Jeff Daniels, the lead actor in the TV series Newsroom, says that is better to read Don Quixote than to watch The Kardashians on TV.Jeff Daniels: a man passionate for the Spanish culture
He is one of the best actors working in Hollywood, a man of integrity and passionate for the Spanish culture. His new character in Newsroom is inspired by Don Quixote, as his creator Aaron Sorkin reveled in the past. Trying to play the spirit of Cervantes character, Daniels teaches a real acting lesson in Newsroom as anchor Will McAvoy.
Q: So, as a news anchor, what qualities do you need? Do you need to be smart, sexy? Nothing of the above? Anything?
A: What qualities do you need? I don’t know, you need, (laughs) I’ll tell you what you need, you need a writer who puts characters in the room who calls you smart and sexy and charming. And when other characters are saying that and they cut to you, you have a chance of being that. That helps.
Q: But what seems really scary to me is that now it’s like almost like something has to become a viral video before people pay attention and more people watched Maureen Colvin’s report on Syria. Most people don’t even know who Maureen Colvin is. So that seems like a very big challenge for up and coming newspeople.
A: Uh-hum, uh-hum. (laughter) It is. So here’s where Sorkin comes in. So do we give up? Or do you have this romantic, idealized version of as Emily says in the pilot, let’s reach for the stars and let’s keep pounding away in going at it, for at least those who are paying attention, and we gather as many as we can. And we are not going to get everybody, but do you give up or do you have a life’s goal and continue on that Don Quixote quest I think that’s where Aaron comes from, he’ll always fall on that side of we never give up hope on whether we can improve it or not, and that’s kind of where he’s coming from. And so I think that’s a healthier place to be, or just give up and make it all Kardashians all the time. (laughter)
Q: Now that there are as many programs as there are views though and people are becoming more and more polarized, almost working from different facts now, is there any going back? Is there really a demand for actual straight objective reporting that people claim they want, but they don’t really want that do they?
A: I think the way towards that, I mean, I don’t know if we will ever get back to that, but I hope so, again, there are people trying to do it, but I think what has to happen is, it’s not that in America’s case that the people are stupid, they are just not engaged and they are not informed, and they are not connected to what’s going on today in Syria. They don’t even know where Syria is. And so it’s trying to get them engaged and connected and at least listening in a way, and get them off their cell phones and texting each other, and worrying about what the Kardashians are doing. It’s trying to get them engaged in the world they live in. Whether it’s global warming, whether it’s politics, whatever it is, and I think that’s part of the battle.
Q: How challenging was it to get to the pace of delivering Sorkin’s lines? For a character inspired in Don Quixote...
A: It’s work, and it can be a little like driving around the corner and on two wheels, and hoping you make the turn, because you are rolling, (snaps fingers) but it’s just a lot of work to memorize it, you have to memorize every word as written, which is fine, that’s what you do in the theater, you do that, so it’s not new to us, and they smartly cast theater people and the top six, seven, eight people were theater vets so we would see words and then we would know it’s a lot of work, but we are not afraid of them. So the trick is to get ahead of the senior shooting, if you are shooting it on Tuesday, try to know it cold by Saturday, before, and then start reviewing it. And certainly by Sunday and Monday, rehearse it up to speed. Get it up to speed. And if you got the lines it’s as I call it, dancing on top of them, where you know them, and now you are doing things with them, that’s different than I just learned it last night, and I am going from line, to line. That’s different. So that was the challenge. It was never ending, you just, every weekend was spent memorizing something.
Q: American cinema, actors are pretty much afraid of words. They say that European cinema, there’s too much dialogue. And Sorkin is probably like the exception.
A: Well he comes from the theater and really kind of challenged it. I mean in the old days, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, they would hold the camera on these characters and let them go, for three, four pages. And Shirley Maclaine, Jack Lemmon, they are talking and talking, and so it’s, yeah, and maybe that’s your fault. (laughter) Well because I’ve had scripts where we were looking for a rewrite because there’s too many lines. Cause we’ll have to put subtitles in. There is that kind of concern that it’s too many words and too many subtitles, and can you simplify it so you don’t have to have the audience reading so much, I don’t know, I’ve heard that.
Q: But for me it was one of the signs of the simplification of the shows and the news in America, which was one of the topics.
A: Yeah, I’m glad and Aaron said, I write the way I write. Don’t change how I write. And there’s a lot of dialogue and they are saying smart things, and the audience needs to keep up and whether they are in Italy or America, I don’t think Aaron cares. This is how he’s going to write and I’m glad. As an actor, it’s a challenge to do and to make it look like it’s falling out of your head, instead of just fresh off a page.
