Jeff Daniels, star of The Newsroom, on walking, talking, and not getting typecast
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Jeff Daniels’ film career has been filled with plenty of highlights, from Ragtime to The Squid And The Whale, but with the exception of a few one-off appearances and the occasional TV movie, he’s rarely shown his face on the small screen. That will change on June 24, when Daniels makes his debut as anchorman Will McAvoy in Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series The Newsroom. The A.V. Club spoke with Daniels in the midst of the press blitz for the series; he discussed his reasons for finally taking on a full-time TV gig, his feelings on Sorkin’s walk-and-talks, the distance between Gettysburg and Dumb And Dumber, and working with Woody Allen, Robert Altman, and Jack Lord.
The A.V. Club: You haven’t spent a great deal of time on the small screen in the past, and now you’ve taken your first full-time TV gig. Was it Aaron Sorkin that lured you, or had you already been considering settling into the regularity of a series?
Jeff Daniels: All of that. [Laughs.] I’d been looking at television for probably the last year and a half, either to develop something of my own or just go to a series, because it’s where the writers seem to be. Especially on the cable side. Every actor just wants good writing. Give me good writing, and I’ll play it all day. So it had been about a year of looking, trying to find the right thing, being picky, and then Aaron came along. And that was just… I just dropped everything and said, “What do I have to do to get this?”
AVC: When word first got out that you were in contention for the part of Will McAvoy, the headline for the story on The A.V. Club read, “Jeff Daniels may play an asshole cable news anchor for Aaron Sorkin.” Having seen the first four episodes, it turns out that there was more than a little bit of truth in that.
JD: Well, “asshole” is a big word. [Laughs.] But Will’s got some issues, you bet.
AVC: And there’s a moment in one of those episodes where Emily Mortimer’s character makes it her mission to assure everyone in the newsroom that Will isn’t nearly as bad a person as they perceive him to be.
JD: Yeah, they have a history—it’s a checkered past—and he’s basically still in love with her and can’t stand the sight of her.
AVC: At one point, Will was described as being a newsman in the Anderson Cooper/Brian Williams mold, but Sorkin also shadowed Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann for research.
JD: Well, I think Aaron researched a lot of people, some in person, some not. I didn’t research any of them, to be honest. [Laughs.] We really took the approach of, “Let’s create our own guy and not base him on any one, two, or three existing anchor people. Let’s create our own guy and our own network and see if we can do a show that you can imagine being dropped in the middle of all of ’em.”
AVC: It’s obviously Aaron Sorkin’s voice that you’re speaking with most of the time, but is there any of Jeff Daniels’ philosophy in Will McAvoy’s commentary?
JD: Oh, I think every actor will tell you that you tap into… We’re all capable of anything as human beings. Any emotion, any action. We really are. And so as an actor, you really open yourself up to all of those emotional possibilities, that thinking process, those beliefs, those values, and you start injecting yourself with them, and pretty soon you can’t tell the difference. [Laughs.]
AVC: How hard was it to find your way into the Sorkin patter?
JD: Not that difficult, because a lot of us were from the theater, and that’s a singular voice, usually. Movies can be written by committee or certainly several writers, not to mention a number of executives. You come out of the New York theater, and you’re speaking one voice. So we were kind of used to it. We prefer that. There’s a lot more clarity and it’s a lot more specific when it’s one single vision. Squid And The Whale was an example of that. And Aaron certainly has that with The Newsroom. So you kind of hear the music of it. You rehearse it and you memorize it until you know what he’s intending. And one of the great things about Aaron that’s also of the theater is that you have to memorize every word. You can’t paraphrase. You can’t adlib. It’s word for word. Which sounds a little exact, but that’s what you do in the theater. You never adlib or drop words. You just don’t do it. That’s not how we were brought up. It was like, “Oh, we memorize every word? Good news. Great. Terrific.”
AVC: How about the walk-and-talk?
JD: There’s a lot of dialogue in a Sorkin thing, and the walk-and-talks are… It’s not even the walk-and-talks. It’s the dialogue and the pace at which Aaron requires you to speak the lines. There’s a musicality in that. If you take it slower—that’s not how he heard it when he wrote it. You’re not doing him properly. So when that happens, when people start talking over each other and they’re going a hundred miles an hour verbally, that passes for action. That’s our version of a car chase, y’know? And it can hold. When the writing’s there and the performances support the writing, that can hold. And, man, you add a walk-and-talk? Now it’s a car chase with five cars. [Laughs.]
AVC: One of the primary themes of the series is the perpetual battle of ratings versus integrity, the concern over selling one’s soul for a momentary jump in the ratings.
JD: Certainly Will is a whore for ratings. [Laughs.] And he’s been very successful. And he’s got the bank account to prove that, because his ratings have been so strong. However, cable news in the world today is struggling with, “How much do we spin this? Where’s the truth?” All the networks know if they talk about certain subjects their ratings will spike. The Twitter feeds will go nuts if they go after so-and-so and such-and-such. And Will likes that. But that’s not necessarily what Aaron wants cable news to be. Or where it can be better, which is, “Where’s the truth?” You know, there are a lot of angry Americans out there, and I’m one of ’em. Stop spinning me, stop marketing to me, stop trying to sell yourself or your cause or product. Stop branding. Just tell me the truth. There are a lot of people out there like that.
