Jeff Daniels: Anchoring The Cast Of 'The Newsroom'
Aaron Sorkin's new HBO drama The Newsroom revolves around Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a popular cable-news anchor floating happily along with his nightly newscast, which does well in the ratings but doesn't tend to delve into anything that could offend or alienate anyone.
After McAvoy has a public meltdown at a university lecture, he's put on a three-week hiatus by his boss (Sam Waterston). During McAvoy's time off, his staff defects and a new executive producer named Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is hired to take the helm of McAvoy's show.
But there's a back story: McHale and McAvoy used to date years ago, and now McHale wants to shake things up, with a new show anchored by McAvoy that tackles real hard-hitting news stories and calls out those who don't tell the truth.
It's a typical Sorkin drama, complete with fast-paced dialogue, witty storylines and top-name actors, including Daniels, the star of such films as Dumb and Dumber, The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Squid and the Whale.
Daniels, who calls himself a political news junkie, tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he started watching cable news during the 2000 presidential election, and now has even a greater understanding for how the shows run by news anchors work.
"There's certainly an awareness of what these guys do, and what they do well," he says, "when they really earn their money — breaking news, and being able to stay on the air and cover things and just keep talking — and to do it in a way that's factual without diving too deep into speculation."
In an early episode, Daniels' character calls out other news anchors for their willingness to play to their base and spin stories to attract ratings instead of reporting on actual news and events. That's something Sorkin feels very strongly about, says Daniels.
"Aaron will tell you that he's an idealist, he's a romantic, and he thinks there is a place for truth in journalism — and there is a place for ideals," he says.
Daniels describes being on set at The Newsroom as like being thrown "into the middle of a six-lane highway." There were HBO cameras filming newsroom cameras which were filming Daniels, who also had a series of TV monitors behind him.
"You're sitting right in the middle of it in a chair, and the traffic is going all around you on all sides," he says. "You understand how to do it, you get better at it, but I got an awareness and admiration for the guys who do that on a nightly basis who are able to keep [everything] straight and know where to look and where the guest is and which screen to go to and read the teleprompter."
Working with Sorkin has been especially gratifying for Daniels, a huge fan of Sorkin's drama The West Wing.
"When I met Aaron, I told him not only did I watch The West Wing, but when it went into syndication on Bravo, I would watch each episode two or three times just to see the mechanics of how he puts a story together," he says. "He knows how to do that. The great ones do."
On the teleprompter tips he received from a local news anchor near his home in Michigan
"He said, 'Look right in the middle, and out of the corner of your eye, read from left to right, but try to look right down the middle of that prompter and it won't look like your eyes are going left to right, left to right.' "
On how being on a fictional cable-news show helped his own understanding of cable news
"When they get their 'go-to' guests, you almost know what they're going to say before they say it. But when they get that new guy — that rogue guest who comes in and goes off message, which allows a Chris Matthews or a Sean Hannity to come in and pounce, I can see it in their eyes. It's interesting to know pretty much what's being whispered in their ear by their producer in the middle of an interview — to know when they go off on Sarah Palin, depending on which show you're watching, that's either going to be good for ratings or bad for ratings. It's almost like science or math, the way these folks approach it."
On who Aaron Sorkin based the drama on specifically
"He certainly knows Keith [Olbermann]. He knows Chris Matthews. Larry O'Donnell was a consultant on The West Wing. And certainly the producers did a lot of research hanging out scouting the CNN newsroom to get a set replica. But when they brought me on, no one ever dropped a name saying, 'Him. Follow him. Be him.' It was more, 'Let's create our own guy and see if we can't fictionalize somebody.' "
On Sorkin's dialogue
"If you do it at the proper pace, it sings. It's like a verbal car chase. This isn't an action series; we're not pulling guns on each other or having cars come around corners. But we go after each other, and when done properly and at the right pace, it can be very compelling — almost like an action sequence."
"We all can become anybody. Actors are just given the tools on how to draw that out and become someone else. It's kind of legalized schizophrenia."
On the infamous toilet scene in 'Dumb and Dumber'
"I love that on Fresh Air we're talking about Dumb and Dumber. ... Certainly the toilet scene was a challenge. As I told the director, 'This is either the beginning of my career or the end of it.' I think the actual act of what happens on the toilet, I think they had cut it down to 30 seconds, but there were takes that were two, two-and-a-half minutes long of just pure agony. ... There were times, I think there's one close-up where I'm pushing so hard that I almost passed out. I almost fell off the toilet. And I'm pretty sure they used that shot. The career was at a crossroads when that scene was finished."
On living in Michigan
"We wanted to raise our kids in a place we understood. And that made me get on that airplane and take red-eyes back and forth every two weeks or so. It made me spread the career around to supporting roles and get off the Oscar trail of trying to become the biggest star in the history of stars. Family just became more important. The career was second — it was a close second, but it was second."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jeff Daniels, stars in the new HBO series "The Newsroom," which premieres Sunday. It was created by Aaron Sorkin, who also created the West Wing and wrote the movie "The Social Network," about the founders of Facebook.
Jeff Daniels has been in many movies, including "Terms of Endearment," "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Dumb and Dumber," "Blood Work" and "The Squid and the Whale." He was one of the four stars in the original Broadway production of "God of Carnage." He and his wife have raised their children in his hometown, Chelsea, Michigan, where he founded the Purple Rose Theater Company.
