Jeff Daniels could be taking it easy. The Emmy Award-winning, and Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Tony Award-nominated actor could be still coasting on the success of his turn as the lead of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, which came to an end in 2014, and which felt like the gilded cherry atop a career cake that has encompassed everything from The Purple Rose of Cairo to Dumb and Dumber, The Hours, Good Night, and Good Luck and The Squid and the Whale.
But this year has been amongst Daniels’ most productive, starting with a barnstorming performance as the villainous outlaw Frank Griffin, the antagonist of Scott Frank’s superlative Netflix Western Godless. As an ensemble of actors including Jack O’Connell, Michelle Dockery, Merritt Wever and Scoot McNairy scramble for survival in the Old West, Daniels’ Griffin and his posse of misfits haunt every scene; even the ones they’re not in.
And if you doubted Daniels range, look to Hulu’s The Looming Tower, the show from Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright, which adapts Wright’s searing non-fiction book about the internal squabbling that led to the US Government’s failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks from happening. Daniels plays John O’Neill, the FBI’s New York counterterrorism chief who was shooed away by his superiors when he attempted to raise a red flag about the potential of al-Qaeda to attack on American soil.
Daniels’ preoccupation with the detail of Wright’s book, and Futterman’s first scripts, made The Looming Tower an irresistible leap for the actor, despite his initial fears that he had no in with the character of John O’Neill. On a brief visit to Los Angeles from his native Michigan, Daniels explains his drive to keep rolling the dice on the parts he takes even after all these years, and his need to author work that has something to say to a society teetering perilously close to disaster.
Frank Griffin is an archetypal Western villain, but with the added complexity of this era of prime television we’re living through. Did you have as much fun with this character as it looks like you’re having?
What I loved about him was that the way Frank looked at the world was uniquely his own. Everything he looked at and thought about and said, only Frank would have thought that or said that. That was so much fun to find.
Scott Frank is a good writer. I got to read all six—it was six episodes stretched into seven, but I got to read them all. I was saying yes anyway—even before then I’d committed—but I got to read all six. Having come off Aaron Sorkin, where you don’t even question a script. I mean, if people like it or don’t like it, whatever, but I’m not going to say a word about the writing today. I’m just going to be the actor. And I got to do that for three years. I never once went to Aaron and said, “Can I get a little rewrite on this speech? I don’t know, see what you think. I mean, I can do it for you, but I’d rather you read it. I just crossed out your thing, and in the margin, wrote mine.” I wasn’t able to bring myself to do that [laughs]. And I never even thought that way. I just got the script, memorized it, and threw what I thought he had intended at the camera. It was the same thing with Scott. You just go, “Oh he took care of the writing. I don’t have to worry about it.”
I remember I was working with Meryl, and we were doing The Hours. Meryl Streep and me were walking into an apartment, and there was nothing written. And Stephen Daldry, the director, said, “Meryl, just say a couple things to him as you’re bringing him to the apartment.” And I’ll never forget it. She said, “What, I have to write it too?” And she said it in a nice way; Daldry laughed. But she was serious, you know; you’ve got David Hare sitting there for God’s sake. So Daldry said, “OK, David, what do you think?” And I don’t know what she said, but it didn’t take him long to write it.
So when you get someone like David Hare, or Aaron Sorkin, or Scott Frank, or Dan Futterman, well, you don’t have to worry about that. And it’s different from being on the kind of movie where a junior executive is giving all of these notes like, “You have to say the character’s name three times on page one.” So you end up ad libbing and improvising and trying to improve it. You never want to do that. You’re there to act, and suddenly you have to be in the writers’ room.
What are the central preoccupations then?
Well, you gotta learn how to ride a horse.
Had you not done that before?
Not to the extent that I was going to have to. You got all these California actors that are out here and they grow up on horses. But no, I hadn’t, so I got a trainer. Tommy Hull was the guy I worked with and, I mean, the guy could ride up a tree. He trains the mounted police in the county where I live, and is a rodeo guy, so the real deal. And I spent two months, three months so that I could get up at the gallop. It’s all rhythm and it’s all knowing that this 800-pound beast is liable to do anything at any moment, but if you can stay on, and you can start to look like you’re not scared of it, you find the rhythm of it; you go.
