“The Newsroom” has managed to have itself a first season that is akin in many ways to one of the very stories it covers — something that remains captivating, at times shocking, and always worthy of discussion. Anyone who has been on the internet already knows that Aaron Sorkin’s latest product is often controversial and polarizing, but those who have watched every episode this season have witnessed an engaging story that is not only a breath of fresh air to a network in HBO that often focuses so much attention on the bad in the world, but also a cable landscape that has become to glamorize the notion of being bad in comparison to doing something that serves as a beacon of hope.
Before the show airs its season finale airs Sunday night, we wanted to get a sense as to what really makes this fictional newsroom tick — and with that, we turn to Margaret Judson. In addition to playing the character of associate producer Tess Westin, she also has been a valuable source of information for Sorkin when it comes to making his series realistic in terms of how actual newsrooms operate.
Cartermatt.com – I want to start by touching on your background, mostly since I always find it fascinating when how some people break into the business [of acting] in unusual ways. Can you talk a little bit about your background in news and how you ended up meeting Aaron?
Margaret Judson – I do like fun stories like that — like Terry Crews, who plays the security guard on the show. He was a former NFL player and didn’t always know he was going to be an actor. Everybody does have some sort of story when they come to Hollywood, and I love that you know that.
I was working in New York at MSNBC, and Aaron came in to shadow our team because he wanted to write a pilot about people who work behind the scenes doing the news. I was a PA and a research assistant at the time, and it was my responsibility to take care of our guest that day, show him around, and answer questions. He wasn’t there for very long, but he absorbed so much while he was there. After he left, he started writing his pilot and had questions. In the pilot, you see us working with iNews and news alerts and how they change color, and that was an example with some of my contributions. I was helping him work with [authenticity], because he likes to keep it as authentic as he can.
I actually started as a consultant for him answering those kind of questions. I wasn’t getting any sort of credit … I was doing free work [for him]. So I asked for an audition, and he told me that it doesn’t quite work that way — just because you are someone in a newsroom doesn’t mean that you can play somebody in a newsroom on TV. He was really nice about it; he kind of told me ‘no,’ but I did so much work for him that he finally came around and gave me an audition. Even then, he was like ‘don’t expect anything.’ I auditioned for the role of Margaret Jordan, and I ended up with the role of Tess Westin.
Is there ever any confusion when you and Allison Pill are on set together and the name ‘Margaret’ is shouted out?
(Laughs) That happens all the time when I think they are talking to me and they’re not. I think Allison does an incredible job playing Margaret Jordan, and obviously the character beyond the name doesn’t have anything to do with me. Aaron jokes about it too; he’s asked me to change my name before with all the Margarets.
How much acting experience did you have? Is this something that you pursued in high school or in college?
I had no experience in acting. My whole background is in broadcast journalism. I loved to write in high school, then in college I studied broadcast journalism. I never had any ambitions to be an actor. If you had told me three years ago that this is what I would be doing, I would not have believed you. I was just completely drawn to it. At the time I didn’t quite know why, but I just wanted to audition, which was something I had never done before and I was so drawn to doing the project and Aaron’s writing. Auditioning just seemed like the logical next step at the time. I kind of realized that journalism, especially broadcast, has a lot of performance in it and it and acting have a lot of common … Both are about storytelling, both are about analysis, both are supposed to be rooted in [finding] truth.
There are so many actors I’ve spoken to who look up to Aaron as their dream person to work with, and you have been lucky enough to land your first acting job with him. Were you familiar with some of his past work (‘Sports Night,’ ‘The West Wing’) going into this show?
Of course. I’m a huge fan of his, but what really drew me to this project was that it was so close to my own life and the things that I have been interested in. He is such an incredible writer and I understand why so many people would love to work with him. He is so great to work for and alongside. He really cares about the people he works with, and it’s just inspiring to work with him every single day. He writes every word of dialogue and is also on set for every rehearsal. He’s so hands-on and really excellent at making it clear what he wants. There’s never a lack of direction and am never in the dark about what is supposed to be going on. That also made it kind of easy of a transition for me, because he is so hands-on.
If there is one thing I admire about Aaron the most, it is that he is a risk-taker when it comes to his subject matter — and with this show, he’s taking on something that is so fragmented and polarizing in cable news. Given how divided so many are when it comes to politics and the subject matter, do you think that it makes this sort of project even more of a challenge?
