia Munn (Attack of the Show!) as a whip-smart financial reporter, and Jane Fonda as the powerful CEO of ACN’s parent company — Sorkin looked to some of the industry’s greatest news minds. He assembled NBC political commentator Jeff Greenfield, former CNN president Jon Klein, and MSNBC host Chris Matthews in a New York City hotel room and asked them two questions: What is your idea of an ideal newscast, and what is stopping you from achieving it? Their responses shocked Sorkin. ”The answer to the first question would always be, to do a show that gave voters information they need in the voting booth,” he recalls. ”Don’t blur the line between news and entertainment. Casey Anthony isn’t news. That’s really bad reality TV. And the obstacle was always guts. Nobody has the guts to do it. And they were talking about themselves.”
The script was an easy sell to HBO. ”With the election coming up, there are a lot of questions about where people are getting their information,” says HBO entertainment president Sue Naegle. ”Are they just watching shows that reinforce what they believe? News networks have become so polarizing. People don’t tell it straight anymore.” The next step was to staff the ACN newsroom — also a painless process. ”Everyone in town wanted to do the show,” Naegle says. ”There are Sorkin devotees who are obsessed with him.”
Sorkin’s signature dialogue — thoughtful and stylish prose that can go on and on…and on — has always been a major draw for actors. His Newsroom scripts even feature a few continuous shots that hark back to his West Wing days, where the cast has to walk and talk at length throughout the set without skipping a beat, or a line. ”Every single one of us have wanted the earth to open and swallow us or have our mothers come pick us up,” says Mortimer of the challenge. But as daunting as working on a Sorkin show can be, the gain more than makes up for the pain. ”It’s wonderful for guys like me who have been around and really don’t want to play [only] four or five scenes in a movie,” says Daniels, who has done mostly supporting movie roles (like in 2009’s State of Play) for the past few years. ”There’s a rhythm to his writing. It’s like lyric poetry. Aaron writes with such musicality.”
Literally, in fact. Each of the first season’s 10 episodes references a musical whose utopian worldview is a reminder of what ACN should strive for: a newscast that actually serves its viewers. ”Man of La Mancha and Camelot, in particular, are shows about a hallucination of a wonderfully civilized society. That’s what this show is too,” says Sorkin, who earned a B.F.A. in musical theater from Syracuse University. ”Every time I turn in a script, [executive producer] Scott Rudin writes across the top, ‘Your degree, finally at work!”’
But just once, Sorkin would like to poke holes in his celestial reputation and catch his fans by surprise. ”If I had time, and there never is, I’ve always wanted to put a dummy script on a table for a read, and around page 55, weird stuff starts happening,” he says, laughing. ”Like, very suddenly, but casually, a character has supernatural powers. I just want to see how long it would take before someone says, ‘What the hell is going on?”’ It could take a while, considering he’s Aaron freaking Sorkin.