‘The Martian’s’ Jeff Daniels still coming down to Earth
Jeff Daniels didn’t know what awaited him after “The Newsroom.”
The Michigan-raised and Chelsea-based actor spent three seasons on the HBO drama starring as Will McAvoy, an idealistic anchor at a cable news network. The role netted him an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, but when the series wrapped in 2014 and Daniels pulled away in the 42-foot RV he drove to the set every season, he wasn’t sure what was next for him.
Turns out he needn’t have worried.
“ ‘Newsroom’ has bought me 10 years, easily,” says Daniels, seated in a plush armchair inside a conference room at the Ritz Carlton hotel during last month’s Toronto International Film Festival. “For me, there is life. Five years ago? Nuh-uh. That second wind is because of (‘Newsroom’ writer) Aaron Sorkin.”
Now Daniels — who turned 60 earlier this year — is sitting pretty. He has roles in several big projects, including “Steve Jobs” and the upcoming “Divergent” movies. He’ll go to Broadway in the springtime to star in “Blackbird,” opposite Michelle Williams. And he has the ability to call his own shots; later this month he’ll go out on the road for a four-week tour with the oldest of his three children, Ben, and his Ben Daniels Band.
The first of Daniels’ post-“Newsroom” films is Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” which opens Friday. In it, he plays NASA head Teddy Sanders, whose job it is to weigh the risks of bringing a stranded astronaut (played by Matt Damon) from Mars back to Earth.
Recently, he watched the film’s premiere and was pleased with how well it played to the audience.
“It seemed like they were really into the story,” says Daniels, sporting a pair of Red Wing boots and a Stormy Kromer jacket. “Which, with all the science that’s in this movie, was a great relief.”
True, there is no shortage of scientific complexity in “The Martian,” which didn’t exactly play to Daniels’ strengths. To sound like he knew what he was talking about amid all the astrophysics in the script “was a great acting challenge for me,” he says.
Even when watching the moon landing as a child, Daniels says he never harbored any dreams of one day becoming an astronaut. “John Glenn looked very cramped and uncomfortable, if I remember correctly,” he says. “My only dream was to be Al Kaline. It didn’t go far beyond, ‘God, I want to be able to throw like him.’ ”
Daniels still has that dream, and remains a dedicated follower of the Detroit Tigers. Start talking baseball with the guy and he opens right up, about the Tigers’ current woes (“the business of baseball ended our season”), the majesty of Miguel Cabrera (“we could be seeing one of the five best baseball players ever”) and the future of the franchise (“I look forward to seeing what the Ilitches decide to do with the team, because that’s where decisions are being made not just about next spring, but beyond next spring”).
Daniels is a Lions fan too and says he is going to be optimistic about the season. “I want to, and that’s what I’m going to until I’m told I can’t anymore,” he says, just days before the season opener.
The same goes for his career. He says when Woody Allen told him he was good while filming “Purple Rose of Cairo” that marked an artistic turning point for him (“that can get you through decades,” he says), while he reasons the success of 1994’s “Dumb & Dumber” bought him another 10 years.
Daniels says he’s always had a fatalistic attitude, and it’s one of the reasons he lives in Michigan. That way, when he gets the call telling him his career was over, he’s already home. “That was my thinking,” he says. “But, it’s lasted.”
He credits hard work and the ability to deliver but also sheer, dumb luck.
“I’m very aware of how fortunate I am,” Daniels says. “I remember shooting ‘Newsroom’ on a soundstage (in Los Angeles) on a studio lot. You could look out past the gate, which you could see through, and it was Sunset Boulevard., and you could see all these cars going by. And I never lost sight of the fact that in every fourth car there was a 60-year-old actor that would kill to do what I’m doing. And that keeps you working hard.”
Rated PG-13: for some strong language, injury images and brief nudity.