The Tony-nominated actor discusses HBO’s The Newsroom, the necessity of being informed on current events and leaving the family business to become an actor.
Actor Jeff Daniels
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Jeff Daniels back to this program. The Golden Globe and Tony nominee is starring in his first regular TV series role in the new HBO drama “The Newsroom.” The 10-episode first season airs Sunday nights at 10:00 p.m., so here now, some scenes from “The Newsroom.”
Tavis: So I assume the goal was to get people talking, and if that was one of the goals, congratulations. (Laughter)
Jeff Daniels: Yes.
Tavis: Everybody is talking about this thing.
Daniels: They know we’re out there. (Laughter) Water coolers all over America are just – yeah.
Tavis: Are you actually feeling that or you’re being told that by your reps? Do you feel the conversation?
Daniels: We knew when we were shooting it. You’re reading this stuff, going, “Okay, this will not go unnoticed.”
Tavis: So how does it feel for you personally, because you have, for the last number of years, and I celebrate this about you, made some really good choices to do a lot of indie film? So you’ve done a number of those, and it can often at times lead to critical acclaim, but not everybody sees the indie work.
Daniels: Or no one, yeah. (Laughter) Yeah.
Tavis: I was trying to be generous.
Daniels: You succeeded admirably.
Tavis: Well, I saw it because I know to talk about it.
Tavis: But this is being seen and talked about by everybody, so how does that feel for you personally?
Daniels: Well, you’re right. The old indie scene, a lot of actors go into it because that’s where the writing is, and those stories that aren’t trying to play to the middle of the road.
So that’s the lure of indie films for me. But the problem with indie films, and I’ve been in a few, and even “Squid and the Whale,” which had a lot of success, but I was the dog and pony show. I was out there selling it because they just don’t have the kind of money that a studio or an HBO can put behind something that they believe in.
That’s the difference with “Newsroom,” is that not only do you have Aaron Sorkin and everything that he’s writing about, you want Aaron Sorkin writing about this country. That’s what we want Aaron Sorkin to do. But then you have distribution behind it so that you know people are going to see it.
Tavis: So we’re talking about the series in just a second here. Let me ask at the start here whether or not you’re already tired of the grueling schedule of a show like this.
Daniels: This isn’t – it’s grueling only in that you have to be available to talk about a lot. What’s hard is talking about a piece of crap. (Laughter) That’s what’s hard.
You get a mediocre film that you’re being rolled out – that’s hard. That’s exhausting. This, the show matters, it will provoke people, it will cause people to talk about it the whole week after it airs on a Sunday night, so I’m okay talking about it.
You want art to question. You want art to provoke and challenge, and Aaron has done that.
Tavis: I don’t think anyone, whether they liked it or loathed it, has not agreed with your assessment that the show does matter or that the show can matter, once it develops over time.
But when you say the show matters, I wonder what you mean by that specifically, because it may be different than what the rest of us think when we say it matters.
Daniels: Well, we’ve shot 10 episodes. We’ve shot the season, so I know where we’re going. I think what this does to a lot of people out there on the right, on the left, is engage them. Maybe make them talk about the same thing.
Then there’s this whole group of people out there who are no longer engaged, who don’t care, who have thrown up their hands about politics, about government, about media, about issues. They’re just going, “I don’t get it. I don’t know. Long as I can watch my sports, I’m okay.”
So I think what Aaron does so well and what some people had a problem with, is that he does come at it from, like, a romantic comedy kind of aspirational, big ideas, smart people trying to do big things and succeeding and failing. That’s great storytelling.
It’s not an accident that the Don Quixote metaphor is in there. So this was never intended to be a documentary. We’re fictional, last time I looked, so I think it engages people, it brings people around, and at least gets them talking about the same – maybe even talking about something they haven’t even thought about or avoided thinking about.
Tavis: So you’re not bothered, then, by those who think that it is – again, we’ve only seen one episode and you’ve seen all 10 – but you’re not bothered by those who think it’s too unrealistic; put another way, too idealistic?
Daniels: No, that’s what he – he’s unabashedly saying it is swashbuckling, it is idealistic. What was interesting, too, because we – that’s what “West Wing” felt like. It’s this kind of grand, big idea. It’s almost, you could almost turn it into a musical.
Aaron’s world is musical theater, and he comes from that kind of aspirational writing style. So I think it’s – no, that’s kind of what we kind of wanted to – we did a screening in New York for a lot of TV journalists, so the who’s who of on the East Coast, and we had guys, “Forty years I’ve been a producer, and I’ll talk to you after the show.”
