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 Melissa Moseley
You started the Purple Rose Theatre Company more than 20 years ago in your hometown of Chelsea, MI, near Ann Arbor. What were your goals when you first started the company, and do you feel that you've accomplished what you set out to do there?
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?
JD: It's about a guy who really doesn't want to participate in time. He'd just prefer to stay in this one moment — right here, right now. That moment — the one that just passed. He wants to be in that moment forever. So he's just going to do that. Then another guy shows up and says, "Well, that's not how life works. That's not how time works. You have to go to the next moment. You have to live on." And the guy says, "Nope. No, I don't. I refuse to participate." So it's this struggle of…well, people have written paragraphs about it, but the duality of man, hanging on to each and every moment and resisting death. It covers everything. That's why it's called The Meaning of Almost Everything. [Laughs.]

Matthew David, Rhiannon Ragland, Alex Leydenfrost and Michelle Mountain in the Purple Rose Theatre production of Best Friends, a play by Daniels

Love the title…very tongue-in-cheek.
JD: Yeah. It just seemed to fit. As if someone could know everything. It's very funny. They go to great lengths to prove each side of that argument. It's a bit vaudevillian, a bit Abbott and Costello. There's an archness to the dialogue. Let's just say that the thesaurus was smoking.

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?
JD: Well, ever since I did "The Squid and the Whale," I've been chasing writing. I just want to find good writing and go do that — wherever it is, whatever it pays, that's what I want to do. So I was doing a lot of indies. "The Answer Man," John Hindman wrote a really strong script. "Paper Man" [2008]. "Squid." "The Lookout" [2007]. The writing is what kept me interested in the work, because I was losing interest. Then Carnage came along and Blackbird came along [staged at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007, with Daniels opposite "Newsroom" co-star Alison Pill]. Those were all writing choices. They were tricky. They were hard. I wasn't sure I knew how to do them. I knew I might fail. But I wanted to try. A lot of TV writing, on both cable and the networks, is getting so much better. On the cable side of things, they're taking chances. There's a creative freedom there. The writer is encouraged. He's respected in television in a way that I don't always see in movies. Certainly in theatre you see it. But not in film as much — where people rewrite and ad-lib and note things to death. And as an actor who just wants to come in and act, television is a great place for me to be right now.



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?
JD: Oh, sure, I'd like to think so. No idea in what or when or anything like that. But I love New York. I loved the whole Carnage thing. That will probably be something that we never top, as far as the critical and box-office reaction to it.

The chemistry between the four of you was electric.
JD: That's one reason that we all got together and did it again in L.A. We genuinely liked each other. And talk about four different people! Out of it, we've all become great friends. Gandolfini has been such a help on this HBO series, I can't tell you. The fact that he's been through it all before with "The Sopranos." He and Sam Waterston, who have both done series TV before, have been real good sounding boards for me — in terms of places I could go. Jim [Gandolfini] was just very helpful to me in getting through it. Because you feel overwhelmed at carrying the load. He knew where I was when I was struggling. He'd go, "It will get better, don't worry. But first it's going to get worse." [Laughs.] There are tricks to doing it, and Jim was a great place to go to talk about that.

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 chriswallenberg@gmail.com.