But then you get there and it’s the Kentucky Derby, especially with 30 horses. Our first shot, first day, first morning, was coming up and over that ridge, and 30 horses riding down to that train, and then the train thing and all of that happens. We had a camera car and the drone and the whole thing. We got 30 of us and maybe eight actors. Each actor has a wrangler on each side of him dressed as an outlaw, but their sole job is to save our ass. And the problem is the horses all think they’re in the Kentucky Derby; they all want to finish first. And so, that’s a different gear than riding around in the corral with the wranglers going, “Yeah, well, he can stay on the horse in a little trot, so we know that.”
And you got the LA actors, a couple of them, who said, “Absolutely, I can ride.” And they came to Santa Fe going, “Teach me how to ride.” It gets real dangerous real fast. That first take, first day, first morning we did that big ride and I stayed on, and we get to the end of it and we hit the mark. And you could already see the ambulance coming around the camera. And you look back and one of the LA guys had flown off. Boom, hit his head, was laying on the ground. Scott Frank walks up and says, “Stay on the f**king horse.” Then walked away [laughs].
The line is, you know you’re on a Western when they say action and the ambulance starts its engine. That’s when you know you’re on a Western.
Any personal injuries?
I broke my wrist. It’s still broke, actually.
Isn’t that the arm that officially doesn’t exist on Frank Griffin? He’s lost an arm.
Yeah, but it was a flashback scene. It was the scene with the bareback horse, just me and Jack [O’Connell]. I lay the horse down, I hop on the horse and up he goes, and spins around. So he spun around, threw me off, boom. I thought he tore my knee. “Jeff, we need one more take.” “OK.” And it worked in the corral, but the horse knows he’s not in a corral on the day. And sure enough on the second take he spun around, and you’re in Santa Fe, but the horse can see Colorado and he was just going to go for it [laughs]. And I’m going, “I’m out of here.” I jumped and landed on the ground, and broke my wrist.
Westerns. There’s a reason John Wayne walks so funny. Something broke. Maybe everything broke at some point or another. And he could ride, you know?
It looks good when it’s all put together.
Thank God. It was fun, and the riding mostly went great, but it was just those one or two times. Everybody flew off. Jack, who could ride, was thrown off. Michelle [Dockery] got thrown off. It’s going to happen. Even the wranglers are going, “I got a bad shoulder, I got a bad elbow, I got a bad knee…”
You’re 40 years into your career at this point, and you’re working with a young actor, Jack O’Connell, who is extraordinary in Godless and recently owned the London stage in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Does his passion for this charge you up?
He’s intensely focused on being as real as possible, which is great. That’s great. Anybody who is that into it is easy to work with because I really bounce off and use the people I’m with, so Jack was always there, always ready, always a pro. He’s got a long career ahead of him. I hope to watch him do a lot more things because he is an exciting young actor, he really is. And he’s got the work ethic. Joe Gordon-Levitt was another one I saw that I worked with on a Scott Frank movie way back when [The Lookout]. The hard part, especially when you’re young, is keeping what you do between action and cut as the number one reason why you get up in the morning, you know? Because along with this comes fame and stardom and all of that. But that still has to be number one. And that’s the thing I hope Jack hangs on to.
It comes down to risk. Actors do it, stars don’t. That’s basically it. Scoot [McNairy] is another one. They say action and you look at him and he’s already there. There’s a connection with any actor that puts that work in. You’re there, and then the cameras go away, and it’s fun. Not everybody can do that.
After a 40-year career, is it tough to find those risks to take?
Not since television changed. Movies have really been changing in the other direction. I read that book, The Big Picture [by Ben Fritz], and it seemed to me all the writers went to HBO and Showtime and Starz, and now Hulu and Netflix and Amazon. They get to have an edge. They get to say whatever they want, commercials or not. They aren’t being told what to write. There’s a freedom in that creativity. And there’s a lot of bad ideas for television series, some of which get made, but a lot of the really good writers have gone there.
