Jeff Daniels: Working on "The Newsroom" Is "Just Gold"

Actor says HBO series has changed the way he looks at televised news.

By Scott Huver
|  Friday, Aug 24, 2012  |  Updated 1:44 AM EDT
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Jeff Daniels portrays anchor Will McAvoy on the HBO series, "The Newsroom."

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Playing a cable newsman on HBO’s “The Newsroom” has reminded Jeff Daniels of the importance of what you say on the air. And if Aaron Sorkin’s writing it, that’s what matters most to him.

As the series – which from the start has prompted lively and frequently quite divided discussion on everything from how it depicts modern news broadcasting to character competence among gender lines to its soapy romantic subplots – concludes its freshman season Sunday night, Daniels admits he always knew controversy would be part of the equation. What he doesn’t know is exactly where the show – or its viewers – will fall on any given issue from week to week, but as the second season begins to take shape, the actor says he’s ready for more leaps of faith, confident that the writing of the show’s creator Sorkin will also lead the juciest character he's ever played to increasingly challenging places.

How hard is it to learn and deliver an Aaron Sorkin soliloquy?

It’s no harder than learning a play. I think one of the smartest they did at casting was they cast theater people. So we’re not afraid of words – we see this Sorkin-esque mountain range of dialogue and it’s okay, we have to do our homework. Usually it’s at least a week ahead – or at least four or five days ahead – you’re getting it into your head. And then you work on it leading up to the day of and you’re always overlapping with the next episode, memorization on the next episode, memorization on the current episode, memorization of what we’re shooting today. It’s like cramming for an exam for seven months. But that’s the gig. You know with Aaron, that’s the gig. I have to make it look like it’s falling out of my head. I’m thinking this and then saying it and that’s part of the trick of what I’m trying to do with Will.

You must’ve known this would be a controversial series. Was that part of the attraction?

Yeah, look, whether you like his writing or not, you want Aaron Sorkin writing about something that’s important, that matters, that’s relevant. So you want him writing ‘West Wing." You want him writing "Newsroom." You want people to love it and you want people to hate it. As strange as that may sound in this ego-driven business, you want that kind of provocative reaction. You want that water cooler thing happening on Monday where the one guy’s going, ‘I hated it – It treats women horribly.’ And the other is going, ‘No, not so much. They’re all just flawed human beings.’ They’re having a discussion, not to mention the political, not to mention the newscasts. So we love it. We knew going in it was not going to go unnoticed. Our job was to throw our best craft at it so that the acting, the directing and the writing would hold up. Then you just disagree or don’t like what it is. That’s okay. We love that.

How has the first season changed the way you look at news?

I know what they’re saying in their ears. I know that when they do, say, Sarah Palin and they take a certain slant on that, that their numbers will go up, that their base will like it. If they take a different slant on her, on MSNBC if they go negative on her, the base and the viewers are going to love it. They’ll see a spike go up. There’s a whole ratings vs. facts.

When we did the premiere in New York in late June, before the Sunday premiere, all the cable news folks came: ’60 Minutes’ producers, guys who’ve been in the field for 40 years – they had a cocktail reception before, and they said, ‘Well, we can’t really talk about it yet because you may just try to attack us, but I hope that the series deals with the fact that there are those of us who are in the business who are hanging onto the ideals of journalism and we fight for those important stories that aren’t necessarily another week of Casey Anthony. We fight those and we don’t always win and I hope the series is about that.’ And it is. And then they saw the premiere and they were all over me. It was quite something. I was very happy with the reaction of those guys because those guys really matter. We want them to feel that they’re represented.

When a national news story does break, do you find yourself paying more attention to the process of how it’s covered?

The process and the fill: keeping that interview subject on the air. How do we keep the Colorado shooting thing alive for another week? They’ve got a lot of time to fill on cable news and sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they’re just filling time. They know it, I know it, I can see it and the viewers, I think, have an idea that it’s going on. But having done the show I can see, when there’s breaking news, when it’s breaking right now this hour, that’s when these guys are really good. On both sides of the aisle, the right and the left on cable news, they’re both on it.

It’s when they start to have time to start to spin that it goes into columnists on the air for an hour, which is okay. Then the problem I see is speculation becomes fact, and that didn’t used to be. Part of that problem is there’s so much time to fill, they’ve got another four minutes. ‘Jerry, you’re outside the Casey Anthony courthouse. We know you weren’t inside but can you tell us what you think might’ve happened?’ ‘Well, I don’t want to speculate, but I think what might have happened was that...’ And then they do speculate, because they’ve got to fill two minutes. And then now it’s reported as fact two hours later and everything gets distorted. So I think they’re all fighting that. They don’t always win.

Is Will McAvoy the role of a lifetime?

It is. The creative challenge I have at 57 years old – there are guys my age who are scrambling just to get a job anywhere, and to have Aaron Sorkin, one of the best we’ve got, tailoring a leading role for you at a network that is known for its creative support and freedom, it’s gold. It’s just gold.

How much do you know about next season? Will it deal with the election?

The fact that Aaron said he was thinking about the next season is as much information as I’ve gotten. I’m serious. The way Aaron works, you can’t go ‘I need to know what the next five episodes are about so I can do my backstory.’ To hell with your backstory! This is life. Tomorrow’s a new day. We don’t know what it is. The next episode’s a new chapter in Will’s life. Just find out like everybody else. I kind of embraced that.

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