Of course politics is a polarizing topic, and I think that it is really important that we say that the show is not a documentary by any means. The goal with the show isn’t to be a news show necessary; it is a show focused on the lives of the people in a newsroom and their relationships. Some of the news elements are secondary, but of course some of the topics are polarizing. What is so great about Aaron’s writing is that he really does try [to see all sides]. I was a consultant for a while and was in the writer’s room for four months, and I really got to see how he operates, which was such an incredible opportunity for me … For most of our news stories he has his writers doing a lot of research, and we did a lot of pro / con memos for him. He is really committed to getting both sides of the story, and having well-rounded news is important. I know it can be polarizing, but Aaron comes at it from a very bipartisan place as much as he can. I think that’s what makes the show interesting is that it is not such a one-sided show — there are many more layers than just what Aaron believes.
One of the other things I find interesting here is that the show has a certain inspirational quality to it — that’s not to say that the characters at ‘News Night’ are always doing wonderful things, but there does seem to be something inherently good inside most of them. Do you think that when you look at cable at the moment, especially when it comes to shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ where there is so much violence and everyone hates themselves all of the time, a show [like ‘The Newsroom’] that presents something different is especially important?
Of course. I think it warrants if anything a place even more on cable. I appreciate you saying that, and on the one hand that makes the characters really fun to play, because they are inspirational and really a notch above how normal people work … There are some critics who don’t like that, especially those who have spent some time in a newsroom. It seems that some critics even take it personally, and think that Aaron is somehow telling them how to do their jobs. That is not what the show is about. All of Aaron’s characters are generally these ‘notch about real people’ characters, and I think that makes it fun to watch. I think if you’re watching it from a place on ‘is he telling me how to do my job,’ then you are missing the beauty of the show. It’s this inspirational, quixotic kind of show where it should be fun to watch. You shouldn’t be watching it from a defensive place.
Let me ask you a little bit about you character Tess, because we’ve seen her frequently throughout the season without really getting a chance to know much about her. Has Aaron given you much of an idea about her background, and have you mapped any of that out in your head?
We haven’t seen Tess Westin a ton, but she’s an associate producer at ‘News Night’ and she is one of people that we call the newsroom staffers. There is me, Chris Chalk, Wynn Everett, Adina Porter, Thomas Matthews. We don’t know a ton about them — all five of us kind of know the same stuff all of the viewers know. We don’t really talk to Aaron about what their backgrounds are. Of course, it’s fun for me to think about background stories for Tess, but whatever Aaron writes is what it will be, so I try not to get too married to them.
I really love being a part of the newsroom staffer group. Even though we don’t know a lot about them, they are really the ones that are keeping everything going. They really don’t get a ton of credit because they are still young and working their way to the top. I kind of appreciate that on a personal level, because that is where I came from. I think Aaron including them is kind of a personal testament to the kind of person he is. Even when he came in to visit MSNBC, he was interested in what I did and I was not the anchor or executive producer or some impressive role. I was just a PA, but what is so great about Aaron is that he really wants to look at everyone, not just the people who are in the positions of glamour.
Since the finale is about to air, is there any sort of tease that you can offer up about what we can expect?
Jeff Daniels just had a really great tweet that I retweeted. (Ed.: Check it out below.)
“NEWSROOM’s Sunday Night Finale: Amidst some masterful storytelling, Sorkin brings all of us home with one simple line: “You do.”
I thought that it was a really cool tweet, and that’s all I can say about it and I can say that because he tweeted it. (Laughs.) It’s funny, though, because I don’t actually know what happens in every episode. I don’t see the episodes edited, and I’ve thought that things were going to happen a certain way and they didn’t happen that way because they edited it different. I actually watch the episodes the same as every other viewer on TV.
I know ‘The Newsroom’ has already been renewed for a second season, so congratulations on that.
So do you know if there have been any talks yet as to what is going happen next season, or are there any particular news stories that you would like to see covered on the show?
That’s a great question. Every day I see stories and think that they would be great for the show. Of course, with the election there are probably going to be some things that Aaron wants to talk about … I’m sure that will be in there. Otherwise, it’s a total toss-up. It’s cool, because in the writers’ room they have a timeline of events that goes across the whole room, and Aaron will come in and decide how big of a jump in time he wants to make in each episode, and which news story he wants to hang the episode on. It all depends on what he decides.
Thanks again to Margaret for her insight on both her story and on how “The Newsroom” is made. Be sure to check out the finale Sunday night at 10:00 p.m. Eastern on HBO. You can check out a video tease for it below.