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.
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Daniels-The Newsroom, July/August 2012
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God of Carnage was a massive hit, playing to more than 100 percent of capacity during the original cast’s run. It was Broadway’s hottest ticket, attracting a who’s who to see it on a nightly basis: “Tony Bennett, Mike Nichols, Robert De Niro, James Earl Jones—all these people were coming backstage after the show,” Daniels recalls. “But we were so busy up there trying to make it work with the speed and precision that (director Matthew Warchus) demanded; that’s what we were focused on.”
After the original cast left and other actors came in for a while, Daniels returned to the show, taking over the role Gandolfini had played, with Janet McTeer as his wife: “I always wanted to be one of those guys who flipped roles,” Daniels says. “But I always felt I was renting the role from Jim. I gave it my best shot. But when he came back to the show when we did it in Los Angeles, I thought, ‘He owns it.’ ”
“I was better,” Gandolfini jokes, adding, “Jeff is an artist. He’ll try stuff like that. And he’s a good man, a regular guy.”
Offstage, Daniels has a laconic presence, an observer who takes things in before offering his considered assessment. Gandolfini affectionately uses words like “curmudgeon” and “grumpy” to describe him. McTeer offers a similar appraisal.
“He’d sit there in rehearsal and be grumpy—and then come out with something brilliant because he’s very intelligent and clever,” she says. “Really, he was an absolute love to work with. We would riff off each other brilliantly. Every night on stage was different. It was like playing tennis with someone who is never in the wrong place. He really made me laugh every single show. It could be a Wednesday matinee where I was really tired and not sure I had a screaming match in me. He’d give me a kick in the bum by throwing a curveball and waking me up.”
Daniels has played smart, and he’s played dumb…and dumber—in, of course, Dumb and Dumber. Daniels says that playing dumb was a much tougher gig—at first.
“I was having nothing but difficulty in rehearsal, getting past caricature,” he says. “But I only needed one key thought to trigger the character. Sometimes actors make things too complicated. So I did two things. First, I said to myself, ‘I have an IQ of 8.’ Not 7, not 9, but 8. Once I did that, I literally could feel my brain relax; thoughts were leaving my head out of both ears. The other thing I did is that I would literally shake my head before each take, as though I was sloshing my brain around, so it was just this massive organ that was going unused.”
Dismissed by critics when it was released in 1994, Dumb and Dumber, which teamed Daniels with Jim Carrey in the first film by the Farrelly brothers, was a massive hit with audiences, holding the No. 1 spot in the box-office rankings for six straight weeks. Decried by social commentators of the time for dumbing down the level of movie comedy, it remains an audience favorite, a film that fans of all ages mention to Daniels when they stop him on the street.
Indeed, there has been considerable talk about a sequel. Though Daniels says, “The movie doesn’t have a green light yet,” he’d be happy to reprise the role of Harry Dunne, for a couple of reasons. “I’ve had 17 years of people of all ages who have seen and enjoyed it, and who’d like to see those two guys again,” he says. “The idea of two middle-aged guys being that stupid, naïve and oblivious is still funny.
“The serious reason is that I went to Walter Reed hospital, twice, to visit injured servicemen. You see a 19-year-old with no legs and one arm, who was in Iraq four days ago, who just wants to feel good again. When he looks up and one of the guys from Dumb and Dumber walks in, well, that movie is what he wants to talk about. He says, ‘It makes me laugh.’ To me, that’s as good a reason as any to do a sequel.”
The energy required for God of Carnage and the acting chops it honed are serving Daniels well in his new role in “The Newsroom.” While the play was a workout, starring in series television is more so.
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