July 12, 2013
Guest: Jeff Daniels
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The HBO series "The Newsroom," begins its second season on Sunday. It stars Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, the anchor of a cable news show that pledges to cover stories because they're important, not because they get ratings. It was created by Aaron Sorkin, who also created "The West Wing" and wrote the movie "The Social Network" about the founders of Facebook. In a few minutes we'll hear an interview Terry recorded with Jeff Daniels last year, but first let's turn to FRESH AIR's television critic David Bianculli for a look at the second season of "The Newsroom."
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The one major change series creator Aaron Sorkin made to "The Newsroom" between seasons was a structural one. Instead of having each week's show focus on a separate major story line, this year's edition of "The Newsroom" follows a single story over the course of the entire season. And it's a season-long plotline in which anchor Will McAvoy and the other employees of the fictional Atlantic Cable News Network get one important news report very wrong.
Most of the time, though, they're on what the producers of "The Newsroom" consider the correct side of history. That's easy for Sorkin and his team to write because they approach their real-life topics in hindsight, just as they did last year.
Season two begins a bit before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and "The Newsroom" soon gets to focus on presidential politics. In the third episode of season two, Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy delivers a commentary on the previous night's Republican presidential debate using actual footage from that event. McAvoy is a Republican but didn't like what he saw that night and especially didn't like what he heard.
As the scene cuts between McAvoy and the story and people watching him from the control room and elsewhere, we hear some very pointed commentary indeed. It's the kind of scene that polarizes viewers of "The Newsroom." Some love the show for its messages and its passion, while others think it's too overtly preachy.
But no question, it gives Jeff Daniels a really meaty scene to play, and he attacks it very well indeed.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE NEWSROOM")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Steven Hill(ph) is a decorated captain in the U.S. Army, where he's been a reservist for 20 years. He is this very night serving in combat in Iraq, as he was last night, when he asked this question via YouTube at the GOP debate in Orlando, Florida.
(As Steven Hill) In 2010 when I was deployed to Iraq, I had to lie about who I was because I'm a gay soldier, and I didn't want to lose my job. My question is, under one of your presidencies, do you intend to circumvent the progress that's been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)
JEFF DANIELS: (As Will McAvoy) That was a big room full of Republican primary voters booing an American combat soldier who, as he was speaking, was in combat. The audience members who were booing were in Orlando. Soon they'll surely be in hell, though not soon enough.
(As McAvoy) Not everyone was booing. There were people in the audience who heard Captain Hill say that when he was deployed to Iraq he was worried that if his sexuality was discovered they might not let him go, as opposed to most of us, who, if told we were being deployed to Iraq, would go Corporal Klinger faster than you can pull on a yellow taffeta picnic dress.
(As McAvoy) I'm sure there were even some people in the building who stood up for Captain Hill, people who had the simple strength of character to turn to the fraction of a human in the seat next to them and say how many different kinds of disgusting do you have to be to boo a man who volunteered to fight and die for you.
(As McAvoy) I'm sure those people were there. I'm sure there were many of them. But unfortunately none of them were on the stage. Not one of these would-be commanders in chief took a moment to stand with a line officer. They let him stand alone. Soldiers never do that. Leaders never do that. Witless bullies and hapless punks do it all the time.
(As McAvoy) The only president on the stage last night was Steven Hill. God speed, Captain Hill, and come home soon. A grateful nation is waiting to say thank you. That's "News Night" for September 23. Terry Smith is up next with the Capitol report. I'm Will McAvoy. Good night.
BIANCULLI: In addition to the outright author's message passages, "The Newsroom" contains other Aaron Sorkin signatures. There are times when characters display way too much knowledge off the top of their heads and others where characters, usually the women and especially where romance is involved, display almost no knowledge about how to handle social situations and basic conversations.
Even some Sorkin fans respond poorly to these elements, but to make my own commentary viewpoint clear here, I'm fine with it. I can deal with the journalistic and emotional improbabilities because of what else "The Newsroom" gives me. Each week, just as "The West Wing" did, it examines in the context of a TV drama series serious and complicated subjects that truly matter.
On TV right now, that alone makes "The Newsroom" a standout.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
DAVE DAVIES: Terry Gross interviewed Jeff Daniels, the star of "The Newsroom," last summer when the show premiered. Here's their conversation.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: So one of the things I enjoy about "The Newsroom," part of the drama is about booking the right guests, and because, like, we book guests on our show, it's like yeah, that's what life is about, booking guests. And it's just, like, so exciting to see a drama about booking guests.
But don't you have the reverse feeling? Now that you're doing that fictionally, don't you really want to watch, like, cable news and see who the guests end up being and how well the interview goes?