AVC: Given the series’ device of setting events in the past, it seems like it’s giving Sorkin the opportunity to right wrongs retroactively.
JD: Yeah, but one of the things Aaron said early on, before the pilot, was, “You’re gonna win and you’re gonna lose. You’re gonna succeed and you’re gonna fail. We’re not writing some candy-ass hero who wins all the time and who’s always likeable.” He doesn’t write that. He writes human beings that crash sometimes and spin out sometimes. And that’s exciting. It’s great to play. A thrill to play. There are certain episodes deeper in the first season where it’s not so much righting a wrong but just illuminating what some of the decisions were back then, not only for Will and company but maybe for the cable shows that actually covered them. You can go back, and sometimes we do it better and sometimes we don’t. I think that’s part of what makes the series work.
AVC: You get to play a lot of different aspects with this character. You get to be the brash surrogate son to Sam Waterston, you get to play the romance angle with Emily…
JD: I told Aaron this when he turned in the finale of Season One, I said: “Well, amidst all of the things you’ve written about the politics, the newscast, the professionalism, the integrity, and even the comedy, you’ve kept it a romantic comedy.” He is a sucker for that. And he won’t apologize for it, happily. So there’s this wonderful relationship where the three of us—Aaron, Emily, and myself—kind of jumped off the cliff together, and I really like where it’s gone. And he writes it so well, that kind of romantic side. But my favorite thing that I get to do—there’s some absolute slapstick comedy. There are episodes, both early on as well as later, where you’ve got to have comic timing. You’ve got to pull out the “Do we have an actor that can be funny and know where funny is and not get caught going for funny?” And that’s been a joy over the first season for me to give to him and him to take and then tailor it through the first season. I think it’s probably the funniest Aaron’s ever been. I haven’t seen everything he’s done, but he has no problem having one of us slip on a banana peel. [Laughs.]
AVC: Having only seen those first four episodes, this may be a spoiler, so you may not be able to speak to it, but do you get to interact with Jane Fonda’s character at all during the first season?
JD: I do, yes. And I’m very happy about that. Actually, she and Ted [Turner] came to Gettysburg, came to the set in Pennsylvania. That’s where I met her. And when I was on Broadway with God Of Carnage and Jane was around the block with 33 Variations, we went out to dinner a couple of times. I just love her. It was a thrill to have her involved with the show. But she wanted to do it. And she’s pivotal as far as the story goes.
AVC: Speaking of Gettysburg, to tie that in with what you were saying about needing comic chops for some of the Newsroom episodes, there are not a lot of actors who have the range to flip between playing Col. Joshua Chamberlain and Harry Dunne in Dumb And Dumber, especially not within a year of each other. Do you enjoy the challenge of jumping between drama and comedy?
JD: Oh, yeah. It’s kind of like legalized schizophrenia. [Laughs.] I enjoy that aspect of it. I was brought up to play characters. The theater teaches you that. And, you know, I thought that for me to live the life I wanted, which was to live in Michigan and kind of stay out of the spotlight and just be the actor for hire, I thought it was important that I create as big a range as possible. And it’s hard to imagine a wider gap between Chamberlain and Harry and then Will McAvoy. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are talks still ongoing about you reprising the role of Harry Dunne?
JD: They’re working on it. I’d love to do it. I’ve read the script. It’s funnier than hell. [Laughs.] And they’re trying to work out dates and the whole business side of it. So I’m hopeful.
AVC: Since you brought up living in Michigan, how’s the Purple Rose Theater doing? Is it still thriving?
JD: It’s doing fine! For a 20-year-old theater, it’s just doing great. It’s a big part of this corner of the country. People drive a long way just to see what we’re doing next. We do still have people discovering it for the first time, but a lot of people are just going to whatever’s next. Regardless of what critics or anyone might say, good or bad, they’re planning on going to the next show. And that speaks very highly of the company we’ve got.
AVC: On a related note, I spoke with another Michigander, Edward Herrmann, a few months ago.
JD: Oh, I love Ed! I did The Purple Rose Of Cairo with him, in fact.
AVC: He talked about a scene that you and he had together which was the only time that he ever saw Woody Allen get mad. He said there was something very Michigan-y about the way you said the word “tomb” that never failed to make him laugh. And then when he started laughing, you’d start laughing. And that’s when Woody started getting pissed.
JD: [Laughs.] Yeah. And John Wood was in the scene as well, may he rest in peace. Yeah, it was kids laughing in church, basically, and we just couldn’t get through it. This was, like, two months in, and just the absurdity of it, what we were saying, and I had a problem with the word “tomb.” [Laughs.] Also, I kept looking at Ed Herrmann, and if you see the movie or see stills from the movie, he’s wearing this hat, and every time I looked at him, the hat he was wearing looked more and more stupid. And John Wood just had this little twinkle in his eye, and we could barely get through it. We would blow takes because we were just snorting up phlegm. I was so glad that we were two months in, because that meant I couldn’t get fired. [Laughs.]
