Jeff Daniels discusses his Tony-nominated role as Atticus Finch in the Aaron Sorkin adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on Broadway. He describes the intense preparation that goes into workshopping characters like Finch, and what makes a great performance. Some of Daniels’ film and TV roles include “The Newsroom,” “Dumb and Dumber,” “The Squid and the Whale,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “The Looming Tower,” and “Godless.”
Josh Hamilton: Hi, I’m Josh Hamilton.
Joe Skinner: And I’m Joe Skinner.
Josh Hamilton: And this is the American Masters Podcast, where we have conversations with the people who change us. This week, we talk to actor Jeff Daniels.
Jeff Daniels: You gotta be smarter than the critics. And you gotta be in a place where you can supposedly look out at them and go, “keep up. I know this better than you do, because I’ve done the work.” If you haven’t done the work, and you do that, then it’s just ego. Then you want some… write-me-up, say I’m brilliant, so I can enjoy all the fame and fortune that comes with playing a role. You gotta earn it.
Josh Hamilton: To many, Jeff Daniels is known for his performance as the dim-witted Harry Dunne, in the buddy comedy Dumb and Dumber, and on television for his Emmy-winning turn as news anchor, Will McAvoy, in The Newsroom. But beyond these touchstone roles, Daniels has built an incredible body of work in film, television and theater.
Joe Skinner: He’s collaborated with an outstanding line-up of acclaimed directors, including masters like Milos Forman, Woody Allen, James L. Brooks and Jonathan Demme. And right now, he’s up for a Tony award for Best Actor in a Play for his role as Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Josh Hamilton: The stage has always been a big part of Daniels’ life. He was first discovered while acting at a young age in school theater programs in Michigan, and came to New York to work at the Circle Repertory Company. In 1985, he had a breakout role in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, and though always busy in New York and Hollywood, his connection to the Midwest never went away. In 1991, he founded the Purple Rose Theater Company in Chelsea, Michigan, where he still resides today. Joe recently had a chance to sit down with Daniels to talk about his influences and his approach to acting on stage and screen.
Joe Skinner: You know, when I reminisce on my time in Michigan as a young boy I think of landmarks like camping along sand dunes. Do you have any kind of specific memories like that growing up in Michigan?
Jeff Daniels: Oh specific memories… Tigers Stadium. The lakes – not the Great Lakes so much but the inland lakes. A lot like Minnesota. My dad had a Hobie – cat -16 feet on a lake that you know really was just big enough. You’d put it up on one pontoon and you were across the lake pretty quickly. But he loved it. And Summers in Michigan. Bob Seger. Yeah.
Joe Skinner: Was there anything about your home life in particular that you think kind of impacted the decision to become an actor when you were a young kid?
Jeff Daniels: Nothing about living in Michigan. Becoming an actor, having that side, that kind of creativity and that imagination that if you tap it it’s like a geyser, you can be from anywhere. My dad was a life of the party. Very serious, well-respected guy but he’d have his card games you know with the couples from around town and I’d hear him telling a story to the entire group. And it was a long story and he had him cracking up. He was always kind of an entertainer in a very kind of you know small town way and I either have that in me or I saw that and said, “What is that?” And then when I got on a stage at 16, 17, and a high school musical I knew what to do. Maybe because I’d seen it.
Joe Skinner: Between Atticus Finch right now on To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway and a character like Bernard in Noah Baumbach’s Squid and The Whale, there are these explorations of those kinds of father figures. Do you think this has drawn you to that role? This experience with your own father in any way?
Jeff Daniels: No, no, it’s – I have three kids. It’s just what’s on the other end of the phone when the agent calls, and it’s a father, and you know OK. No, Harry Dunne wasn’t a father in Dumb and Dumber. Didn’t have a father. Didn’t have a mother. He just kind of appeared.
Joe Skinner: You think he ever became a father later on in life?
Jeff Daniels: Harry Dunne?
Joe Skinner: Yeah.
Jeff Daniels: No that would take… He would have to have some understanding of how to have sex.
