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

By Christopher Wallenberg
13 Jul 2012

Daniels on "The Newsroom."
Photo by John P. Johnson
You're also a writer. Did that help you as an actor in trying to learn all that dense Sorkin dialogue and speak it in a way that doesn't sound pat or perfunctory and will really jump off the screen?
JD: The whole trick with Aaron is to get ahead of him. You can't be playing catch-up. The dialogue is so intricate and musical, just like a play. Once you start working on a play, there's a music to it. The great writers all write with a rhythm — all the way back to Shakespeare. Mamet certainly does. Lanford [Wilson] did. And Aaron is the same way. That's why you memorize every single word, because there's a rhythm to it. Then with Sorkin, because you're going at what seems like a hundred miles an hour, you don't have time to kind of pause and stutter your way through a line as you try to remember it. You've got to know it so well that you can get on top of it and dance on top of it — so that you can give different inflections, different speeds, add different spins on it. You do it a whole bunch of ways, so that they have some options in the editing room. But you can't give them options if you don't know it. Let me say this: I brought my golf clubs to California, and they never left the apartment. You spend the weekend sleeping and memorizing. A long answer, but it gets to what theatre people all know, which is getting the dialogue cemented in your head, so it feels like the 100th performance of a play. That's a whole different settling in — when you know it, you own it, you don't worry about it.

Alison Pill on "The Newsroom."
photo by Melissa Moseley

There's not only a lyrical and musical quality to Sorkin's writing, but he also references lots of musicals in the show itself! Sorkin got a BFA in musical theatre from Syracuse University. And he recently told a reporter, "Every time I turn in a script, [producer] Scott Rudin writes across the top, 'Your degree, finally at work!'"
JD: Yeah. I don't think an episode goes by without a reference to some Broadway musical or musical theatre. We're kind of always going, "Oh, here's another one!" We cover quite a few of them in the course of the first season: Brigadoon, Camelot, Oklahoma!, Man of La Mancha, Annie Get Your Gun.

At first, Will comes across as a pompous, irascible jerk. But we start to see the cracks in the facade and glimpses of a more vulnerable and self-loathing side to him. How will the character change over the course of the season?
JD: Well, they will see him try. The trick to playing an unlikable character is, you know, don't try to make him likable. But just maybe if you're lucky, the audience will understand what he's going through. Sometimes that takes time. I think over the course of the series, he still is who he is. He still feels betrayed and feels that way deeply, and MacKenzie is the cause. A lot of his friends are on the other side of that camera, and that's a lonely place to be when those are your friends. And MacKenzie is a woman who he is still madly in love with, and at the same time he hates her guts, because of what she did. He got hurt. And he tries to find a way to make it okay, to forgive her, to get over his own anger and issues, so that he can work with her and maybe even be with her again. That struggle is a lot of what this first season is about — for both of them. There's been so much damage done to the point that there is no going back. Yet here they are, thrown together in a work situation. That's what Sorkin does. He creates this impossible situation. Despite everything that's happened between them, they now have to work together every day.

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