JEFF DANIELS: I have a much greater appreciation for all of the shows and all of the guys on either side of that cable news aisle, politically, what they deal with. And when they get their go-to guests, the people that come in on a regular basis, and you almost know what they're going to say before they say it. And when they get that new guy, that kind of rogue guest that comes in and kind of goes off-message or - which allows a Chris Matthews or a Sean Hannity or whomever to kind of pounce, I can see it in their eyes.
You know, it's interesting to have done the show, to know pretty much what's being whispered in their ear by the producer in the middle of an interview, to know that when they go off on Sarah Palin, depending on which show you're watching, that's either going to be good for ratings or bad for ratings. And they know before they even hit a subject like that whether they're going to get a spike or not.
Actually, early on, we have a three-way, if you will, interview with just a disastrous - on immigration, a disastrous set of guests that we book at the last minute because our good guests fell out. And it's just a train wreck. And that's probably happened to people who have got the wrong guests on, and they still have to fill five minutes.
GROSS: Yeah, your character ends up asking the questions and answering all of them because the guests have absolutely nothing to say, or they have something totally inane to say, something brief and inane.
DANIELS: That's kind of fun, too.
GROSS: Usually the problem is it's long-winded and inane in that kind of situation.
DANIELS: Yes, yes, they just keep talking, yeah.
GROSS: So I'm wondering if you ever agree with the kind of thing your character says. Like for example, he gives an editorial on one of his broadcasts, and this is in episode three, in which he - first he plays a clip of Richard Clarke, who was in the Bush and Clinton administrations in counterterrorism, apologizing to the American public for not having prevented 9/11.
And then you come on and say that, you know, you appreciated that apology, and now you're going to apologize to the American public, and here's your apology.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE NEWSROOM")
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Good evening, I'm Will McAvoy, this is "News Night," and that was a clip of Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism chief to President George W. Bush, testifying before Congress on March 24, 2004. Americans liked that moment. I liked that moment. Adults should hold themselves accountable for failure.
(as McAvoy) And so tonight, I'm beginning this newscast by joining Mr. Clarke in apologizing to the American people for our failure, the failure of this program during the time I've been in charge of it to successfully inform and educate the American electorate.
(as McAvoy) Let me be clear that I don't apologize on behalf of all broadcast journalists, nor do all broadcast journalists owe an apology. I speak for myself. I was an accomplice to a slow and repeated and unacknowledged and unamended train wreck of failures that have brought us to now.
(As McAvoy) I'm a leader in an industry that miscalled election results, hyped up terror scares, ginned up controversy and failed to report on tectonic shifts in our country, from the collapse of the financial system to the truths about how strong we are to the dangers we actually face.
(as McAvoy) I'm a leader in an industry that misdirected...
GROSS: So that was Jeff Daniels in a scene from episode three of the new HBO series "The Newsroom." So how do you react to what he said in that clip? Do you agree with some of the things that he said about how the media hypes terror scares and takes a dive for the ratings?
DANIELS: Yeah, I think there are - we had a screening last night in New York, and it was like a who's who of the New York national media from all the networks. And during a little cocktail reception before the show, I was talking with a lot of journalists. And a lot of these guys would say, you know, I've been doing this for 35 years, and I remember when Sadat did this, and, you know, I was there in Afghanistan when...
And you're talking to these guys, and they're about to see a show that doesn't call them out but just reminds them that, you know, by the way, there is journalism. There is real journalism, and then there is that spin. There is that thing that they, that the cable news shows will do that plays to their audience, that they know they have to come down on this side of the issue in order to keep that audience tuned in tonight.
And Aaron will tell you he's an idealist. He's a romanticist. He thinks there is a place for truth in journalism, there is a place for these ideals and to hang on to those.
I mean, we are basically making a show about what they've spent their lives doing, and many of them came up afterwards and were very complimentary and were very relieved, I think. It was funny. A lot of them wanted it to be based on them, the character of Will McAvoy. I hope you're basing it on me, but I also hope you're not basing it on me. They were confused.
It was nice to see national-known journalists in a state of kind of confusion.
: Jeff Daniels, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded last year. Daniels stars in the new HBO series "The Newsroom." Its second season premieres Sunday. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's interview recorded last year with Jeff Daniels. He stars in the new HBO series "The Newsroom," which returns for a second season Sunday.
GROSS: So when you're shooting one of the newsroom scenes, you have the newsroom cameras that are in the TV series. Then you have the actual HBO cameras that are shooting the newsroom cameras that are shooting you in the series. So you have two sets of cameras on the set. How confusing in set in terms of you knowing where you're supposed to look?
DANIELS: Well, let's not forget the video monitors that are all over that little...
GROSS: Excuse me.
DANIELS: And the actors tend not to want to watch themselves very often. I'm one of those guys. And all of a sudden there are five TV screens of me behind an anchor desk plus all of those cameras. I mean, there were times when we were up to seven, eight cameras, you know.