Joe Skinner: You know your theater company is called Purple Rose. Why did you decide on that name?
Jeff Daniels: Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo was a huge turning point for me. One, to pull off for Woody as a great filmmaker and just as an actor, you just didn’t want to get fired. You wanted to come through, and it was a turning point. That was the movie when it came out, that’s when I knew I could make a living in this business, because if I was good enough for Woody I was good enough for anybody. I literally like you know a month after the movie came out I met with Mike Nichols on Heartburn and I said to him, “Do you want me to read?” And he goes, “Good enough for Woody Allen.” Okay. All right. So that’s… it was a turning point. I was 30 I’d been at it for about nine years and I had a two year old boy at the time and I just thought I’m gonna be able to make a living at this business, because of reaching this level with this kind of filmmaker. I didn’t think I was gonna be a star. I think I’m gonna be able to make a living at this business. So when it came time to move back to Michigan and came time to name a building that I bought and name the theater, I didn’t want to put my name on it so I put the movie that meant a lot.
Joe Skinner: So on the website for the company I saw that part of its mission is to define the Midwestern voice. How do you define the collective Midwestern voice?
Jeff Daniels: I have no idea what that is, I guess I’m looking for it. I guess I am that maybe it’s… We don’t suffer fools. We’re very direct. You know Hemingway was… I don’t know if he qualifies as Midwestern but he spent time in Traverse City I think, he was very direct. There’s a no B.S. kind of attitude. You know you hear the word brilliant a lot. I remember my parents would be around some of the art types you know, nobody ever does mediocre work or they always do brilliant work. It’s brilliant. It’s incomparable. My dad would go, “Is everything brilliant where you work?” No, no it’s not. They just say it is. So there is this kind of clearing of the air that I guess I’m looking for. There’s a simplicity to it. The voice, the writing that we’ve done at the theater. I guess that’s it. I’m not quite sure.
Joe Skinner: You think that’s similar to how you approach acting too?
Jeff Daniels: Yeah. I’ve been reading books. Alec Guinness. I read a book written by Jason Robards. You know his work on the O’Neill plays. To see if there’s a commonality with this approach I have, which is research the hell out of it and then forget all of it, or put it in the back of your mind. And what is the simplest way you can go into a scene? Robards did this a lot. And I got it at Circle Rep, Marshall W. Mason taught me this. It’s, what are your given circumstances? And in Atticus Finch in Mockingbird, different from the movie and the book, the point of view in both those things were from an 8-year-old girl looking up at this ideal, this Mount Rushmore of a father. And in the play we take the simple approach of, he’s a small town lawyer who gets paid in vegetables. He handles foreclosures and land disputes, can write a will. One day the judge walks over and wants him to take this case for a Black man who has been wrongfully accused of raping a white girl. He’s 100 percent innocent and if you don’t take it he’ll go to jail for 18 years. Then that decision changes this small town lawyer’s life. How simple can you make it and then jump off the cliff and try to fly?
Joe Skinner: What do you think makes audiences so enamored with this story for so long? I think people have been enamored with To Kill a Mockingbird when the book first came out, when the movie came out, and clearly now with the Broadway run.
Jeff Daniels: Well one, it’s beautifully written. Her prose. The story itself. Usually you get to the end of that trial and he’s innocent. And he gets off and there’s a happy ending. There isn’t a happy ending. And I think back then in the early 60s when the book and the movie came out and now with the play, there’s this disconnect with white America, of what the Black experience has been and is still in this country. And the book and movie speak to that. The play makes them feel it. It isn’t the same but it’s certainly… You can’t go through what Tom Robinson goes through or the African-American goes through in this country. More or less. But you can lock the doors of a theater and shut the doors of a theater and put 1400 people in a room and when they say that he’s guilty and he’s going to the electric chair, people are crying, and it’s different than the movie and the book for some reason. And it’s a wakeup call for white America. You get to feel it. You get to feel what it’s like. You get to see it, you’re in the room with it. When it happens. And white people did this and you’re watching what white people are doing and what they did, and what they’re still doing… Some of them. And that affects people. And that stays with people, white people. And they leave this story, and it’s not just a really good story and a nice thing for Boo Radley. It’s bigger than that. It’s stronger than that. It’s more powerful than that. And especially in 2019. And I think from the play’s standpoint, they’re seeing this this beloved story in a whole new way. Still ends the same, still has the same people, but the impact of it, because it’s on a stage in a theater and they’re in the room with it, they come away from it a little differently.
