I’m working harder in my 60s than in any decade of my career,” Jeff Daniels says via phone from his home in Chelsea, Michigan, and his recent run of projects on stage and screen certainly seems to indicate a staunch Midwestern work ethic. Since beginning his Emmy-winning turn as news anchor Will McAvoy in HBO’s The Newsroom in 2013, Daniels has put together a streak of acclaimed roles, ranging from a counter-terrorism expert in Hulu’s The Looming Tower to an Old West outlaw in Netflix’s Godless to the iconic lawyer Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
While these are multifaceted characters that diverge widely from one another in many ways, they’re all unmistakably, archetypally American–gritty, rooted, intelligent–and they’re brought to life by an actor who has his own thoroughly American story. The son of a Michigan lumber store owner, Daniels made his way from the Midwest to New York in the ’70s to join the renowned Circle Repertory Company, then on to Hollywood, where he played a series of affable rogues in hit films such as Terms of Endearment, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Something Wild. Then, in the mid-’80s, seemingly at the height of his career, he abandoned New York and LA, moving back to his hometown, where he and his wife raised their three kids.
One could argue that maintaining a healthy distance from Hollywood has helped Daniels retain his feel for a Middle American notion of morality. That quality certainly comes to bear in the new Showtime limited series The Comey Rule (out now), in which the actor stars as James Comey, the former FBI director who has been scorned by both the left (for publicly reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton shortly before the 2016 election) and the right (for his role in investigating Donald Trump). Daniels, for his part, relished the chance to tackle yet another complex character. “I get the hard ones,” he says. “That’s kind of driven my decisions: Do I know how to do it? If the answer’s no, say yes and figure it out later.”
You’ve been as busy as any actor on stage or screen these last few years, but this spring productions everywhere shut down completely. What have these last few months been like for you?
It feels like forced retirement. You keep wondering what retirement will be like, and this is what it’s like: You never leave your house, you lose track of what day it is, and if you’re fortunate enough not to have to go through COVID, you end up just doing the things that you like doing. You do those three things every single day, and then you eat dinner at 5 o’clock. In that sense, this has been welcome. Since Newsroom, I feel like I’ve been working nonstop. After a year of Mockingbird, I had nine days off and went right into Comey; that was the equivalent of running the New York City Marathon and posting a personal best, and they hand you a glass of water and say, “Great! Turn around and run another one.”
Those roles—Will McAvoy in The Newsroom , John O’Neill in The Looming Tower, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, James Comey in The Comey Rule—are all pretty political. Are you drawn to political projects?
I think everything flows down the river from McAvoy, because it showed I could handle that amount of dialogue, and there’s an intelligence to McAvoy that I delivered. Even Frank Griffin in Godless, there was a strange intelligence to him. John O’Neill in his bull-in-a-china-shop way in Looming Tower, certainly Atticus, and certainly Jim Comey is a very, very smart guy. I think that’s what McAvoy led to: Oh, Daniels can handle this. He can deliver that. The political stuff, that just kind of comes along. I don’t seek out something that lines up with my politics or what I think is good politics. I play the guy. They’re complicated guys who are smart and really good at what they do, and they have faults and weaknesses and flaws, and that’s been the welcome challenge.
A lot of these characters function as moral authorities—even Frank Griffin, in a strange way.
Frank thought he had moral authority, you bet. Frank was moral authority. [Laughs.]
He’s an amoral character, a ruthless outlaw, but he speaks in this grand, authoritative way—like Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
He did. He wore a preacher’s collar, because he felt he had a right to. “I’m sorry, son, but God wanted me to kill you. God wanted me to put you down.” He was a fun guy to play.
It must be a dream to play such a colorful outlaw character in a Western.
It’s like driving cross-country: You think you want to do it until you do it, and it’s best when it’s something that you have done. Because you haven’t worked until you’ve been on a horse for 10 hours, and it’s take 10, you’re galloping across that pasture again, and you’ve got actors flying off the backs of horses and being treated for concussion protocol.
Yeah, and I fell off a horse near the end of the shoot and broke my wrist. Riding horses, it’s a workout. And as they say about motorcycle riding and it’s the same thing with horses there are only two kinds of riders: those who’ve gone down, and those who are going to go down. But is it a dream? Yeah, absolutely. To sit there on the horse and stare across at ’em, and know that on the next page the guy’s gonna die, and it’s because you just decided, Yeah, he’s gonna go. That’s great outlaw stuff.