I likened it to kind of being in the middle of a six-lane highway, and all the - and you're sitting right in the middle of it in a chair, and the traffic is going 100 miles an hour, (unintelligible), right past you on three sides. And, you know, there were a lot of bells and whistles going on.
And you get - you understand how to do it, you get better at it, but there's - again, an awareness and admiration for the guys who do that on a nightly basis, who are able to keep all those things straight and know where to look and where the guest is and which screen to go to. And by the way, reading the teleprompter, not as easy as it looks.
GROSS: I had to read a teleprompter once. I was, like, guest-hosting a late-night show, the show that Charlie Rose had vacated, and I had to read a teleprompter for the show, and it was the first time I had done it, and I had no idea how to look like I wasn't reading.
I was terrified as it was, but I mean, having to look natural while reading all this copy that's going by on a screen, I don't know how people do it.
DANIELS: There is a trick.
GROSS: What is it?
DANIELS: There is a trick that I learned from an anchor guy, actually locally in Detroit. He goes: Look right in the middle, and kind of out of the corner of your eye, read from left to right, but try to look right down the middle of that prompter, and it won't look like your eyes are going left to right, left to right, left to right.
GROSS: So in "The Newsroom," you do your share of monologues on and off the air.
GROSS: But you also do a lot of duets, as I think of them, where, like, you're with another character, and you have a little showdown or a little, you know, a conflict of some sort. And so, like, you know, the dialogue is very kind of rapid-fire, witty, sometimes, you know, very dense because there's, like, a lot of content to it, too. And I thought I'd play an example of one of your, you know, quote, duets. And this is from episode one.
After you've kind of shocked everybody at a symposium at the Northwestern University campus, you shocked everyone by actually giving your opinion, and your opinion was that America really isn't, like, the best place in the world, the most democratic place in the world, and then you start criticizing things that are wrong with America.
But anyway, so you go on a three-week hiatus after that, and when you return to your show, you find out that your executive producer has left for another show, and he's taken the rest of the staff with him, and you're shocked, and you're angry.
So this is your showdown with that executive producer. His name is Don Keefer, and he's played by Thomas Sadoski. And also in this scene is Sam Waterston, who plays the president of the news division at your cable channel. And the executive producer speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE NEWSROOM")
THOMAS SADOSKI: (as Don) I tried to get in touch with you, but Charlie(ph) said you...
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) You asked to leave?
SADOSKI: (as Don) I did, but we have two weeks before...
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Because of what happened?
SADOSKI: (as Don) No.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Because the second half was a rousing call to...
SADOSKI: (as Don) It has nothing to do with what happened.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Timing is curious.
SADOSKI: (as Don) Didn't you tell him it doesn't have anything to do with what happened?
SAM WATERSTON: (as Charlie Skinner) Yes, and talk to him when you're talking to him.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) After all the time we spent working side by side...
SADOSKI: (as Don) I've been your AP for 13 weeks.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) That's the longest I've ever worked with anybody. I mean, you were the one. You were my guy. We were like the Everly Brothers.
SADOSKI: (as Don) You'll interview some good candidates.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Please, I'll replace you in 15 minutes.
SADOSKI: (as Don) You know, it wasn't the anti-American thing, Will, or even that you aimed a profanity-laced tirade as a college sophomore.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) She's talking about suing the university for mental anguish.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Talking about it to who?
WATERSTON: (as Charlie) Mostly Kathie Lee and Hoda.
SADOSKI: (as Don) Guess who her lawyer is?
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) If you say Gloria Allred...
SADOSKI: (as Don) It's your personality.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) What?
SADOSKI: (as Don) The reason I'm leaving and the reason the others are.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) I'm affable.
SADOSKI: (as Don) To strangers, to people who watch you on TV. You yelled at me in front of the crew.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) That's what this is about.
SADOSKI: (as Don) Yes, that's what this is about.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Oh, you know, I thought - you were talking into my ear.
SADOSKI: (as Don) That's what I'm supposed to do.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) I had Stanley McChrystal on satellite from Kandahar. He's being shot at by the (beep) Taliban, and you were yakking in my ear.
SADOSKI: (as Don) I wasn't yakking. I was telling you not to let him off the hook.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Was that something that really needed to be said four times?
SADOSKI: (as Don) Yeah because you let him off the hook, as was pointed out by everyone with Internet access. You blew that interview, and you took it out on me.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) It was two days after the thing with the student. I thought it would be a good idea to show deference to a three-star...
SADOSKI: (as Don) Well, you took it out on me, you did it in front of the staff, then you took it out on the staff the way you're doing right now.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) The staff isn't here. You're taking the department heads. Who the hell knows who they're taking?
