STAGE TO SCREENS: Jeff Daniels Is the Anchor of HBO's "The Newsroom"

By Christopher Wallenberg
13 Jul 2012

Aaron Sorkin
Photo by John Russo
Certainly it's not a novel idea to accuse TV news of favoring sensationalism over what's actually relevant, to say that ratings often drive the bus in news coverage instead of independent journalistic judgment. What do you make of Sorkin's critiques of the TV news media?
JD: We did a screening in New York the week before the show premiered, and all of the New York media and cable news people were there — people from "60 Minutes" and producers from CNN and MSNBC. I talked to a couple of 'em, and one of them said, "I hope that the show deals with those of us who are trying to hang on to the ideals of journalism and just doesn't attack the whole industry in a general sense — that we're all a bunch of idiots who are covering the Kardashians."

I think the show does try to hang on to those ideals of journalism. It was interesting to see and to hear these guys say, "We fight that fight every day." They're constantly going up against the ratings. If they should continue to cover a certain scandalous story, their ratings will rise. Or if they move away from that story, their ratings will drop. It's this push-pull thing they have with advertisers and corporate. So that's what Will and MacKenzie go up against. They try to do "Nothing but the truth, here we come." And it costs them ratings, and Will's job becomes in jeopardy.

One of the show's critiques is that the media is obsessed with fairness and balance. As MacKenzie and Will articulate, some news media have a bias toward fairness, but that there isn't always two sides to every argument — and sometimes you have to call out a ridiculous argument as exactly that. Do you think that's a valid criticism?
JD: I see Aaron's point on that. MacKenzie says, you know, sometimes there is only one side to a story, and sometimes there are five. And then Will makes that reference to leaning so hard the other way as to appear fair and balanced. I don't know, I don't think about that as much. I'm more focused on the cable news guys — how the left stays on the left, and the right stays on the right. That's what I see. As Will said last week: Let's cut through the spin. Let's cut through the marketing. Let's cut through the branding. Let's cut through the talking points. Let's give these people not only the facts, but as we say often in the series, "the two best competing arguments," and then let the viewer decide. Too often we're just given talking points from a guest or an interview or segment of a political party. We have a line later on in the season where I just throw up my hands and go, "Why can't we call a lie a lie when we know it's a lie?" We start to [do that], and that gets us in trouble.

Daniels in God of Carnage.
photo by Joan Marcus

You've kind of become the go-to guy for playing characters with a caustic dry wit or a sardondic intellectual streak to them: God of Carnage, "The Squid and the Whale," "The Answer Man." There's something about the character of Will in "The Newsroom" that seems a natural fit for you as an actor. Did it feel that way?
JD: Yeah. I guess so. I hadn't thought about that. I was thinking more about the fact that, you know, I am one of those angry Americans who's been dissatisfied with both sides of the aisle — and government, to be honest. I mean, there are people doing good things and trying to do good things. But I get angrier and angrier at the corruption, the look-the-other-way attitude, and the political environment in Washington. There are a lot of people out there who care and want the people in Washington to do better. So that's this character. It's all in that opening speech. It just spoke to me. There was no research necessary.

There's lots of great theatre talent working on the showJohn Gallagher, Jr., Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski and Sam Waterston. Do you think actors with lots of theatre experience have a particular facility for speaking Sorkin's dialogue?
JD: They did a smart thing. They hired a lot of theatre people. We're used to a lot of words. We're used to being off-book and just knowing it. And that came in handy because it really is like doing a new play every two weeks. It really helped with the memorization. Sometimes you'll do movies and TV shows, and people will just be looking at the script that morning. You can't do that with Aaron. Very quickly, that became the drill: Know the script, and know what you're going to do with it when you get there in the morning. With Aaron, you memorize every word. There's nothing that's ad-libbed on the show. And, to theatre people, we don't even blink at that, because that's what the theatre is. You memorize what the playwright writes, and that's it. Whereas, in Hollywood, sometimes the actors think that they're the writers and try to come in and change everything, which is one of the courses they teach in Star School.