In "The Newsroom," Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, the anchor of a cable news show that pledges to cover stories because they're important, not because they get ratings, and he promises to give his opinions but also a range of opinions by other knowledgeable people. That's the show he does after his transformation. When the series begins, he's considered the Jay Leno of news because of his bland, vanilla approach.
In the opening scene, he's part of a university panel discussion with a liberal and a conservative about the news media. He's given evasive answers to every question he's been asked until the audience Q&A, when a student asks what makes America the best country in the world, and he shocks everyone with his answer.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE NEWSROOM")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Why is America...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) ...not the greatest country in the world, Professor, that's my answer.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) You're saying...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as character): Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (as character) Let's talk about...
JEFF DANIELS: (as Will McAvoy) Fine. Sharon, the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paycheck, but he gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn't cost money. It costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don't like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so (beep) smart, how come they lose so God damn always?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Hey.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) And with a straight face, you're going to tell students that America is so star-spangled awesome that we're the only ones in the world who have freedom? Canada has freedom. Japan has freedom, the U.K., France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom. So 207 sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (as character) All right.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) And yeah, you, sorority girl, just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there's some things you should know, and one of them is there is absolutely no evidence...
GROSS: That's Jeff Daniels in a scene from the new HBO series "The Newsroom." Jeff Daniels, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So how much cable news did you watch before starting to go into production for "The Newsroom"?
DANIELS: Well, in regards to research for the show, none, zero. I mean, I've been watching a bit of a...
GROSS: Wait, wait, why? Why zero?
DANIELS: Well, I've been kind of a political news junkie, cable news junkie, since I think about the 2000 election. I think that's when I really kind of clicked in to that 24/7 kind of news cycle thing that they do. But to actually research the role, I didn't research anybody.
DANIELS: Well, Aaron never brought it up. I mean, Aaron never said, by the way, this is based on so-and-so. He never...
GROSS: The so-and-so being - everybody's speculating it's Keith Olbermann because Sorkin and Olbermann are friends, and "Sports Night," one of Sorkin's earlier shows, was about the kind of sports show that Olbermann used to co-host. Go ahead.
DANIELS: Sure, yeah, but no. It was - he certainly knows Keith. He knows Chris Matthews. He knows all these guys. Larry O'Donnell I think was a consultant on "The West Wing," if I'm not mistaken.
GROSS: That's right. Oh, that's right, sure.
DANIELS: So he's aware of all these guys, and they certainly - Aaron and Alan Poul, the producer, certainly did a lot of research hanging out scouting, say, like the CNN newsroom to get, you know, a set replica and things like that. But when they brought me on, no one ever dropped a name saying, you know, him, follow him, be him. It was more let's create our own guy and see if we can't fictionalize somebody but make it feel like to the audience that, you know, after you see an episode or two or three that you can imagine this guy and this network and this news program being dropped in the middle of MSNBC, CNN and Fox. And that's kind of how we approach it.
GROSS: So one of the things I enjoy about your new series, "The Newsroom," part of the drama is about booking the right guests, and because, like, we book guests on our show, it's like yeah, that's what life is about, booking guests. And it's just, like, so exciting to see a drama about booking guests.
But don't you have the reverse feeling? Now that you're doing that fictionally, don't you really want to watch, like, cable news and see who the guests end up being and how well the interview goes?
DANIELS: I have a much greater appreciation for all of the shows and all of the guys on either side of that cable news aisle, politically, what they deal with. And when they get their go-to guests, the people that come in on a regular basis, and you almost know what they're going to say before they say it. And when they get that new guy, that kind of rogue guest that comes in and kind of goes off-message or - which allows a Chris Matthews or a Sean Hannity or whomever to kind of pounce, I can see it in their eyes.
You know, it's interesting to have done the show, to know pretty much what's being whispered in their ear by the producer in the middle of an interview, to know that when they go off on Sarah Palin, depending on which show you're watching, that's either going to be good for ratings or bad for ratings. And they know before they even hit a subject like that whether they're going to get a spike or not.
Actually, early on, we have a three-way, if you will, interview with just a disastrous immigration, a disastrous set of guests that we book at the last minute because our good guests fell out. And it's just a train wreck. And that's probably happened to people who have got the wrong guests on, and they still have to fill five minutes.
GROSS: Yeah, your character ends up asking the questions and answering all of them because the guests have absolutely nothing to say, or they have something totally inane to say, something brief and inane.
DANIELS: That's kind of fun, too.
GROSS: Usually the problem is it's long-winded and inane in that kind of situation.
DANIELS: Yes, yes, they just keep talking, yeah.
GROSS: So I'm wondering if you ever agree with the kind of thing your character says. Like for example, he gives an editorial on one of his broadcasts, and this is in episode three, in which he - first he plays a clip of Richard Clarke, who was in the Bush and Clinton administrations in counterterrorism, apologizing to the American public for not having prevented 9/11.
And then you come on and say that, you know, you appreciated that apology, and now you're going to apologize to the American public, and here's your apology.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE NEWSROOM")
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Good evening, I'm Will McAvoy, this is "News Night," and that was a clip of Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism chief to President George W. Bush, testifying before Congress on March 24, 2004. Americans liked that moment. I liked that moment. Adults should hold themselves accountable for failure.
