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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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Up to that moment, McAvoy had been diffident, jokey and noncommittal, living up to a forum moderator’s description as the “Jay Leno of news anchors. You’re popular because you don’t bother anyone.”
But in an instant, McAvoy’s world changes.
Played by Jeff Daniels in the new HBO series, “The Newsroom,” McAvoy’s vitriolic diatribe (about the decline of the country’s standing in most relevant world-rankings) becomes a YouTube sensation—and that moment unleashes something life-changing in McAvoy. He’s never previously voiced strong opinions publicly: about politics, the media and the alternately synergistic and cannibalistic relationship between the two. When he does, he finds himself at the center of a firestorm because he finally felt compelled to “speak truth to stupid.”
That opening crisis becomes the pivot point in “The Newsroom,” written by Aaron Sorkin, who won an Oscar as screenwriter of The Social Network (about Facebook), and multiple Emmy Awards as the creator of “The West Wing,” the long-running series that took an inside look at White House politics.
Politics—in the broadest sense—can’t help but also be at the center of “The Newsroom.” And it’s a given: “The Newsroom” will raise hackles, which is, after all, Sorkin’s trademark.
“When this airs, the guy who’s sitting in his Barcalounger watching is either going to go, ‘Hell, yeah!’—or he’ll throw his beer at the TV screen,” Daniels says. “There will be a reaction. This one is heading for the water cooler.”
But then, that’s what Sorkin does: He forces viewers to think, creating controversy in the process.
“TV is something we use as background music, or for company,” Sorkin notes. “But the stuff I write doesn’t work well if you use it as that. The audience that comes to HBO knows they need to pay attention.”
That’s why HBO began courting Sorkin, even before he had the idea for the series, says Michael Lombardo, HBO’s president of programming.
“When I first got this job, [HBO copresident] Richard Plepler and I were talking about writers we loved, and Aaron’s name was at the top of the list,” Lombardo says. “So we went to lunch with him—this is three or four years ago—and said, ‘We love you and your writing and we want you to think about what we might do together.’ ”
They continued to check in with him as he worked on films such as The Social Network and Moneyball. “Then we got a call that he’d written a script,” Lombardo continues. “And we knew from the first draft that we wanted to do it.
“There are writers—and then there’s Aaron Sorkin. There’s nobody who can weave a story and write dialogue like Aaron at his best. And I believe this is Aaron at his best.”
Though he’d just won an Oscar for The Social Network, Sorkin, who became a playwright (A Few Good Men) after struggling as an actor, was eager to get back to television.
“The schedule is ferocious, but I love series TV,” Sorkin says. “You get to tell a different kind of story. A season of shows is like the chapters in a book. Each season is like a book in a series.”
Over the course of the first season’s 10 episodes, McAvoy’s show, “News Night,” will change from innocuous to confrontational, as McAvoy—goaded by his new producer (and former girlfriend)—makes the decision to be blunt, rather than filtering himself. McAvoy’s transformation from someone who has strenuously avoided controversy to someone who
unleashes it causes a panic among the network’s executives, particularly its bottom-line-obsessed owner, played by Jane Fonda (perhaps channeling ex-husband Ted Turner).
In focusing on the cable news world, Sorkin has plenty of fodder, particularly about partisan divisiveness and the media as enabler, rather than explainer or debunker, of political lies and half-truths. But that’s not Sorkin’s only focus.
Rather, he says, the show’s plot will be built on the relationships in the newsroom, particularly the one-time romance between McAvoy and his new producer, MacKenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), a triangle between McAvoy’s assistant (Alison Pill), his former producer (Thomas Sadoski) and MacKenzie’s right-hand man (John Gallagher Jr.). And that’s not to mention the professional give-and-take between McAvoy, his boss (Sam Waterston) and the network chief.
Notes Daniels, “Over the course of the series, Aaron also gets to write funny. And he’s got people in this cast who know where the jokes are.”
While Sorkin’s writing definitely is funny, it’s also both pointed and sharp-edged, as well as topical (without focusing on the headlines of the moment). Which means that “The Newsroom” is not a show that will leave viewers neutral.
But as Sorkin (who won or shared five Emmy Awards for his work on “The West Wing”) is quick to note, politics is never his first focus.
“I wouldn’t even say politics is second on the list. It’s probably fourth or fifth,” says Sorkin, 51. “I hope the success or failure of this show has nothing to do with whether people agree or disagree with the characters. This show is not hammering home one political point. But it does bring up things people disagree about. I have no political agenda. My goal isn’t to persuade or preach.”
In fact, the show is as much about McAvoy’s personal life as his work: specifically, his contentious relationship with his bosses, his ill-tempered treatment of his underlings and his involvement with his new executive producer, a former lover who shattered him a few years earlier when she walked away from their relationship. McAvoy is notoriously prickly (even though he argues loudly, “I’m AFFABLE!”). But he’s not knee-jerk about anything. “I’m a registered Republican,” the character says early on. “I only seem liberal because I happen to believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.”
As Sorkin explains: “I do like writing in a romantic, idealistic, swashbuckling style... I like workplace shows, with people in the trenches. A newsroom is a place where all kinds of stories come in over the transom.”
While Sorkin has nothing but kind words for his experiences working for ABC (“Sports Night”) and NBC (“The West Wing,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”), he acknowledges that cable offered several advantages. “Obviously, there’s the language—every once in a while, I can use language I wouldn’t have been able to use on the networks,” Sorkin says. “But the biggest creative difference is that each episode feels like a one-hour movie. It’s not broken up by commercials. And there are different things I can do, subject-wise, on HBO that I would have gotten notes from the network about.”
Notes Lombardo, “He doesn’t have to worry about being too political.”
Is there such a thing as too political for HBO? “Well, we’re the home of Bill Maher,” Lombardo says, “so I’d say we haven’t yet gotten to the outer bounds of that.”
Sorkin’s presence—and the quality of his work—is what attracted Daniels to the series, after years of resisting the notion of working in TV.
“There’s a musicality to Aaron’s writing. It’s so well-written,” says Daniels. “When I got this show, I heard from my friend Tim Busfield (who was part of the cast of Sorkin’s “The West Wing”) and he said, ‘Wait until you see the stuff you get to say.’
“You have to learn it so you can make it appear as if you’re thinking and saying these things at that moment, at 100 miles per hour. That’s the challenge. The trick is to get to the point that you’re not worried about the lines, that they’re second nature. On a lot of films I’ve done, you’ll see people memorizing that day’s lines while they’re sitting in the makeup chair. You can’t do that with Aaron’s writing.”
Because we see McAvoy on the air as well as off, Daniels found himself forced to embody job skills that were out of his comfort zone.
“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.
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