The secret to Jeff Daniels' success: "Stars don’t last. They have a short shelf life"

Daniels plays ex-Apple CEO John Sculley in Aaron Sorkin's "Steve Jobs," which goes into wide release today

Published October 23, 2015 6:28PM (EDT)

Jeff Daniels (Neil Hall/Reuters)
Jeff Daniels (Neil Hall/Reuters)

“Remember, no matter what, it’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” This quote from Daniels’ character Charlie, from the 1986 cult classic "Something Wild," nicely suits the man himself. After four decades in the game, Daniels is a survivor. Whether playing a NASA chief, anchorman to the world, or his latest as ex-Apple CEO John Sculley in the Danny Boyle / Aaron Sorkin collaboration "Steve Jobs," Daniels imbues his characters with a playful spark, the radiation of a man truly enjoying his work. As an actors’ actor, he’s never chewed scenery, and captivates by playing off his fellow performers. That humble confidence may stem from his current home and Michigan upbringing, and his work as founder and head of the non-profit Purple Rose Theatre Company. He’s been married to his teenage love since 1979 and has subsequently eschewed Hollywood vice and pitfall. Along with Tom Hanks, Daniels has been graced with industry stability and longevity, and the key seems to be, no matter what, to always have fun.

Where you aware of John Sculley, or the impact he had on Steve Jobs, before filming?

No. Sculley’s mentioned in Walter’s [Isaacson] book which is what I initially read after getting the script. That’s the first exposure I had to what John was and what he did in Steve’s life.

What were your initial impressions of the man? Did you view him as a tragic hero or even a martyr?

I got to meet with him and hear his side of things, and also see and hear how much the relationship mattered to him. Aside from the business decision that he made, which short term was the one to make but long term was not, he really bought into working with Steve and being with a creative genius who truly was changing the world, much like a Henry Ford or Thomas Edison. That’s pretty heady stuff for a corporate guy who could have just run around doing startup companies not really knowing what product he was pushing. He did know on this, and did see the genius behind Steve’s next great idea. I think he was ready to buckle in and spend his life doing some great things together. When it ended badly, it took John a long time to come out from under that. His reputation had to be repaired, which took a lot of years. His personal interest in just being involved again in business took some time. He emotionally took some hits that were still with him when I met him, and that was something I was able to put in the movie.

Did you get any sense of ego when you met with him?

Ego is a big word. None of the guys got to read the script. Some had read the book and they were wary of what we were going to do. They were interested in making sure that we presented them in the light they wanted presented. Not necessarily a favorable light, but nobody wants to be the bad guy. This comes from a place of not knowing and wondering what the script is. You get their version of things and there are many sides to the story. Part of Aaron’s job was to sort it out.

With your theater background, was your approach to Jobs’ three act structure instantly comfortable?

Yeah, but Aaron was just more up front about it, certainly now in the interviews. Every story is three acts. It goes back to the Greeks. You can see it on "Law and Order" and "CSI." There’s a beginning, middle and an end. That’s all it is, and Aaron was just more out front about it. Unlike formula movies or TV shows, where you go, “Oh, ok. Here’s the problem. Now they gotta beat the obstacles, the hero makes a speech and everybody wins in the end.” The great writers don’t do that. Aaron hides all that. He hides the structure. What might be more obvious in some other shows that are more formula, aside from the three acts, Aaron hides the mechanics of storytelling, the way great writers do.

Is falling into Sorkin dialogue easy for you at this point?

It’s never easy but it’s familiar. You know the process. You know that you get the script and you need to start getting those words, word for word with no improv, into your head as soon as possible. I’ve learned to memorize it like a grocery list; kinda flat and monotone. Alan Arkin taught me that way back in the 80s when I got to do a project with Alan. You don’t act it. You just get it in your head so it can flow. Then you can find the rhythm and then you can pick up the speed and add the acting on top of it. You can’t add what you’re going to do or how you’re going to interpret it until you’ve got it in your head and you know you know it. That’s different than, “I think I know it,” or “I just memorized it two hours ago.” It’s gotta get in there, live and settle in there, almost like cement. Then when you do it, there’s no question that you know it. Now you can dance on it, as I like to call it. That’s when Sorkin gets fun. You get actors who know it cold, they can throw everything they’ve got at it, and there’s no fear that they’re going to forget their next line. Fassbender and I have a scene in the middle of "Steve Jobs" that’s like a heavyweight fight. We were both able to get to that place that made the scene all the more exciting to play.

What’s your Sorkin rehearsal process? Do you run lines at home with your wife?

Oh God, I wouldn’t bore her. I’ve spared her that. I’m the room with a script walking back and forth. It’s just repetition. It’s like professional athletes getting the muscle memory. It’s over and over and over again until it’s in there. As you’re saying one line you already know the next. That’s where you gotta get, and that just takes repetition and time.

Do you consider Woody Allen, Ridley Scott or Aaron Sorkin geniuses?

Genius is a big word. They’re singular. Only Ridley would shoot "The Martian" that way. Only Woody can write like that. Only Aaron would write that way. They’re one-of-a-kind originals in a world where everybody’s copying everybody and originality is harder and harder to find. I’ll give them that. I’ll leave it to others to call people geniuses. I’m not comfortable with that. All three of those guys have been doing what they do for decades. If that qualifies as genius then so be it.

