Jeff Daniels can sense the moments during performances of Broadway’s To Kill A Mockingbird when audiences jump aboard for the Aaron Sorkin ride, when fans of maybe The Newsroom or The West Wing recognize that Atticus or Scout or Calpurnia is about to “roll out a Sorkin,” to launch into one of those trademark ten-sentence runs (the key for an actor, Daniels confides, is that “it’s all one thought”). The new Atticus Finch says he feels theatergoers signing on for the rides, but acknowledges that this Mockingbird is really just beginning its flight (the new play, adapted by Sorkin from Harper Lee’s novel – and not from Horton Foote’s screenplay for the revered 1962 movie – opens at the Shubert Theatre Thursday, Dec. 13).
The new play, directed by Tony winner Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, My Fair Lady, Oslo, among many others stage works), was shepherded and developed by producer Scott Rudin and playwright Sorkin, and its re-teaming of Daniels and Sorkin (The Newsroom, Steve Jobs) drew considerable attention when the actor’s casting was announced last February. In truth, no other actor was considered for the role.
But the casting gave way to other headlines, including a legal contretemps, soon settled, with the Harper Lee estate over what Lee’s legal watchdogs claimed were artistic liberties.
From the start, there was both public excitement and skepticism about Broadway’s Mockingbird – perceived tinkering with long-loved sacred cows will do that. When word spread that the tale’s children – Scout, Jem and Dill – would be played by adults, the reaction might be under-described as “protective.” Mama Bear protective. Those kids are beloved.
And there were deeper issues. Though Mockingbird may be, as the promo copy says, the last novel America read together as a nation, and though Robert Mulligan’s gorgeous film is right up there with It’s A Wonderful Life in our national movie-loving heart, the racial and social politics of the Harper Lee tale are vintage ’60s. Progressive then, problematic now. The wise and compassionate and Caucasian attorney Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck in a career-defining performance) defends a clearly innocent black man, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping a white woman in the 1930s Deep South. A verdict that today would rightly give way to protests, at the very least, is met in the movie by something closer to heartbroken resignation – and gratitude to Atticus, who could well be American literature’s most famous White Savior.
Daniels, who played anchor Will McAvoy in the Sorkin-created HBO broadcast news drama series The Newsroom and Apple CEO John Sculley in the Sorkin-penned Steve Jobs, spoke to Deadline for a candid conversation about all things Mockingbird. About the story’s relevance today, and how he approaches Atticus in this new era, and about whether Atticus’ see-all-sides approach to life withstands the cruel lessons of Donald Trump and Charlottesville.
And it’s true – Daniels hadn’t read the book before taking the role, nor did he so much as consider allowing anything, including the towering figure of Gregory Peck, frighten him away.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Deadline: Let’s dive right in. How did you come to this project?
Jeff Daniels: It was two years ago this month, and Aaron and I were at a SAG event, a screening of Jobs and then a Q&A afterwards. We were waiting for the movie to be over and he just turned to me and he said, I just got the adaptation from Scott to do Mockingbird. Do you want to play Atticus?
Newsroom came to me that way. We had a meeting and it was my role before the meeting was over. Jobs was the same way. “Do you want to play John Scully in Jobs?” “I’d love to.” “Okay.” It was similar to that except this is Atticus Finch on Broadway.
Of course I wanted it. But I said to him, so I should read the book? If you make me read the book then you’re committed, Aaron. He said, Yes, Jeff, read the book.
Wait, so you really hadn’t read the book?
No. It wasn’t on our high school curriculum and I had just never gotten around to reading it. We had Lord of the Flies, we had read that.
So I did read it. Then it becomes the North Star for the next two years. You wait for the script, which didn’t come in for a year-and-a-half. We’re all off doing other things. I did Godless. I did Looming Tower. And you’re still getting updates – “I’m working on the script.” “I should have a first draft in a couple months.” Then in August of last year, I saw the draft, which wasn’t the first one but it was an early one. Aaron sent it to me and Scott. And then it got real.
Of course you had seen the movie. Or maybe not necessarily of course?
I don’t even think I saw the movie. I think we watched it right after Aaron talked to me. I said I’ve got to read the book, and I should see the movie, too. I had a lot of catching up to do.
Atticus is a towering figure, a cultural marker in a way, a symbol of so much. When you first started discussing the role, were you feeling excitement or trepidation? Maybe both?
I’ve been asked about the trepidation a lot. Someone even asked if I considered turning it down because of Gregory Peck and the iconic nature of his performance. That never entered my mind. I immediately looked at it like, Mr. Peck either gave a definitive, can’t-imagine-anyone-else-in-the-role performance, or else he’s the only one who got to do it. I had to go with the latter. I had to. We aren’t reading the book to you. This isn’t Horton Foote, it’s Aaron Sorkin. It’s me and Sorkin and this creative relationship we’ve got. I assume Aaron took on the attitude that I was originating the role and not just we’re just putting the book on stage. No, no, no. You have to clear everything. You have to clear the slate.
