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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 5)

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.

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