Aaron Sorkin Reveals Depth of 'Newsroom' Angst, Season 2 Reboot, A-List Consultants
This story first appeared in the June 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It's a mid-April morning at the Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, and Aaron Sorkin's nerves are getting the best of him. "I have no ideas right now," the Oscar-winning writer confesses once his office door has shut. Soon, the cast of The Newsroom, his HBO cable-news drama whose first season was in equal measures praised and pilloried, will need to begin shooting an episode that he has yet to begin writing. He's aware that the holdup is worrisome -- for HBO, which is shelling out several million dollars on each episode; for his actors, who often are kept waiting until the 11th hour for his scripts; and for Sorkin himself, whose reputation as one of Hollywood's few name-brand writers is wrapped up in the series' success. Anxiety is a feeling with which Sorkin, 52, is all too familiar. "It'll be my 165th episode of television," he says, "and I've come to realize that it's only being scared to death that gets it done."
The debilitating angst -- which Sorkin once medicated with cocaine, resulting in a 2001 Burbank airport arrest between Emmy-winning seasons of his seminal NBC drama The West Wing -- might seem better suited for a life in film. There, if the ideas aren't flowing, he can call the studio and get an extension. With television, once he's locked into an airdate -- in the case of Newsroom's second season, July 14 -- he has no choice but to deliver, and those very real deadlines have him second-guessing his latest series. "It's a brutal, brutal feeling: I'm doing work that I know isn't good," he says, shifting into the self-deprecating mode in which he seems most comfortable. "I feel like I'm letting the cast and crew down," he continues. "I'm letting down HBO, people who are betting money on me, and most of all, I feel like I'm letting down the audience."
With a degree of candor that is as surprising as it is endearing, Sorkin will walk you through his routine: take a shower, put on clean sweatpants, try to write; have another shower, put on a comfortable outfit, take a crack at writing; shower again. "I'm not a germaphobe; it's kind of a do-over," he says of the six showers he'll often take in a day. The progression is "horrible," he acknowledges. "Writer's block is like my default position. When I'm able to write something, that's when something weird is going on."
For Sorkin, who got his start as an actor before moving behind the camera, the process is often physical, with him playing his characters' parts aloud as he paces about. If things are going particularly well, he can find himself a few blocks away from his Hollywood Hills home without realizing how he got there. Once, as he was working through an early episode of season one, he wandered into his bathroom and broke his nose while role-playing a scene in which Jeff Daniels' irascible anchor character, Will McAvoy, plunges toward a staffer. "I lunged at the bathroom mirror and nobody was there to stop me," says Sorkin, revealing somewhat sheepishly that there are unflattering photos of his swollen nose floating around the Internet.
One might argue that the accident -- a well-meaning exercise that resulted in injury -- was a metaphor for his series' first season. A workplace drama set at an idealistic version of a cable news network, The Newsroom promised Sorkin in his wheelhouse: the political relevance of West Wing, an ensemble cast led by seasoned pros Daniels, Emily Mortimer and Sam Waterston and the rat-a-tat wit Sorkin brings to his dialogue. But while the show won over viewers (averaging 7.1 million a week) and several critics (THR's Tim Goodman called it an "all-star drama"), a vocal group of detractors emerged, accusing it of everything from sexism to sanctimony to straight-up self-indulgence. The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum described it as "so naive it's cynical"; Time's James Poniewozik suggested Sorkin was just "writing one argument after another for himself to win"; and Entertainment Weekly ran a piece about "hate-watching" with Newsroom as its prime example. Sorkin -- fresh off his Academy Award win for writing The Social Network -- suddenly had moved from toast of the town to highbrow punching bag. And often it felt personal. "He had just won the Oscar, and unfortunately when people are riding high, there is that wanting to take them down," says HBO programming president Michael Lombardo.