GROSS: OK, so that's Jeff Daniels, along with Thomas Sadoski in a scene from episode one of "The Newsroom," the new HBO series. The student referred to in that scene is the student who asked the question that leads to the long and opinionated answer that your character gives that so astonishes everybody, and her question was something like in one sentence or less, what makes America the best country in the world.
But anyways, that's a perfect example of you uncorking, but also it's an example of the kind of overlapping dialogue that Sorkin so often writes. And I'm wondering if that's scripted in - if that's kind of scored in the pages that you get, where you can see exactly where you're supposed to be speaking over the other character, and the other character sees where he's supposed to be speaking over you.
DANIELS: Yeah, almost to the letter. And also we're encouraged. There are times where they go real good, now just overlap a little bit more. And they kind of leave it up to us. They want it to feel real. They want it to feel like these two guys are having an argument in the hallway, and three cameras just happen to be watching.
And Aaron's not the first to invent this kind of pace, this kind of - you know, Mamet does it. You go to a Broadway show, a play where the dialogue moves, movies like Preston Sturges movies, you know, Kaufman and Hart, Billy Wilder. People - there's pace, and with that pace is the music. That's where there's a rhythm to it. It's almost musical.
You could almost go back through that clip and hear the word hook, let him off the hook, let him off the hook. Those are almost drumbeats. That builds to a certain kind of climax. I mean that - if you do it at the proper pace, it sings.
It also, the interesting thing about the overlapping dialogue and that rhythm and that pace is that it - that's kind of a verbal car chase. I mean, we don't - this isn't an action series. This isn't - you know, we aren't, you know, pulling guns and, you know, cars coming around corners. But we do go after each other, and when done properly at the right pace, and it can be very compelling, almost like an action sequence.
GROSS: What's it like for you, you as an actor, memorizing all this, you know, pretty dense, rapid-fire dialogue and not having the rehearsal and prep time that you'd have if you were doing it on stage? And if you were doing it on stage, you would be doing the same thing every night, and it would become second nature eventually. You don't get that opportunity.
DANIELS: No, and you're doing the same lines every night. We get a new play, basically, 90 pages every two weeks. There is little to no rehearsal, and that's the difference. So as an actor, you can complain about that, or you can ask yourself, well, what do I have to do to get ready because we're going to shoot it whether I'm ready or not on Tuesday, and it's 13 pages, and I have to do similar to what that clip was. We have to be able to own it.
GROSS: What's your technique for memorizing?
DANIELS: I've got to just walk through it. I memorize it like a grocery list, bland. Alan Arkin taught me that. I did a TV thing with Alan, he directed it. He'd always been a hero of mine. And he said: Let's do a reading, let's read the script and just read it flat, like a grocery list, no choices, nothing. I don't want anything, nothing, just read it as boringly and as blandly as possible.
And that's one thing that helps me is I learn it blandly, vanilla, then I don't try to act it too soon because you start to act it, and you kind of go away from what the next sentence is, what the next paragraph is. So get it down so it kind of can - it's in there so you can then, as I call it, dance on top of it.
You've got to know it before you can dance on top of it and make it sound like it's something falling out of this guy's head instead of off of a page.
DAVE DAVIES : We'll have more of Terry's interview with Jeff Daniels in the second half of the show. Here's David Byrne(ph) and Celia Cruz(ph) from the soundtrack of "Something Wild," which starred Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVE DAVIES: ...FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
Let's get back to our interview with Jeff Daniels, who plays cable news anchor Will McAvoy on the HBO series "The Newsroom." Season two of "The Newsroom" begins this Sunday.
Jeff Daniels has been in many movies, including "Terms of Endearment," "Something Wild," "Dumb and Dumber," "Blood Work" and "The Squid and the Whale." He received a Tony nomination for his role in the original Broadway production of "God of Carnage," which also starred James Gandolfini. Terry spoke with Jeff Daniels last year, a few days before "The Newsroom" premiered.
GROSS: Well, I want to play a scene from one of your movies - and this was - I forget what year it is - but it's maybe four or five years ago, "The Squid and the Whale."
GROSS: And you play a professor who sees himself as like a great writer, a great novelist, but he just can't get his next book written and he's certain it's going to be great once he gets it done - once he writes it. And he defines everything and everyone according to their artistic value or artistic talent or literary merit. He rates his own very high.
GROSS: And it's among the reasons his marriage is breaking up. So in this scene he's playing ping-pong with his younger son, who's played by Owen Kline.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SQUID AND THE WHALE")
DANIELS: (as Bernard Berkman) Nineteen-seven. Have you given more thought to what you're interested in? Come on. You have to try. It's no fun for me if you don't try.
OWEN KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) I wanna be a tennis pro like lvan.
DANIELS: (as Bernard Berkman) Oh, come one. You don't wanna be a tennis pro.
KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) Why not?