I mean, you hope it’s not a big bubble that in five years is gone, but for guys like me… I don’t know that they make The Looming Tower, the movie. And if they do, they don’t make it with me. Godless, same thing. It reminds me of the movies they made in the ’70s when the creative people were driving the bus. Not every movie was great, but there was a lot of great, edgy, interesting, smart work.
‘Smart’ is the word that keeps coming back. You can find smart on television, and they market to those people. The Looming Tower and Godless aren’t marketed to people who need a quick fix. That’s what’s Roseanne’s show is for, which is great, terrific, wonderful. But this is a whole other thing. We’re going to make a 10-hour movie about what happened leading up to 9/11. And all the people who are OK with sitting there, whether it’s weekly or streaming, binge-watching… There’s an audience sitting there going, “What about us?” And that’s what television is: “Here you go.” You don’t have to suffer through something that’s trying to be made appealing to 17-year-olds on a summer weekend.
The model seems gloriously sustainable as well.
The amount of money they’re spending on Godless and The Looming Tower and they’re going, “We’re thrilled with the results.” So I guess we opened. But for the actors, for the writers, you’re not doing something you’ve done before. That’s what I’ve found. And I couldn’t have told you that was coming.
And look, I’ve been lucky. I mean, I came into television and I had Aaron Sorkin driving the bus. I get it that it’s not like this, but I came in at a time after, I think, Jim Gandolfini changed the landscape. I mean, David Chase and the show [The Sopranos], but Jim changed television—the original guy who broke down the door—where he made the antihero popular in a big way. And he didn’t do just anything. I kept trying to get him to do stuff. He’d say, “I don’t want to f**king do that.”
I remember we had to present at the Tony Awards for God of Carnage. I said, “I got an idea.” Because they’d sent 100 pages of jokes that he and I could do, and Jim’s reading through them and he hates all of them. I said, “Jim, let’s go as Harry Dunne and Lloyd Christmas [from Dumb and Dumber].” This was all before Dumb and Dumber To was even an idea, and Jim Carrey didn’t want to do a sequel at that point. I said, “Let’s get the orange tuxedo and the blue tuxedo and we’ll just walk out. You’ll be dressed in orange. We won’t do anything. We won’t say anything. We’ll just come out and go, ‘The nominees for Best Catering are…’”
I almost had him. I had his son, Michael. I said, “Michael, work with me here.” He almost did it. And then he didn’t. He went out and ad libbed something. Brian d’Arcy James had just gone out there as Shrek, and Gandolfini came out and said, “For the record, Shrek and I are no relation.” The place went nuts. He didn’t need it.
There are heroes, antiheroes and villains all throughout The Looming Tower, which presents a terrifying thesis: that we came so close to stopping 9/11 from happening and petty squabbles prevented it.
John O’Neill had a pretty good hunch, and he had Richard Clarke in his corner, but Richard couldn’t sign off on everything without the CIA, and then the president. But he was telling them and telling them, and no one would listen. It’s interesting. I think we’re less susceptible now. The Monica Lewinsky thing was going on and sex sells, and off we went. Our attention went right to that. We’ve got Stormy Daniels now; no relation [laughs]. But I think it’s a whole different world now with the internet and with people saying no. You’ve got all these investigations and all that, in the public sphere. But someone then was going, “Pay attention to this Bin Laden guy, and al-Qaeda. I know they haven’t done anything yet, but I’m telling you something’s going on. I can’t tell you what. I don’t know yet, but we need to put more manpower on this.” And he got resistance.
John’s way of doing it didn’t help. He burned bridges. He screamed and yelled. He didn’t have a political bone in his body, yet he’d go down to Washington, the center of all things politics. He was right. He just went about it in a way that didn’t get it done.
The biggest frustration is the thought that these people, who were supposed to keep us safe, were engaged in the kind of office politics that go on everywhere, when their jobs were too important for that. They had a greater responsibility they were ignoring.
Cue Robert Mueller, I hope.
But yes, it was pettiness, and not just from the CIA, but also from the character of Jason Sanchez in the show. “I’m just going to get rid of you. You’re just too much of a pain in the ass, so I’m not going to hear anything you have to say about anything.” And you’re right. It’s human behavior at its worst. Bad examples of human nature in positions where that’s got to take a back seat to rule of law, which is where we are now.
