Bitter Fruit: Glenn Howerton on Tech Parable BlackBerry

Star talks email, hockey, and the rise and fall of the OG smartphone

"What he's trying to achieve is actually ... if not noble, then at least rootable." Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie, the sales force that helped make BlackBerry a global phenomenon, in new satire/tech history BlackBerry. (Image courtesy of IFC Films)

Sometimes you can smell an image. In tech history/satire BlackBerry, there's a whiff of pizza boxes, dust, solder, and old sweat, so perfectly is the sub-macho mood of a late-90s startup captured. "We were trying to capture the realities of those situations," says star Glenn Howerton, "especially the engineers."

Not that Howerton plays an engineer. He's Jim Balsillie, the bullying salesman who teamed up with passive-aggressive engineer Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and his chief engineer/confidante/coattail rider, Doug Fregin (writer/director Matt Johnson, The Dirties, Operation Avelanche), to unleash the original smartphone, the BlackBerry, on an unwitting world.

“Anyone who’s ever tried to innovate on a massive scale, the way that they did, has to be a little bit of an asshole.”

Howerton and Johnson debuted the movie at South by Southwest earlier this year in Austin ("It's a cool city – maybe not cool in temperature, but everything else), and with its mix of movie culture and tech money, there may have been no more perfect place for a product launch/premiere.

No industry can change the world while repeating its mistakes like the tech industry, a bastion of greed and intellectual hubris that also creates legitimate game changers. And few technologies changed the world quite like the original smartphone. However, the film concentrates on the powersharing dynamics between Balsillie and Lazaridis – a relationship that both built the company from a failed modem manufacturer into a global powerhouse in a couple of years, and killed it even quicker.

"This co-ceo model was great for some things," Howerton says. "For example, Jim didn't know anything about the tech, and Mike had a handle on the innovation side of things, and he knew that he just had to do what he was good at, which was sell phones. But it was also their downfall, because at the end there Jim was like, 'Well, is the iPhone gonna kill us? I don't know. I'm hearing that this iPhone thing coming out is not good, but that's not my department. That's Mike's department, and Mike's got it.' And I think, to some degree, Mike was going, 'Jim can sell phones. I've got this great tech, and Jim can go sell it.' And they both ended up thinking the other one had the wheel."

Austin Chronicle: So what was your first smartphone?

Glenn Howerton: The first iteration of the iPhone. Prior to that, I literally had a series of flip phones.

AC: So you weren't a CrackBerry addict?

GH: Nothing about owning a BlackBerry appealed to me. Literally nothing. It's too big, but that be would fine if I wanted it, I could have got past that. But it's big, and it makes me available to send and receive emails at any given moment. OK, I'm out.

I've always hated email. I get it, it's necessary and obviously an incredibly useful tool, but I also hate that we're constantly available – or expected to be available to answer all texts and emails at all times. There was nothing sexy to me about it. "Oh, a way for me to do more work? Fuck. Pass."

AC: Tech movies are always presented as "the wacky techs versus the money men," but the great thing about BlackBerry is that there are points when Mike is clearly presented as the good guy, and Doug is the good guy, but there are points where Jim is 100% in the right and the other guys are idiots. Everyone is morally gray.

GH: It's easy to view a character like Jim as the antagonist in the film until you slowly realize that you agree with a lot of the things that he is doing. You're like, 'Oh, OK, his approach is a little bit abrasive, but what he's trying to do, and what he's trying to achieve is actually ... if not noble, then at least rootable and understandable. Jim makes a lot of necessary decisions to achieve everyone's stated goal of becoming a giant company.

"This co-ceo model was great for some things [but] they both ended up thinking the other one had the wheel." Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton as Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, the duo behind the game-changing smartphone in BlackBerry (Image courtesy of IFC Films)

AC: When you first see Jim, you want to hate him. So how did you find something more to him?

GH: I totally know what you mean, but I think honestly it was just about fighting for something that you believe in, and I think that's something that a lot of people can get behind and understand.

It's not totally clear on the surface, but for me the movie was always an underdog story. You've got this little startup Canadian company, where Jim himself has put everything on the line financially in order to be the CEO and build everything up. The stakes are extremely high, there are other people right on their tails, ready to create the first smartphone before them, and there's tremendous pressure from these companies that are extremely huge, like PalmPilot, and the telecom companies had so much power and control already. I think just by the very nature of fighting for something the audience can get behind makes him, again, rootable if not always likable. And I think, at times, he really is the antagonist of the film.

I think anyone who's ever tried to innovate on a massive scale, the way that they did, has to be a little bit of an asshole in order to push through all of the obstacles that are presented to you. You have to be willing to take a baseball bat to some things in order to get them out of your way because you believe so deeply in what it is that you're doing. And I think people like that. I think that there's a bit of wish fulfillment there.

AC: And the haircut. It's one of those decisions that removes a character from the actor, and I swear I didn't recognize it was your for the first 20 minutes of the film.

GH: We looked at the real guy and went, 'Well, that's what he looks like. He's bald on top and he's tan and he's fit,' so that was just me chasing the veracity of the character. And I knew that it was going to be much easier and look much better if I just bit the bullet and lived as a bald man for a couple of months while I shot the film. And I definitely thought it was the right choice. Nobody likes a bad bald cap.

AC: I think my only disappointment with the film was that there wasn't more about Jim and his war with the NHL. That's a whole movie in itself.

GH: We present such a small segment of that saga in the film, but you're right. There could be a sequel all about Jim trying three separate times to bring another NHL team to Canada. It's a fascinating thing that he did, and it turned him into a hero in Canada. People really, really loved him for trying to do that, and nobody blamed him for not being able to pull it off. They just saw it as a noble cause.

BlackBerry is in cinemas now. Read our review and get showtimes here.

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