So very soon for us, the movie just did not exist. It couldn’t. I watched it once after that to see Mr. Peck’s choices. Okay, he did that, he chose that, he chose that, he chose that, he chose that. All right, got it. Some of those choices come from the book and some from what Mr. Peck wanted to do with it. That’s great, but as De Niro said you’re only as good as your choices, and with Aaron writing it there are other choices. So that’s what we’re doing, and people can either like it, go along with it or not, but this is what we’re doing with it. That’s the attack.
Is Atticus Finch still relevant in the way he was when Gregory Peck played him? And how do your acting choices reflect the differences?
The book was from Scout’s point of view. She was nine years old, something like. So there was a lot of looking up to Atticus. Some wonderful writing, I’m not suggesting it’s a one-note thing. There are colors in there. But he’s an ideal, and in the play we see the cost. Not only is Tom Robinson on trial, but [so is] Atticus and his belief in goodness, his belief in decency and compassion and being respectful even of a Bob Ewell. It’s in Atticus’ bones, and it’s put on trial. It’s everything he’s taught his kids.
But we upped the stakes after the trial, and we watch Atticus recover and then fight for those beliefs again. Which is in the book, those beliefs are in the book. They’re in what Harper Lee wrote. We watch him fall to his knees for a second and then get back up. Aaron’s done a beautiful job of kind of arcing up that journey.
Isn’t there a fine line between believing there’s good in everybody and Donald Trump saying after Charlottesville there’s blame on both sides? It’s not quite so easy to address that question as maybe it was in 1960 or ’62.
Or to defend it.
Exactly. So how does Atticus defend it?
He does and does and does – until he can’t. Or he has to find a different tack, and that’s for the ending of the play, which is still in tune with the book but where it is no longer a given in 2018 that there are not people out there who will do whatever they need to do to get what they want. I think a lot of people in America are looking around and they can’t recognize their country. I think that may be how the play relates. It’s not just the assumption that he has at the top of the play that is true.
It has to be challenged.
It’s been challenged, and I’m standing there in that summation winging it, and I’m alone. Everybody around me doesn’t believe what I believe. That’s a powerful thing to play.
Let’s leave aside the writing for a moment, if that’s possible. How do you as an actor bring out not only Atticus’ faith in humanity, but also the questioning of it? This notion that maybe some people don’t deserve this sort of grace, that there are the Bob Ewells of the world who maybe we shouldn’t cut a break. I’m asking you to give away an actor’s trade secrets here.
This is what you talk about when you’re leaving the theater, versus what we’re trying to preach – and what we’ve worked very hard not to preach. This is a struggle that many people are having today, and certainly Atticus is having it in 1934 Alabama. I think what people will walk out of the theater and have to decide is whether it’s worth having these beliefs in goodness in everyone. Is it questionable? I don’t know. Go to church. A religion will tell you that it is in everyone, that it’s a choice to be evil. I don’t know. This is where it gets beyond me.
All I can do as an actor is go, is this worth fighting for or not? Atticus believes that it still is and then he does so. Whether the audience believes that as they walk out is up to them.
Was it always the idea to have adults playing the roles of the children? [Celia Keenan-Bolger plays Scout, Will Pullen is Jem, and Gideon Glick is Dill.] Talk about trepidation – the thought of asking nine-year-old kids to read an Aaron Sorkin script.
I got the script August of last year and the first reading was in October. I don’t know if and when I was told that adults would be playing the children, it just didn’t enter my mind. Scott may have told me over the phone, “Oh by the way, wait until you see who’s going to read Scout and Dill and Jem.” But certainly that first reading I walked in and I meet Celia and I’m going, Well she’s not nine. Having done Newsroom for three years, there is no nine-year-old kid in New York – and I don’t care how great their stage mothers are – who can handle Sorkin’s dialogue on a Broadway stage eight times a week or four times a week or whatever they do with kids. It can’t happen.
Going into previews on November 1, that was one of the questions: Are we going to get away with this? Is the audience who loves the book and the movie going to allow us to do this? Are they going to allow me to play Atticus Finch? Are they going to allow Aaron Sorkin and his adaptation on a book that they are holding to their chest while they’re watching this? All of those were questions going into the first preview. We did not have answers for them. All we had to do was throw it at them and then cross our fingers. It turned out more than okay. We have not had any pushback on the kids in particular at all.
But it’s part of the big risk. This is a huge creative swing that Aaron and I are taking. You know, Gregory Peck and Harper Lee.
I don’t know if you’ve seen The Ferryman on Broadway, but that has a lot of kids in it, and it might restore your faith in what children are able to do on stage…
No. It. Won’t. I did Fly Away Home. I did Because of Winn-Dixie. I did 101 Dalmatians. Kids and dogs. I’m sure the kids in The Ferryman are terrific, but been there, done that.
It strikes me that there are two people on Broadway right now playing these really iconic cinema roles – you and Bryan Cranston, who is doing the Peter Finch role in Network. I don’t know where I’m going with that, but it’s an observation.