John O’Neill died on 9/11, a month into his role as the World Trade Center’s security chief. How much were you able to learn about him?
I chose not to go to the family, or to delve into his personal life. I thought I had enough with all the research Dan Futterman had done, and with Larry Wright’s book. I took the job based on the first episode. I read the script while I was at the WGA Awards. I was introducing Aaron Sorkin for the Paddy Chayefsky thing, which was a great honor. I flew out for that, happy to do it. I went back upstairs to my hotel room, and my agent said, “This came in. It’s an offer. Let’s look at it. They need to know pretty quickly.” I read it, I said, “I don’t know how to do this.” It’s street. There’s a thing about him being from Jersey, that he’s like a mob guy. I’m going, “Me?” It was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that I hadn’t read, and I knew Peter Sarsgaard was on it. Michael Stuhlbarg might have been on it. But that was it, that I knew of. So I said yes just based on that.
I read the book, I searched O’Neill, and I came across one Frontline interview in ’97 where he was really just giving an opinion. But it was interesting to see him sit there and talk and I said, “I’m not hearing a Jersey thing.” He sounded Midwest or Chicago if anything. I said, “Futterman, there’s no Sopranos accent, right?” He goes, “No.” I thought, Oh, now I know why they got me. All right. Then we were off and running. It was about fitting into this guy as the scripts came in—and having read the book you knew what was coming, sort of.
It was a risk, but I like the risks. I like the challenges. I like the possibility of failure. I am just not one of these guys that want to find a brand. It’s a better business move to do that. But for the actor in me…
It comes from the theater. It comes from doing a play, off-Broadway or wherever, and when you do the next one nobody says, “We want you to do exactly what you did in that other one, just do it for us.” If anything you’re being told, “That thing you did before, we don’t want to see any of that.” That’s the world I come from, which is ‘character actor’, but it’s still becoming other people.
So O’Neill was an opportunity to do someone that I don’t think I’ve ever come close to doing. I mean, Will McAvoy [in The Newsroom] yelled a lot and John yelled a lot, but other than that… Peter Sarsgaard really plays the guy McAvoy would have been. Smarter than hell. Whereas John’s smart, but he’s street-smart. The guy just gets impatient and starts slapping people. That was fun to do.
It’s hard not to fall in love with him.
That was a battle to get right. We were wondering about that. Here he is, he’s got two girlfriends and a wife in the first episode, saying, “Stay with us.” He’s a damaged guy.
Perhaps the lovability comes with the hindsight of knowing he was on the right side of history.
Yes, that. I think that. And I don’t know that it came through, but we played that it wasn’t just, “How many girlfriends can I have?” He was searching for something. That’s how I looked at it. And he finally finds it, later on in the series, and settles down with one relationship, and he goes back to the church. He’s out of the FBI and he’s ready to change. He doesn’t want to be that guy anymore. “And so tomorrow, I start my job at the Twin Towers; I’m going to be a new guy.” And that’s probably not too far off, based on the stuff that his partners were saying. He was an insecure guy. He’d give a speech that was f**king brilliant to his agents, and then he’d say, “How did I do? Was it good? What do you think?” Strong and insecure.
It’s so complex, and it felt a lot like Godless. You’re mentally ill to be doing what Frank Griffin was doing. But we made the choice to not try and understand why he was the way he was, which makes it more moment-to-moment. It was the same thing with O’Neill.
The sting in the tail for this man was that he was pushed out of the FBI and became security chief at the Twin Towers in August 2001. If this were fiction, you would never believe that.
You read that and then you call Futterman and you go, “This didn’t happen, right?” If it were fiction you’d get notes going, “Change the ending. Not plausible.”
Do you think he knew in his last moments, based on the work he’d done for the FBI, that it was most likely an al-Qaeda attack?