DANIELS: (as Bernard Berkman) It's not serious. I mean McEnroe. Borg is an artist. It's like dance. Connors has a brutish brilliance, but at Ivan's level, Ivan is fine, but he's not a serious guy. He's a Philistine.
KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) What's a Philistine?
DANIELS: (as Bernard Berkman) It's a guy who and doesn't care about books or interesting films and things. Your mother's brother Ned is also a Philistine.
KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) Then I'm a Philistine.
DANIELS: (as Bernard Berkman) No. You're interested in books and things. You liked "The Wild Child" when we saw it.
KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) Lots of people like that movie. No. I'm a Philistine.
GROSS: That's my guest, Jeff Daniels, with Owen Kline in a scene from "The Squid and the Whale." I felt like I knew your character, you know?
DANIELS: Oh, he's out there. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, he's out there. He's very recognizable to me and I'm sure you've known him too because that character not only lives in English departments, he lives in theaters and I'm sure in movie sets as well.
GROSS: So who did you draw on for that like very self-absorbed, really pretentious character?
DANIELS: I had written plays. I have a theater company in Michigan, The Purple Rose Theater Company, and over the last 20 years or so I've written, you know, 15 plays. So I knew the writer's life. I knew that solitary existence. I knew about writing something and then not being appreciated or not having, you know, or not being, you know, heralded like you think you should be. There was that. I, you know, I get sent books that were self-published, and usually for a reason. And - you know, here's a book I self-published that I wrote that you're perfect for. Could you give it to Spielberg?
DANIELS: And so I - it didn't - it's not a big leap to know who that guy is. You know, you know, brilliant in his own universe, and you know, the world revolves around his brilliance, and if only everyone would just catch up. It's not too hard to kind of create that guy, you know, on your own.
GROSS: So you were in the Broadway production of "God of Carnage," a much acclaimed production. And of course the movie had a completely different set of actors. Were you and the other actors who originated the roles asked to be in the movie?
DANIELS: I think at some point Jim might have been, you know, approached. But...
GROSS: James Gandolfini.
DANIELS: Yeah. Yeah. But no, they wanted to get actors with film experience.
GROSS: You have film experience.
DANIELS: Do I? Apparently not.
GROSS: Was it in a way just as well, in the sense that I think theater - film adaptations of plays don't always work? Sometimes plays work because they're plays. They weren't meant to be movies.
DANIELS: Yeah. I only saw the trailer. That's all I could do.
GROSS: That's what I saw.
DANIELS: You know, John and Kate and all those folks, you know, are good people, and my god, a job's a job and they did - they went at it with all the gusto they possibly could and, you know, I hope it was a good experience for them. However, I couldn't imagine topping what happened on Broadway. On Broadway, the audience is stuck in that room with the four of us. You don't cut away. There isn't - you know, at least to another location or even cut away to the other side of the room. In a way that kind of lets the audience off the hook. The beauty of the stage production was that you're locked in the room with us and I think that was part of what made it successful. It's too bad that - we had a lot of great directors come through - Mike Nichols, Spielberg, you know, Demme, others, Jim Brooks, who easily could have said, you know, is the option open? Yes. Why don't we run over to Brooklyn next week and shoot this thing? That might have been a great thing to have happened, but it didn't. I mean Yasmina...
(SOUNDBITE OF CLEARING THROAT)
DANIELS: ...had, you know, moved on to Roman and a different cast and she wanted to do a rewrite, and that's fine. It's her play.
GROSS: Yasmina is the playwright and Roman is Roman Polanski, who directed the film adaptation.
GROSS: So when you were on stage, you switched parts. You eventually played the role that James Gandolfini played. How did that happen? Why did that happen?
DANIELS: Well, we had all - we had done the run from March 1st through middle of November. And we left, you know, my god, what a production, sold out; you know, Broadway history, all that, thank you very much. Goodbye. And they brought in another cast and they got to continue it on and the play kept going. And then there was a third cast about four months later. And the producers prior to that called and said, would you consider doing the other role? And it was such a compliment. You know, I'd never voiced that. I'd never gone to the producers and say, hey, by the way. They just kind - it was on their own. I was flattered. And then I thought about the Broadway history of it all and how many actors had flipped roles in the same production. And I was aware of Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly doing it in "True West." I think Olivier did it in the '60s in a Becket piece, I believe. And I think, oh, Ed Begley Sr. did it - "Inherit the Wind" in the '50s. There may have been others, but those are the ones I knew of, so there weren't many. I wanted to be one of those guys. So I said sure, but first let me talk to Jim. So I called up Gandolfini. I said, look, I got to meet you. I got to talk to you about something. And so he met me...