Q: What kind of research have you done for your character and how often do you watch TV News?
A: I was aware of TV News in about 2000, that Presidential Election, so I was kind of involved and kind of caught up in the whole Presidential, the primaries and then 2004 and 2008, so I was, that’s when cable news kind of really rose, but there was no particular person. Aaron never said, by the way, it’s based on so and so. But I know about Don Quixote and I read it and I was in promoting movies over the years, where you are sitting there on the Today Show or CNN or Fox and you are watching what happens the minute and a half before we go on the air, that whole world.
Q: Did it fascinate you then?
A: Fascinate is a big word. But I was observing. We are always observing. Actors are always kind of, and then years later, you get this part and you go oh yeah, I remember what happened that day on Fox and Friends. I remember Katie Couric on The Today Show, when she was talking to the producer in her ear. You kind of remember things. And so, you take one thing and spin it into, you blow it up and that becomes Will’s world, so it’s fun. You use your imagination like that, instead of having a hundred pages of notes, based on interviews you did with a whole bunch of people who are doing it now.
Q: Do you agree that America is not a great country anymore?
A: I found that the opening speech that Will gives in the pilot, there’s nothing in it that isn’t true. And he says it in that, and I think we can be, I think there’s a lot of, I don’t know, I’m one of these guys that I think there are a lot of great countries in this world, why does there have to be one that’s the best?
Q: Do you agree that journalism isn’t what it used to be in America?
A: No, I agree, you know what I’ve learned, doing the show and in talking to journalists who have seen the pilot, the guys that are really, we had a screening the other night in New York and they said, I hope the series deals with the fight that we have to fight everyday as journalists on television, where we try to hang on to the ideals of journalism? And I’ve said this a bunch of times today but versus the marketing and the spin and the turning points and the propaganda they get shoved at them by whether it’s a guest, whether it’s corporate, whether it’s keep feeding your base, you can’t say that about this issue, not on this show, because we will lose our audience. Where the journalist in him and they are on TV right now fighting this fight, having this argument right now in morning meetings, I guarantee you. I hope you guys stick to that. And that’s the show that Aaron’s written. And that’s the journey Will goes on, Mackenzie shoves him towards that, and like a lot of the guys on the air right now, when you go and you go after it, and you really try to go after what is the truth and strip away all the marketing and branding, and whatever, and you end up presenting that to an audience, sometimes that audience doesn’t want to hear that. And then you lose viewers and now you are getting a message from corporate. And that happens in this series. And it happens, it’s happening on shows right now.
Q: Is it the same for actors, where you try to stick to what you believe in, cause you want to express ideas and get some work done? And just do the project for the money? Do you have a high standard for yourself?
A: The journalist does that or the actor does that?
Q: The actors.
A: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve got movies in my career that because of that movie, God awful as it was, the kids got to go to college. Absolutely. Jason Robards god bless him, will say, do you know that movie that was horrible? Yeah. Built the house in Connecticut. Look, if you want a long career in a business that really doesn’t care if you are here on Tuesday or not, you are over, you are done, we’ve decided. Lee Grant told me once, it’s one for you, one for them. One for you is the one that matters, Newsroom matters, one for them is for the bills and the mortgage and to keep your kids in college, and it’s not a very kind business to guys with wives and kids, and colleges and mortgages, they don’t really care, do they? So sometimes yeah, you’ve got to do that. However, then when you get a Newsroom, and it matters and it counts, and it’s about what we are all dealing with right now and relevant, it’s pretty great.
Q: When was the last time you felt about a role the way you feel about Newsroom? Besides theater let’s say.
A: I would say like a project that matters, that counts, I’ve done a few, like Gettysburg was a movie that you knew was going to land with people who followed the American Civil War. Allison Pill and I did a play called Black Bird, a tough, tough play, about a 50 something pedophile, and she was twenty-seven and she shows up at my place of work, and wants to talk about the affair that we had, when she was twelve and I was forty. And you want, not that that mattered, but it stayed with people. Art is something that, you see the painting, you read the book, you see the show, and you walk away and you are still talking about it. It’s still on your mind two or three days later, those are the ones. God of Carnage was like that in its own way. You would have people coming up like a week later, we saw the play, and my wife and I drove home and said, if we don’t get our shit together, we are going to end up like those angry couples, we watched you guys be. (laughter) So that’s kind of what you hope for. Even Dumb and Dumber. Walter Reid Hospital. The soldiers from Iraq, they have celebrities go in and visit these kids that four days ago blew up. No legs, one arm, and all they want to do is laugh. You are from Dumb and Dumber, make me laugh, make me smile. In its own way, it matters. So you try to do things like that, and I think for the most part I have, there have been a couple that, not so much, but I really try to stay, and to be honest, since Squid and the Whale, in chasing, let’s just do good writing, because I can’t deal with bad writing anymore. I just can’t. Let’s just do that, because otherwise I’m going to lose interest. And I was really, I mean Aaron, didn’t save me but got me to care again. I didn’t care anymore, I didn’t, I wasn’t interested in the business, I’ll do something else. I was going to turn sixty in a few years, I want to do something else. Just say no, I’m out. But he wrote this and it matters and it counts and it’s going to disturb people and challenge people and make people think and I got interested again.