(as McAvoy) And so tonight, I'm beginning this newscast by joining Mr. Clarke in apologizing to the American people for our failure, the failure of this program during the time I've been in charge of it to successfully inform and educate the American electorate.
(as McAvoy) Let me be clear that I don't apologize on behalf of all broadcast journalists, nor do all broadcast journalists owe an apology. I speak for myself. I was an accomplice to a slow and repeated and unacknowledged and unamended train wreck of failures that have brought us to now. I'm a leader in an industry that miscalled election results, hyped up terror scares, ginned up controversy and failed to report on tectonic shifts in our country, from the collapse of the financial system to the truths about how strong we are to the dangers we actually face.
(as McAvoy) I'm a leader in an industry that misdirected...
GROSS: So that was Jeff Daniels in a scene from episode three of the new HBO series "The Newsroom." So how do you react to what he said in that clip? Do you agree with some of the things that he said about how the media hypes terror scares and takes a dive for the ratings?
DANIELS: Yeah, I think there are - we had a screening last night in New York, and it was like a who's who of the New York national media from all the networks. And during a little cocktail reception before the show, I was talking with a lot of journalists. And a lot of these guys would say, you know, I've been doing this for 35 years, and I remember when Sadat did this, and, you know, I was there in Afghanistan when...
And you're talking to these guys, and they're about to see a show that doesn't call them out but just reminds them that, you know, by the way, there is journalism. There is real journalism, and then there is that spin. There is that thing that they, that the cable news shows will do that plays to their audience, that they know they have to come down on this side of the issue in order to keep that audience tuned in tonight.
And Aaron will tell you he's an idealist. He's a romanticist. He thinks there is a place for truth in journalism, there is a place for these ideals and to hang on to those.
I mean, we are basically making a show about what they've spent their lives doing, and many of them came up afterwards and were very complimentary and were very relieved, I think. It was funny. A lot of them wanted it to be based on them, the character of Will McAvoy. I hope you're basing it on me, but I also hope you're not basing it on me. They were confused.
It was nice to see national-known journalists in a state of kind of confusion.
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Daniels. He stars in the new HBO series "The Newsroom." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeff Daniels, and he stars in the new HBO series "The Newsroom." So when you're shooting one of the newsroom scenes, you have the newsroom cameras that are in the TV series. Then you have the actual HBO cameras that are shooting the newsroom cameras that are shooting you in the series. So you have two sets of cameras on the set. How confusing in set in terms of you knowing where you're supposed to look?
DANIELS: Well, let's not forget the video monitors that are all over that little...
GROSS: Excuse me.
DANIELS: And the actors tend not to want to watch themselves very often. I'm one of those guys. And all of a sudden there are five TV screens of me behind an anchor desk plus all of those cameras. I mean, there were times when we were up to seven, eight cameras, you know.
I likened it to kind of being in the middle of a six-lane highway, and all the - and you're sitting right in the middle of it in a chair, and the traffic is going 100 miles an hour, (unintelligible), right past you on three sides. And, you know, there were a lot of bells and whistles going on.
And you get - you understand how to do it, you get better at it, but there's - again, an awareness and admiration for the guys who do that on a nightly basis, who are able to keep all those things straight and know where to look and where the guest is and which screen to go to. And by the way, reading the teleprompter, not as easy as it looks.
GROSS: I had to read a teleprompter once. I was, like, guest-hosting a late-night show, the show that Charlie Rose had vacated, and I had to read a teleprompter for the show, and it was the first time I had done it, and I had no idea how to look like I wasn't reading.
I mean, I think I looked - I was terrified as it was, but I mean, having to look natural while reading all this copy that's going by on a screen, I don't know how people do it.
DANIELS: There is a trick.
GROSS: What is it?
DANIELS: There is a trick that I learned from an anchor guy, actually locally in Detroit. He goes: Look right in the middle, and out of the corner of your eye, read from left to right, but try to look right down the middle of that prompter, and it won't look like your eyes are going left to right, left to right, left to right.
GROSS: So how did you get the part in "The Newsroom"?
DANIELS: I've been looking to do television for about a year, and we had known about Aaron's show. And Scott Rudin was producing. And all we knew was that it was about cable news and that it was going to be at HBO, which, you know, Aaron, HBO and a lead role was gold. So I said: What do we have to do to get on the list?
And we were - it was a phone call. And so we were on a pretty short list, and Aaron was busy with "Social Network" and The Oscars, and about five weeks later, I met with Aaron in New York. And happy to say I had it before the meeting was over.
GROSS: Oh, wow, how come? I mean, was it because of the conversation, because of you doing lines from the series?
DANIELS: No, it was a breakfast meeting at a hotel in New York, and I later found out they wanted me. I was first choice. There were a couple concerns: Do you have a kind of combustible side of you, a kind of rant, a kind of you can blow, you know, at a moment's notice.
GROSS: Because your character certainly does, yeah.
DANIELS: Yeah, and I had never really been asked to do that on film. It's not, you know, evident, and I'm not known for it. So it's not that I had to demonstrate it there in the restaurant of the hotel, though I made it look like I was about to, which I think put the fear of God into both Aaron and Scott.
