‘The Newsroom’ star Jeff Daniels on cable news, movies vs. TV, and working with Aaron Sorkin

Jeff Daniels hasn’t led a predictable career. He’s done blockbusters (“Speed”) and indies (“The Squid and the Whale”), has done highbrow (“The Purple Rose of Cairo”) and lowbrow (“Dumb & Dumber”), mature Oscar winners (“Terms of Endearment”)  and unapologetic kiddie fare (“101 Dalmations”). The one thing he hasn”t done much of until now is television. He did a few episodic guest appearances as a new actor, did a voice cameo on “Frasier” once, and has done a couple of historical TV-movie and miniseries projects for cable, but has largely kept himself on the big screen.
That changes on Sunday night at 10 on HBO, when Daniels takes the lead role in Aaron Sorkin’s new drama “The Newsroom.”He plays Will McAvoy, a cable news anchor whose reputation is built on not expressing an opinion or offending anyone – until one day he just can’t take it anymore and explodes with a long, loud and very public monologue about everything that’s gone wrong with America and the news media that covers it. After that, Will is encouraged by new producer (and ex-girlfriend) Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) to take a more substantive, opinionated take on the news, ratings be damned.
I spoke with Daniels about what his own take on the news media, the adjustments that come with doing television, and what it was like to be a rookie actor standing on a cliff in Hawaii with Jack Lord.
How do you consume your news?
Jeff Daniels: With a grain of salt.
But I mean in terms of what medium do you most go to in order to find out what”s happening, what it means? Are you reading newspapers? Are you watching cable, Internet?
Jeff Daniels: New York Times online.Big fan of the online distribution on news, MSNBC for the breaking. Political. I”ll jump back and forth between MSNBC and FOX News just to see both sides of the issue, and to see how it”s being interpreted. A lot of that comes from having done the show, having done ten episodes. I”ve kind of gotten behind the scenes and in their heads on both sides. I know what they”re dealing with, and I think I can almost tell when they actually believe what they”re saying and they”re passionate about it. When they half -believe it, and when they don”t believe it at all but it”ll help the ratings.
What sort of research did you do for this? I know Aaron shadowed Olbermann and Chris Matthews and a few other people. Did you do anything like that?
Jeff Daniels: Aaron did all of that for me. I try to do as little research as possible. There”s some like Gettysburg that require a lot more than others, but this was so thoroughly research that Aaron and company had done it that it was all kind of there and it was written in a such a way that it was very clear. Plus over the 20 years or so longer that I”ve been doing interviews, plugging movies, I was in a lot of newsrooms. I was around a lot of T.V. sets live on air. I”m a bit of a news junkie ever since the 2000 election. I”ve really gone to the cable news outlets to the daily news cycle. Especially now another election year, I”m kind of, “Who said what today?” When you”re around and you”re watching these guys, and then you”re given a script that gets behind it. It”s all there for you, and it”s up to you to imagine what your guy would be like.
So having been given all of the research that Aaron and everyone else did, what was most surprising to you in terms of learning about how the sausage gets made in this particular business?
Jeff Daniels: I think what I learned, and I was really open-minded about it. On both sides, if you want to be specific about it FOX news all the way to CNN to MSNBC. Take those three for example; they”re all really good at what they do. These guys, these hour long columnists basically get on and do their show, and they have to fill an hour. That”s not easy to do. There are times when they, on both sides, misstep. They”re not just doing Walter Cronkite news facts and just the facts; they”re paid to have opinions. I think they all battle. Some succeed far more than others. Sticking to the facts and commenting on the facts versus commenting on speculation. I think that”s the battle they all fight or at least are aware of, is what is fact, what is truth, what is speculation? When am I sending out speculation and pretending it”s fact? Because Joe Blow out there thinks it”s all fact.
You grew up similar to me in that there were three newscasts – that was it. My dad watched Cronkite and then I guess Rather. In your household growing up, was there one preferred anchor?
Jeff Daniels: I remember Cronkite. I remember Huntley and Brinkley. You”re right, it was the evening news. It was important, still is today, Brian Williams and company, and all those guys at 6:00 – 6:30. The local news was only half an hour not 5:00 until 6:30. And then again at 7, and see you at 11. 
Now its having to fill every minute of every day, even if you have no information whatsoever.
Jeff Daniels: Exactly. And I think that”s the great juggling act, certainly in the cable news world. These guys all do and do well. You may not like how they do it. You may not agree with what they”re saying, but the juggling act of filling airtime every single night. Even slow news nights means you”ve got to do 60 minutes. That”s a lot, with commercials.
There”s sort of a chicken and the egg question in terms of whether politics in this country have become as stratified as they have because TV news has or vice versa. If T.V. news is just reflecting that strident, “I only want to listen to people who agree with me” kind of tone. What do you think?
