Jeff Daniels ('To Kill a Mockingbird') on playing Atticus Finch


Hi, everybody. I'm Peter Travers. And this is popcorn where we tell you. What is popping in the culture? And my guest today. Jeff Daniels who has multiple wards and the way I looked at it, he's too modest to say he's just been nominated for Tony Ward as best actor for tequila Mockingbird on Broadway, which is totally deserved. I don't even have to blow smoke with you. You know, I actually loved this, you know. Well, it's very nice. I think too. So are you just completely in Newark to all this now? It's you have your Emmys. You've been nominated for Tony before for God of carnage. Does it? What impact does getting nominated for an award have, you know, it's, it's? It is an honor to be nominated because I've been there when I wasn't and, and this was a big season for drama big season for drama Broadway, there, a lot of them and, you know, Mockingbird didn't get in as best new play did that make you stomp around for a couple of minutes when they will stop arounds big phrase. But, but it it goes to whatever the reasons are it goes to show that it's not automatic. You can't just go on, then I'll get nominated, and it's still you wake up in the morning. Bill ness. You wanna be invited to the big party, you know, and, and it is an honor to be there. And I, I noticed that when I was nominated for God carnage. I was probably the first big award. I'd ever been Emmys came later and all that. But I was in that room in Radio City Music hall, and I looked around at all the great work. That was all in one place. And these are just the people were nominated. There's other work that didn't get in that was, and you just feel I'm just glad to get it took it to the party. You really now anything after that, you know, would be great, but it really is to get in. Take something to well, and there's something about the Broadway the theater community, and I'm speaking to you as theater guy. Because back in Michigan. You have your own gross theater. You know this is something that matters to you. And you have even before we start talking about to kill a Mockingbird. You've signed on for one year doing this show. Nobody does anymore all stars. Don't know. Working after's, who need the job or in Evan Hansen, their second year and all of that. So it is, you know, it used to be what was done. Jason Robards Brian Dennehy comes to mind. Fonda Henry Fonda did mister Roberts for over a year looked at up league Cobb death of a salesman. Pretty sure over a year those guys were good. But that was kind of expected, you know that's what you did. And you and it's a big long commitment, but it's not that long when it's Atticus Finch, it's not that long when it's to kill a Mockingbird is not that long when you see what this play, and this production does to an audience night after night after night after night to get to be Atticus Finch, on Broadway six months, wouldn't have been enough so was happy to sign for your, and I'm interested to see what happens to the performance. Over the course of your I'm six months in now, and it's changed. It's deepened and it's gotten smarter and more, it's just gotten better. And so I'm interested to see where it is at the end when that happens when you have a director whose, they always use the phrase in the theater, okay after rehearsal. We've now frozen this show. This is now the way we do it, but can any actors really do that, because you are discovering something he's actor you can do it. You call it the mule on the trail performance going down the Grand Canyon. The mule didn't even have to look, you know, the meal just goes down. And then I do it this way. And then I get to here, and I do it that way. And you think about where you're going to eat throughout the whole show. I've seen that. I have ten that's the trap, you can get into that. You can literally your mind, just floats away and your thing and you go and stay here. Stay here stay here because, you know it so Bart. Shared the director Mockingbird. Basically, he's saying this is going to move around. I expect you to move it around expect you to explore a little bit here and there. You gotta you gotta have enough sense of story and experience to know when you're, I think Ellen all called stuffing the dog when you're just suddenly we've added four minutes to the show and it's probably you. You got it. You gotta is what you're doing. Is this thing you found in month two? And does it lead to something else? And now as a better place or do we need to go back here to where you gotta kinda gotta stay in the lane. But you get to move around and Bart has given us permission to do that. But I think this cast is really don't agree job of serving story. So they're in while it moves and changes a little bit. It always seems to be pointed in the direction of serving story, not some individual. Whereas my light kind of thing, not in this cast, but what I noticed when I was at this show was that there are people that I had seen at the theater before because of this property because of what Harper Lee wrote, there are suddenly because we read it in school, you know, but it wasn't work and there's just something about it. And watching, what Aaron Sorkin has done to take what Harper Lee did. And to update it without updating it. But just. Making something that's going on in this play speak to us. Now you had a lot of controversy with that in the beginning. You know there were people doing you can't around with the, the state, who was there say is the lawyer for the estate one person had some issues with an early draft. I think he ended up with twenty two drafts. By the end of it. So pretty good chance some of that stuff would have gone away anyway. But, but in whatever it, we got it settled and the risks for