Jeff Daniels on ‘The Newsroom’

The star of HBO’s newest drama speaks eloquently on his own, even without Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

The Television Critics Association panel for “The Newsroom” was understandably an Aaron Sorkin fest. Critics, writers and journalists had lots of questions for the creator of the series and voice of all the character.

However we wanted to hear from WIll McAvoy himself too, so after the panel we went up to Jeff Daniels on stage and joined a scrum of reporters. Daniels held court like a gracious pro and had plenty to say off the cuff, just as articulately as the Will McAvoy speeches Sorkin writes.


CraveOnline: When you disagree with Will, does that make it harder or juicier for you?

Jeff Daniels: No, you can’t disagree with a character. That’s one of the tricks. Like Squid and the Whale, did you see that? He was right. No, Bernard is right about everything. He didn’t wreck the marriage. He did. He’s got a great relationship with his kids and it’s a left handed desk, what’s your problem? That’s how you have to do it. That’s how you play killers. That’s how you play Bernard. That’s how you play Will. He knows he’s got issues but he’s right. I never disagree with him.

CraveOnline: Is Will McAvoy the role of a lifetime?

Jeff Daniels: It is. The creative challenge I have at 57-years-old. there are guys my age who are scrambling just to get a job anywhere. And to have Aaron Sorkin, one of the best we’ve got, tailoring a leading role for you at a network that is known for its creative support and freedom, it’s gold. It’s just gold.

CraveOnline: How hard is it to learn and deliver a Sorkin soliloquy?

Jeff Daniels: It’s no harder than learning a play. I think one of the smartest things they did, Francine Meisler did at casting was they cast theater people. So we’re not afraid of words, so we see this Sorkin-esque mountain range of dialogue and it’s going okay, we have to do our homework.

Usually it’s at least a week ahead or at least four or five days ahead, you’re getting it into your head. And then you work on it leading up to the day off and you’re always overlapping with the next episode, memorization on the next episode, memorization on the current episode, memorization of what we’re shooting today. It’s like cramming for an exam for seven months.

CraveOnline: Like the George Washington speech?

Jeff Daniels: Yeah, but I do three of those a week. But that’s the gig. You know with Aaron, that’s the gig. I have to make it look like it’s falling out of my head. I’m thinking this and then saying it and that’s part of the trick of what I’m trying to do with Will.

CraveOnline: You must’ve known this would be a controversial series. Was that part of the attraction?

Jeff Daniels: Yeah, look, you want Aaron Sorkin, whether you like his writing or not, you want Aaron Sorkin writing about something that’s important, that matters, that’s relevant. So you want him writing “West Wing.” You want him writing “Newsroom.” You want people to love it and you want people to hate it.

As strange as that may sound in this ego driven business, you want that kind of provocative reaction. You want that water cooler thing happening on Monday where the one guy’s going, “I hated it. It treats women horribly.” and the other is going, “No, not so much. They’re all just flawed human beings.” They’re having a discussion, not to mention the political, not to mention the newscasts.

So we love it. We knew going in it was not going to go unnoticed. Our job was to throw our best craft at it so that the acting, the directing and the writing would hold up. Then you just disagree or don’t like what it is. That’s okay. We love that.

CraveOnline: How has the first season changed the way you look at news?

Jeff Daniels: I know what they’re saying in their ears. I know that when they do, say, Sarah Palin and they take a certain slant on that, that their numbers will go up, that their base will like it. If they take a different slant on her, on MSNBC if they go negative on her, the base and the viewers are going to love it. They’ll see a spike go up. There’s a whole ratings vs facts [issue.]

When we did the premiere in New York in late June, before the Sunday premiere, we did a screening in New York and all the cable news folks came. Producers, “60 Minutes” producers, guys who’ve been in the field for 40 years, had a cocktail reception before.

And they said, “Well, we can’t really talk about it yet because you may just try to attack us, but I hope that the series deals with the fact that there are those of us who are in the business who are hanging onto the ideals of journalism and we fight for those important stories that aren’t necessarily another week of Casey Anthony. We fight those and we don’t always win and I hope the series is about that.”

And it is. And then they saw the premiere and they were all over me. It was quite something. I was very happy with the reaction of those guys because those guys really matter. We want them to feel that they’re represented.


CraveOnline: What were your thoughts on Jim Carey backing out of Dumb and Dumber 2?

Jeff Daniels: I understood why, because this has been a year and a half of a whole bunch of are we, aren’t we, what’s going on, yeah the script’s funny, no it’s not, now we have to have notes. So I think Jim just got frustrated and I completely got it.