Is getting to know a director awkward, like a first date? Did you immediately click with Boyle?

Not really like a first date, but you arrive and show him what you think it is and give them something to work with. It’s more than just you. You have to incorporate where the scene fits in the bigger picture of the whole movie. Those are the things that Danny [Boyle] has to worry about. I don’t have to worry about that. I just have to be Sculley in this scene and so you give him that. It’s just about giving him something to work with. Then he gets on his feet and says, “That’s great, but let’s try this.” Now you’re working together because you’ve given him something. I really don’t do, “Well, I need four dates with you before I can decide if I can trust you. I trust you right away. You’re Danny Boyle. Let’s get to work.” It saves everybody a lot of time when you come in like that.

For the strong authoritarian figures in "The Martian," "Steve Jobs" and "The Newsroom," was there an archetype in your personal life that you drew from?

These are three guys that had decision making power. They have to think through a problem and then everything moves based on their decision. There was that commonality, but there’s no one person I drew from. With McAvoy, I take pieces of people, whether they’re anchor people or not, that have elements of the personality that might fuel what McAvoy is going through. You also pour gas on the parts of you, in McAvoy’s case, that are egotistical or insecure. In real life I try to tamp those down, but with McAvoy you pour gas on them and light it. They call action and off I go. That’s the fun of it; pulling stuff out of me that McAvoy would consider normal behavior. That magic of make-believe is fun.

It’s the same thing with the other guys. With Sculley I was able to talk to the real guy. Teddy Sanders is a guy in a position of power, a guy who has to say “no” or question whether saving one astronaut is worth risking the lives of five others. You get to see Teddy make those decisions right in front of the camera so it’s more about thinking your way through it. I run a theater company and sometimes decisions have to be made by me and only me. I’m literally able to take stuff like that, transfer it to Teddy and blow it up into science, math and the space program.

When do you have the most fun on set? Is it when you’re allowed to play, like "Dumb and Dumber"’s Harry Dunne or Charlie in "Something Wild?"

Those are fun. When you get to improv a little it’s fun, but it’s not necessarily always good or makes the movie better, but it’s enjoyable. I enjoyed "The Newsroom" always because of what I got to say. I enjoy the writing. I enjoy taking that writing, funneling it through me and throwing it at the camera. For me that’s fun. The scene in the middle of "Jobs" with Michael [Fassbender] when we go at each other like it’s a heavyweight fight. That’s fun. As an actor you live for scenes with days like that. When you get them, even though you may be tearing each other’s heads off verbally, that’s fun to us. There’s a lot of, “Hey, great work." Michael and I had gone through it together and we’ll always have that. It was a special day.

How do you feel about the state of hyperactive American media? Are we desensitized, more than ever, to horror?

Yeah. You know how we drive by a car wreck on the highway and slow down? There’s a lot of that going on now in social media. “Look at this! Look at this! Look at the pain this person’s going through!” The need to know everything about someone, whether it’s true or not, and take what’s not true and make it true, is everywhere. It didn’t used to be that way. I get that we all get information a lot quicker because it’s right there in our phone. We get updated on what this person did constantly and I get that, but I’m not sure it’s all great.

Has living in Michigan and marrying your high school sweetheart kept you level? Were you ever drawn to the sex, drugs and rock and roll side of Hollywood?

I just never bought it. I always knew it was fleeting and temporary. I was brought up as an actor in New York where they really champion that attitude. You’re an artist and an actor. Stars are something someone else does. You just go off and be the best actor you can be, and if you’re lucky you’ll have a long career. If you want to be a star, go be a star, but it’s probably pretty short term. Stars don’t last. They have a short shelf life. You get ten years older and you’re no longer that action hero anymore. The brand that you set up, as if you’re a product, has now outlived its usefulness. It’s a youth-oriented market. All of these are reasons to not buy into it, and I agreed. I said, “The only thing I can control is becoming a better actor by the end of each movie. I can come out of each movie better. If I do that, maybe I’ll have a career that will last decades.” It turned out that I’ve been able to stick around.

As a musician, is there an album that has stuck with you throughout your entire life that you constantly return to?

"11-17-70," Elton John. It’s just a threesome and they’re live in a New York studio. It’s not his most popular album but the energy, musicianship and rock and roll behind that is incredible. The bassline that Dee Murray does on “Burn Down the Mission,” man. For whatever reason, that’s the one.

Is there a current band or someone new who’s been blowing your hair back recently?

I like the writers with a guitar. I’m really attracted to people who are writing originally. Only Jason Isbell could write the two albums he just put out. Sturgill Simpson. The Milk Carton Kids. I’m interested in what those guys are doing. I love anything Lyle Lovett puts out. Only Lyle would write those songs. I look for guys like that.

Why Jeff Daniels Doesn't Read Critics' Reviews

By Drew Fortune

Drew Fortune is a Los Angeles freelance writer. He's a regular contributor to A.V. Club, Interview Magazine, and his work has appeared in Spin, Paste, and many other publications. Tweet him @drewster187.

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Aaron Sorkin Aol_on Danny Boyle Hbo Jeff Daniels Movies Steve Jobs The Martian The Newsroom Tv