After more than three decades as a working actor, Jeff Daniels has finally made it. Since becoming a household name via "The Newsroom," he has added the likes of "Steve Jobs" and "The Martian" to his impressive resume, which somehow also includes the character of Harry Dunne. Daniels has truly built his career on range, but that wasn't always the plan.
In the early '90s, when he wanted to mix things up with "Dumb and Dumber," he was told the move would destroy his career. The studio allegedly offered him $50,000 to Carrey's $7 million, and his agents begged him not to take the part. But Daniels knew he could handle Harry and move right back into the "serious, important actor" path he had started on.
As he promoted his most recent role as disgraced Apple CEO John Sculley, The Huffington Post spoke to Daniels about adding to Jobs' legacy, working with the dialogue-intensive Aaron Sorkin, and opening doors by deciding to take the risk and be dumber.
How do you think "Steve Jobs" fits into Steve Jobs' legacy?
I think it [shows] that creative geniuses like Steve are not simple people. They’re complicated people. They’re still human beings. And sometimes their ideas are so big, and their view of the world is so beyond what we understand normally, that their weaknesses are magnified as well. Steve had trouble dealing with the people around him. The only thing he saw was the next great idea.
How did you experience Jobs' issues from the perspective of playing John Sculley?
You know, Sculley says early on, “I’m told being a father figure to you could be dangerous. Why is that?” And [Steve] wouldn’t answer. Then, when [Sculley] finds out, it’s like, “Whoa, you’ve got some things to work out.” The movie kind of displays people’s attempts, like Sculley, to get in there and manage those issues, so that he’s pointed toward the next great idea, instead of letting him get bogged down in this anger.
But with Sculley, Steve felt betrayed. The intensity of the pushback on Sculley's decisions with the Mac ruined his reputation, and there was no going back after that. They didn't reconcile. So, I learned just how intensely Steve believed in his next idea, which included leaving people that he cared about and respected in his wake.
So often these narratives are spit out into heroes and villains, but Sculley and Jobs' relationship was much more complex that that.
Things are so oversimplified in today's social media world. It’s not as simple as "John Sculley killed the Mac," or, "[He's] the guy who fired Steve Jobs." It’s not that simple, but, you know, will it fit in 140 characters? So, you say he killed the Mac and he fired Steve Jobs. And so that becomes the label. Especially on the Internet, where it doesn’t have to be true. You just have to say it. You just have to put it up there.
We’re certainly going through a political process where you don’t have to back up anything. You just say it, you put it up there, and that becomes the truth. So, what actually went down, what actually happened, the movie gets into that. And, yeah, at the end of the day, Sculley’s gone and he’s got a ruined reputation, and he comes back into the movie saying, “I’m the guy who fired Steve Jobs, that’s the label I have, right or wrong, fair or otherwise, true or otherwise, that’s my label." To this day, he’s had to fight to change that.
You seem to understand Sculley very deeply. How does playing a real person shift your process for creating a character?
I got to meet him and I saw that he really missed the relationship. He and Steve had a great professional and creative marriage. They finished each other’s sentences. They trusted and respected each other early on. John really bit into the, “Yeah, let’s change the world together. Let’s do more than I’ve ever done before as a corporate CEO. Let me help you change the world. I’ll handle this stuff, you do that stuff.” It was going great until it wasn’t. And once it changed it never went back.
You can still see it in Sculley today. There is pain still there. Certainly he would want to go back and redo the “Let’s drop the Macintosh, it’s not gonna work.” He’d love to go back and change that.
Did Sculley consult on the script at all?
None of the guys, Sculley included, got to see the script. So, they were rightfully wary of what we might be doing to do them. I think Lisa, Steve's daughter, had seen a page or two to reassure her. And she had said to Aaron, “Just please make me strong, don’t make me weak.” So, he sent her that speech where she said about that one computer, I think, the iMac, “It looks like Judy Jetson’s oven.” After that, she was reassured.
