STAGE TO SCREENS: Jeff Daniels Is the Anchor of HBO's "The Newsroom"
By Christopher Wallenberg
Aaron Sorkin's new TV series about the state of broadcast journalism, "The Newsroom," stars stage and screen actor Jeff Daniels. The actor talks with Playbill about the sheer theatricality of Sorkin's work.
The pulse-quickening dialogue in an Aaron Sorkin drama hurtles at you like a blazing Roger Federer forehand. Whether it's his breakthrough stage-to-screen work A Few Good Men, his landmark television series "The West Wing," his Oscar-winning film "The Social Network," or his divisive new HBO drama "The Newsroom," Sorkin delivers whip-smart verbal volleying and rousing arias on journalism, politics, pop culture and human relations that is at once crackling, caustic, stylish and thought-provoking.
And who better than Jeff Daniels — as the brilliant, arrogant and irascible cable news anchor Will McAvoy — to deliver that quicksilver banter? After all, Daniels has made acerbic erudition and droll verbosity a hallmark of his recent roles. There was the sardonic blind sidekick Lewis in "The Lookout," the mercurial self-help author and bitter recluse Arlen Faber in "The Answer Man," and the pompous, cell-phone-wielding corporate lawyer with dreadful parenting skills in God of Carnage on Broadway. The high water mark was Daniels' tour-de-force turn in Noah Baumbach's family divorce drama "The Squid and the Whale," in which he imbued the epically narcissistic blowhard Bernard Berkman with a ramshackle pathos.
In the opening episode of "The Newsroom" on June 24, Daniels' cable news host Will McAvoy — mocked as a blandly inoffensive Jay Leno news figure obsessed with his likeability and protective of his own political views — shocks his constituents at a journalism school panel with a "Network"-style meltdown, reminiscent of Howard Beale's infamous "I'm mad as hell" rant in that picture. Responding to a question by a naïve young college student who asks why America is the greatest country in the world, Will launches into a fact-and-figure-filled harangue about why that's absolutely not true anymore, but insisting that America can once again return to its faded glory days. His diatribe is captured by cell-phone cameras in the auditorium, and the video quickly goes viral.
After Will returns from a weeks-long exile, he learns that his boss Charlie (Sam Waterston) has hired a hotshot new executive producer for "News Night," MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), who just happens to be Will's ex-girlfriend. MacKenzie, with Charlie's backing, implores Will to seize the moment and revamps "News Night" into a program whose primary concern is giving viewers information that they can use in the voting booth — which means putting facts at the center of the show, ignoring ratings, and avoiding sensationalistic stories like the Casey Anthony trial or human interest fluff. "There's nothing that's more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate," MacKenzie tells Will.
Needless to say, when the show's ratings start to plummet, their new approach draws the ire of the network's corporate owner (Jane Fonda) and her henpecked son, Reese (Chris Messina), the company's president.
The critical reaction to "The Newsroom" has been polarizing. It's been decried as sanctimonious and self-righteous — that the characters are talking at each other and at the audience. In the second episode, Thomas Sadoski's Don says to Alison Pill's Maggie that what MacKenzie and Will are trying to do with "News Night," won't work. "Nobody's going to watch a classroom," he says. "They'll either be bored or infuriated." Which pretty much sums up some of the negative early critiques of the show. Sorkin has also come under fire for his problematic writing of female characters. One Slate critic admonished the show for being "a sexist mess, where the women are neurotic, tech-incompetent emotional morons who snap into professionalism just in time to make the men they bolster look good."
Other prominent voices have come to the show's defense, including The New Yorker's David Denby and legendary former CBS news anchor Dan Rather, who wrote (on Gawker!) that "The Newsroom," "gets close to the bone of what happens, what really happens, behind the scenes in newsrooms and the boardrooms that govern them."
Despite divisive reviews, the ratings have been a bright spot, and HBO has already renewed the series for a second season.
Calling from his home in Chelsea, Michigan, where he's spending the summer, Daniels discussed Sorkin's musical way with words, the contentious reaction to the show, his sideline career as a playwright and theatre impresario (he founded the popular Michigan Equity theatre Purple Rose Theatre Company), and how James Gandolfini helped him navigate his first television series gig after more than 50 films.
What about Will's transformation really appealed to you? Why did you want to play this guy?
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?
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?
There's lots of great theatre talent working on the show — John 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: 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.
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!'"
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?
The reaction to the show so far has been pretty polarizing so far…
Just a little. Some people like it, and others loathe it. The negative reviews have been sharply critical of what they see as a sanctimonious and self-righteous tone, that there's too much speechifying and pontificating. Or that Sorkin is injecting his own politics into it. What is your response to those critiques?
Do you think the show has come under more scrutiny and taken such a beating in the press because it's about the media and the news business itself?
JD: I did it for a lot of reasons, personally. But I really wanted to create a Circle Rep of the Midwest or what I remember of Circle Rep [the famed New York theatre company where Daniels first got his start in the 1970s]. We were certainly looking to theatres like Steppenwolf and people who had already started doing that kind of thing. I wanted to see if I could do it in southeastern Michigan, in the middle of corn fields. To gather a company of professionals from around here, meaning actors, directors, designers, and then to get playwrights writing. But finding writers and turning them into playwrights takes time. You've got to develop them and show them that you're going to produce their stuff while they get better. Then doing new plays. That's what Lanford [Wilson] and [director] Marshall [Mason] taught me at Circle Rep. That's all they did were new plays. So I was interested in all of that — blindly so. And we had a lot of peaks and valleys, swings and misses. But we gained a consistency in the second decade that we've been able to maintain. The production level became very high, and we built an audience. I mean, who knew whether anyone would come after the first year? What the art of theatre has done for this community, you can see it in the faces of the people. You can see it in the minds that have been changed — in the artists and also in the audience. That's been the most gratifying thing: To see that theatre can still make a difference. I think Marsha Norman said that good theatre can change lives, and the Purple Rose has proven that.
You've written 14 plays for the Purple Rose so far. And you're going to be premiering a new comedy The Meaning of Almost Everything at the theatre in January. What's that all about?
Love the title…very tongue-in-cheek.
Your three-decade-plus career encompasses more than 60 films and TV movies. But "The Newsroom" marks your first foray as a regular on a television series. What's that been like doing series television for the first time?
Now that you're committed to doing "The Newsroom" for a second season, will you have any time for theatre? When will we see you back on stage again?
The chemistry between the four of you was electric.
Christopher Wallenberg is a Brooklyn-based arts and entertainment reporter and regular contributor to the Boston Globe, Playbill and American Theatre magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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