I was frustrated too. We thought it was in pretty good shape. The studio and others wanted some more work done it. The Farrellys wanted more work done on it so they got working on it and I think last week they decided to push the shooting of it to next year, possibly because I wasn’t going to move “The Newsroom.”

CraveOnline: Is there still hope for it?

Jeff Daniels: Oh sure. Even more so now. Jim wants to do it. I want to do it. The Farrellys want to do it. They want to rewrite the script a little bit and they aren’t trying to jam it in before I have to go back and do “Newsroom” in November. So they’re going, “Why don’t we just do it right? Let’s get everybody organized to go next May or June.” If everything works out on the business side, that’s what we’ll do but I think there’s more hope than ever.

CraveOnline: How much fun is it to talk about Dumb and Dumber and the smartest show TV the next minute?

Jeff Daniels: Well, for an actor, a character actor, talk about Will McAvoy to Harry Dunne, A to Z in the range. I do hope someday that I’m the waiter at a restaurant when Harry Dunne and Will McAvoy have dinner. I want to serve them.

CraveOnline: Where are they going with the shrink and the bodyguard story?

Jeff Daniels: I’ve got a bodyguard and a shrink. I know where they’re going. Well, certainly just based on the last episode, they’re going deeper into Will, despite his resistance.

CraveOnline: Which makes reporting the news each day that much more difficult on the head?

Jeff Daniels: I wouldn’t say that. It’s more about the MacKenzie/Will, that’s kind of where the shrink is driving. But we’ve also got the death threat and we’ve also got the stress. It’s interesting, that was six, I know what seven is, I can’t remember eight, I barely remember nine and I think I know how 10 ends. I think it’s just the age, but you do so much, you don’t remember having shot any of it.

CraveOnline: Does the ring stay in the Tiffany box?

Jeff Daniels: There is a ring and there is a Tiffany box. That’s the best I can do for you.

CraveOnline: How much do you know about next season and will it deal with the election?

Jeff Daniels: The fact that he said he was thinking about the next season is as much information as I’ve gotten. I’m serious. Do we discuss? You have to give it up.

You can’t be one of these actors, especially on any TV series, but the way Aaron works, you can’t go, “I need to know what the next five episodes are about so I can do my backstory.” To hell with your backstory. This is life. Tomorrow’s a new day. We don’t know what it is. The next episode’s a new chapter in Will’s life. Just find out like everybody else. I kind of embraced that.

CraveOnline: Do you hope the election is part of the show?

Jeff Daniels: Do I want to see it? I don’t have a feeling either way. I really don’t care. I’ll say this. I look forward to seeing what Aaron does with it and what “News Night” does with it. He’ll find the stories in there that push the characters forward. I should back up.

I don’t know what he’s going to do. I really don’t know what he’s going to do and I really don’t – – I care but it’s such a – – it’s interesting. I’ve never done this on anything else, Emily [and I], we came to it together. You jump off the cliff and flap your arms and hope you fly. Aaron writes the same way. He’s a discovery writer. Elmore Leonard does this too. He wants to know what happens next so he types his way to it. There’s an outline, there are rewrites, but he writes his way towards finding out. He’ll sit there before eight and I’ll go, “How’s it going?” He’ll go, “Page five and I’m not quite sure yet.”

To write that way is exciting. To act that way. So I’ve decided [that] to act that way is exciting so every two weeks is like Christmas morning. You get the script and I find out what happens. I just find out four months before you do.


CraveOnline: Do you hope he incorporates the Aurora shooting?

Jeff Daniels: Having done Gabby Giffords, I would think that he would in season two. But it has to do with timelines and what his timeline is, and there are many, many, many stories out there that he’s going to choose from so I’m not in the writer’s room and I don’t have a producer’s credit which is fine with me.

CraveOnline: When a national news story does break, do you find yourself paying more attention to the process of how it’s covered?

Jeff Daniels: The process and the fill. Keeping that interview subject on the air. How do we keep the Colorado shooting thing alive for another week? They’ve got a lot of time to fill on cable news and sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they’re just filling time. They know it, I know it, I can see it and the viewers I think have an idea that it’s going on but having done the show I can see, when there’s breaking news, when it’s breaking right now this hour, that’s when these guys are really good.

On both sides of the aisle, the right and the left on cable news, they’re both on it. It’s when they start to have time to start to spin that it goes into columnists on the air for an hour which is okay. Then the problem I see is speculation becomes fact and that didn’t used to be.

