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Anchoring the News

Jeff Daniels stars in the newest Aaron Sorkin show, “The Newsroom,” on HBO, a behind-the-scenes look at today's media world.

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Still, it was all about the timing. Daniels had ignored series television for most of his career, because, aside from the fact that it rarely offered the kind of quality he sought, it also would have meant long absences from his family (he has three children) in Chelsea, Michigan, the hometown where he and his wife have lived since returning there in 1986.
But with his youngest daughter in college, Daniels (who has an apartment in New York) felt freer to take on a longer Broadway run like God of Carnage, and to consider a television series that would have him working in Hollywood for long stretches. So he consulted Carnage castmate Gandolfini.
“He asked me what to look for in a series and I said, ‘Get a great writer,’ ” Gandolfini says. “You need a great show-runner. The great TV shows have a guy or two in the front who are very passionate about the work. And he’s certainly got that in Aaron Sorkin. I think it’s a perfect vehicle for him.”
For his part, Daniels was looking for work that would challenge and fulfill him in the same way that films once had. While he still landed the occasional role in bigger budget studio films (such as 2009’s State of Play), those were fewer and farther between, which left the independent-film world. That offered some strong roles, including Bernard Berkman, the self-absorbed novelist and father in 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, for which he received a Golden Globe nomination, and the little-seen The Answer Man in 2009. But, again, those kinds of roles came along too seldom to be satisfying.
“I became disenchanted with the independent-film scene,” Daniels says. “I was getting offered a lot of ‘asshole father’ roles, after I did Squid and the Whale. People would say, ‘Oh, you were so great in that,’ and then I’d get a script with a role for an asshole father who was in about four scenes. I’ve done a lot of independent films and nobody sees those. And since the economy went south, half the independent distributors have folded. Things changed and, for a guy like me, they didn’t change for the better.
“HBO is where the writers are. After I looked at several things, along came this script by Aaron Sorkin—and I chased it.”
And then HBO chased him: “When we read the pilot, in part because the character is a newscaster, there are whole pages of dialogue for him. We were wondering who could pull it off, because Aaron writes with a certain cadence that’s really challenging for a lot of actors,” Lombardo says. “So it had to be someone smart and fresh. Then Jeff’s name came up and we thought that was an interesting choice. He’s the right age, and he’s got the good looks. When he read for it, there was no question after we heard him that Jeff Daniels was the best choice. After he read, we couldn’t imagine anyone else. It was so clear that Jeff was made for this role.
“It was the perfect confluence of actor and role. You never see Jeff act; there’s an ease with which he inhabits the role. You never feel as though there’s a speech or a monologue going on; it’s just this character talking. Jeff does that better than any actor I’ve ever seen.”
It’s a quality Daniels had from the start—even before the start—of his career: the ability to mix the serious with the silly, to be funny and heartbreaking, glib and vulnerable within the same scene. His talent was apparent to Marshall Mason, one of the founders of New York’s Circle Repertory Company, who discovered Daniels while Mason was a visiting director at the University of Eastern Michigan one summer in the mid-1970s. “He was unusually honest in his work,” Mason says. “He had this natural, innate talent.”
Mason was a visiting professional at Eastern Michigan, imported to Ypsilanti in 1976 to direct a college production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke for a summer repertory season. But he was having trouble casting the central male role, a young doctor who has an affair with a prim older woman.
“Then in walks this big blond boy, this big jock who looked like he’d strayed in from the football field,” Mason recalls. “It was Jeff; he was a student at Central Michigan—and his reading was a miracle. He put himself in my hands and did everything I asked in the exploration of the character.”
“I think Marshall saw a simplicity, an honesty and truthfulness in what the character was saying,” Daniels says. “I think I had that back then. I don’t know how, because I was very raw. Marshall would give me a direction and I’d execute it with a simplicity that I guess was unusual for a 21-year-old college actor.”
Says Mason, “Jeff was very funny but also very serious about the work. I talked to him about his experience and, in fact, he did play football. But he had also done musicals and plays at school and enjoyed that. He was just a natural, honest actor who showed a natural talent.
“I never encourage anyone to be an actor but I felt strongly about him. I said I’d do anything in my power to help him. I offered him an internship at Circle Rep, which paid, I believe, $50 a week, and he came to New York.”
It was the moment that changed Daniels’ life. He left Michigan for New York and, almost immediately, landed a role in a Circle Rep play visible enough to earn him an agent. He kept working there, and then playwright Lanford Wilson wrote a role specifically for him.
The play, The Fifth of July, played off-Broadway, then was presented in Los Angeles. When it went to Broadway—with a cast that included Christopher Reeve and Swoosie Kurtz—Daniels rode it all the way to a Tony Award nomination in 1981. Hollywood called shortly afterward—a small part in Milos Forman’s Ragtime, followed by career-making roles in Terms of Endearment and The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Asked what his life would have been like had he not met Mason during that fateful summer, Daniels shakes his head and offers a rueful smile.
“I would have gone to New York to try acting and maybe lasted a year,” he says. “I’d probably be back in Michigan, helping my brother run the lumber company with my dad. I’m not sure the lumber company would have been better off if that had happened. But the lumber company is still there and my dad and brother are still running it.