I wonder if he knew. There’s video of him going back into the tower to get more people out—he got so many people out and then he went back into the tower, and that’s when the tower came down. I wonder if he specifically knew. He might have. Larry Wright said something really good. I didn’t even think of this when we were shooting. “He spent all those years leading up to that day trying to get Bin Laden, and on that day Bin Laden got him.”
The entire story is so remarkable because we just don’t know that this happened. That these things, based on events and people, and the things people said, happened. The show is a dramatization of the thing that happened that changed life for all of us. And you don’t know what you think you know, by the way. In fact, you don’t know anything. That’s what I came into it with. I remember Richard Clarke going in front of Congress saying, “Your government has failed you.” I remember that day. But that was it.
It’s also remarkable how little people were prepared to admit all this after the fact.
Some were. Because some people didn’t get along or didn’t share information that they should have, 3000+ people are dead. So, there’s some blood on their hands. People died that day because other people didn’t do their jobs correctly. That’s why it was a crime. A lot of people just didn’t want to talk about it because of that. Mistakes were made, and had they not been made, that day might have just been September 11th 2001, another Tuesday.
Did you ever talk with Aaron Sorkin about this project? So much of The Newsroom hinged on real-world events, the flawed ways the news media reacted in the moment, and the value of hindsight, so it’s hard not to see the similarity.
I didn’t talk to him about it. At all. But there is a look back. We’re shooting an episode in November. It’s going to air in July. It’s probably been written since September or October. So even if we’re covering something that happened in September, October, we’re six months later. So we were always going to be in hindsight. We didn’t have that quick a turnaround. And occasionally, yeah, we’d go back there and he’d call them out on ratings versus journalism. “Why are we staying with Casey Anthony?” Which was one episode. Because it got eyeballs. Aaron was just going, “Just be careful. A lot of what you’re doing is great, but it’s a slippery slope.”
And it’s not the anchors so much as it’s the news directors. So now, you’ve got Trump running for president, and he’s calling in to Sunday shows. And it’s always in the first 10 minutes of the show, because the ratings are there. “We want you to come into the studio.” “Oh no, I’m going to call from my bed, OK?” “That’s OK for us.” Aaron would have been screaming about that. Charlie Skinner wouldn’t have let him on the air.
Nobody learned those lessons.
Because of money, and being number one, and the competition that exists now, versus when we were doing Newsroom. Even five years ago, or whenever it was. The competition with the internet; I mean, that ship has sailed. We did an episode about the Boston Marathon where CNN said the wrong name. And again, that was Aaron going, “Be careful. Pretend Edward R. Murrow is standing off-camera. Make him happy. Make him pleased.” With the internet, it’s even harder to get a handle on that stuff. We all want to know right now. Now we’re into how many clicks did you get by being the first? “Oh, I was wrong? Delete it.”
In the old days, when I was younger, it was double confirmation. It was a big deal on Newsroom; “You don’t have two.” With the internet, you don’t need sources; you speculate. And even the cable shows now, that have to hang on to viewers for eight more minutes; they’ve already laid out their two facts that they do know, and they’ve got six more minutes to go. They’re going, “I don’t want to speculate, but I think what might be happening…” and off we go. We don’t hear the word “speculate”. We don’t hear “think”. We hear, “They said it on TV.”
Which is what creates the concept of “fake news” and gives it legitimacy even if the President chooses to direct that phrase at verifiable facts.
It’s a lack of scrutiny and the general public not paying attention. “I can’t be bothered.” It’s not the Fourth Estate. That security guard you have to pass through before you get in? No, he went around that. But I need things to hope for, and this is one of the things: that journalism comes back. It comes down to, where do you go to get the truth? Is it their truth? Is it a left truth or a right truth? Where’s the actual truth? I think there are still people out there in the press, and also in Robert Mueller’s office, that are still devoted to that. That’s my hope.
With every angry outburst on Twitter I feel a little more hopeful, I don’t know about you.
Yes. The phrase “cornered animal” comes to mind.
My wife’s on Facebook. She’s pretty good about being discerning about what’s true and what isn’t. But she’ll go, “Listen to this,” and she’ll read me something that makes me go, “How can that possibly be true?” Sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t. And it comes down to, that’s the way things are. No one has to be accountable. No one has to be responsible for anything they do or say. Just get a team of lawyers, and say the other guy is lying.