DANIELS: ...in New York. And he pulled up in his car and we pulled around the corner and he parked there. And you know, suddenly I'm in a "Sopranos" episode. And I - I said, first of all, do you want to go back in? No. I'm done. I said, OK. They've offered me the chance to go back in. He goes, really? I said, yeah, in your role. And he just started laughing at me. Just started laughing. And he goes, you should do it because I want to see what you do in such a such a speech, because I hated that speech. I said, OK. If I have your permission I'll do it, but I don't want to screw the friendship up. And he couldn't have been nicer and more supportive and actually came to see it and, you know, was very nice about it. And then we did it a year later. We did it in LA. We brought the original Broadway cast back. And I was sincerely, genuinely very happy to go back to the other role and I felt like I - that's the role I owned. Doing Jim's role, I felt like I was renting it. I really did. I may have done it differently, but I certainly didn't improve on what he did, that's for sure.
GROSS: The odd thing to me about doing both roles is that these are two characters in conflict who very much have their own opposing points of view. And to play each character and to get into the head of each character seems odd because you'd end up having maybe more empathy for the other character than your character could possibly have.
DANIELS: No. I'm pretty good at simplifying, maybe justifying. You know, like "Squid and the Whale." He's right. He's absolutely right about everything he's saying. It's her fault the marriage blew up, he is a brilliant writer, and the kids need to understand him and appreciate him more. That's it. That's what you walk into the room with. And so when you do "Carnage" and you do Alan, the one role, what's he right about - this, that and the other thing. And then you go over and play Michael and you get into his head. And he believes this, believes that, his strengths are this, his weaknesses are that, and you play him. I trick myself sometimes. I imagine the real Alan is sitting out in the audience tonight. I imagine the real Michael is sitting out there and they're going don't screw this up. Be authentic. Make me, you know, play me honestly, please. That's a good actor's trick.
DAVE DAVIES: Jeff Daniels, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded last year. Daniels stars in the HBO series "The Newsroom." Its second season premiers Sunday. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVE DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and we're listening to Terry's interview recorded last year with Jeff Daniels.
GROSS: Another film I want to ask you about is "Blood Work," which was directed by Clint Eastwood, who also starred in it as - what was he, a former FBI agent who'd had like heart problems but now he's investigating a murder, and you're one of the people involved the story. You end up being the villain.
DANIELS: Yeah. That sounds about right. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. So anyway, so you've got to see the two Clint Eastwoods at the same time, director Clint Eastwood and, you know, detective Clint Eastwood. So what was the difference between the two Clint Eastwoods?
GROSS: I mean one was out to kill you.
GROSS: And what was out to direct you.
DANIELS: Well, one had a gun.
DANIELS: The director is - I'd heard about it but couldn't believe it when I saw it. It's usually one take. And he hired you for a reason, because you're good, and so I want you to do it the way you think it should be done. Go. And you do the one take. He goes, good. Thank you. And moves the camera. And you're going, wow. I mean if an actor ever wanted to control his performance and they're only getting one take, that's the way to do it.
He's so supportive. I remember asking him before the movie started, you know, some wardrobe question or something. I said, you know, we're - is it the - should it be the blue jacket or the brown jacket? He goes, you're the actor. But, well, the brown one. Sounds like the brown one. And that was it, you know.
DANIELS: I said OK. I've got it. And he couldn't have been more supportive and nicer and easier - the easiest set to be on ever. An interestingly, Clint Eastwood in capital letters, that guy, it was fascinating as an actor to sit off-camera. We're driving in a car up a road and he is in the passenger seat, I'm driving, and it's doing his close-up, and I can see him just kind of being Clint, you know, in his 70s, the director, and he looks back at the camera guys - are you ready? Yes, sir. All right. Here we go. And I could see him just come up into it and become Clint Eastwood. He knew exactly where to hold his head, how to lay the speech out, and you could see it happen right in front of you. And then he'd get to the end of the speech or the scene, he'd go, all right, that's enough of that. And it would go away.
DANIELS: I'd only seen - I'd seen that before with Cagney. My first film was "Ragtime," back in '81 maybe? And James Cagney was in his early 80s and Milos Forman wanted him for the role of the police commissioner. And they brought us in to a studio in New York City and they had Cagney come down from his farm in Upstate New York. Cagney didn't think he could do it. And they brought him in. He had a nurse with him and he was coming in on a walker. And he sat down at a table and we were just going to read the scene. Cagney wanted a screen test just to see if he could do it. And Milos was so in his corner. And it was a four-page scene and he just, God bless him, he couldn't do it. And it was a three-page. Then Milos cut it to two pages. Then he cut it down to one page with four lines. And after about half an hour, with this very old actor sitting there, wishing, trying to will himself into doing it, he finally got on top of those four lines. And you could see it on the little black and white monitor up on the screen back in the early '80s there, he became Cagney. You could see that old guy, that old image, that old star behind all those years, in the eyes, you could see it. And Milos: Cut, good. You're doing the role. That was it. Same thing with Clint.