But I said no, trust me, I can get there. And that was the only concern, and once that was - I said yeah, and then it was about, you know, who's going to play the girl.
GROSS: So in "The Newsroom," you do your share of monologues on and off the air.
GROSS: But you also do a lot of duets, as I think of them, where, like, you're with another character, and you have a little showdown or a little, you know, a conflict of some sort. And so, like, you know, the dialogue is very kind of rapid-fire, witty, sometimes, you know, very dense because there's, like, a lot of content to it, too. And I thought I'd play an example of one of your, you know, quote, duets. And this is from episode one.
After you've kind of shocked everybody at a symposium at the Northwestern University campus, you shocked everyone by actually giving your opinion, and your opinion was that America really isn't, like, the best place in the world, the most democratic place in the world, and then you start criticizing things that are wrong with America.
But anyway, so you go on a three-week hiatus after that, and when you return to your show, you find out that your executive producer has left for another show, and he's taken the rest of the staff with him, and you're shocked, and you're angry. So this is your showdown with that executive producer. His name is Don Keefer, and he's played by Thomas Sadoski. And also in this scene is Sam Waterston, who plays the president of the news division at your cable channel. And the executive producer speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE NEWSROOM")
THOMAS SADOSKI: (as Don) I tried to get in touch with you, but Charlie(ph) said you...
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) You asked to leave?
SADOSKI: (as Don) I did, but we have two weeks before...
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Because of what happened?
SADOSKI: (as Don) No.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Because the second half was a rousing call to...
SADOSKI: (as Don) It has nothing to do with what happened.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Timing is curious.
SADOSKI: (as Don) Didn't you tell him it doesn't have anything to do with what happened?
SAM WATERSTON: (as Charlie Skinner) Yes, and talk to him when you're talking to him.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) After all the time we spent working side by side...
SADOSKI: (as Don) I've been your AP for 13 weeks.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) That's the longest I've ever worked with anybody. I mean, you were the one. You were my guy. We were like the Everly Brothers.
SADOSKI: (as Don) You'll interview some good candidates.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Please, I'll replace you in 15 minutes.
SADOSKI: (as Don) You know, it wasn't the anti-American thing, Will, or even that you aimed a profanity-laced tirade as a college sophomore.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) She's talking about suing the university for mental anguish.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Talking about it to who?
WATERSTON: (as Charlie) Was it Kathie Lee (unintelligible)?
SADOSKI: (as Don) Guess who her lawyer is?
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) If you say Gloria Allred...
SADOSKI: (as Don) It's your personality.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) What?
SADOSKI: (as Don) The reason I'm leaving and the reason the others are.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) I'm affable.
SADOSKI: (as Don) To strangers, to people who watch you on TV. You yelled at me in front of the crew.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) That's what this is about.
SADOSKI: (as Don) Yes, that's what this is about.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Oh, you know, I thought - you were talking into my ear.
SADOSKI: (as Don) That's what I'm supposed to do.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) I had Stanley McChrystal on satellite from Kandahar. He's being shot at by the (beep) Taliban, and you were yakking in my ear.
SADOSKI: (as Don) I wasn't yakking. I was telling you not to let him off the hook.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Was that something that really needed to be said four times?
SADOSKI: (as Don) Yeah because you let him off the hook, as was pointed out by everyone with Internet access. You blew that interview, and you took it out on me.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) It was two days after the thing with the student. I thought it would be a good idea to show deference to a three-star...
SADOSKI: (as Don) Well, you took it out on me, you did it in front of the staff, then you took it out on the staff the way you're doing right now.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) The staff isn't here. You're taking the department heads. Who the hell knows who they're taking?
GROSS: OK, so that's Jeff Daniels, along with Thomas Sadoski in a scene from episode one of "The Newsroom," the new HBO series. The student referred to in that scene is the student who asked the question that leads to the long and opinionated answer that your character gives that so astonishes everybody, and her question was something like in one sentence or less, what makes America the best country in the world.
But anyways, that's a perfect example of you uncorking, but also it's an example of the kind of overlapping dialogue that Sorkin so often writes. And I'm wondering if that's scripted in - if that's kind of scored in the pages that you get, where you can see exactly where you're supposed to be speaking over the other character, and the other character sees where he's supposed to be speaking over you.
DANIELS: Yeah, almost to the letter. And also we're encouraged. There are times where they go real good, now just overlap a little bit more. And they kind of leave it up to us. They want it to feel real. They want it to feel like these two guys are having an argument in the hallway, and three cameras just happen to be watching. That's what Aaron wants.
And Aaron's not the first to invent this kind of pace, this kind of - you know, Mamet does it. You go to a Broadway show, a play where the dialogue moves, movies like Preston Sturges movies, you know, Kaufman and Hart, Billy Wilder. People - there's pace, and with that pace is the music. That's where there's a rhythm to it. It's almost musical.
You could almost go back through that clip and hear the word hook, let him off the hook, let him off the hook. Those are almost drumbeats. That builds to a certain kind of climax. I mean that - if you do it at the proper pace, it sings.
It also, the interesting thing about the overlapping dialogue and that rhythm and that pace is that it - that's kind of a verbal car chase. I mean, we don't - this isn't an action series. This isn't - you know, we aren't, you know, pulling guns and, you know, cars coming around corners. But we do go after each other, and when done properly at the right pace, and it can be very compelling, almost like an action sequence.