“I’ve been a correspondent on ’60 Minutes,’ and good to see you. I’ll talk to you after the show.” A lot of those guys came up and said, “I hope the series focuses on the idealism, the ideals of journalism, that kind of quest, because we fight that fight every day.” I said, “It does. Over the 10 episodes, it does.”
Tavis: See, there’s a story – you’ve been doing the media rounds so you probably haven’t seen this yet. Your people, I’m sure, have a copy of it. But there was a story today in “The New York Times,” David Carr’s piece, as I recall. I read it this morning, and he and others are going to do the same thing, of course, in the weeks ahead, I suspect.
He takes the series and tries to frame it in a real-world way, and so obviously the connect to him is to CNN. So he goes into this long story about CNN and tries to draw some parallels, so that if – and I’m advancing beyond his story now – but that if we really wanted news, if we wanted hard news, he makes the case in the piece and others have made the case that CNN might be doing a little better.
So apparently, where the show is taking us, as best I can tell, may not be where Americans really want to go. Do we want real news?
Daniels: Exactly, and this isn’t an attack on TV journalism. First of all, the fact that a guy like David Carr’s writing about it after the fact –
Tavis: It’s a big deal.
Daniels: It’s a big deal. But America has to pay attention. They have to wake up; they have to want more information. They have to get information. They have to become informed instead of sitting back on their couch, belching.
Tavis: But there’s no evidence that there’s a craving for that.
Daniels: No. No, there’s a craving for reality TV, there’s a craving for scandal, over which Aaron deals with a little bit over the first season, and certainly sex sells.
So the guys who are in there, the guys who are fighting for those ideals of journalism, are going, “Yeah, I know, I know, I know, but let’s do this story about this issue and really try to give the American public more information about something that isn’t a scandal, that isn’t in the news today and let’s just keep flogging a dead horse.”
So that fight is always going on, and the people are really trying to fight the fight. You’re right. Do people want to hear it? I think Aaron’s point is you should. You should change your lifestyle a little bit and get a little – try to be as informed as possible. I think we’re guilty of disengaging.
Tavis: Do you think a television show, even a hugely popular television show, can impact real-life discourse about news, how we deliver it and how we digest it?
Daniels: It certainly can – if it does what it did to me in shooting it, I came out of it with a greater appreciation of all you guys, then on the cable news guys, the right and the left. I have this appreciation for that fighting speculation versus fact and double confirmation of a fact. I know what they’re saying in their ear, I know probably what happened at the morning meeting and how there are a lot of these guys who are fighting for that harder story, that more complicated story, and maybe the numbers are telling us we’ve got to stay with the scandal.
I have a greater appreciation for everything these guys are doing, and this isn’t an attack on – it’s more of a not love letter, but a tribute to those inside all that who fight the fight every day.
Tavis: So you know what Neil is saying about you right now, then?
Daniels: I do, yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: I don’t wear an earpiece. That was just a joke.
Daniels: Oh, wow.
Tavis: Yeah, I don’t wear one of those things.
Daniels: Well, then like I said, I’m fictional, so. (Laughter) What do I know?
Tavis: The casting on this – again, I’m no casting expert here, I’m just a viewer. But when I watched this thing I thought it was brilliantly – whoever the casting person is, congratulations – brilliantly cast, from the young producers, obviously to you, to your EP. And Sam Waterston, this guy, (laughter) he was phenomenal last night.
Daniels: He was.
Tavis: He’s amazing.
Daniels: He is. I’ve known Sam since the ’70s, early ’80s. We did a play together in New York way back when. Great guy. Longevity. The guy’s had a career these last decades, you love those guys. I want to be one; I am one of those guys.
So when Sam was brought in as Charlie Skinner, my boss, I’m going, “Perfect. That couldn’t be more perfect.” (Laughter) He’s so delightful, and the fact that more often than not the character of Charlie Skinner’s probably had a (makes noise) couple of pops before he walked into the newsroom.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Daniels: It just has an element of – Tom Sadoski and I just shake our heads. We have a big argument in the hallway in the pilot, and Sam’s a part of it, and it was tough. After takes would get done, we’d just – I can’t look at Sam during the take, because he’s so good and so funny in that particular scene.
Tavis: That was a great scene. All the critics love Jeff Daniels and how you’re playing this particular character, no matter what they may think of the series. How did this happen for you?
Daniels: I’d been chasing television for about a year or so and –
Tavis: You were chasing television?
Daniels: Yeah, yeah, because that’s, again, the indie films were kind of – I was getting tired of really working hard on movies that no one would see, eventually, and it was so tough with distribution. I said I need to be in things people see.
But also, this whole network think of HBO and others who are – that’s where the writers seem to be, and you look at all these shows, like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” and “Homeland” and “Veep” and stuff, that’s where the writers are.