GROSS: What's the lesson in that for you? I mean to watch them become the icon that they are?
DANIELS: I think it's a style of acting that you trust. You trust the instincts. Meryl Streep's brilliant, just brilliant. I've been fortunate to do two movies with Meryl. And for an actor to go moment to moment like she does, there's no one better. And she dances between moments. Each take is different because she's riding instincts, she's riding impulses. And she trusts that.
She doesn't try to plan everything out ahead of time or she doesn't do a take and hold herself back. She risks failure and she allows herself to kind of be open to wherever it goes. And that's what I saw these guys do, is just relax and kind of become that and then see and ride it.
And they would ride that image they had created over the years or ride that feeling that happens between action and cut. It's a different style of acting. We did that on "Newsroom" because there were so many cameras you never knew where the camera was. So why don't you just risk failure? And jump off the cliff and start flapping your arms and hope you fly.
It's a very exciting way to work and through the, you know, wonderful world of editing, they'll save you every time.
GROSS: So a question about "Dumb and Dumber." You starred in that...
GROSS: You starred in that with Jim Carrey.
DANIELS: I love - on FRESH AIR with Terry Gross we're talking about "Dumb and Dumber." No, it's beautiful, beautiful.
GROSS: So Jim Carrey is, like, great at physical comedy and pratfalls and stuff. That's not your thing, although you've done really good physical comedy like even in the "Answer Man," which was an independent film. There's some very funny physical comedy in that because your back always hurt. Oh, I have to say, as someone who has had back pain, I loved the way you walked and stuff when your back hurt.
DANIELS: Sure. I think I was actually on my hands and knees crawling to a chiropractor through the streets of Philadelphia where we shot the film.
GROSS: There was that scene. Yeah.
DANIELS: I remember there are scenes, yes.
GROSS: But you weren't always in that bad pain, but...
DANIELS: And because it was an independent picture there was no security. So I'm crawling amongst real Philadelphians who are looking down at, what's the guy from "Dumb and Dumber" doing crawling on all fours, crossing the street? Oh, well.
GROSS: So in "Dumb and Dumber" you're with Jim Carrey who specializes in physical comedy and pratfalls. What's the most, like, physically challenging thing you had to do in that film?
DANIELS: In "Dumb and Dumber?"
DANIELS: Let's see. Well, certainly the toilet scene was a challenge.
GROSS: Yes. It was what, a humiliation challenge?
DANIELS: Well, as I told Pete Farrelly, the director, he and Bobby before the scene started I said, well, this is either the beginning of my career or the end of it.
DANIELS: And, no, it's going to be great, man. Here's what you do. And so we got on there. And I think the actual act of what happens on the toilet, I think they had cut it down to about 30 seconds, but there were takes that were two, two-and-a-half minutes long of just pure agony of what was going on in that action.
And so there were times, and I think there's one close-up where I'm - I have so much - I'm pushing so hard that the blood in my head, you know, it can happen when you get all the blood - and I almost passed out. I almost fell off the toilet. And I'm pretty sure they used that shot. So, yeah, that was - physically that was - the career was at a crossroads when that scene was finished. Yeah.
GROSS: GROSS: How much trust do you have to have in the Farrelly brothers to do a scene like that, that could end up being not only humiliating but not funny? I mean, you don't know if it's going to be funny, really, until you see it.
DANIELS: Well, and Jim will tell you the same thing. We know where funny is. You know, we didn't get where we got without guessing right a lot or having that instinct of where the laugh is. But it's film. I mean, we're not going to find out if a general audience laughs for a year. So there's that. So you're at the mercy of whoever's cutting it. We have comic timing; we know that. You're born with it and that's not something you can teach.
But once you've got it and you know it, OK, that's the rhythm of it. That's where funny is. Great. And if they stay in a two-shot, then you control it. If they start cutting back and forth then you just have to trust that the directors and the editors have comic timing as well. And, you know, certainly they did, and certainly the Farrelly brothers do.
So it was easy to trust. But I've always found that the great comedians are fearless. You know, great film comedians like Peter Sellers and you can go back to, my god, Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. I mean, they will do anything - anything - and then cut it later and edit it later. And it's just a take. I mean, if you're holding back then you're probably not going to find funny.
GROSS: Jeff Daniels, it's really been great to talk with you. I wish you good luck with "The Newsroom" and thank you very much for talking with us.
DANIELS: Thank you, Terry. A pleasure.