Jeff Daniels: I think this is a capitalistic country. I think many, many, many, many, many people measure success by the amount of money you have and how big your ratings are. Aaron deals with this in the show in subsequent episodes. It”s ratings versus telling the truth. If you tell the truth, your ratings won”t be as good. That”s a problem. I think in filling all of that airtime and also getting ratings, there is a temptation, which usually in a lot of ways just becomes how they do it, of getting people fired up. Michael Moore talks about fear. We”re selling fear. We”re reporting fear. Fear sells, fear makes you watch. What gets eyeballs on the screen? What keeps them watching? You can report the news in a way that keeps them watching, or you can just report the news. I think they certainly may not have started as chicken and the egg, but they certainly are making sure that it continues. That”s where the money is on both sides of the spectrum. There are a lot of people out there who, similar to the internet, if it”s on the internet it must be true. If they”re saying it on television it must be true. Now we live in an age where if you say it enough – marketing. Marketing has taken over the world. Then it”s really true, because I just saw it on television and I saw it 12 times. They told me 12 times it was true so it must be true. 
Were you looking to do a series right now, or was it just a chance to work with Aaron?
Jeff Daniels: We were looking at T.V., because I was bored with movies. I wasn”t getting offered anything I was interested in anymore. “The Squid and the Whale” was terrific, I loved doing it, but I was being offered the asshole father with four scenes with some kid that was making 8 million. I”d rather do something else. So we were looking at television. Whether I would develop something on my own, and also whether I had the energy and interest to do it. I was trying but I was kind of waiting. In February the Aaron thing came across the desk as something that was out there. So we chased it. I just said, “What do I have to do to get this?” They were very receptive to me doing it. I moved right up the list and met with Aaron and I”m happy to say I had it by the end of the meeting.
Had you read the script at that point before you went in with him?
Jeff Daniels: Yeah, I think I had. Yeah, I must have, I read the pilot.
Well what do you remember of the first time you read it, your take on Will? What was your reaction to him?
Jeff Daniels: The character was saying things that I had not heard a character say things like that on television. It was also at a time when there are a lot of angry Americans out there, and I felt that this character and this writer was speaking directly to them. He was using a television show to do it. That meant that this TV show was going to matter. One of the things Lanford Wilson, who recently passed away, told me is just make it all matter. Just make it matter, make it count. Future things you do. You swing and miss sometimes, but this one mattered. And when I read it I go, “This one matters. This one is going to rattle the cage of a lot of people in this country.” I got a guy like Aaron Sorkin writing the words. I don”t have to worry about the writing. All I have to do is worry about being the best actor I can be for him. It really was liberating in a way. All I had to do was be the actor, it was great.
What are those circumstances like, where you”ve worked with lesser scripts and you have to worry about more?
Jeff Daniels: You can just smell it. This wasn”t written by a writer or the writer that”s on the first page. It was re-written by someone else, whether it”s a producer, whether it”s a junior executive, whomever. The kind of lack of respect for the writers, you can feel it. As an actor you”re on the set going it”s hard to make this work because it was written by someone who hasn”t written, never acted, and thinks he knows the story because he read a paperback version of How to Write a Screenplay. They”re out there. When you have a Aaron Sorkin, Noah Baumbach, Woody Allen, Lanford Wilson, or a David Mamet – a singular vision from the writing end. That”s a whole different deal. There aren”t a lot of people helping and diluting. They”re so often diluted, these scripts that are rewritten by others. It also stops when you have an Aaron Sorkin who comes from the theater; where this is a script, learn every word. Okay. I mean that”s where he and I both came from. You don”t question that. You”re the writer, I”m the actor. Loved it, absolutely loved it, having one writer.
So how do you approach the big Chayefsky kind of monologue that Will gives at the campus in the opening scene? How did you decide to attack that?
Jeff Daniels: It”s all one thought.  Once you learn it, it”s a spew. It”s a rant. One thing leads to another. There is no editor, there is no filter. I”m answering one question. In my head it”s not nearly as long as it seems or it takes to do it. It”s all one thought. I”ll tell you what I think, boom and you just go. You start here and at the end of the speech there”s a period at the end of the sentence. As an actor, that”s how you do it. In between, as Tim Busfield, who is a friend, said when I heard I was doing Sorkin, he said, “Wait ’till you see what you get to say.” Ten minutes of the pilot Tim was more than right. 
Will gives that excuse, vertigo medication. Why do you think he actually decides that right here, right now is the time to do this?
Jeff Daniels: It has to do with Mackenzie, whom he thinks he sees in the back. That triggers it. Some of the stuff we deal with all the way in episode 10. We still harken back to that day at the college, and why he did what he did. There is a speech, actually, in episode 10 about where I come clean with it, or at least have figured out why I went off. There are a lot of reasons, but certainly being pushed, and pushed, and pushed in front of 500 kids, and being a ratings whore, which Will is, and love seeing the numbers the next day. If he”s a little easier on Sarah Palin in tonight”s newscast the numbers will reflect that because I won”t lose the moderate Republicans who are watching the show, because Will is a moderate Republican. If I am tough on her my numbers will go down. And so he”s very aware of the numbers, and dilutes himself or buries what he really thinks in order to keep those ratings up and keep ACN, the network, happy. But pushed, and pushed, and pushed, and pushed, he”s an angry American just like me, just like Aaron, just like millions of others out there right now going, “What the hell is going on?” He”s that person out there.
