When director Matthew Johnson’s feature “BlackBerry” was released in May, most critics singled out Glenn Howerton’s razor-sharp and chillingly funny portrayal of predatory salesman Jim Balsillie in the story of the rise and collapse of the first smartphone. The versatile writer, actor and producer, who is best known for co-creating and starring in the long-running FX hit “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” says he doesn’t take anything for granted after working consistently over the last two decades. He took some time to chat with The Envelope about playing a real-life, vein-poppingly abrasive character in the independent Canadian movie during a recent Zoom interview:
Your character in “BlackBerry” is quite different from the one TV audiences know you from on “It’s Always Sunny.” Can you tell us why you were drawn to the movie?
You know it happened in the most conventional possible way. A lot of projects hit my desk directly from the people I know. In this case, I didn’t know the writer-director Matt Johnson or the writer Matt Miller. I wasn’t even familiar with their work, which is unfortunate because they’ve done some pretty great stuff. So “BlackBerry” came through my agent and manager. I was immediately intrigued because I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know anything about it. These days, for better or for worse, we know a lot about the eccentric personalities that have created these giant, multibillion-dollar tech enterprises. But this one was completely fresh to me.
You suffered for your art by getting that brave bald haircut to look like Balsillie. How else did you prepare for the role?
I got the script about 3½ weeks before I had to head up to Canada to start shooting, so it was a sweet spot where I had a little bit of time to research and not enough time to overthink it. I really spent most of the research just reading the script repeatedly, which is kind of the Anthony Hopkins method of acting. You just get a real feel for the rhythms of the script. I knew I was going to have a lot of conversations with Matt Johnson about whether it was going to lean more into the comedy aspect or drama. I thought it was really cool that he cast Jay Baruchel [who plays BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis] and me because he wanted to get dramatic performances out of actors who are known for comedy, knowing that it wouldn’t be a problem to just dial up the film’s comedic moments a tiny notch.
What about Balsillie made him fascinating to you?
I really latched onto the line in the script where he’s described as a shark. He once said in an interview that he knows he’s aggressive, competitive and ambitious, and he owns all of that. There are a lot of great leaders in the business space who want to do things differently or create a product that’s original, but they always face tremendous resistance. Having created “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” this was something I could relate to because we received a lot of resistance too. They said “Oh, you can’t shoot with three cameras at once” or “You can’t talk over each other, because the dialogue editor won’t be able to put it together.“ But we told them, “Yes we can and that’s what we’re doing.” We kept pushing because that’s the only way to break new ground in any field. So I could relate to his sort of single-minded pursuit of a goal even if it means standing up to people who, in many ways, do know better.
How did he react after he saw the movie?
He was very gracious about it. I think it’s very hard when you watch a version of yourself. I think in his mind, he felt as though he was a little bit more fun than my character. Maybe he felt that he had more of a sense of humor and wasn’t quite as tyrannical all the time. I think he did enjoy the film. I remember him telling me that it was the first time in his entire life that he’d ever seen a movie more than once. We did a Q&A after the screening, and I could tell he got a kick out of everyone clapping for him. I think he was able to really experience the joy of the film and that we were able to have the audience root for him even though he could be difficult and cruel because he was doing what he knew he needed to do for his company to succeed.
What was it like working on this movie with Matt Johnson?
From the moment of our first Zoom meeting when I was in L.A., I knew that this guy knows what he’s doing. He has a very specific vision for how he wants this film to be, and he’s not going to let anything stop him from making the movie that he wants to make. He was a lot of fun to work with and was extremely collaborative. He is of this mind-set that I value greatly, which is that the best idea wins and to do the best as possible and just pull your ego out of the process.
You graduated with a master’s in drama from Juilliard in 2000. Back then, did you ever imagine you’d be the star and co-creator of a sitcom that would run for 16 seasons?
You know, I feel extremely fortunate to have had the career that I’ve had, and I didn’t envision spending so much of my career in comedy. I always knew that I had a bit of a knack for it and I certainly always enjoyed it. That’s why “BlackBerry” was such a wonderful opportunity for me, because Matt never wanted me to play anything for comedy, but the situations are so absurd and so extreme as life itself can be really funny in its most dramatic moments. I think I probably envisioned myself staying in the world of theater a little bit longer than I did. I just went where the work was, and I was getting more offers in Los Angeles than I was in New York.