: Jeff Daniels speaking with Terry Gross, recorded last year. Daniels stars in the HBO drama "The Newsroom." Its second season premieres Sunday. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Fruitvale Station." This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST: The film "Fruitvale Station" is a dramatization of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, whose shooting by police in 2009 was caught on bystanders' cell phone cameras. It stars Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and Michael B. Jordan, best known for his roles as Wallace on the first season of "The Wire" and Vince Howard on "Friday Night Lights." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The actor Michael B. Jordan gives a major performance in Ryan Coogler's debut film "Fruitvale Station." He plays the 22 year old African-American Oscar Grant who was shot in a run-in with cops at an Oakland, California train stop in the early hours of 2009. The film opens with cell phone footage of the actual event so you know what's coming.
But the Oscar you meet on the last day of 2008 remains a man, not a martyr. In Jordan's hands, he's an unstable child-man in a jittery society. He's an ex-con, a former drug dealer. His motor runs fast. He acts before he thinks. He's quick to get riled up but equally quick to turn affectionate. You can see him trying to temper himself, to grow up before your eyes.
In the first scene he's grilled by his girlfriend Sophina, played by Melonie Diaz, about an affair with another woman. He's busted and he knows it. But he doesn't get haughty. He tells her the relationship meant nothing and his eyes are sharp and clear. You get the sense he really means it, that he's determined to be with Sophina forever and be a real dad to their four year old daughter, Tatiana, played by a heart wrenching cutie named Ariana Neal.
Oscar wins you over completely a short time later. He's driving to work - actually, to the supermarket where he used to work before he got fired for being late too many times. He phones his mother, played with biting emotion by Octavia Spencer, who asks if he's driving and then if he's talking on a headset. He says yes, he's on a headset - a lie - but as he's saying that, he pulls over and slides the phone over his ear into his tight cap.
Kind of like a headset. Lying to his mom didn't sit right. After things go badly at the supermarket, Oscar is on the verge of dealing pot again when he remembers his mother's final visit to him in prison and the film flashes back.
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OCTAVIA SPENCER: (as mother) I'm not coming here for these visits anymore. This is my last time.
MICHAEL B. JORDAN: (as Oscar) I know. I know. I know. I know this is the last time for me too, I told you that. I ain't going down no more.
SPENCER: (as mother) You gonna keep putting Sophina through this? Then you go right ahead. OK? But Tatiana? That baby doesn't deserve this, Oscar.
JORDAN: (as Oscar) She's too young to know what's going on.
SPENCER: (as mother) So I guess that's why she asked me why you loved taking your vacations more than you like being with her.
JORDAN: (as Oscar) Ma, you got to tell her I love her. Tell her - tell her I ain't never gonna leave her.
SPENCER: (as mother) Tell her yourself. The next time you call home, you tell her yourself. Or better yet, let her come visit you here.
JORDAN: (as Oscar) Yeah, but I don't... She don't need to be exposed to this.
SPENCER: (as mother) You already exposed her. You already exposed her to this.
JORDAN: (as Oscar) So you're just going to leave me? You're going to leave me again? What kind of mom is you? I'm in here by myself.
SPENCER: (as mother) I love you, Oscar.
JORDAN: (as Oscar) You don't love nothing.
SPENCER: (as mother) I do. And I'm praying for you. I'll see you when you get home.
JORDAN: (as Oscar) Hey, Ma. Hold up. Let me get a hug, Ma.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as guard) Grant!
JORDAN: (as Oscar) Hey, Ma, I can't get a hug?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as guard) Back to the visiting area, Grant!
JORDAN: (as Oscar) Hey, Ma, I'm sorry! Get out of here. Ma, I'm sorry. Can I please get a hug, Ma? Ma, at least give me a hug.
EDELSTEIN: Director Ryan Coogler doesn't fill in the rest of Oscar's life - how he was raised, the nature of his juvenile crimes, how he got caught and sent to prison. So it's hard to know if he's sweetened the portrait. He shows Oscar interacting broadly, buoyantly, generously with people of all races, even creating a sort of utopian multi-racial community on the BART train heading for San Francisco on New Year's Eve.
Most of the time, though, Coogler depicts a hyper-masculine world full of dangerous corners in which every encounter - with a store manager, an inmate, or one of the film's ubiquitous cops - has the potential to get ugly fast. "Fruitvale Station" is shot in black and white, its texture rough. Coogler uses all kinds of tricks - quick inserts of the subway station, a documentary-like handheld camera - to keep this from seeming like a middle brow message movie.
The climax, when it comes, feel preventable, not inevitable. Cops arrive to break up a fight that has already ended. Oscar and his friends get down on the ground but they're mouthy. They want the last word. The cops don't diffuse the tense situation; they seem eager to escalate it. No one lets anything go.
The end of "Fruitvale Station": a hospital sequence, a crawl that says what happened next, some true life footage, isn't very satisfying. But everything up to the gunshot is indelible. Coogler and Michael B. Jordan have made at least momentary sense of the tragically senseless.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.