What were you and Emily told going into the pilot about the backstory between Will and Mackenzie? It”s alluded to, but I”m assuming we”re going to find out more later on. Did you know the full deal, or were you just sort of working with what was on the page in that pilot script?
Jeff Daniels: We knew a little bit more than what”s in the pilot. That”s the drill. You kind of embrace that, in a way. You turn it into a positive. Aaron, what”s the relationship between Emily and my character? We asked that the week before the pilot. He goes, “Here”s what I know, and it”s not much. I know that there was a relationship between the two of you three years ago in Washington at a different station, and it did not end well. Now you”re forced to work with each other again because Sam Waterston”s character brings you together.” Pretty much, “Don”t ask me details. I haven”t written it yet. I haven”t figured it out yet. Just know that it ended very badly.” In a way that”s all we need. That”s all I need. That”s all you”re going to get. He doesn”t know anything else. Elmore Leonard does this. He writes, Aaron, there”s an outline. He knows kind of where he”s sort of wants it to go over the 10 episodes, but he discovers his way along the way. He”ll sit there before episode 7 or 8 and go, “I know how it starts. That”s all I know.” “How”s it going?” “Going okay, going okay. I am trying to figure out what happens.” There”s such a wonderful sense of discovery for him. As the actors in it, you just act like a viewer. Every week we get to find out what happens next. I mean, you know enough to know, but it”s kind of like life. We don”t know what”s going to happen next week or a month from now. If you approach it that way instead of worrying about what you don”t know, it gets a lot easier to do. It worked out pretty well.
How different a style of acting does it become if at all, from movies or the theater, given that in those it”s a self-contained unit, the script? You know everything that”s relevant to the character within the story. Here it”s evolving, as Aaron”s telling you bit by bit. Does that change the way you work at all?
Jeff Daniels: If anything it made it more present. It made it more about what”s happening today in this scene right now, in this episode. You”re not worrying about setting up something from two episodes ago or that”s going to happen three episodes from now. In a way Aaron”s doing that. To say that he doesn”t know what”s going to happen next, he does. He knows that this is going to happen to Will. He doesn”t know how that gets to there, but he knows the scene with so-and-so is going to happen two episodes from now. He”s got to set that up by bringing this character in. He knows how all that happens, I don”t. And I don”t care. All I have to do is play this one scene as if it”s today. To be honest, we had two and three cameras going all the time. Movies, it”s single camera usually. You know when it”s the close-up, you know when the medium, the wide, the pan, the dolly, you know all that you can see it, and you can kind of lean towards it. All the mechanics of film acting you use. You couldn”t do that here, because the camera was zooming in, or that one”s in a close-up, they”re just not telling you. It forces us to act with each other. I said it a few times, shoot this, follow this, I”m going to go over here now and they just go with you. The focus guys are zoom right on you. You hit marks in all of that. I told Sam this later on, I said, “I”m eight episodes in. I”m doing a really great job of not knowing where the camera is.” I”ve never done that before. I”d know where Emily was. I”d know where Sam was. I”d know who I”m talking to, and I”d really try to not know where the camera was. You just shoot what I”m doing. In a way the acting gets more present, more now, more in the moment, which is all the stuff you learn when you work with Meryl Streep, how to do that.
The first three screen credits you had were all T.V. There was an episode of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ that –.
Jeff Daniels: Thank you. I was brilliant in it. Did you see it?
I did not, but I know that it was with (“Malcolm in the Middle” creator) Linwood Boomer.
Jeff Daniels: Linwood Boomer, good guy. We were high school ne’er-do-wells do wells who got a little remote controlled plane, flew it into an open window at a gallery where they had diamonds, landed the remote control plane, set off the little smoke bomb, got all kinds of smoke. Then we ran in, stole the diamond, and then went to the local fence-mafia-Hawaiian Tony Soprano to sell our little diamond. We got caught.
So it”s basically the same kind of part as this?
Jeff Daniels: Yeah, it”s very similar. There were no plausible problems in that episode. But to work with Jack Lord, it was the second to last episode of the 11 year run of “Hawaii Five-O” with Jack. To work with Jack Lord was great. He was a king of Hawaii. We were standing on a cliff. We were getting arrested, booked, and all that. The end of the episode scene, and we”re standing there and God bless him. They”ve got his cue cards, we”re on a cliff, and it”s nothing but wind. The cue card guys are like holding mainsails trying not to fall off the cliff with his cue cards. He”s going, “Hold it up.” They”re like what? This is the big time. His hair, God bless him, his hair had so much product in it. There was just one little thing that was doing this in the wind. He”d come up to us, and the hair is just. We”re American Bandstand, the hair is just going everywhere, and I remember screwing up and I said the line before he said, “Book ’em, Dano” or “Book ’em, Kimo.” Anyway, right before he booked me I said, “What happens now Mr. Garrett?” “Cut. McGarrett, McGarrett.” Absolutely, Bill Smith just starts laughing. But he was a very nice man. King of Hawaii. Nine days in Hawaii, it was great.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com