After four decades as an actor, only now does Jeff Daniels feel like he knows how to “own” a role.
He credits his Tony-nominated performance in the 2009 Broadway hit “God of Carnage” and his Emmy Award-winning turn as a cable news anchor in Aaron Sorkin’s 2012-15 HBO series “The Newsroom” for giving him a newfound confidence at age 60.
“Now you go into a room that is filled with a lot of really good actors and you feel like you are allowed to come in,” Daniels said in a recent phone interview from New York. “You have a chair in that room.”
Sam Waterston, who starred with Daniels on “The Newsroom,” begs to differ. He said Daniels has always belonged in the room.
“I remember standing in the wings watching Jeff play Andrei in [Anton Chekhov’s] ‘Three Sisters’ in 1982 and wondering at his work and saying to myself, ‘Who is this kid? How does he do this?’” Waterson said. “He didn’t play the part. With no visible strain or effort, he just stepped into it and lived what his character was living. ... He’s had this uncanny ability to occupy the characters he’s playing from the get go.”
Daniels occupies strong supporting roles in two of the most acclaimed films of the fall: Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” in which he plays the head of NASA, and Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” which allowed Daniels to play former Apple Chief Executive John Sculley and to reunite with screenwriter Sorkin.
“Steve Jobs” is not a cradle-to-grave biopic but, rather, a three-act play built on key Apple product launches. Daniels sat with Sculley and his wife for a few hours during rehearsals.
“I learned a lot. You don’t try to steal mannerism and do an impersonation. Danny didn’t really want to do that with this film,” Daniels said. “You get the spirit of the guy. You get what’s going on inside him.”
He found Sculley filled with regret on how his relationship with Jobs ended.
“It ended in a complete blow-up, and that was the last time they spoke,” he said. “His wife took me aside and said it took a lot of years for John to start again.”
I remember...watching Jeff play Andrei in [Anton Chekhov’s] ‘Three Sisters’ in 1982 and wondering at his work and saying to myself, ‘Who is this kid’?
Jobs believed Sculley killed the Macintosh, and Jobs “never forgave him for that,” Daniels said. “That was a betrayal Steve never got over. To see Sculley talk about that, there is still pain there.”
Boyle, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind “Slumdog Millionaire,” reminded Daniels of Jonathan Demme, his director on the 1986 film “Something Wild.”
“He’s so enthusiastic,” Daniels said of Boyle. “He’s very uplifting and very encouraging. “
Being directed by Scott was vastly different but equally satisfying, Daniels said.
“There is very little acting involved,” he said. “You look at all the toys he gets to play with — all the things he created. You are reacting to this Mission Control set.”
The director had the whole movie in his head.
“There are very few takes,” Daniels said. “He’s never in a panic. He completely knows what he’s doing and what he’s doing next.”
Next up for Daniels is an appearance Nov. 1 at Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles with his son’s group, the Ben Daniels Band.
Jeff Daniels has been playing solo for about 15 years and released several records. “But there were songs that needed a band, and instead of getting a Viagra band, I said, let me see if this can work,” he said. Father and son toured the East Coast together, playing material that each has written. “Some of it’s funny and some of it is not. There are a couple of songs in there that happened because of ‘The Newsroom.’”
Daniels also is a playwright celebrating the 25th year of his Purple Rose Theater Company in Chelsea, Mich., the town where he and his family live. His latest play, the comedy “Casting Session,” about two veteran New York actors who have competed for the same role for decades, is running through the end of the year.
Daniels will head back to Broadway next year in David Harrower’s play “Blackbird,” in which he performed off-Broadway in 2007. The drama centers on a young woman (Michelle Williams) meeting a much older man 15 years after they had a sexual relationship when she was 12.
“‘Blackbird’ is a tough play,” Daniels said. “It’s not a safe choice to come to Broadway with something like this. I love that about it. I just love that I am interested in going after something like this after all of these years. It means a lot that I still want to do that.”