“I owe my career to Marshall,” he says. “Not only did he pull me out of Michigan, he kept me in New York. With each passing year, I knew more what I was doing—but I didn’t initially. But Marshall and Lanford kept saying, ‘You’re good. Stay here.’ ”
His parents were supportive, despite the fact that he hadn’t finished college: “Before Marshall came, they’d seen four years of me starring in high-school musicals and community theater. There was obviously something going on above and beyond what the other kids were doing. They knew that, somehow, this was what I should be doing. But they didn’t know how I should go about it.
“Then Marshall said, ‘I know what you should be doing with your life.’ He wanted me to drop out and go to Circle Rep. Here’s a guy from New York, saying, ‘Come join my theater company.’ And my parents said, ‘You should go.’ ”
Mason chuckles as he disputes one part of Daniels’ story: “If I’d known he had only finished his junior year and was leaving college to come, I never would have offered.”
The shock to Daniels’ system—moving from Michigan to Manhattan in the mid-1970s—was significant. “I came from a small town in the Midwest to Dante’s Inferno with Central Park,” he says. “That was a lot to deal with. But after two years, I was OK.”
Once he was launched in movies, he found himself working with a variety of directors whose work he admired, cast in leads in work as diverse as The Purple Rose of Cairo (in which he replaced Michael Keaton after Woody Allen decided Keaton was wrong for the role), Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild in 1986 and Robert Altman’s TV production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial in 1988.
“With Jonathan, you knew it was a Jonathan Demme movie just from the way he shot it,” Daniels says. “There was this energy he had—like he would have done it the same way whether the budget was $100 million or $100,000. It’s this excited attitude of ‘Look what we get to do for a living.’
“Bob Altman would create these train-wreck stagings, this kind of creative mess—and the messier the better. And it brought this surprising energy to the work. With Woody, well, I got to play not one but two roles. A lot of actors would have retired after that. The first thing Woody said was, ‘This script is not the Bible or written in stone. If you need to change it, go ahead.’ But, if he needed you to say it a certain way, he’d say so. Still, it made me want to say the lines word for word.
“Altman, Demme and Woody all shared this quality of saying, ‘Why don’t you do this and see what happens?’ and then they’d say, ‘Rolling.’ They were trying to make something happen during that first time between ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ You might flame out, but if you don’t, then you might have something great. I call them happy accidents. You create them by winging it to see what happens.”
Daniels is a one-time cigar lover, who gave them up a few years back: “I was into Romeo y Julietas, the Cuban ones. It was partly the excitement of the contraband—who did you know who could get them from Canada? My grandfather and my uncle always had a cigar in their hands. So when I smoked, it always brought back fond memories.”
In his career, Daniels has played a rogues’ gallery of characters—everything from oily villains (State of Play) to cartoon characters made flesh (101 Dalmatians), from 19th-century war heroes (Gettysburg) to corporate bigshots (Good Night, and Good Luck) to taciturn lawmen (Infamous).
But his real love was theater—and so, when he and his wife moved back to Michigan, he put his energy into creating a professional company in his hometown. The Purple Rose Theater Company, which he founded in 1991 in Chelsea, started in a garage and has grown into one of the town’s economic mainstays, a regional center where theater professionals can work, playwrights can see their work performed and area residents can see professional theater in rural Michigan. (Chelsea is in the central part of Michigan’s lower peninsula, about 50 miles west of Detroit.) Daniels put his own time and money into the theater, writing plays for it that have become a regular part of its annual schedule.
“I’ve been involved with it for 20 straight years. They’ve done 14 of my plays and I have a 15th that will be part of the coming season,” he says. “Over the last few years, I’ve turned the running of the theater over to people who are there everyday. The actual management no longer needs or requires me.
“The theater was designed for professionals who maybe went to New York or Los Angeles but didn’t get a break. They’re back in Michigan, but they still have talent; it just went undiscovered. They’re Equity actors, and now they’ve got a professional theater within a half hour of their home.
“I brought back everything I learned at Circle Rep, that sense of collaboration with playwrights. Someone said to me that Purple Rose was born the day I set forth from Chelsea for Circle Rep.”
Daniels was able to satisfy his own long-dormant stage urge when he was cast in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, which became the Tony Award-winning sensation of 2009. A four-character play in which he appeared with Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis, it detailed an increasingly uncivilized meeting between two pairs of upscale New York parents who get together to discuss an act of playground violence by one couple’s son against the son of the other. The four actors argued, fought, destroyed property—and even dealt with a moment of projectile vomiting—in an intermission-free, 90-minute cage match, a dark comedy of recrimination and shifting alliances that ultimately pitted couple against couple, husband against wife and men against women.
“It was a real workout. If you weren’t in some state of exhaustion at the end, then you didn’t do it right,” Daniels recalls with a smile. “There were nights where I would verbally spit on Jim from across the stage and just treat him like shit. We’d get offstage and he’d say, ‘God, you’re being a sonuvabitch tonight.’ ”
Gandolfini praises Daniels for helping him through the rehearsal process: “I hadn’t done a play in a long time and Jeff was very patient,” he says. “We did 300-plus performances together and got along great. That was part of the success of the play.”
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