Jeff Daniels has already won an Emmy and is currently on his third nomination for the role of Will McAvoy in The Newsroom–that’s pretty good going considering the show only existed for three seasons. Daniels is cited this year for the show’s finale episode, What Kind of Day Has It Been, in which MvAvoy deals with the death of his longtime mentor, becomes a father-to-be and sings and plays guitar. Daniels was surprised to get a nom this year, he says, because, “Newsroom had been off the air for six months, and I know the Emmys are kind of a delayed awards process. I thought there is so much great work on television, that it’s just upped its game. I just thought Newsroom would have been something that was in the past.” Daniels, who also has two previous SAG noms for the role, found the Emmy nod “a thrill,” saying, “it doesn’t get old. It really doesn’t.” With several movies in the works–The Martian, Steve Jobs and Allegiant–Daniels talked to AwardsLine about the joys of working with Aaron Sorkin and his prolific songwriting career.
Aaron Sorkin’s known for his highly verbal shows, but the finale for you was slightly less so–did that feel like that was about Will’s personal transformation?
It really was, and Aaron really wrote me up in season three, but in particularly the finale. We went back to speaking of transformation of Will. We shot scenes that could have taken place before the first season, with Alison Pill asking him about the tie, (saying) ‘you know anything fashion, or is that the way you always dress?’ That was to go back to when he had harder edges, and a lot more pain because of his lack of a relationship with MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer). Now three seasons later, we’re married and she announces at the church that we’re pregnant. Then also I got to be funny and I got to be serious. I got to play the whole drama of Charlie’s wake and the eulogy and now you’re in the garage and you’ve got a guitar and you’re singing. So that particular episode was a thrill to do because I got to go from A to Z.
You’re also a singer-songwriter, but how was the decision made to have you play and sing at the end?
Way back in the first season, in the first scene that we shot in Will’s apartment, there were two guitars that Will owned, which just meant that Aaron and others had done their research, and knew that I could play, and so why don’t we throw some guitars in there in the event that we write a scene some day where he plays a guitar. I told Aaron, ‘if you want that, I can do that but it’s up to you.’ Four or five episodes went by and then we did the episode where Will gets stoned on brownies and he has to go through the bin Laden slaying and not only that but he’s stoned out of his mind. John Gallagher, Jr. and I got to sing in that, then (Sorkin) used it again in the garage (in the finale).
Are you working on a new album right now?
I’m kind of like a self-published novelist. The Internet is a beautiful thing for guys like me because we can record it, we can master it, we can put it up there. If iTunes picks it up, which they have, great. If they don’t, there it is, and I enjoy it. When I’m not acting, I like to get away from acting. The music and the song writing and the working hard on the acoustic guitar is a great creative release and a direction away from that thing but still hanging onto the creativity.
You have the film Steve Jobs coming out–another Sorkin project–what do you love about working with Sorkin?
Working with Sorkin, in my case whether it’s Newsroom or Jobs, I really like knowing that the writer is in the scene with us. I’ve always been a fan of…when Paddy Chayefsky wrote Network, he’s in the scenes. You can hear his voice. When William Holden and Faye Dunaway are going at each other, you can hear Paddy Chayefsky, and I like that. Same thing with Preston Sturges back in the ’40s. You knew you were watching a Preston Sturges movie, not just because he directed it because only Preston Sturges would write this. It would only sound like Sturges. Woody Allen, another one, and Noah Baumbach–a singular voice. It’s not written by a committee. And so when you’re working with a singular voice, especially with an Aaron, you’re taken care of as an actor. As a friend of mine said before Newsroom, ‘with Aaron, wait till you see what we get to say.’ And it’s true. Aaron writes things that actors love to act. And yeah it’s a lot of words, but Broadway’s full of words and that’s where he comes from.
What’s a favorite Will McAvoy moment for you?
It’s got to be the speech to the Northwestern college kids, the first episode, because that’ll outlive me, that’ll outlive Aaron. Whatever YouTube is 50 years from now, you’ll be able to find that. When you get that speech on the page and you’ve been around as long as I have, you know it when you see it. You don’t get many like that, and when you get that and it’s got Aaron Sorkin behind it, it’s a career highlight.
You have the film The Martian coming out– what drew you to that?
It was a chance to work with, in particular, Ridley Scott. I just look at that guy as…I didn’t get to work with John Ford but it’s like I imagine that to be. Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, great veteran Hollywood directors. John Huston. Ridley so is on top of it. It’s a big production, Martian. I mean, just the set for Mission Control in Houston was…I just wanted to take pictures of it. It’s just phenomenal. But Ridley’s not intimidated by that at all. He’s going, ‘yeah, it’s good, that’s going to work.’ He’s got cranes, he’s got how many cameras, I mean, the guy completely knows what he’s doing and that’s a joy. I’m one of the heads of NASA and basically, I’m the guy who has to make the decision as to whether we try to save Matt Damon or strand him. I’m certainly the antagonist probably. He’s the guy that’s got to say, ‘do I risk killing however many, eight astronauts, trying to save one, or do I let one die and save the other eight?’