GROSS: What's it like for you, you as an actor, memorizing all this, you know, pretty dense, rapid-fire dialogue and not having the rehearsal and prep time that you'd have if you were doing it on stage? And if you were doing it on stage, you would be doing the same thing every night, and it would become second nature eventually. You don't get that opportunity.
DANIELS: No, and you're doing the same lines every night. We get a new play, basically, 90 pages every two weeks. And there is little to no rehearsal, and that's the difference. So as an actor, you can complain about that, or you can ask yourself, well, what do I have to do to get ready because we're going to shoot it whether I'm ready or not on Tuesday, and it's 13 pages, and I have to do similar to what that clip was. We have to be able to own it.
GROSS: What's your technique for memorizing?
DANIELS: I've got to just walk through it. I memorize it like a grocery list, bland. Alan Arkin taught me that. I did a TV thing with Alan, he directed it. He'd always been a hero of mine. And he said: Let's do a reading, let's read the script and just read it flat, like a grocery list, no choices, nothing. I don't want anything, nothing, just read it as boringly and as blandly as possible.
And that's one thing that helps me is I learn it blandly, vanilla, then I don't try to act it too soon because you start to act it, and you kind of go away from what the next sentence is, what the next paragraph is. So get it down so it kind of can - it's in there so you can then, as I call it, dance on top of it.
You've got to know it before you can dance on top of it and make it sound like it's something falling out of this guy's head instead of off of a page.
GROSS: Jeff Daniels will be back in the second half of the show. He stars in the new HBO series "The Newsroom." It premieres Sunday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jeff Daniels, the star of the new HBO series "The Newsroom." He plays the anchor of a cable news show. "The Newsroom" was created by Aaron Sorkin, who also created "The West Wing." "The Newsroom" premieres on Sunday.
Jeff Daniels has been in many movies, including "Terms of Endearment," "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Dumb and Dumber" and "The Squid and the Whale." He was one of the four stars of the original Broadway production of "God of Carnage."
Well, I want to play a scene from one of your movies - and this was - I forget what year it is - but it's maybe four or five years ago, "The Squid and the Whale."
GROSS: And you play a professor who sees himself as like a great writer, a great novelist, but he just can't get his next book written and he's certain it's going to be great once he gets it done - once he writes it. And he defines everything and everyone according to their artistic value or artistic talent or literary merit. He rates his own very high.
GROSS: And it's among the reasons his marriage is breaking up. So in this scene he's playing ping-pong with his younger son, who's played by Owen Kline.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SQUID AND THE WHALE")
DANIELS: (as Bernard Berkman) Nineteen-seven. Have you given more thought to what you're interested in? Come on. You have to try. It's no fun for me if you don't try.
OWEN KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) I wanna be a tennis pro like lvan.
DANIELS: (as Bernard Berkman) Oh, come one. You don't wanna be a tennis pro.
KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) Why not?
DANIELS: (as Bernard Berkman) It's not serious. I mean McEnroe. Borg is an artist. It's like dance. Connors has a brutish brilliance, but at Ivan's level, Ivan is fine, but he's not a serious guy. He's a Philistine.
KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) What's a Philistine?
DANIELS: (as Bernard Berkman) It's a guy who and doesn't care about books or interesting films and things. Your mother's brother Ned is also a Philistine.
KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) Then I'm a Philistine.
DANIELS: (as Bernard Berkman) No. You're interested in books and things. You liked "The Wild Child" when we saw it.
KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) Lots of people like that movie. No. I'm a Philistine.
GROSS: That's my guest, Jeff Daniels, with Owen Kline in a scene from "The Squid and the Whale." I felt like I knew your character, you know?
DANIELS: Oh, he's out there. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, he's out there. He's very recognizable to me and I'm sure you've known him too because that character not only lives in English departments, he lives in theaters and I'm sure in movie sets as well.
GROSS: So who did you draw on for that like very self-absorbed, really pretentious character?
DANIELS: I had written plays. I have a theater company in Michigan, The Purple Rose Theater Company, and over the last 20 years or so I've written, you know, 15 plays. So I knew the writer's life. I knew that solitary existence. I knew about writing something and then not being appreciated or not having, you know, or not being, you know, heralded like you think you should be. There was that. I, you know, I get sent books that were self-published, and usually for a reason. And - you know, here's a book I self-published that I wrote that you're perfect for. Could you give it to Spielberg?
DANIELS: And so I - it didn't - it's not a big leap to know who that guy is. You know, you know, brilliant in his own universe, and you know, the world revolves around his brilliance, and if only everyone would just catch up. It's not too hard to kind of create that guy, you know, on your own.
GROSS: So you were in the Broadway production of "God of Carnage," a much acclaimed production. And of course the movie had a completely different set of actors. Were you and the other actors who originated the roles asked to be in the movie?
DANIELS: I think at some point Jim might have been, you know, approached. But...
GROSS: James Gandolfini.
DANIELS: Yeah. Yeah. But no, they wanted to get actors with film experience.
GROSS: You have film experience.
DANIELS: Do I? Apparently not.
GROSS: Was it in a way just as well, in the sense that I think theater - film adaptations of plays don't always work. Sometimes plays work because they're plays. They weren't meant to be movies.
