Jeff Daniels surveys Manhattan’s west side from the plate glass window in an HBO office. He’s exhausted, having just finished shooting HBO’s Sunday drama “The Newsroom.”
Daniels, in his first TV starring role, plays Will McAvoy, a cable news anchor who is pushed to reveal how he really feels about the state of the country. Once he does, he is freed — to some degree — from being beholden to ratings and trying to please everyone. His inner muckraker reawakened, McAvoy allows his new producer and former lover (Emily Mortimer) to lead him back to true journalism.
It wasn’t easy, but nothing about this show is. Aaron Sorkin‘s work is wordy. But for those who love complex dialogue, nothing is better. And for an actor, little is tougher.
“Doing a TV series takes a lot out of you,” Daniels tells Zap2it. “Doing an Aaron Sorkin series takes a lot out of you.”
With the first season wrapped and the second ordered, Daniels’ main plan is decompressing. Though he has done two stints in Broadway’s “God of Carnage” in the two different lead roles, and many actors race to the stage or film on hiatus, Daniels was heading to the porch of his Michigan home.
“I am assuming the show is going to last a few years,” he says. “It takes a lot out of you; so does Broadway. I am old enough and smart enough to know I am more exhausted than I realize. It was important to Aaron, important to HBO and important to me. I told him no one is going to outwork me. We threw ourselves at this. We hired people who were pros, not afraid of words and who would be great on take one, which meant you had to do the work before you got there. I had the most to do, followed closely by Emily. I have been around long enough to know it’s not always like this.”
Daniels, 57, has been around long enough to rack up credits including “Terms of Endearment” (1983), “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985), “Dumb & Dumber” (1994) and “The Squid and the Whale” (2005). A devoted stage actor, he founded The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Mich., his home.
It was there, in high school, that he was, at least the first time, coerced onto the stage.
“I had just come out of a three-hour basketball practice,” Daniels recalls, when the teacher running the school production of “South Pacific” called him in because she needed a boy.
“They put me onstage, and I did some stupid dance,” he says and gets up to slap his knees, performing the movement. “And of course they put me in it, and I instantly knew what to do in front of 600 people. I was never nervous.”
Then he starred in “Fiddler on the Roof” And 39 years later, Daniels laughs as he recounts playing Tevye, the Jewish milkman forced to flee his home because of the pogroms. “I was 18, blond and not a clue as to what a Jew was. They brought in the one man of Jewish persuasion.”
Daniels did his due diligence of research, then “I got back onstage and continued doing Tevye.”
Now, however, he’s likely on his porch, strumming a guitar and writing songs. He’s also playing golf and recharging so he can return to the long speeches and demanding patter of “The Newsroom.”
“This is a really great marriage between writer and actor,” he says of Sorkin and himself. “As an actor, this is what you hope for.”