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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.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Daniels-The Newsroom, July/August 2012

(continued from page 3)

“The challenge in playing Will McAvoy is finding the intelligence about world affairs, being able to fence with even the toughest interview subject,” he says. “I had to get on top of that so it looks like the news desk is my second home, as if I’d been doing this for 25 years. Will has a fierce intelligence about things that I personally haven’t even thought about. I’m saying words I’ve never said in my life.

“I’ve always been a news junkie and I’m interested in politics, in the machinations of it all. But Will’s got a knowledge and an ability to interview that I don’t have that’s crucial to the character.”

Daniels, still boyishly handsome at 57, lives in Michigan (where he was reared), but temporarily relocated to Hollywood from Thanksgiving 2011 to April 2012 to film the series (the pilot was shot in July 2011). The series came on the heels of God of Carnage, the massive Broadway hit for which he received a Tony Award nomination and in which he appeared in close to 400 performances in 2009 and part of 2010 (in two different stints in the cast, playing two different roles).

The play, his first on Broadway in more than 15 years, led indirectly to his being cast in “The Newsroom.” Partly, that had to do with the people he was associating with in the play: costar James Gandolfini and one of the play’s producers, Scott Rudin, who is also one of the producers of “The Newsroom.”

“As soon as Scott read the pilot, he mentioned Jeff’s name,” Sorkin says. “I felt lucky to get Jeff. I’ve been a fan of his since I saw him in The Fifth of July when I was in college, both off-Broadway and on.”

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.

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