Joe Skinner: Is there anything in particular that you felt was really important in trying to approach the character different in 2019, in 2018, versus you know 40 years ago?
Jeff Daniels: Well Aaron Sorkin who wrote the play based on the book, made some wonderful decisions on the arc of Atticus. You know he’s the one who has to change. He doesn’t change in the book and the movie, Scout does. She loses her innocence. But Atticus has to go from, you know like Trump said, there are good people on both sides. Atticus’ version of that is there’s goodness in everyone, you just have to care enough to look for it. Even Bob Ewell, the racist who does what he does to Tom Robinson and his daughter. The man has dignity, it’s just this general rule of human nature that Atticus is clinging to. And Aaron Sorkin kind of puts that under the spotlight and challenges that, certainly after the trial ends and it doesn’t go… And these white jurors put this 100% innocent black man not only in jail but in the electric chair. And Atticus’ belief in the better angel of other people coming forward in the end is not only challenged but shattered.
Joe Skinner: To me it feels like family is such a big part of the play too. How did the characters within Atticus’ family react to this differently in this approach to the play?
Jeff Daniels: He becomes a bit of a man on an island. Scout I think kind of loves her father and goes along and cares about him and when he hurts and when he’s in pain, when he realizes that maybe his bad lawyering, or he’s not a criminal lawyer, he handles land disputes… I mean he gets in over his head and he gets outmaneuvered by Gilmer the other lawyer, and she feels for him. His son Jem wants him to fight. Wants him to go after that lawyer, wants him to go after Bob Ewell. Calpurnia, a member of the family, has a voice in the play, unlike the movie and the book. They have a brother-sister relationship, Atticus and Calpurnia. And she calls him on things. She speaks up. “That’s not how it is Atticus, you have to do this, you have to do that.” And he said, “No I don’t.” Well you’re going to learn. He’s got to get it past Calpurnia. And he doesn’t always get it past Calpurnia. So they can in a way see it coming before he does. He believes one member of this 12-person jury is going to go, “You know what? I have a conscience. The guy’s innocent. I’ve always been, ‘Black people should be on that side of the town and white people on this,’ oh I’m gonna vote he’s innocent,” And now he’s innocent. 12 out of 12 said guilty. And in the end a lot of the family members around Atticus, without saying it, are going, “I told you so. Welcome to human nature.”
Joe Skinner: I do think there’s a lot more flaw, or imperfection that’s explored with the character. Were these active choices you were making during the workshopping?
Jeff Daniels: It’s in the writing. And you kind of… The best way I’ve found is to go face first into the wall, you know. I call it sprinting into the wall face first, and you sprint into the conflict of the scene or the play, especially Atticus, he believes what he believes and that’s it. “I believe in being respectful. End of story. Don’t talk to me anymore. I don’t care.” And then Calpurnia says no matter who you disrespect by doing it, and then she walks out of the room. She has the last word. So it’s a constant battle for him.
