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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 6)

“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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