Part of that problem is there’s so much time to fill, they’ve got another four minutes. “Jerry, you’re outside the Casey Anthony courthouse. We know you weren’t inside but can you tell us what you think might’ve happened?” “Well, I don’t want to speculate, but I think what might have happened was that…” And then they do because they’ve got to fill two minutes. And then now it’s reported as fact two hours later and everything gets distorted so I think they’re all fighting that. They don’t always win.

CraveOnline: Americans tend to confuse actors with who they’re playing, so what reaction have you gotten on the street?

Jeff Daniels: Not too badly. I mean, certainly Dumb and Dumber changed things as far as people recognizing me and they’re recognizing me I’ve found, to be honest, for a different reason. I think the ones who hate it, I haven’t heard too much from them, because it’s hard to hate somebody to his face. It’s easy when you have LollipopLollipop or something on the internet. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to do that.

But to be face to face, the most they’ll say is, “I kinda like your show.” And you know right then and that’s okay. That’s okay. I’ve got no problem with you. Have a good life then die. But it’s the 20somethings. It’s the people that love it that come across the street or across the store and go, “I love your show. I love what it says. Finally somebody is screaming into the wind.” It’s those people that you go, “Wow, we’re landing.”

CraveOnline: They don’t still mistake you for Jeff Bridges, do they?

Jeff Daniels: There’s less and less of that. Less and less of that. I pity Jeff because I know people have come up to him and told him how much they love him in the toilet scene in Dumb and Dumber. I apologize to Jeff Bridges.

CraveOnline: What led you to stop reading critics?

Jeff Daniels: Well, you can’t look for validation because you’ve already been validated. Whether it’s a Broadway play or whether it’s the director, whether it’s the producers, all the way to Aaron. It probably happened, I don’t know, 10 years in. You love it, you hate it. I’m confused. What am I supposed [to do?] If I’m looking for you for validation…

And it took me a long time to figure out that they’re not writing for me. And you have, as an actor, as an artist, you have to take the position that if you haven’t done it, then you have nothing to say to me. Maybe early on but once you’ve done it for decades, the ones that matter, aside from Aaron and Allen are Meryl Streep and Dustin.

When you’ve had Meryl Streep come into your dressing room at a Broadway play or Dustin Hoffman come off broadway to your dressing room in “Black Bird” and sit down and close the door and talked about what you did, that’s the review that matters. When Woody Allen says, “Tell him he’s good,” that’s the only review that matters. That probably was the turning point because if I’m good enough for Woody Allen in Purple Rose of Cairo, it doesn’t matter what the critics say.

And as a young actor, your’e cringing at the New York Times and you’re worried, do I have a job? You’re a human being. You can’t help but realize, “God, that guy just thought I sucked. He called me empty as a balloon, he called me this and that.” You remember those phrases and the only secret to it is you’ve got to do it both ways. You can’t read the bad ones and you can’t read the good ones. You have to know, and that’s very hard in the very insecure what have you done for me lately business, to have that kind of not arrogance, but confidence in everything you’ve ever learned to hit it.

And when you know you’ve hit it, to walk away from the set knowing you did the best you could. Jane Fonda, Jane called near the end of the season, she said she hadn’t been in a while and she was going to come back into the show and she goes, “How’s it going?” I said, “You know, nobody took an episode off. Everybody threw their best work at it every day which is hard work with Aaron because there’s so much dialogue and so little time. I can honestly say this is the best we’ve got. If people don’t like it, they don’t like the best we’ve got.” That’s all you can do.

CraveOnline: That Monday after the premiere, you kept away from every paper?

Jeff Daniels: Didn’t read ‘em. Didn’t google it. Didn’t care. My wife will read them. She’s instructed to only pull out phrases that are superlative. She is. She goes, “No, you don’t want to read this one.” And I go okay. And I’m not even because I already know. I already know. You have to. You have to. Otherwise you’re no good as an artist. Your’e no good season two because you’re so worried about [it.] You have to focus in on this is what I think it is and I hope you catch up. You have to have that attitude.

CraveOnline: Is this helping or hurting the Purple Rose theater or take you away from it?

Jeff Daniels: I spent 20 years at the theater and certainly once you do an Aaron Sorkin series you are pulled away in a way that the movies never did. The time, seven months a year out here, so the theater is running very, very well with my long distant relationship.

I still support it. I’m still involved but it is run completely buy Guy Sanville and other people. I supervise because it’s all I can do now but it’s probably, any time that I do something that brings notoriety, they look at the Purple Rose. For those who haven’t been, they might go.