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9 Questions for John Gallagher Jr., Star of The Heart Machine

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The script for The Heart Machine called for his character to ride a bike around New York City's East Village, but John Gallagher Jr.—Tony Award-winning actor, star of The Newsroom, and denizen of NYC—had never ridden a bike in the city. "My comfort level of riding a bike without a helmet was definitely a subject of discussion," he says. "They offered the helmet, but I didn’t know if the character would necessarily do it." Ultimately, film sets are more controlled than the typically chaotic and dangerous New York City street, and, as Gallagher points out, "It’s hard to pensively ride a bike looking for your online girlfriend in NYC with your helmet on and not come across as a dweeb." So he went helmetless in the movie, which premiered at SXSW and opens today. Gallagher plays Cody, a writer who meets a girl named Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) online. Soon, they're officially boyfriend and girlfriend and in love, despite the fact that she's doing a fellowship in Berlin. Or is she? Cody's doubts lead him on a search for the truth.

We sat down with Gallagher to talk about acting over Skype, the one song everyone should have on their iPods, and what it was like to meet Bill Murray.

The movie is very relatable—it feels very much a movie of this particular time, because everybody does at least a little online stalking. Is that what made you want to do it?

Absolutely. One of the things that I thought was interesting about The Heart Machine is the fact that it's very much about the way that we live now. But at the same time, the themes are very timeless and inherent to a lot of humanity. What it comes down to is relationships and insecurities, and trying to frame your best self and create that for your partner or for yourself to feel good at the end of the day. It was very relatable in all that sense. And I loved that it boldly tackled a very modern issue and a modern way that we relate to each other.

Because this is a movie about an online relationship, there are a number of Skype scenes—and you even auditioned via Skype. Did that help prepare you for filming?

It was actually pretty funny because I had FaceTimed before on my computer using the FaceTime app—maybe once or twice. I had never downloaded Skype. I was in Los Angeles filming The Newsroom when I got sent the script for The Heart Machine, and [writer/director Zachary Wigon] lives New York. I loved the script and my agent was like “We want to set up a Skype for you and the director," and I was like, "Can he FaceTime?" And they were like "No.” So I had to download Skype in order to Skype with Zach. I commented as we were talking that this was the first time I had ever Skyped, and it wasn't lost on us that we were Skyping an audition and talking about the script basically for a film that was all based around Skype. It was totally meta.

The Skype conversations were filmed in real time. Is it harder to act with someone via a screen as opposed to having them in the room?

Honestly, the harder part was really just maintaining a stable Wi-Fi connection. It was very much like real life—it would freeze in the middle of the take, and I would be talking for a minute without realizing that Kate's end of it had gone dead and that her image was just frozen on the screen.

[Otherwise], it really wasn’t terribly dissimilar from doing a scene with your partner right there. We got to rehearse for about four days before we starting filming. Kate, Zach, and I went into a room and we read every scene face to face with each other and did a lot of improvising, trying different versions of every scene in front of each other. And then a lot of the Skype scenes we really saved for the end of the shoot. So in a way, at that point, we had really built up this dynamic and chemistry for when it came time to actually do those Skype scenes, so we were able to fall into this ease with it. And Kate is just such a great actress and so naturalistic—you throw anything at her and she’ll go with it.

We would do a lot of takes as written verbatim with the script and we would do a lot of takes where we improvised and what ended up in the movie is kind of a bit of a mish-mash of that. The script is very present throughout the film—we didn’t do anything improvising that sent us in any way that would get any co-writing credits or anything or like that [laughs]—but Zach gave us a lot of freedom and a lot of room to play.

I had this idea when I got the part that I was going to be really method about and I was going to refuse to meet Kate Lyn Sheil. Like, “I will not meet her I will only do the scenes on Skype and then we’ll do the scenes where we meet in person and it’ll be the first time I’ve seen her” and, you know, it didn’t work. And I’m glad it didn’t work. I don’t think the film would have been nearly as compelling without us being able to build that kind of character chemistry.

Your character kind of becomes a detective—an extreme, bumbling detective. If you had to compare him to any of the great pop culture detectives, who would you pick?

Well, he’s surprisingly good—and at the same time, not very good. I would compare him to somebody along the lines of the private detective character in Jonathan Ames' Bored to Death. Private detective-ry—that’s not even a word. Detective-ing? Detectivery. Detectivating [laughs]—is a theme that he uses as a writer, calling from Dashiell Hammett and those great novels about private detectives. But then at the heart of it, you have Jason Schwartzman playing this neurotic person who fashions himself as this slick and sleek private eye, but he's not as perfect as the way he frames himself. So somebody like that, like a Jonathan Ames character. Somebody that has a more grandiose fantasy version of himself as this super sleuth type of person.