DANIELS: Yeah. I only saw the trailer. That's all I could do.
GROSS: That's what I saw.
DANIELS: John and Kate and all those folks, you know, are good people, and my god, a job's a job and they did - they went at it with all the gusto they possibly could and, you know, I hope it was a good experience for them. However, I couldn't imagine topping what happened on Broadway. On Broadway, the audience is stuck in that room with the four of us. You don't cut away. There isn't - you know, at least to another location or even cut away to the other side of the room. In a way that kind of lets the audience off the hook. The beauty of the stage production was that you're locked in the room with us and I think that was part of what made it successful. It's too bad that - we had a lot of great directors come through - Mike Nichols, Spielberg, you know, Demme, others, Jim Brooks, who easily could have said, you know, is the option open? Yes. Why don't we run over to Brooklyn next week and shoot this thing? That might have been a great thing to have happened, but it didn't. I mean Yasmina...
(SOUNDBITE OF CLEARING THROAT)
DANIELS: ...had, you know, moved on to Roman and a different cast and she wanted to do a rewrite, and that's fine. It's her play.
GROSS: Yasmina is the playwright and Roman is Roman Polanski, who directed the film adaptation.
GROSS: So when you were on stage, you switched parts. You eventually played the role that James Gandolfini played. How did that happen? Why did that happen?
DANIELS: Well, we had all - we had done the run from March 1st through middle of November. And we left, you know, my god, what a production, sold out, you know, Broadway history, all that, thank you very much. Goodbye. And they brought in another cast and they got to continue it on and the play kept going. And then there was a third cast about four months later. And the producers prior to that called and said, would you consider doing the other role? And it was such a compliment. And I, you know, I'd never voiced that. I'd never gone to the producers and say, hey, by the way. They just kind - it was on their own. I was flattered. And then I thought about the Broadway history of it all and how many actors had flipped roles in the same production. And I was aware of Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly doing it in "True West." I think Olivier did it in the '60s in a Becket piece, I believe. And I think, oh, Ed Begley Sr. did it - "Inherit the Wind" in the '50s. There may have been others, but those are the ones I knew of, so there weren't many. I wanted to be one of those guys. So I said sure, but first let me talk to Jim. So I called up Gondolfini. I said, look, I got to meet you. I got to talk to you about something. And so he met me...
DANIELS: ...in New York. And he pulled up in his car and we pulled around the corner and he parked there. And you know, suddenly I'm in a "Sopranos" episode. And I - I said, first of all, do you want to go back in? No. I'm done. I said, OK. They've offered me the chance to go back in. He goes, really? I said, yeah, in your role. And he just started laughing at me. Just started laughing. And he goes, you should do it because I want to see what you do in such a such a speech, because I hated that speech. I said, OK. If I have your permission I'll do it, but I don't want to screw the friendship up. And he couldn't have been nicer and more supportive and actually came to see it and, you know, was very nice about it. And then we did it a year later. We did it in LA. We brought the original Broadway cast back. And I was sincerely, genuinely very happy to go back to the other role and I felt like I - that's the role I owned. Doing Jim's role, I felt like I was renting it. I really did. I may have done it differently, but I certainly didn't improve on what he did, that's for sure.
GROSS: The odd thing to me about doing both roles is that these are two characters in conflict who very much have their own opposing points of view. And to play each character and to get into the head of each character seems odd because you'd end up having maybe more empathy for the other character than your character could possibly have.
DANIELS: No. I'm pretty good at simplifying, maybe justifying. You know, like "Squid and the Whale." He's right. He's absolutely right about everything he's saying. It's her fault the marriage blew up, he is a brilliant writer, and the kids need to understand him and appreciate him more. That's it. That's what you walk into the room with. And so when you do "Carnage" and you do Alan, the one role, what's he right about - this, that and the other thing. And then you go over and play Michael and you get into his head. And he believes this, believes that, his strengths are this, his weaknesses are that, and you play him. I trick myself sometimes. I imagine the real Alan is sitting out in the audience tonight. I imagine the real Michael is sitting out there and they're going don't screw this up. Be authentic. Make me, you know, play me honestly, please. That's a good actor's trick.
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Daniels. He stars in the new HBO series "The Newsroom." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Daniels. He's now starring in the new HBO series "The Newsroom." It premieres Sunday night.
Another film I want to ask you about is "Blood Work," which was directed by Clint Eastwood, who also starred in it as - what was he, a former FBI agent who'd had like heart problems but now he's investigating a murder, and you're one of the people involved the story. You end up being the villain.
DANIELS: That sounds about right. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. So anyway, so you've got to see the two Clint Eastwoods at the same time, director Clint Eastwood and, you know, detective Clint Eastwood. So what was the difference between the two Clint Eastwoods?
GROSS: I mean one was out to kill you.
GROSS: And what was out to direct you.
DANIELS: One had a gun.
DANIELS: The director is - I'd heard about it but couldn't believe it when I saw it. It's usually one take. And he hired you for a reason, because you're good, and so I want you to do it the way you think it should be done. Go. And you do the one take. He goes, good. Thank you. And moves the camera. And you're going, wow. I mean if an actor ever wanted to control his performance and they're only getting one take, that's the way to do it.