AVC: The film obviously had a profound effect on you, though, if you named your theater after it.
JD: It was a turning point. It’s still an honor to have worked with Woody, and at that point in my career, it was a huge deal.
AVC: As you look back over your career, is there any project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
JD: Oh, yeah, but they’re so offbeat. I did a movie in the late ’80s called Checking Out that I just loved. It was just weird. [Laughs.] And funny. I really liked that. It was an indie. The little indie that could. That one, and I made a couple of movies in Michigan—indies that we financed here—and I wish those had been seen more. But that’s the world of indies.
AVC: You’ve done quite a few indies in recent years. Do you enjoy the indie film world as much or more than the major studios?
JD: I used to. I liken it to off-Broadway. There was more freedom. Certainly Squid And The Whale, things like that, you feel like you’re trying to make a really good movie without worrying about what sells or what might do well foreign. You’re just trying to make a really good movie. And usually the vision is singular, there’s just one writer. So that’s the good part of it. The problem with it now is that, ever since the economy went south, a lot of distribution companies folded, and you can do these indies, but nobody sees them. And that’s disappointing. So I just basically got tired of it. And was very happy that my foray into television is with a great writer. That’s where a lot of the writers seem to have gone, to cable, whether it’s HBO, Showtime, or Starz. Wherever. Even network. You’ve got some really good writers who are going, “At least I can make a living here.” So that’s where the writing is.
AVC: To bring this whole thing full circle, The Newsroom is not actually your first appearance on an HBO series: You had a brief role in an episode of Tanner ’88.
JD: Yes! I did a movie with [Robert] Altman, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, for CBS in the late ’80s and remained friends with him, and, yeah, he was doing Tanner ’88, and the character Michael Murphy was playing was from Michigan. So they actually shot in Michigan for a couple of episodes, and he called up and said, “Hey, you wanna play a park ranger for me?” I said, “Absolutely, Bob. Where have I got to be?” And they literally shot it a mile from my house.
AVC: Another nice selling point.
JD: Oh my God, yeah. And they didn’t have any money, so we brought bagels. We were the craft services as well. [Laughs.]
AVC: I mentioned that you’d never had a full-time series gig before, but you really haven’t done much television, period, not even when you were first starting out. Literally, you did one episode of Hawaii Five-0, and then the next year you were in Ragtime. Did you intend to do more series work, or were your sights set on the silver screen?
JD: I always wanted to do films. I’d gone to New York early in 1976 and did a lot of theater, but I really wanted to chase the paths of people like Pacino and Lemmon and those guys. Alan Arkin. Film was where I wanted to go. But I was also starting to have kids, and just the idea of going to California for seven years to do a series in the ’80s or ’90s… We weren’t going to do that. We wanted to live in Michigan and raise the kids there. So that meant I couldn’t make a seven-year commitment, which is what it was back then. So it was more to do with family concerns. And, you know, occasionally I’d do an HBO film. I did a thing with Brian Dennehy, Teamster Boss: The Jackie Presser Story. And I did a movie called Cheaters. John Stockwell directed it for HBO. So, yeah, back when they were doing TV movies, I’d drop in and do those. But it wasn’t until the kids were well into their twenties that we said, “All right, let’s go do a series.” If that means California for seven months, okay.
AVC: Does it make you feel old when you realize that the show on which you made your TV debut is now in its second generation?
JD: God, I never thought about that. I had never thought about that. Wow. [Laughs.] I was around for the second coming of Hawaii Five-0. Oh, God. I guess it does make you feel old, yeah. But that was fun to do, I have to say. I’d done commercials, but that was my first TV series. I got the part, and two days later they flew us to Hawaii for nine days. My wife loved it. We’d been married about four months, and she loved it. And I got to work with Jack Lord. I’d watched him in high school! So, yeah, I thought it was really cool.
AVC: Just for the record, the episode is on DVD, and your hair is fantastic.
JD: [Laughs.] There’s some kind of styling going on there, isn’t it? Something’s happening with it. I can’t quite remember what. But the story was so—oh my God. High school smart-asses flying a little model plane into an open window of a gallery, I think, where there are million-dollar diamonds, a smoke bomb goes off, and these high-school assholes run in and steal the diamonds, and they’re gonna fence them to some mobster. It’s just, like, what?!?
AVC: Some people will no doubt moan about lazy comparisons when critics start writing about how The Newsroom is like a cross between Sports Night and The West Wing, but it really is apt in this case: You’ve got the political discussion of the latter, but it takes place in a TV studio like the former.
JD: Yeah, sure. But y’know, Aaron can’t write badly. He just can’t. One thing about West Wing that I loved was that it was about stuff that mattered. And a lot of the things that we deal with on The Newsroom matter. He’s writing about something important that matters today: how we get our news, what is the truth, how do we get it, and how do we differentiate it from spin. And we’re all dealing with that right now. So we’ve got one of the best writers attacking that subject, and I think that’s what’s going to make the show succeed. I hope. This one’s really about something that matters to all of us.