Returning to the present day, was it more or less challenging for you and the cast of The Comey Rule to play real-life people who are very much still in the public eye?
Atticus was a good warm-up for that, because everybody thinks they know who Atticus is based on either the book or Gregory Peck’s performance, and you’ve got to throw that away and kind of go, No, here’s what I think that is. You’re taking a script that’s never been done before and someone who doesn’t exist, and you’re playing it. With Comey, the decision early on was how much of an impression are you gonna do, and I did less of one. There’s great art in what Charlize [Theron] did with Bombshell or what Gary [Oldman] did with Churchill, but I wonder sometimes, if you’re just watching the impression, then you’re more or less just observing the actor put ornaments on the tree. If you play his emotions and let the impression fall to the side, in a way, you pull the audience into what Comey was thinking.
Comey seemed to think he could hold himself and the FBI above all the political skirmishing in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Did you try to project a sense of moral authority while playing him, since that’s how he saw himself?
That’s where the complications are. What I came to is that it wasn’t complicated for him. It seems to me that Jim was just trying to stay apolitical. The Grand Canyon divides the left and the right now. What I felt Jim had to do was hit delete on both the left and the right and go, What is best for the integrity of the FBI? What is the right thing to do? What does the rule of law tell me what to do? Do that. There are no politics with the rule of law. And I think that was his North Star. To some, that came off as self-righteous, because they were worrying about what it would mean for the election, what it would mean for Hillary Clinton, what it would mean for Donald Trump, and his job was to be aware of that but not to let that factor in. And I think he got run over, frankly, in October.
He ended up being reviled by both the right and the left.
I learned a lot about what he was up against when he had to make the decision to reopen the case in October, with those 33,000 emails. I didn’t know that Giuliani [allegedly] was gonna leak it in two days, that WikiLeaks was coming. There’s a scene in the movie where he goes, If we don’t reopen it, here’s what could happen, and he lays that out. And now we’re back to just dramatic characters. You want your hero, or your leading character, to be between a rock and a hard place—certainly at the climax, when he or she makes the decision that turns it into whatever happens in the third act. And Jim was constantly between a rock and a hard place, it seems to me, because of the political viewpoints from both the left and the right.
I can see how your portrayal of Comey might have grown out of Atticus. They’re both characters who have justice as their North Star, so to speak.
Yep, they’re similar in that. They understand your emotions, they understand your passion for doing what is politically best for the left or the right, but that isn’t necessarily what it says in the book on how to handle this. The book says I have to investigate.
I took a friend who’s a lawyer to see Mockingbird, and he was really moved by it.
Oh, thank god. The lawyers, I’d go out and sign autographs, and when they’d lead with, “I’m a public defender in Georgia” or “I’ve been a lawyer for 50 years,” you’d just brace yourself.
How was the feedback?
I did well. Maybe the ones who didn’t [like it] didn’t stick around to say anything. And Sorkin loves the law and loves courtrooms. So we did OK.
Did Sorkin come to you with that role? And were you at all hesitant to play this character that’s so embedded in the American psyche?
No, it was an instantaneous yes. We had done three years of Newsroom, so that was the audition. We were sitting at, I think it was a SAG screening of Steve Jobs, and Aaron turned to me and said, “Scott Rudin and I got the rights to Mockingbird—would you like to play Atticus on Broadway? ” And of course I said yes, because of the challenge, because instantly I knew you’re going up against Gregory Peck. And you get to work with Sorkin again—that was the other thing. It really is like riding Secretariat. As a friend of mine said, “Wait till you get to see what you get to say.”
You came up in theater, and you run The Purple Rose Theatre Company in your hometown. Are you concerned about how the pandemic could affect the future of theater?
Yes and no. Once a vaccine happens, will people want to come back into a live theater and see plays? I think they will. I think they’ll want to go to see live music in a club. It’s just whether those venues and theaters have the financial wherewithal to be around. Most of them were two weeks from going under before the pandemic. Nonprofit theaters all over the country are hand-to-mouth, almost. Can they afford to close the doors for a year? But I think theater is gonna be OK. Theater has survived a lot of things over the last 2,000 years; I think it’ll survive this.
Last thing: I can’t let you go without telling you that my introduction to you was Dumb and Dumber, which came out when I was in the eighth grade.
I loved making it, loved Jim [Carrey]. And I love that it’s part of the mosaic.