He's so supportive. I remember asking him before the movie started, you know, some wardrobe question or something. I said, you know, we're - is it the - should it be the blue jacket or the brown jacket? He goes, you're the actor. But, well, the brown one. Sounds like the brown one. And that was it, you know.
DANIELS: I said OK. I've got it. And he couldn't have been more supportive and nicer and easier - the easiest set to be on ever. An interestingly, Clint Eastwood in capital letters, that guy, it was fascinating as an actor to sit off-camera. We're driving in a car up a road and he is in the passenger seat, I'm driving, and it's doing his close-up, and I can see him just kind of being Clint, you know, in his 70s, the director, and he looks back at the camera guys - are you ready? Yes, sir. All right. Here we go. And I could see him just come up into it and become Clint Eastwood. He knew exactly where to hold his head, how to lay the speech out, and you could see it happen right in front of you. And then he'd get to the end of the speech or the scene, he'd go, all right, that's enough of that. And it would go away.
DANIELS: I'd only seen - I'd seen that before with Cagney. My first film was "Ragtime," back in '81 maybe? And James Cagney was in his early 80s and Milos Forman wanted him for the role of the police commissioner. And they brought us in to a studio in New York City and they had Cagney come down from his farm in Upstate New York. Cagney didn't think he could do it. And they brought him in. He had a nurse with him and he was coming in on a walker. And he sat down at a table and we were just going to read the scene. Cagney wanted a screen test just to see if he could do it. And Milos was so in his corner. And it was a four-page scene and he just, God bless him, he just couldn't do it. And it was a three-page. Then Milos cut it to two pages. Then he cut it down to one page with four lines. And after about half an hour, with this very old actor sitting there, wishing, trying to will himself into doing it, he finally got on top of those four lines. And you could see it on the little black and white monitor up on the screen back in the early '80s there, he became Cagney. You could see that old guy, that old image, that old star behind all those years, in the eyes, you could see it. And Milos: Cut, good. You're doing the role. That was it. Same thing with Clint.
GROSS: What's the lesson in that for you? I mean to watch them become the icon that they are?
DANIELS: I think it's a style of acting that you trust. You trust the instincts. Meryl Streep's brilliant, just brilliant. I've been fortunate to do two movies with Meryl. And for an actor to go moment to moment like she does, there's no one better. And she dances between moments. Each take is different because she's riding instincts, she's riding impulses. And she trusts that.
She doesn't try to plan everything out ahead of time or she doesn't do a take and hold herself back. She risks failure and she allows herself to kind of be open to wherever it goes. And that's what I saw these guys do, is just relax and kind of become that and then see and ride it.
And they would ride that image they had created over the years or ride that feeling that happens between action and cut. It's a different style of acting. We did that on "Newsroom" because there were so many cameras you never knew where the camera was. So why don't you just risk failure? And jump off the cliff and start flapping your arms and hope you fly.
It's a very exciting way to work and through the, you know, wonderful world of editing, they'll save you every time.
GROSS: So a question about "Dumb and Dumber." You starred in that...
GROSS: You starred in that with Jim Carrey.
DANIELS: I love - on FRESH AIR with Terry Gross we're talking about "Dumb and Dumber."
GROSS: Why not?
DANIELS: This is beautiful.
DANIELS: No, it's beautiful, beautiful.
GROSS: So Jim (technical difficulty) physical comedy and pratfalls and stuff. That's not your thing, although you've done really good physical comedy like even in the "Answer Man," which was an independent film. There's some very funny physical comedy in that because your back always hurt.
Oh, I have to say, as someone who has had back pain, I loved the way you walked and stuff when your back hurt.
DANIELS: Sure. I think I was actually on my hands and knees crawling to a chiropractor through the streets of Philadelphia where we shot the film.
GROSS: There was that scene. Yeah.
DANIELS: I remember there are scenes, yes.
GROSS: But you weren't always in that bad pain, but....
DANIELS: And because it was an independent picture there was no security. So I'm crawling amongst real Philadelphians who are looking down at, what's the guy from "Dumb and Dumber" doing crawling on all fours, crossing the street? Oh, well.
GROSS: You know, there was parts of - where you shot wasn't far from where we do our radio show in Philadelphia so there were parts of the neighborhood that were, like, closed off or, like, did you hear they're shooting it at that bookstore, you know, on Second Street?
I was like, whoa, really? They're shooting it there?
DANIELS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: But anyways, back to "Dumb and Dumber." So in "Dumb and Dumber" you're with Jim Carrey who specializes in physical comedy and pratfalls. What's the most, like, physically challenging thing you had to do in that film?
DANIELS: In "Dumb and Dumber?"
DANIELS: Let's see. Well, certainly the toilet scene was a challenge.
GROSS: Yes. It was what, a humiliation challenge?
DANIELS: Well, as I told Pete Farrelly, the director, he and Bobby before the scene started I said, well, this is either the beginning of my career or the end of it.
DANIELS: And, no, it's going to be great, man. Here's what you do. And so we got on there. And I think the actual act of what happens on the toilet, I think they had cut it down to about 30 seconds, but there were takes that were two, two-and-a-half minutes long of just pure agony of what was going on in that action, so.
