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Jeff Daniels on getting in character to play Atticus Finch

Small-town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the most recognizable characters in American literature. In the recent Broadway update of the classic American story, actor Jeff Daniels plays Finch. Jeffrey Brown talks to Daniels, who received a Tony nomination for the role, about how he got into character for it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now: A new look for a classic American story is captivating audiences on Broadway.

    It's Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," reimagined for the stage by Aaron Sorkin.

    Actor Jeff Daniels, who stars as Atticus Finch, recently told "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert the play is like a right hook to the chin of white Americans.

    Earlier this year, Jeffrey Brown sat down with Daniels to discuss his approach to the role.

    It's part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

  • Jeff Daniels:

    Always remember, it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.

    What do I do after this, really, you know? I mean, this is not the role where you're on the phone to your agent going, get me out of this. Get me out.

    This is not that.

    The first thing you have to do is all the work to get ready for tonight. In this case, it's been two years. If you haven't done all that preparation, all that memorization, all that study, all that — the hard work of creating and failing and missing, you have to have done all that, so that you can throw it all away.

    And then you walk out. And I just look for simple little feels. He's not me.

    I had it when I was a boy.

    I love the fact that I'm not Atticus Finch. But I got to get it. It's whatever you can do to trick yourself into thinking you're him. And it's — it's really just pretend, make-believe for adults. It's no more complicated than that.

    So I get the suit on. And that's a suit I would never wear.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

    So that's immediately not you.

  • Jeff Daniels:

    And it feels different. So let it feel different.

    The glasses, take a look yourself in the mirror with those glasses. And then how would he stand? And he's — and I think of words. And these are just words that have come through my head that helped me get to there. It's upright, upstanding. There's the right way. And there are all the other ways.

    You go out before that closing argument. You have been — you can just feel yourself change, where you just — you stand up straighter. And there's a thoughtfulness.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You just move your chin…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    … too.

  • Jeff Daniels:

    Yes. There's a thing that happens.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Mannerisms like that?

  • Jeff Daniels:

    Like, there he is. He's right there.

    Now it's like you're inside the suit, inside the guy. And then when it works best, you don't do anything more than that. And then the show starts, and you walk out. And you let him walk you out. You let him take you.

    And you're out there going, remember that cue, and you got to cross here and all that. And that — but that becomes like a voice over here. And then you kind of know it. And when its best is when you get lost, and you're out there in the Mayella testimony, and you're banging on this girl who just lied to you on the stand. And you don't let up.

    And you forget the audience. You have to forget the audience. And it's just you and the other actor. That's — and it's Atticus. And next thing you know, you're done with that scene, and you don't remember doing it.

    And it's not because you have done it 170 times. It's because you were in it. And that's — that's when you know you were someone else.

    You saw him. You heard him. That wasn't a slip of the tongue. Tom Robinson said exactly what he meant. In fact, he said it twice. Because he forgot his place, because he forgot who he was, what he was?

    No, because he remembered. A man will have his dignity.

    It's stage first, audience second, which isn't necessarily Broadway. Broadway is audience first, I'm going to come at you with…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    … to the audience.

  • Jeff Daniels:

    … my performance, chicken wings. I'm going to — here I am. Here I am. And I'm also going to do the — talk to the actor I'm in the scene with.

    I'm the opposite. I'm right here. You just happen to be — you might want to lean in, because I'm not really going to come to you very much.

    We said early on, we want to pull them in. We don't want to go to them. We want to pull them into our world. And the style of acting in "Mockingbird" lends itself to that.

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