Aaron Sorkin, 60, is that rare screenwriter who qualifies as a household name. Starting out in theatre in the 1980s, the former actor broke into movies with the hit 1992 adaptation of his play A Few Good Men. His subsequent credits include Moneyball, Steve Jobs and The Social Network, for which he won an Academy Award. He has also written four television shows, most notably the Emmy-hoovering The West Wing, and directed three movies, including, last year, Being the Ricardos. He has returned to the theatre with a new version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which ran on Broadway in 2018 and, after a Covid-enforced two-year delay, is about to open in London.
You adapted To Kill a Mockingbird before the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. Were you tempted to tinker with it afterwards?
I didn’t, because I feel it’s exactly as relevant as it was when the play opened. It is already addressing those things. I changed one word. In the book, Tom Robinson is shot by prison guards 17 times. I found that hard to believe, so I had him shot five times. Now, after everything that’s happened, I don’t feel like 17 is too high a number any more and I changed it back.
Did you have to think twice about the character Bob Ewell using the N-word?
We’re trying to dramatise the cruelty and severity of racism in the 1930s. To change that word so it would be more palatable to an audience today would be both wrong and unnecessary. People can handle it. Writing Bob Ewell, I was helped out by one of the most horrible websites ever: Breitbart. If you go to the comment section of almost any article, you will see Bob Ewell-level racism – not in 1937, but today. So almost every line that comes out of Bob Ewell’s mouth was written by a Breitbart commenter.
This is a classic book and a beloved film. Did you hesitate before taking it on?
When I was first asked, I thought it was a suicide mission. What could I do but make it less than it was? But I said yes because I love doing plays. My first draft was terrible because I tried to swaddle the book in bubblewrap and gently transfer it to the stage. It was like a greatest hits album by a covers band. I started all over again. You have to fall out of love with the source material and try to make it your own.
How quickly do you know if a project will work?
I don’t instantly know. Someone sat me down once over lunch and said that a couple of Mark Zuckerberg’s close friends had sued him for hundreds of millions of dollars. I was able to see duelling depositions and a story [The Social Network] coming out of that. More often, though, I will say yes and then, “Oh my God, I have no idea what the movie is!”
Steve Jobs. I wouldn’t want to write a biopic because it’s hard to shake the familiar cradle-to-grave format. Somebody told me that right before the big product launch of the original Macintosh there was this thing that didn’t work and Steve Jobs was going crazy, making people fix it. I’m thinking, OK, don’t write a biography. Just have three scenes that take place leading up to a product launch. It’s what I always try to do: you’re secretly writing a play, but it will fool people into thinking you’re writing a movie.
The Social Network came out in 2010. Would a sequel have to focus on something other than Mark Zuckerberg?
I think so. I’ve been speaking with Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower. When she says to me, “Aaron, this is what an insurrection looks like when you have $130bn,” that’s interesting to me. I very much doubt that I or anyone else is going to write a sequel to The Social Network, but I will say that there is a story there.
From The West Wing to Steve Jobs, you’re fascinated by hypercompetent, hyperarticulate people. Why?
Screenwriters write about people who are cooler than we are, stronger, better fighters… I write about people who are smarter than I am. I think it suits my writing style, which is romantic and idealistic. I’m very impressed by playwrights, whether it’s Pinter or Mamet, who write characters who have a very difficult time communicating, but I don’t have that club in my bag.
The license of dramatists to remix chronology and invent scenes in stories based on real life can be controversial. What are your self-imposed rules?
This is going to sound like something a huckster might say but I’m not trying to huckster anyone. There’s a difference between a photograph and a painting. There’s a difference between art and journalism. And sometimes accuracy gets in the way of truth.
There was some Twitter fuss about the “inauthentic” casting of Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos. How do you deal with controversy?
In terms of accuracy in casting, it’s absolute nonsense. We know the difference between being demeaning and not being demeaning. We know the difference between, say, blackface and someone who is Spanish playing someone who is Cuban. How do you deal with the noise? You don’t. I don’t argue with people online. I actually don’t have any social media. You have to ignore it.
You recently defended Succession star Jeremy Strong when he was mocked for his intensity in a New Yorker profile. That kind of commitment was once celebrated rather than ridiculed…
What’s weird to me is people weighing in on anything and everything that has nothing to do with their own lives. I knew that what was going on was upsetting Jeremy. Since I had lent my voice to the article, and I think I contributed to the perception that he was nuts, I thought I should try to clarify a couple of things. But yeah, there was a time when the things that Marlon Brando or Daniel Day-Lewis did were celebrated.
Which of your projects are you most critical of, looking back?
I’ve never written anything that I didn’t wish I could have back and write over again. The Newsroom was the show that gave me the most trouble. I had a dream cast, an all-star team behind the camera, and enormous support from HBO – and it should have been a home run every week. I’d write some pretty good scenes, but I’d have trouble putting a whole episode together. We did a lot of work I was proud of, but I never felt comfortable in my chair.
Where does an idealist look for encouraging signs in American politics?
It’s a lot easier to find terrifying signs rather than encouraging ones right now. But people are turning 18 every day. Maybe they’re the cavalry.
What do you admire on television?
There’s a lot. I can’t stop watching The Crown. Succession. Enough people begged me to watch Bojack Horseman that I tried it, and I do think it’s a work of genius.
Do you have a new project at the moment?
For the first time in a long time, no. I don’t know what I’m doing next. As a writer, when you don’t have an idea, you don’t think to yourself, “Well, you’ve been here before and it always works out.” It’s impossible to imagine ever having an idea.
Your past two movies have been released on streaming platforms. Do you think there’s still room in cinemas for thoughtful mid-budget movies, such as Moneyball and Charlie Wilson’s War?
You mean [a film that’s] not Spider-Man, not Batman? Are people ever going to go to movie theatres again for a movie of mine? Listen, it’s not just my writing that’s idealistic and optimistic. I may be those things myself. I’m very grateful for streaming. It kept us all employed during the pandemic. But I just have to believe that we all love the audience experience so much that we’re going to go back to cinemas. So I’m not selling that stock yet.
To Kill a Mockingbird opens at the Gielgud theatre, London W1, on 31 March and runs until October 1