Joe Skinner: And now, I don’t know the exact number, but well over 100 performances into the show I’m sure by now-
Jeff Daniels: 230. Or 230 tonight, not that I’m counting and I’m not. I’m just fascinated by the fact that we’ve done this 229 times and we’re gonna do it again and it’s still, we do a really good job on this show of staying in the present. We’re very aware of the 229, and the five months that are left in the run for me. It’s not a burden. All we have is tonight. You don’t feel the 229, you just feel the one tonight. And if I can keep hanging onto that, which so far so good, then it will continue to be a joy. It will never become a burden, and it shouldn’t. You’re playing Atticus Finch on Broadway. You get to do it for a year. You don’t have to do it for a year. And I’m kind of fascinated to see where I am mentally with it, whether I’m tapped out or still learning near the end of the run this fall. Brian Dennehy is a friend of mine and I saw him the other day and he did Death of a Salesman for two years. He said, “Oh yeah I’ve done… I did O’Neill for over a year.” I mean he was just rattling them off. So that’s what the old boys used to do. Henry Fonda and Mr. Roberts and Lee J. Cobb. They all stuck around for a year. So I’m trying to do that and I’m interested to see how it feels. Later in the run. So far so good.
Joe Skinner: How has your approach to the character evolved over this time?
Jeff Daniels: You simplify. You don’t need as much to go into him as you walk on stage, to become him. To think like Atticus is thinking in between the lines. There’s no stress. The critics have come and gone. We’re a hit. So you don’t have to worry about whether you’re a hit or not. You don’t have to worry about whether you’re going to still be here this summer because we’re selling tickets in September and it’s May. So the stress is gone. So now it’s just the focus on the work. And it’s the details. You get 230 shows into something, everybody on our stage is like a surgeon. It’s very precise, it’s very detail-oriented. If somebody fluffs one syllable in a line, everybody hears it. All 24 of us go. Woop. Woop. Woop. And I’ve done that. I’ve just gone suddenly where I don’t know what I’m saying. And Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays a Scout, said, and it is a trick, “You can screw up a line. And you will continue on like you meant it exactly to be said that way. And the audience nods and goes, ‘I don’t know what he said but it made perfect sense,’ because you act like it makes perfect sense. You just plow through.” And she’ll look at me and I’ll look at her and go, “I know. I know. I’ll fix it tomorrow.”
Joe Skinner: Do you have a specific line that you can remember that happening with?
Jeff Daniels: I had one. It’s just a Sorkin thing, sometimes he can write stuff that – you know you got to warm up. You got to get your lips going. You got to be able to get that diction going so that you’re not marble mouth, or you get mud in your mouth. You’ve got to be precise. And he has several lines that are just, not tongue twisters, but you can trip and fall. There’s a line. Bob Ewell says, “Do you think you’re race, is that something you want to fight for?” Sure, but so far my race has been surviving relatively effortlessly. And one night I walked out and said, “Sure, but so far my race is surviving relatively effortless-less-less-less-ly. It just wouldn’t… And a woman in the front went row went, “Oh God.” You’re just going… I don’t know. Maybe it had too many effs in it. I don’t know. It’s just… We were tired that week.
Joe Skinner: Well you know that seems like one of the challenges with Sorkin.
Jeff Daniels: It’s a challenge of any play. But Aaron he is such a word magician that you got to get on top of that stuff to kind of ride it. You’re riding a rapids and you’re moving pretty quickly when you’re going through a Sorkin thing so it doesn’t take much to, if you’re not paying attention you can trip yourself up.
Joe Skinner: Do you have a preshow ritual?
Jeff Daniels: Yeah. I mean it’s not too elaborate. I spend time vocally getting ready so that I can… You know to do eight shows a week you gotta treat your voice like a singer would. So there’s a chest voice, there’s a head voice, there’s the nasal cavity, that’s where you want it to land. It’s like an echo chamber. Anywhere else except the throat. Even though we’re mic’d and can kind of bring the volume down and let the sound guys send it around the theater. It allows us to have more variation in how we say the lines. But it’s still, you’ve got to take care of yourself. You got to take care of your voice. So I warmed the voice up, I try to eat right. I gotta sleep. I gotta sleep. You find time to sleep. You have to have sleep before you walk out and do Aaron Sorkin. There’ve been times when I just couldn’t get to it. And man it’s pushing a boulder uphill. If you’ve got sleep and you’ve got the rest. Then you’re on top of it. Now you’re dancing on top of it, which is which is where you want to be after 200 plus shows.
