Jeff Daniels in "The Newsroom." (John P. Johnson / HBO )
Before taking on the lead for "The Newsroom,"HBO's intense drama exploring the behind-the-scenes frenzy of a cable news network, Jeff Daniels received some counsel from the man formerly known as Tony Soprano.
"James said, 'Get sleep,'" Daniels said, recalling a conversation with James Gandolfini, Daniels' costar in the smash Broadway production of "God of Carnage." The star of"The Sopranos" was trying to warn Daniels, whose wide-ranging career had been mostly anchored in movies and theater, about the grueling demands of a high-profile TV series.
The advice didn't immediately take. "It's like one of those things when women talk to others about giving birth, and they say it's going to hurt," Daniels said. "There's only so much you can say to someone who has never gone through it — the other person goes, 'Yeah, Yeah.'" He chuckled: "Damn, was he right. What can I say? It was a long labor."
"The Newsroom" has A-list credentials — the drama is created and executive produced by Aaron Sorkin, and is his first TV project since scoring a screenwriting Oscar last year for "The Social Network." It is also the first major TV series for Daniels, who has brought a quiet charm and low-key boyish looks to an eccentric gallery of characters including the idealistic screen-bound adventurer in Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo," the married professor who cheats on his cancer-stricken wife in "Terms of Endearment" and a mischievous moron in "Dumb and Dumber." After costarring with huge names such as Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine, Clint Eastwood, Debra Winger and Meryl Streep, Daniels is center stage in the series.
A few weeks after wrapping the first season, which premieres June 24, he has already tagged the experience at "The Newsroom" as rewarding — and exhausting. "There's a freedom in knowing you can do it," Daniels said of the nonstop heavy-duty schedule and endless memorizing of lines. "But it ain't for the meek."
Like "The West Wing," Sorkin's drama that was set in the White House, "The Newsroom" bounces between high drama and quirky banter. Daniels said he was particularly intrigued by grappling with Sorkin's intricate, twisty dialogue that was a trademark of "The West Wing," "Sports Night" and other Sorkin-written series.
"It's very musical," he said, sitting in a Hollywood diner in a white shirt and white shorts. Though polite and forthcoming, Daniels' manner is businesslike. "Aaron's not the first to do this type of dialogue. All the great ones since Shakespeare can write like that. But when it gets to that pace, it's wonderful, very much like a piece of music."
Still, getting control of the precise dialogue took its toll a few times when he couldn't remember a line. "My brain became Teflon and I just couldn't remember what to say. It happens to all of us — the hard drive gets maxed out. We need more memory."
In the series, Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a newsman who becomes embroiled in controversy following a public meltdown at a university event when he insults a student and launches into a rant blasting American education and culture. His regular staff leaves him and he is ordered to team up with a new executive producer (Emily Mortimer) and a new team. The problem is, the two characters were formerly involved, and the relationship ended badly. The reconciliation is alternately bitter and rocky. Sam Waterston ("Law & Order") plays the head of the network.
Newspapers have been the focal point for many dramas ("The Wire,""Lou Grant") but TV newsrooms have been mostly the domain of comedies ("Mary Tyler Moore," "Murphy Brown," Sorkin's "Sports Night").
Sorkin is taking aim at the media and the short attention span of viewers in the show. In an email, he called "The Newsroom" "first and foremost, a workplace drama about a workplace family. My priorities are the relationships. But the series also reflects a romantic nostalgia for a time when reporters and news anchors were revered and trusted. The characters on the show are on a Quixotic mission to return to that time. They're reaching unrealistically high which means they're going to fall down a lot."
"It's a huge warning flag from Aaron," Daniels said. "He is waving his arms and jumping up and down and saying, 'Pay attention. We can do better.'"
The project came along at the right time for Daniels, who in the last several years has appeared in several independent films, including "The Squid and the Whale" and"Howl."
"The indie world changed when the economy went south," he said. "I was frustrated with doing something, then waiting for it to come out, and sometimes it never did, or would just play in New York for 50 people. So I really wanted to try something else. Television in the last few years has been where all the great writers are going. TV now is what indie film used to be."
Now that the first season has wrapped, Daniels said he's looking forward to taking a break from the series. One possibility on the horizon is a "Dumb and Dumber" sequel. The film's massive fan base has been clamoring for years for a follow-up.
"Jim [Carrey] and the Farrelly brothers really want to do it," he said. "We'll see. A script just came in."