Or call the other guy everything you’ve been called, which is Trump’s thing. But I’m hoping the day will come where that kind of behavior is no longer considered acceptable. Something has to happen. An event. And it may be Bob Mueller. And it may be not just obstruction, or collusion, or this thing in the Southern District of New York with the porn star going to the hearing for Trump’s lawyer. Someone has to do something.
Who are the heroes going to be? Is Orwell just going to be right, and that’s it? That’s the end of the story? Who are the heroes going to be? Is it going to be Chris Wray? Is it going to be Bob Mueller? Is it going to be Rod Rosenstein? Is it going to be McCabe? Is it going to be all those FBI agents, the CIA, who have been insulted for the last year or so that Trump’s been in power? Who’s going to rise up? And, who is it going to be in Congress? Who are the people that are going to be there in November 2018?
Are the heroes going to be the women that marched the day after the inauguration? Are they going to be there November 18? Hell hath no fury like a country full of women scorned. Be prepared to duck, orange man.
And then you’ve got the kids. An event happened. Parkland, Florida happened. Hardly the first. And those kids have mobilized everyone, I would hope, from voting age 18 and above, around the country. After everything they went through, and everything they’re dealing with in the aftermath of that, that they’re able to go on CNN and put sentences together.
If all those people show up in November 2018, then maybe this kind of way of the world will make a turnaround. I’m hopeful. I still think there are some heroes out there.
The hysteria from the right as a result was deafening. Conspiracy theories used to be easily brushed aside. Now you hear people squawking about those Parkland kids being actors set up by the left to espouse an anti-gun agenda. And it’s everywhere you look.
I think it’s all about race. I wrote a play that my theatre company did, called Flint. The problem with the water is in there, but it’s more about systemic racism. The water was bad in Flint, but it’s predominantly black now, so did that have any impact on how it was handled? We don’t know. But it’s not the only example.
Trump tapped into all those white manufacturing males, and [other] men and women. I live there. I live in Michigan. I live around all those people whose car jobs went to China and Mexico when the car companies figured out that the union wasn’t the only option; that they could build a plant somewhere else. And they did. And you’ve got a lot of angry white people that were working in mixed company; you know, white, black, Hispanic workers that were all on the same line for years. Now all of a sudden, that white guy, that white woman that worked the line is on the blocks. And white people don’t want to be on the blocks. Blacks and Hispanics are supposed to be on the blocks.
So he tapped into that. And he turned people; he said, “Go ahead. Press that button. It’s OK. You’re getting screwed. They’re the ones that are screwing you.” You watched him do it.
Barack Obama once said something about progress happening in peaks and troughs, not a straight line. But that ultimately, the graph was trending upward. Do you believe in that? Are we just in a deep trough right now?
For centuries, people like, oh I don’t know, Jesus, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, have been trying to fight power and greed. For centuries. That’s always going to be a default. We’re human beings. You have to step back from that and realize that the progressive line will never be straight. Because all of those people who are given the opportunity to make incredible amounts of money, and have incredible amounts of power, regardless of how they attain it, will always be there. So, to get past that is going to be going through it, going around it. That’s what’s going on right now.
You don’t have to be a Democrat to be against Trump. You really don’t. And I tell that to people around where I live. It’s OK. You can be a Republican. Go ahead. You just don’t have to be that. That’s my big problem, is that we’ve lost decency, civility, accountability, responsibility, class. As a country, we’ve lost it. You go on The Looming Tower tour, to Paris and Berlin, and you’re talking about it, a lot of journalists are looking at you going, “What’s going on? What are you people doing?” And we’re all guilty by association.
I also think it’s the end of the Republican party. I thought that in the middle of primaries, and then he gets the nomination. And then he wins. What? But I think that’s why these guys are hanging on. Because if they don’t, if they impeach the President, you’ve got to go talk to that 32% base or whatever it is. Tell them why. Because a lot of those guys go back there and those people are going, “Don’t you touch my president.” When do those guys have the guts to turn to their constituents and go, you’ve been conned? I’m waiting for that day.