Joe Skinner: Do you have a different sort of ritual for acting in film?
Jeff Daniels: I’ll warm the voice up to a degree, certainly the diction, you know film you can mumble and you’re a genius. So that’s different. It’s just a whole different animal, getting ready to do it today. And today’s the only day you get to do it. The only day you have to do it. You know The Newsroom speech for the Northwestern kids was… Shot that in a day, never had to do it again. Wasn’t required to do it again. I could forget it. Hit the delete button. Where this… Every night. You’ve got to do that closing argument every night and you got to make it look like it’s happening for the first time every night. Making it look like it happens for the first time, and in front of a camera where it often happens for the first time, that’s the biggest difference. And embracing that kind of, “I don’t quite know how this take is going to go.” Action. And then bouncing off the other actor. That’s the joy of film for me. And then letting them figure it out in the editing room, which take they like best, but just using the takes to kind of make it different, five different ways. Where the stage is, “How do I make it look like it’s happening for the first time tonight after 229 shows?” And there’s an art to that, and we have the actors on stage in this production who can do that.
Joe Skinner: You said the delete button… Do you carry any of the characters that you’ve played in your career with you?
Jeff Daniels: No, they’re all probably accessible somewhere. They’re like the old shirt in the closet. It still fits. But no I don’t. I couldn’t sit here and do a speech from Dumb and Dumber or a speech from Newsroom, or Looming Tower. I couldn’t. They’re gone. I think I really noticed it on Newsroom. Where every day for seven months you’re doing a different, you’re doing different pages, different scenes. So Tuesday you do it and it’s gone ‘cause you got to get ready for Wednesday, because you got to get ready for Thursday, and you hit the delete button on them and they’re gone, least with me. Nothing stays. And I think that’s the short term work process of being on a film or on a TV series where it’s just in out, in out. The trick is to make sure that when you’re doing it and going in it has the same knowledge and preparation and commitment that you would if you were doing it on stage in the seventh month. You can’t just show up and do your bag of tricks. But once you do it. Gone. And so I don’t… People say you’ve done 80 movies and I’m going, I can name 10, the other 70 I just I don’t remember doing. Sad, so sad.
Joe Skinner: What’s your Mount Rushmore of actors that you looked to as you’re coming up for inspiration? I know you’ve mentioned Al Pacino and Dog Day Afternoon before.
Jeff Daniels: He was just doing something that I hadn’t seen, I didn’t know how to do, and wanted to learn how to do that. That kind of improvisational, so alive you could… The heart, you could hear his heartbeat in that performance. And I didn’t know what was scripted and what was ad-libbed. And I just thought that whatever that is. I loved the deadpan seriousness of Alan Arkin. Funnier than hell. And he never got caught going for the joke. Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove and Pink Panther and Being There, just the range, the comedic range that that guy had. You knew he was entertaining in Dr. Strangelove, you knew he was performing it. But you never caught him winking at the camera. You see that a lot from people that have come through television comedy where they’re kind of going, “I’m not really this character I’m the guy you know, wink wink.” And those guys didn’t do that.
Joe Skinner: So it do you value that authenticity?
Jeff Daniels: Believability. I believe who they are, who the character is. Preston Sturges movies. All those guys. Spencer Tracy for his ability to listen. The guy was the greatest listener on camera. Yeah, that’s just a few of them. You know DeNiro. The commitment that DeNiro had on Raging Bull and. All-in, and dangerous. You know DeNiro is dangerous in a way that maybe Jack Lemmon or Dick Van Dyke that the two other guys I grew up with and just said what are they, what are they doing? You know, straight man gets in trouble. You know that’s Something Wild. Something Wild is Jack Lemmon and Dick Van Dyke had a baby and it was me, and I was in Something Wild with it. But the danger of DeNiro and Pacino, guys like that. The unpredictability. You don’t know what they’re gonna do. Yeah those guys. Those were guys to watch.
Joe Skinner: So if you had to say one thing that you think would make a performance go from good to great, what would you say that is?