So I want to be around good writing. “Squid and the Whale” kind of drove that decision. I said, “Where’s the good writing? I’ll go.” Any actor will tell you that’s where you want to go.
All of a sudden, last year, February, we get wind of this Aaron Sorkin cable news thing, and we chased it and he was busy winning the Oscar for “Social Network,” and so in March I met with him and I just, I said, “Aaron, I want to do this. I really want to do this.”
You look at it, I tell my agent now, I said, “It’s as if I said a year and a half ago, let’s do television, but I need – get me Aaron Sorkin, get me HBO because of the creative freedom. Don’t go to Aaron yet. Let’s wait for him to win an Oscar.” (Laughter) “Then go to him, and I need to star in it. Get me that.” And they did.
Tavis: What an agent.
Daniels: Good agent. (Laughter)
Tavis: When you say that one of the things you like about HBO is the creative freedom, tell me more about that. I ask that not as a shout-out to HBO – we have enough of their people on this program – but there is obviously something happening there, given the stuff that they keep putting out and the fact that it keeps resonating.
Daniels: It’s not just HBO, but it’s what the best in the business do. I can go back over films I’ve done, directors like Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme, Woody, others who – Clint Eastwood, George Clooney. I remember doing Clint’s movie and then going to George on “Good Night and Good Luck.”
They hire really good people and then put them in a situation and then stand back. They’re in there to guide a little bit and help, but let’s get the best people we can get, put them in a room and ask them what do they need.
That’s what HBO does. That’s what the Clints do and the Robert Altmans and all those guys. Woody would do that in “Purple Rose of Cairo.” Let’s get really good people and then – Arthur Miller said when he wrote his plays, he goes, “I look forward to seeing what my work inspires in others.”
When you have that kind of creative home like you do with an HBO, that only makes a guy like Aaron Sorkin want to write better, or me act better. To work harder leading up to the day you’re shooting. It’s very inspiring, and it’s an ideal. It’s aspirational, God forbid.
Tavis: Speaking of Jonathan Demme, I think it’s this Friday Demme is a guest on this program. This coming Friday night we will have a conversation with Jonathan Demme. He’s got two very –
Daniels: Oh, yeah, Jonathan Demme was one of the – I love Jonathan because he could have $100 million or he could have $100, he’d have the same enthusiasm and the same energy towards a film.
Tavis: I love that about him, and that’s why he’s on the program this Friday night. Are you a news junkie? Would you say you’re a news junkie?
Daniels: I think I kind of became a news junkie around 2000, that presidential election. I kind of became immersed in the 24/7 of it all through primaries and things like that. So yeah, I am
. I also, having done the show now, I can kind of see how they’re feeling, how they’re kind of waiting for the next breaking news alert, and it’s different than when we had Walter Cronkite way back when, where it was 6:00 to 6:30, and that was it. Now it’s all day long. I’m a bit of a junkie to a point, and then I have to sleep. (Laughter)
Tavis: I don’t know that this ever is the case, because he obviously is such a great writer, but when you look at the script and there’s something that Sorkin has written that you think ought to be tweaked or changed, one, does that happen, and two, how do you say that to Aaron Sorkin?
Daniels: Very quietly, and usually through someone else. (Laughter) A lot of layers in between so it can’t be traced back.
Tavis: Right. (Laughter)
Daniels: No, here’s the deal, and this comes from having done theater, and it speaks also to the cast. They were very smart to cast theater people who could handle that dialogue and know that when the writing comes in, that’s what you do. That’s what you learn, every word.
It’s not restrictive, it’s very liberating, in a way, because oh, what, I don’t have to write it? I don’t have to paraphrase, I don’t have to come up with some kind of better joke here like you would if you’re on a movie where it’s kind of been written by a lot of people, some of whom aren’t even writers?
You don’t have that problem here. You have a singular voice saying, “This is what you say,” and Aaron will tell you, and rightfully so, if you know your words you’ll be much happier with your performance. So go learn the words.
There’s a rhythm to it, like all the great writers all the way back to Shakespeare. There’s a rhythm to Mamet, to Lanford Wilson, to Aaron Sorkin, and once you get Aaron going and up to pace, it’s almost like music for an actor. You can feel the rhythm of it.
So I find it a huge relief to just get handed the script, thank you very much, and my job is to throw it against the lens and then let him make the decision about whether it’s right or wrong.
Tavis: So there’s a rhythm to it, but I don’t know that I’ve ever talked to any actor, and I’ve talked to many over the course of these years who’ve worked with Sorkin, who has not had something to say about these – the litany, the massive number of walk-and-talk scenes.