Cody just digs himself deeper and deeper. One thing that I’ve learned about it by watching it at SXSW is—and this is actually a great relief—is that people were laughing at it. The discomfort of watching this person just continuously approach the edge and refuse, or be unable to prevent himself, from going further. There’s something very relatable about that in this day and age, knowing that it might really not do you any good to snoop any further, but it’s a bit of a drug in a sense, once your adrenalin takes over like that.

Speaking of detectives: You've been on three Law & Orders. I have my favorites, among those three, but can you rank them?

Oh, good! Do you wanna go first or should I? I’ll go first!

It’s hard to argue with the original, despite the fact that I was only in one short scene. I was about 17 years old, I think, and my scenes were with the late, great Jerry Orbach, who was just a gentleman and a great man, and even though I only met him very, very briefly, he was very sweet. And then Jesse L. Martin was on the show at the time as his partner, and I—much like many nerds of my generation—was obsessed with Rent as a teenager. So meeting him was very exciting.

I just remember he sang a lot between takes—a lot of Lyle Lovett, and Pontiac is one of my favorite records. I remember having this moment of standing there in a high school in Harlem where we were filming and thinking, “Wow, who would have thought—here I am with Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin, and he’s singing Lyle Lovett, and I’m on Law & Order.

So that has kind of a great place in my memories, number one. Number two, Special Victims Unit. I had a great time doing that—working with Mariska Hargitay was very exciting. And being tackled by Christopher Meloni and Ice-T as my character attempted to kill BD Wong is a career highlight that I’m still trying to outdo. I think that it may be impossible, but I had a really good time doing that.

And then, Criminal Intent. Not to say that there’s anything less about that experience—it was pretty incredible. Getting to work with those great actors ... Kathryn Erbe is a great actress, and Vincent D’Onofrio—I mean, come on. I was so excited to get to meet him and have scenes with him. And John Savage played my stepdad, and that was really exciting because Deerhunter was probably one of my favorite movies of all time.

Each show was very different, very exciting. But only one time did I get to be the killer, and in a way, he gets let off the hook because he has a mental deficiency as a result of child abuse and also eating lead as a child. I had to eat a pencil in SVU and we had to do about 10 takes of eating this marzipan pencil. But marzipan’s great—very sweet after you eat it a while, though. I was about to go into a diabetic coma.

So that’s, right now, my official ranking—just going on my experiences working on them. As a fan, I would have to give it more thought. What’s your favorite?

Criminal Intent, no question. Vincent D’Onofrio is so good. OK, next question: If you only had to eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Pizza is kind of a boring answer, but I think I might go with it because it is versatile. You can put a lot of things on it, you can shake it up. Is it thin crust? Is it deep dish? Is it vegetarian pizza so you can feel like you’re being semi-decent to yourself, or is it like meat lovers? I feel like picking pizza means you’re under a safe umbrella.

Wait a minute, can I change my answer? Cobb salad! Cobb salad is the gift that keep on giving, really. Is there a Cobb salad pizza? Does that exist?

It should! On Twitter, you've been recommending a horror movie a day for the whole month of October. If you were in a horror movie, and the killer was coming after you, would you go up the stairs, out the front door, or into the basement?

Up the stairs, because I like the people who are fearless in their attempts to escape. I would be the one who runs up the stairs and jumps out the window. Maybe I hurt my leg, maybe I don’t. Maybe I can shimmy down a drain pipe. Maybe I can get up to a point on the roof where I can hide or confuse them. I feel like front door is dangerous because it’s too safe. Normally you’ll think you’re all right, but then you’ll open up the front door, and there’s the killer. The basement is just a death trap, let’s face it. It’s hard to outsmart someone in the basement. The basement would require fighting back, which I don’t think I would be good at. So I would go up the stairs and hope that there’s a window I can go out of.

What’s one song everyone should have on their iPods?

Since I brought him up, let’s say "If I had a Boat,” by Lyle Lovett.

You're in the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge. Bill Murray is also in it. Please tell me you have a good Bill Murray story.

We don’t have any scenes together, but I met him one time, on his last night of shooting before he left. I just about died. We had a little gathering at this bar to say goodbye to him when he wrapped. I had just gotten off the train—I was in Salem, and [the cast and crew] were all half an hour away in Gloucester, and the costume designer texted me and was like "Drive to Gloucester, because it's Bill Murray's last night and you won't get to meet him!" I was literally in bed because I had to shoot the next day and I got up and I was like "Where's my rental car?" and I drove to meet him. He was so nice and warm and kind to me. He asked me what my background was, and I told him I’d done a lot of theater—and he gave me a hug and said, “I’m so sorry.” [Laughs]

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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