You have a lot of experience with Sorkin dialogue now. What is it like to act within his scripts?
The amount of dialogue is just … there is a lot more of it. You can't say you don't have enough lines. You can’t memorize the day before or the night before or in the makeup chair that morning thinking you’re gonna have time to work on it on set. It won’t work. When we start, it’s the Indy 500, off we go. There’s no time for you to ease into it or remember it.
So, in the weeks leading up to it, you’ve got to go to school. It’s like taking months of final exams. Every two weeks you have more finals and you’ve got to get ready. Otherwise, you’re going to drown in the words. You’ve got to get ahead of Sorkin, get ahead of the dialogue, like a Broadway play. I mean, the difference is the 100th performance of a Broadway play is so different than the opening night or that first preview when you’re out there just wanting to remember the lines. You can’t do that in front of the camera. You’ve got to get to the 100th performance without 99 performances before. Without rehearsals, you’ve got to somehow do the work to get in that head where you know it backwards, and that’s just work and prep time.
You have a theater background. How does that change your work on screen?
Theater helps and not just with Sorkin. I know it helps on take 20. Because theater actors, you do a six-month run with eight [shows] a week. Our job is to make the last performance look to the audience like it’s happening for the first time. And you learn how to do that eight times a week. It’s hard to do, but there’s way to do it. So, when you’re on take 20 on a movie set or a TV set, you can make it look like it’s happening for the first time.
People who don’t have a theater background have a hard time with that. Easily by the fifth take they’re done, and now they’re just doing it differently because they can’t repeat it and make it look [new]. So, they just do it differently and it looks like like it’s happening for the first time. Not everybody, but it’s helped me certainly, and a lot of the people on "Newsroom" were theater people, who, not only could make it look like it was happening for the first time, but also could handle that dialogue.
Now you have a character like Will McAvoy under your belt in addition to Harry Dunne. You've truly built your career on range. Was that always what you set out to do?
Well, I knew I could do comedy because of high school and college. I was doing musicals, so I knew where the jokes were. I knew how to land a joke and I knew I had timing. But then I went to New York and I was Off Broadway at Circle Rep and they didn’t do comedy. They did serious, important work. There would be a laugh here and there, but not an all-out comedy. And so, I kind of stayed away from that. I was trying to be a serious, dramatic actor. That career was OK, but it started to stall a little bit.
“Dumb and Dumber” came up and it was one of the movies that I went out and auditioned for. I said, “I really want that. I want to shake it up. I want to stand next to Jim Carrey.” At the time, he had “Ace Ventura” and “Mask,” [which] we heard was going to be great. And I just wanted to see if I could stay with him. Because, if I could stay with him, then I’m way over here with a “Dumb and Dumber” comedy, and then to come back with a “Gettysburg” or, later on, a “Newsroom” or something like that, that’s range. I thought if I created range, there would be jobs in between that.
What was the initial reaction to that decision?
I had three agents on the phone the night before I was going to fly out and do “Dumb and Dumber,” two of which were saying, “We’re not going to let you do this. You were on the serious, important actor trail, this will completely disrupt your career.” They also said, “I hate to tell you this, but Jim’s probably going to wipe you off the screen.”
I said, “OK, thanks for the support," and did it. Just from a comedic standpoint, I knew the toilet scene, Jim wasn’t in, the snowball-in-the-head scene, he wasn’t in. So, I said, “Unless they cut those scenes, I’m gonna score.”
And you knew you were going to be ... dumber.
Right! Lloyd leads the way and Harry kind of follows like a puppy on a leash. So, I said, I can handle this, and I remember Alec Baldwin -- after “Dumb and Dumber” had come out, I was hosting “SNL” and I saw him -- he said, “God, I saw 'Dumb and Dumber' and I’ve been screaming at my agent, 'Get me something like that!' What a great career move that was.” Alec couldn’t have been nicer about it. So, yeah, I think at the end it was like, “Who knew he could do this?” And it opened up so many more doors.
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