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Glenn Howerton on his new film about the rise and fall of BlackBerry mobile phones


Just about a dozen years ago, almost half the cellphones in America were BlackBerries, a phone with a small gray screen that got email above a keyboard that had real keys. It was devised by a small Waterloo, Ontario, company called Research in Motion, with a CEO named Jim Balsillie, who probably wouldn't get through a company HR department today.


GLENN HOWERTON: (As Jim Balsillie) Mike?

JAY BARUCHEL: (As Mike Lazaridis) Hi.

HOWERTON: (As Jim Balsillie) There are three reasons why people buy our phones. Do you know what they are?

BARUCHEL: (As Mike Lazaridis) Email...

HOWERTON: (As Jim Balsillie) They [expletive] work.

BARUCHEL: (As Mike Lazaridis) Yeah. OK. It's not us, Jim. It's the carrier. Verizon is doing something weird.

HOWERTON: (As Jim Balsillie) OK, well, I'm about to do something weird if you don't fix this - now. The deal was I get the engineers, you shrink the data.

SIMON: Oh, that's dialogue. Glenn Howerton plays Jim Balsillie in the new Canadian film "BlackBerry." It's directed by Matt Johnson, also stars Jay Baruchel, Saul Rubinek and Cary Elwes. Glenn Howerton, best known from that long-running series "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia," joins us from our studios in Culver City, California. Thanks so much for being with us.

HOWERTON: I am thrilled to be here. And I'm not even kidding.

SIMON: We're thrilled to have you.

HOWERTON: Thank you.

SIMON: I'm going to guess Jim Balsillie may not like how he's shown in this film. Do you know if he has any reaction?

HOWERTON: (Laughter) Jim's been great. I think he definitely took a little bit of issue with maybe a little bit of the belligerence of the character at times. And I think he would argue - I think he said in an interview after having seen the film the first time, that he feels like he's funnier than the way he was portrayed. But I did get a chance to meet him in Toronto at the Canadian premiere, and he was absolutely lovely. And...

SIMON: He was there?

HOWERTON: He was there, yeah. He came, he took pictures with us. I gave him a big bear hug, which I don't think he was expecting, and he was absolutely lovely.

SIMON: Oh. You made a conscious decision about how to portray the hairline, I gather.

HOWERTON: (Laughter) Well, I don't think I had any choice. I mean, Jim is who Jim is, so I had to emulate at least that aspect of Jim. And I didn't feel like wearing a bald cap, so I shaved it.

SIMON: Yeah. What was the secret sauce that this company came up with that made the BlackBerry so successful for at least a few years?

HOWERTON: Well, that's a good question. I'm sure the answer would be different depending on who you ask. I do think that their ability to create a product where you could not use your minutes in order to text at the time - so that was pretty novel. I think people really honestly just enjoyed the click of the keyboard. I mean, when you hear from any BlackBerry user, many of whom have come out of the woodworks, like, a lot of people really, really miss their BlackBerries. They are not happy that that's not a thing anymore. And a lot of people miss that signature click. Now, me personally, I never had one, so I don't understand how you can even get your thumbs on those buttons. But I think because it changed everyone's life so much who had one began to associate sort of a new way of communication with that device and therefore had a lot of love for it.

SIMON: Yeah. Jim Balsillie was - I think it's safe to say he came from the sales part of the business world, not the techie part.

HOWERTON: Definitely.

SIMON: Did he have a vision?

HOWERTON: I think he did have a vision. I think he always had a vision for whatever he was doing. I think he truly was an extraordinarily smart man, you know. For whatever faults he may have in terms of his approach to sales and business, I think there's no denying that he was extraordinarily effective at his job. And I think when he saw that there was a massive niche in the market and had an opportunity to fill that, it was an opportunity for him to show what he's really made of. And he was a hell of a salesman.

SIMON: Is it safe to say, given the vast success you've had in "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia," you've kind of made a specialty of making truculent characters...


SIMON: ...Worth watching?

HOWERTON: OK. Yeah, I think that's definitely fair to say. I enjoy playing very intense people, I have to admit. Although now that I've been doing some version of that for so many years, I'm quite anxious to just play a super laid-back person. I just don't know how dramatically interesting that will be for people. But I just don't want to - it's exhausting being that truculent, as you put it.

SIMON: Do you have any thinking about why the iPhone took over so totally?

HOWERTON: I think it was sexier. I think, first and foremost, it just - it was just a more elegant device. Now, some people may disagree with that. But I think, you know, for as impractical as I think a lot of BlackBerry users felt like it was to type on that on that type of keyboard, there was no denying the sex appeal of the iPhone. I mean, it's just a beautiful device.

SIMON: Jim Balsillie doesn't seem, at least to us Americans, very Canadian.

HOWERTON: (Laughter) Well, maybe that was my fault. You mean the real Jim or me?

SIMON: Well, I don't know the real Jim.

HOWERTON: That's fair.

SIMON: Well, with the exception of this characteristic - he does love his hockey, right?

HOWERTON: Yes. Yes, he does. Yes. And that's quite true of the real Jim. He tried - we only show a small - I think that you could do an entire film just about his quest to bring another team to Canada. I think he tried on three separate occasions and failed, but he became a real hero in Canada for what he was doing, in spite of the fact that he never quite pulled it off.

SIMON: Yeah. Do you think this story you tell in "BlackBerry" has anything to tell us now, the next time we hear about the next big thing that can't miss on the horizon?

HOWERTON: Mmm hmm. I mean, you can watch the movie, and certainly there are takeaways. At the end of the day, I think it's - I think our goal really was to just make it a highly, highly entertaining thriller/comedy that would just be, you know, a thrill to watch. But yeah, I do think there's a little bit of a cautionary tale there. But it depends on your definition of success. If your definition of success is, you know, to stay on top at all times and constantly have whatever company you're working for constantly pivoting to meet the next demands of the world of technology, then you could say that BlackBerry was a failure in that regard. But if you consider the fact that they were running a $30 billion massive, massive company out of small town in Ontario, you could also argue that they were extraordinarily successful, and the fact that they didn't pivot is secondary to that.

SIMON: Glenn Howerton stars in "BlackBerry." Thank you so much for being with us. You know, you're much nicer than the guy you portray on screen - any screen I've ever seen you on.

HOWERTON: (Laughter) I - yeah, people are sometimes surprised when they see me smile.

SIMON: Well, thanks very much for smiling through this interview. Thanks so much.

HOWERTON: I appreciate it, Scott. Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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