You seem to have mastered that, but what are your thoughts about the walking and talking that Sorkin loves so much?
Daniels: First of all, being an anchorman I’m usually behind a desk when I’m having those arias, so the walking is done. That’s okay. I look at it as an action sequence, and in a way it’s kind of like a verbal car chase, it really is. When you’ve got two guys, maybe three, coming around the corner, all talking, overlapping each other, that can be very exciting and very compelling.
It’s word-for-word. We’re not making anything up, and when we interrupt, we’re coming right in on where we’re supposed to come in, and we’re not adding four other words. There is a precision to that that when you do it properly can be very compelling and exciting to watch. It’s kind of like an action sequence.
In “Speed” I’d come around the corner with a gun and go, “Look out!.” Cut, lunch. That would be it. (Laughter) But not with Aaron.
Tavis: How does the – this is my word, not yours, but how does the euphoria that I expect that you’re feeling right now compare to the euphoria, that high you get being on the stage?
Daniels: It is different. The stage is different because you have your opening night and it should be this wonderful, incredible celebration, but you still have to do it. You still have to kind of show them that oh, by the way, this is why we’re all celebrating ourselves here.
But you’ve got to deliver the goods, and then you’ve got to deliver them eight times a week to prove that if they tell you good things you have to prove them right for eight shows, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
What I love about this, the whole television series thing, is that in the first season we have a 10-hour movie. In my world, it’s a 10-hour movie, and that’s 10 hours to tell a whole story, or at least a season one story. It’s like chapters of a novel all the way through.
So the euphoria of last night’s premiere, I was telling my agent today, I said, “What’s cool is six days from now, there’s another one.” There’s a whole other one, and I know what’s coming, so I’m – it’s a cool thing to kind of have, in my world, a movie opening every seven days.
Tavis: What’s the benchmark of success on this project for you?
Daniels: Aside from provocative and people talking about things and with each other they haven’t done so for a long time, that would be the whole general thing.
Personally as an actor, and this goes every time, is that you want to do it in a way that is definitive. The biggest compliment I think an actor can get is I can’t imagine anyone else in the role, and that’ll take some time over the season, and I hope other seasons, that I can’t imagine anybody else – I can’t’ imagine anybody else doing what Marty Sheen did in “West Wing.”
There are performances like that – Meryl in “Sophie’s Choice” and others. They’re definitive. You eliminate anyone else, and that’s tough to do in a very competitive business with a lot of great actors out there, but if I started to hear that, especially from peers down the road, I’d be very happy.
Tavis: Speaking of peers and those who’ve had a long track record, to your earlier point, you’re getting there now. You’ve got a few years under your belt in this business.
Daniels: Thank you.
Tavis: I was just – (laughter).
Daniels: Thank you.
Tavis: I was just –
Daniels: Seventy-ninth birthday next week. Thank you very much. (Laughter)
Tavis: I was just reading in our research for this conversation last night that next year, 30 years since “Terms?”
Daniels: 1983, was it? Yeah.
Tavis: Thirty years next year.
Tavis: When was the last time you saw that?
Daniels: Oh, I haven’t seen that in years.
Tavis: In 30 years?
Daniels: Actually, I just got Twitted – and that is a word, I think – Twitted by Jim Brooks, (laughter) which was very exciting. But no, usually any movie of mine that comes on I go, “Oh, great, that’s terrific,” and I usually leave the room, and the kids go, “Dad, you were young.” “Yes. Yes, I was. Yes, I was.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Speaking of the kids, who were raised in Michigan, have you heard anything from the guys at the lumberyard yet about the premiere?
Daniels: No. No – a couple of them, yeah. (Laughter) I have –
Tavis: We should explain that joke, the guys at the lumberyard.
Daniels: My dad and brother run a lumber company back in Michigan, and I used to work there in summers. I would deliver cement, drywall, things with wood. I’m the oldest son. You would think that I would be taking the business over.
But there was absolutely no – nothing stuck. I cannot tell you how they built that, I don’t know, I don’t care. (Laughter) So that became very evident, and when I – it was ’76 when I said, “I think I’m going to move to New York, be an actor,” Dad was like, “Good, good.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Well, it worked out.
Daniels: It worked out okay.
Tavis: It worked out.
Daniels: Worked out okay.
Tavis: It’s working out extremely well right about now. The new show is called “Newsroom,” starring Jeff Daniels, of course, on HBO on Sundays, and I can’t wait until this weekend to see what this next episode brings. I’m loving it, so you got one fan here.
Daniels: Thank you, Tavis, appreciate it.
Tavis: Good to see you, Jeff, good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. As always, thanks for watching. Until next time, keep the faith.
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