And Bryan is taking a big swing too. It’s great to share a Broadway season with plays like that. Plays like Network and Mockingbird that are important, that matter. You know, the American theater still matters. It still has a national voice if the productions can pull it off and I’m sure Network is and I know we are. We’re throwing everything we got at it, and good for Broadway. It’s great to share a Broadway season with not only Bryan but Springsteen. I’m on Broadway when Bruce Springsteen is on Broadway! Thank you very much! Goodnight! Drive safely!
Aaron discussed during I think the 60 Minutes interview that one of the criticisms of Mockingbird over the years is that Atticus is presented as this sort of White Savior, a sort of liberal ideal back then, but now we have a different perspective. Is that something that you, as an actor, deal with head on, or do you sort of, well, I don’t know. You tell me.
All of that kind of came from Bart Sher and Scott and Aaron. They’re the minds that think like that. I’m the guy just going from scene to scene. I don’t overthink. But yes, is it enough today to merely do what Atticus did? Is Atticus losing the Tom Robinson case and then going, “Well, we did the best we could and I still believe in what I believe in,” is that enough? I think Aaron’s position is that it’s not enough today, that Atticus needs to do more. Certainly, that’s the approach we’re taking on the play. And Aaron has [shown that] in the characters of Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) and Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe). Both of those characters have a voice that they don’t have in the movie, and that they don’t necessarily have in the book.
They have a bit more in the book than the movie, I believe. Calpurnia especially.
Well, they’ve got some things to say in the play, and they’re important things to say. They aren’t just “yes, sir,” and then go back into the kitchen. It’s important to hear what their experience is. I think that today in 2018 we would be criticized and rightly so if we didn’t acknowledge that and speak to that. Again, that’s one of the risks. People will either go along with us as they hold the book or not.
And that must be something you face every night. We talk about audiences responding or critics responding as these sort of blocks of response, but each night you face a different block, with different people holding on to that book or not. Do you ever get the sense that this one here isn’t buying it, or tonight we’re having a tougher time convincing the audience than we did last night?
The audience reaction is consistent. They go with the kids right away, within 30 seconds. We beat that through the performances and Bart’s direction. Now, it feels like when I walk out, it’s the star entrance and that’s when they realize that this really isn’t Gregory Peck. That’s when they see, that’s when they know. So there’s this kind of, “Okay, I’m going to have an open mind.” You can feel a portion of the audience, sometime a majority of the audience, clocking that. And then I go to work.
You can’t go out there thinking it’s all love. You just can’t. That book is what it is. It’s bigger than all of us as is the movie and Mr. Peck’s performance. I’ve got to walk out and look up at the Mount Everest that is his performance and say here we go, climb the mountain.
You and Aaron have a history. I assume you’ve built up certain rhythms and certain habits and practices over the years, and I’m wondering whether the stage challenged that or whether the stage accepted it with open arms.
I think the stage allows for it even more because on stage it’s all about the words. The fact that Aaron is able to write the way he does for the camera, he’s breaking all the rules of less is more. Like those stories of Gary Cooper standing on the set with a half-page speech and he crosses it out and just putts in “Yep.” Aaron’s breaking all those rules in front of the camera, which is great. But on stage the words are first and foremost. You can ride those like a horse. They are wonderful and they are hard to do well and it takes a lot of practice and a lot of repetition to make it seem like it’s just falling out of your head. It’s fun to pull it off.
There are sections early on in the play where the audience that loves the collaborations between the two of us, who are fans of The Newsroom or of West Wing and they see an actor ‘roll out a Sorkin,’ roll out a ten-sentence thought (and the trick is it’s all one thought). You’re going down that course, and it’s a slalom course. You’re hitting this gate, now you’re hitting that gate but you’re heading to the same finish line. It’s one thought, and only Sorkin would have written it this way. You can hear the audience feel that and see that, that this is unique, this is unusual, and this is what I can do with what he’s written. That’s as enjoyable as anything, when I pull off one of those speeches. You can hear the audience hearing something being done for the first time. It doesn’t feel like they’ve seen it before. It doesn’t feel like they’ve heard it before. God forbid, maybe it’s original. And that’s what we’re shooting for.
Any plans, any discussions between you and Aaron working on a future project after Mockingbird? Any return to TV?
No. There isn’t. I would welcome it. Right now we’re just trying to get to opening night and there is no “Hey by the way we got this other thing, it’s two years from now.” I’m in Mockingbird for a year. I’m in this thing until next November 1 so I just want to get to opening and then I want to see if I can do this thing for a year like Fonda did with Mr. Roberts and Brian Dennehy and Jason Robards. This is old school stuff where you lock in for a year and you do it and if you can pull it off you don’t miss a show. That’s the goal.
I did Redwood Curtain [in 1993]. We ran for like six weeks and we closed. Reviews were mixed. We couldn’t make a go of it. I did [God of] Carnage. We had a break in the late summer  but we went from March to Thanksgiving, and I did Fifth of July way back in the ’80s for eight months. So it’s doable. I talked to Patti LuPone so I mean [laughs] I’ve got the road map. I know how to do it. But also it’s Atticus Finch. It’s the role of a lifetime. What are you going to get that’s better than this?