There were times, and I think there's one close-up where I'm - I have so much - I'm pushing so hard that the blood in my head, you know, it can happen when you get all the blood - and I almost passed out. I almost fell off the toilet. And I'm pretty sure they used that shot. So, yeah, that was - physically that was - the career was at a crossroads when that scene was finished. Yeah.
GROSS: How much trust do you have to have in the Farrelly brothers to do a scene like that, that could end up being not only humiliating but not funny? I mean, you don't know if it's going to be funny, really, until you see it.
DANIELS: Well, and Jim will tell you the same thing. We know where funny is. You know, we didn't get where we got without guessing right a lot or having that instinct of where the laugh is. But it's film. I mean, we're not going to find out if a general audience laughs for a year. So there's that. So you're at the mercy of whoever's cutting it. We have comic timing; we know that. You're born with it and that's not something you can teach.
But once you've got it and you know it, OK, that's the rhythm of it. That's where funny is. Great. And if they stay in a two-shot, then you control it. If they start cutting back and forth then you just have to trust that the directors and the editors have comic timing as well. And, you know, certainly they did, and certainly the Farrelly brothers do.
So it was easy to trust. But I've always found that the great comedians are fearless. You know, great film comedians like Peter Sellers and you can go back to, my god, Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. I mean, they will do anything - anything - and then cut it later and edit it later. And it's just a take. I mean, if you're holding back then you're probably not going to find funny.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. My guest is Jeff Daniels and he stars in the new HBO series "The Newsroom." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Daniels. He's starring in the new HBO series "The Newsroom." It premiers Sunday night. So you grew up in Chelsea, Michigan, which is not far from Ann Arbor. And you moved back there - what year was it?
GROSS: You and your wife consciously decided you wanted to raise your children not in New York, not in L.A. You wanted to be away from that. And you have been. Now that you're doing "The Newsroom," I don't know if you're living in L.A. or still really based in Michigan.
DANIELS: If "Newsroom" continues over the next few years then six, seven months of the year will be in L.A. Yeah.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So looking back on that decision to go back to your hometown, was it the right decision?
DANIELS: Yeah. It certainly was for the family and that was the priority. Kathleen and I wanted to raise our kids in a place we understood, and that made me kind of get on that airplane and take red-eyes back and forth every two weeks or so. It made me spread the career around to supporting roles and get off the Oscar trail of trying to become the biggest star in the history of stars.
Family just became more important. The career was second. It was a close second, but it was second.
GROSS: So in Michigan you started the Purple Rose Theater Company. You've written plays for the company. You've, of course, been in productions and performed there. What did it bring out in you to basically have a theater company in which you could do things that you probably couldn't have done in other people's theater companies?
DANIELS: I think when I came to New York in the '70s I was writing songs and I was already a writer and I didn't know I was a writer. So when I opened the Purple Rose Theater Company in '91, I wanted to learn how to be a playwright. And at my own theater company hiring professionals who live in Michigan, who went to New York and didn't make it, this was their professional creative home. It also allowed me to develop as a playwright which completely informed me as an actor because I understood writing. So that now that I'm on "The Newsroom" I know what Aaron's doing. I know what he's intending. I know what he's up against. I know what this scene means. The craft of it has been a big help to my acting.
GROSS: So you sing as well as act and you have a couple of albums and I wanted to play a track from one of those albums. It's from a live performance at the Purple Rose Theater and this is a song called "Michigan, My Michigan." You didn't write this song; the lyrics date back to, I think, 1862. Would you say something about why you chose to sing this song?
DANIELS: It was at a time when the war in Iraq was really heating up and there were - I remember coming into my little town in Michigan and there was a funeral going by and, you know, usually it's someone from the, you know, someone from the town, some older person. You go, oh, who died? Who was it? A kid named Donny. He got killed in Iraq.
And you're going, oh, man. And you just - and that song, I was aware of it and it was written during the Civil War by a woman in Michigan as the Michigan soldiers marched off to, actually, in Gettysburg. And it just meant a lot to me. It was what little I could do for a kid like Donny who did so much for us.
GROSS: Jeff Daniels, it's really been great to talk with you. I wish you good luck with "The Newsroom" and thank you very much for talking with us.
DANIELS: Thank you, Terry. A pleasure.
GROSS: And Jeff Daniels stars in "The Newsroom." It premieres Sunday night on HBO. And here he is singing "Michigan, My Michigan." Thank you again.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MICHIGAN, MY MICHIGAN")
DANIELS: (Singing) Home of my heart, I sing of thee. Michigan, my Michigan. Thy lake-bound shores I long to see. Michigan, my Michigan. From Saginaw's tall whispering pines, from Lake Superior's farthest mines, therein the light of memory shines. Michigan, my Michigan. Thou gave thy sons without a sigh. Michigan, my Michigan. And sent thy bravest forth to die. Michigan, my Michigan.
DANIELS: (Singing) Beneath a hostile Southern sky they bore thy banner proud and high. Ready to fight and never to fly, Michigan, my Michigan. From Yorktown on to Richmond's wall, Michigan, my Michigan. They bravely fight as bravely fall. Michigan, my Michigan. Their strong arms crumble in the dust and their bright swords all have gathered rust. Their memory is our sacred trust. Michigan, my Michigan.
GROSS: "Michigan, My Michigan" is on Jeff Daniels' 2005 album "Live and Unplugged" to benefit the Purple Rose Theater. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.