us. I thought once the lawsuit went went away was three adults playing the kids. Are we going to get away with that? Are we going to overcome Gregory Peck? And the last third third act of this thing, basically. Deviates is this is a play based on the book. And now we're gonna put out of his through something that the move in either the movie nor the book put him through in by putting him through that, that I think, is where Aaron was able to relate it to today. Is there goodness in people that we can rely on will the better angel in all of us? Rise to the top in twenty nineteen that isn't necessarily true. And I think you're on was forcing Atticus to face that, that sometimes you can't just wait for them to do the right thing. No, there's not much and Atticus does some things in this play that aren't very Gregory Peck. Yeah, there's flaws in him. But it makes it just so more mature engaging because I'm seeing somebody with human flaws doing this. Yeah. And, and to be more than fair to pack who only won an Oscar for it was a different time, early sixties. And it was from the point of view of a young scout nine years old. Whatever she is in the book looking up her great father. So he really kind of stayed up on a pedestal throughout the book and pretty much for the movie and we weren't we were a small town. Lawyer gets paid in vegetables and trying to raise two kids and he handles land dispute service agreements for closures inning. And right will, and then the judge comes over to his house in his life changes. That's how we approached it. But do you feel competitive in any of these awards with other actors that are nominated in your category? In other words, you and Bryan Cranston. Now just cold staring. Each other because everybody was nominated wants to win. Everybody wants to make the speed. Everybody wants to take on that toll because it's called it anyone who's ever stepped on stage. Once that it's there's, it's so special it, it's I've never been nominated for an Oscar, but I started in the feeder, high school and community college, and my purples theater companies twenty years old and off Broadway. And coming back to Broadway. Keep returning to it. And now forty two years later, you get to Atticus Finch you get to do the role of a lifetime on Broadway in the theater, that's a lot to be proud of. So this sit there with, with Brian and Patty and, and all the other guys. Adam driver all them. Yeah. The kid Jeremy pope. But you know, it's a great group and you're part of a lot of great work that competitive thing, nobody scores the most points. These things we're doing five different things really, really well, go back to the day that you decided you were going to be Atticus Finch on Broadway. Was there any terror about that ultimate decision that had nothing to do with you committing for year because it's one of the great roles it's a great character? And despite the fact that we see flaws in him, there's virtue in him to me, as watching actors all my life and reviewing them the hardest thing to plays virtue. There's, you know how do you play good and make good interesting? And you get and maybe Atika struggle to remain. Good to remain take the high road and there's a bit of a struggle. This is a helps that yeah, but that's his aim because while he sitting on that porch this world in the south in nineteen thirty four in Alabama KKK's there. He's not initially he's kind of letting it happen. He's not going. He's not out there trying to change it. He's not carrying plan. No, he's I thought that was really interesting. Certainly where he starts. He knows that if he takes this case to defend Tom Robinson. And he sits in front of a jury of white Christian farmers men. He knows what he's going, this is no longer just executing will or foreclose and, and he's avoided that just raised his kids. I'm just raising my kids without a wife. I'm raising my kids, and he knows that will change thing unpleasant, things will be sent to us, and it's going to go beyond that you're gonna have the KKK come up and visit you on your porch and go, what are you doing? And I did a lot of research to kind of understand that kind of just keep your head down and don't get involved and stay out of trouble as family and just raise your kids and don't get involved. There was a lynching last Tuesday night, we missed you there. We got another one Friday, common and Atticus has to either say, no, I'm not or tied up that evening. Bob can't make. And there's a lot of there are a lot of people, especially in today's America that are don't wanna look go wanna see don't want to. I. I don't wanna know about Russia. I don't wanna know any, we'll do errands kind of speak into that, that American that decent honest, hardworking American lose just doing this, and it's not enough to just look the other way not now wasn't for Atticus and it isn't for us. Now there's denial and there's a combination and enabling. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And that's why I think people sit there watching this like this, you know, this is somehow speaking to us right now involve you gonna get. Yeah. Yeah. What was what was your first encounter with this story? Did you read the book? I did you the first encounter really was? I probably had seen the movie as a kid. I don't remember we didn't read the book, we read, Lord of the flies and farewell to arms, which wasn't on the public school curriculum where I was at Aaron said, do you wanna play? Atticus finch. And I didn't blink. Absolutely. I think partly because the last five years ten years now. I've been taking chances are been. Challenging myself doing things that I wouldn't that other people think I can do, but I don't know how to do. So say yes.

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