Q: Do you think the good stuff is being done on TV today?
A: It’s where the writers are going. And the writers are respected on TV in a way that they aren’t always on films. They respect that in the theater, but they really are given freedom to do what they do, in television, and certainly with the advent of cable, the HBO’s in particular, Showtime’s etc, it’s a great home for writers. It reminds you and I don’t know enough about television and the golden era, golden age, but to Paddy Chaefsky, and that Playhouse 90 back in the fifties, Paddy Chaefsky would write for it and Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, they would write these one act plays or these one hour things that would be on television and it was kind of a great place to go to see great writing and great storytelling and all that and I think this is a kind of rebirth of that, I’d like to think anyway. Even on Network, Networks are doing a better job amidst having to please advertisers.
Q: So what would you do if you were not an actor?
A: The music thing I really enjoy, I enjoy the music thing a lot, but I’m glad that this came along, because I’m good at acting, I’ve been doing it for decades, and the music thing I enjoy, and I’m good at it, but I’m also, it’s, you are playing to 200 people in a club or an opera house in the middle of the country, which is great fun, I really enjoyed that, but this is what I should be doing, it’s just whether the material was there or the opportunities were there to challenge me, to make me risk failure, and get better, even at decade four or whatever I am in now. So, this is where I belong, it’s just whether there was an opportunity to stay there or not.
Q: You said that you hoped that this would make people think again and usually you would say news should have integrity, where did we lose it that it actually went down and down, how did this trend start when news wasn’t equal to integrity anymore?
A: I think, certainly one of the great things about cable news, is that when a story breaks, they stay on it for six straight hours. They are on the air. And if you want the up to the minute coverage, there it is. You don’t have to wait for six o’clock, you don’t have to wait for the newspaper the next morning. The bad news is, that they stay on the air for six hours. (laughter) And that they have to make the constant decisions, and this is what these guys do every night, of what’s speculation, and what’s fact. And, in order to fill these next eight minutes, we’ve got to deal with the fact that this might be speculation. Jerry, you are outside the courthouse, what do you think happened inside there? Well I wasn’t inside and I’m not sure, I don’t want to speculate, however, for the next three minutes, I’m going to speculate. (Laughter) And then that becomes in the next hour, that somehow, sometimes, morphs into news. A fact, even though Jerry has just been outside the courthouse speculating. And so that’s kind of the trap that they are in, and they are aware of it and they battle against it every day. But that’s kind of the deterioration of the integrity of news, when back in Cronkite’s day, double confirmation, here’s what we know, the sources are reliable, it’s a fact. You decide.
Q: Let me turn it around, why does it need an Aaron Sorkin to come around to try and change that? Didn’t we all as humans stand up and say no, we don’t want that sensationalism?
A: I think that there are people who want that, but there are also big segments of the society out there, certainly in America, that just want to hear what they want to hear. And he deals with that in the pilot. I say it with Emily in the office, they want to hear not only the side of the story, or they want to hear don’t tell me the other side, I’m not interested. But I want my version of the facts too. And that’s where a guy like Aaron Sorkin can come in and go whoa, wait a minute, it’s one thing to be, to have your show at eight o’clock and be like a columnist, where you can say look, this is my opinion and I’m spinning it and you can agree with it or not, but it’s another thing to say, this is a fact, when it’s not. And for whether it’s gain, whether it’s a political candidate, whether it’s to get your show ratings up, and then to have people go it’s just not, we have a line later on, in the season, where, why can’t we call a lie a lie when we know it’s a lie?
Q: And what’s the answer? A: We do and we can. There are repercussions to that and maybe having to do with lawyers and things like that, but challenge these guys, don’t let them get away with it, and I think that’s where Aaron Sorkin can come in, and not to write everything that’s wrong on cable news, but to support those who are trying to fight that fight on cable news today, and lose it.
(c) America Reads Spanish