Jeff Daniels: Preparation. Whether it’s me or anybody else, you can tell the guys that are prepared, who know it so well that they can do anything with it and it will work. You can do that scene, that closing argument in Mockingbird ten different ways. It’s the same road, you’re headed to the same place, and you get there and the audience feels a similar thing. But how you get there is never wrong because you’re so prepared. You so know the guy, he’s just a little hotter tonight, a little angrier tonight. More thoughtful tonight, and not by great degrees, it’s not like Bartlett Sher, the director, has to come and go, “OK. Let’s stop doing that.” You know it’s not that, it’s just, it’s alive. He’s alive. And I don’t hold him and put chains on it. And Bart has been great. He told all of us when we opened, “Keep exploring, keep looking.” Improvements come in. You know you can make bad choices. Now suddenly the scene isn’t as good as when Bart was here. He came early in May. He said, “I’ve never had a company whose taste was this good. You’ve changed things. Things are moving around. But for the most part 95 percent of it, it’s better, it’s grown. It’s more specific. It’s better than it was. You’re playing the same thing, similar things. But better and more detailed and more precise. And that’s a great compliment from a great director who’s done a lot. That means a lot. You don’t want the show to deteriorate because we’re all making other choices.
Joe Skinner: Sounds like the Midwestern work ethic has a big part to do with it.
Jeff Daniels: Whatever that is, whatever that is. You’re not afraid of work. And you know the value of hard work. And in today’s world where everything’s on our phone, where we can get whatever we want right now, didn’t have to work for it. I don’t know, it’s kind of the old way of doing things.
Joe Skinner: Do you think there’s anything in your particular style of acting, in your approach that you do towards preparing?
Jeff Daniels: It’s a little bit like going to grad school. I think. Though I’ve never been to grad school. I did it with Chamberlain in Gettysburg, and a little bit with Godless. You just start reading. Read about the era, read about the period. You have to go to school, before you even pick up the script, you have to go to school. You have to understand… Get educated on 1934 Alabama. You want to know what Atticus saw when he sat on his porch. Whether it’s just Mr. Cunningham going, “Could you help me with a legal problem, entailments…” And Atticus, just that small town life. Also the Bob Ewells of Monroeville walking up going, “You going to the lynching Thursday?” I mean that’s not something that happens you know in my neighborhood today, but it sure has happened for Atticus. And so read about the Jim Crow South. Understand what that is. Sundown Towns. Jon Meacham, Soul of America. I read a couple books on Frank Johnson, this federal judge in Alabama who put guys from the KKK in jail in Alabama, when other judges were letting them go and then a week later the KKK would torch his mother’s house. I mean Frank Johnson was a judge that… Atticus Finch could have grown up to be Frank Johnson. A younger Atticus Finch. So it’s just, understand the period. Get an education on it, then you can pick up the script. That was very helpful on this one, because it’s different than film. Opening night for us was two years away, a year and a half away. So you had two years. a year and a half to get educated. I wasn’t off book until… I was off-book the first day of rehearsal in September. You know, two and half months before we opened, but I had done a lot of work before I started memorizing over the summer and I was better because of all that work, all that preparation, all that reading, all that education. I understood him better before I learned what it was he actually said. You got to be smarter than the critics. The critics are going to come in with their pen and the pad and you got to be in a place where you can supposedly look out at them and go keep up. I know this better than you do. Because I’ve done the work. If you haven’t done the work and you do that then it’s just ego. Then you want some, you know write-me-up, say I’m brilliant so I can enjoy all the fame and fortune that comes with playing a role. You’ve got to earn it. And you’ve got to get out ahead of them. So that when you do walk on stage there are no nerves because you spent two years getting ready to do this. And there’s no way. No way, that any critic or any audience member can sit in that audience and know more than you do about Atticus Finch. That’s just to get to opening night.
Joe Skinner: Well thanks so much for coming in and really appreciate it.
Jeff Daniels: You bet.