Jeff Daniels on the Steve Jobs movie
Jeff Daniels, star of two of the season’s ‘buzz’ films, found Hollywood success on his own terms,
Jeff Daniels is at the top of his game. The 60-yearold actor rubs shoulders with heavyweights in two of the buzz movies of this year’s award season — as NASA director Teddy Sanders in the Matt Damon film The Martian, and as controversial former Apple director John Sculley in the highly anticipated Steve Jobs.
In the biopic about the Apple co-founder, Daniels appears in several unforgettable scenes opposite Michael Fassbender as Jobs.
His recent successes include anchoring the 2012-2014 television show The Newsroom, for which he won an Emmy Award. And now he’s preparing for a stint on Broadway in the tough drama Blackbird, playing opposite Michelle Williams.
But the actor, who won his first Golden Globe nod for Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo in 1985, admits that when he moved from New York in 1986 to the acting backblocks — his hometown of Chelsea in suburban Michigan — to bring up his family, he worried he was embarking on career suicide.
As it turned out, it was merely a more scenic route to his hoped-for destination — long-term acting success.
“I wish I could go back and tell myself from 20 years ago: ‘You will have a lot of failure but, don’t worry, there will be a lot of success.’ I’m 60
years old. I’m a late bloomer,’’ says the son of a Michigan timberyard owner who once served as the city’s mayor.
Even though Daniels moved back to Michigan after only a handful of movies, he knew he wanted to stay in the movie business.
“I just took the long, scenic route for my career. I was hoping for longevity. I thought my best shot would be to be seen as someone like Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Peter Sellers, Alan Arkin or Gene Hackman — guys whose careers have lasted decades.
“That was the plan — and then The Newsroom came around and I was in my late 50s.’’
Daniels says playing three seasons of conceited anchorman Will McAvoy in the Aaron Sorkin-scripted Newsroom ensured he was match-fit to take on the intensely brilliant but dialogueheavy Steve Jobs, which this month won Sorkin a Golden Globe for best screenplay.
He says he was impressed by the commitment of his fellow actors, especially Fassbender, who is in almost every scene, and Kate Winslet, whose sparkling performance as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ confidant and marketing executive for Apple and NeXT, won her a best supporting actress Golden Globe last month. Both
Fassbender and Winslet have acting nominations for the film at the upcoming Oscars.
Daniels advised Fassbender and Winslet to learn their lines early and be fully prepared for the complexity of a Sorkin script, which, says Daniels, has its own rhythm.
“You usually get a script and you work out each line. With The Newsroom, we didn’t change a word in three years. You just need to go away and memorise your lines and get up to speed quickly,’’ he says.
“Michael and Kate jumped on it early and they got (the script) memorised fast because you can’t be memorising your 12 pages of dialogue the night before. You need to know your lines days — even weeks — ahead of time so you get in there and really live it. “You have to do the work.” Daniels says Sorkin takes a theatrical, even a classical, approach to the life of the Apple co-founder, who was one of the most fascinating, complex and influential minds of the 20th century.
Steve Jobs is not a straightforward biography. Instead, Sorkin and director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire; Trainspotting) show Jobs behind the scenes during three key product launches: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998.
The film examines the drama and conflicts for Jobs at work and in private, including his rollercoaster relationship with daughter Lisa BrennanJobs, his spiteful treatment of Lisa’s mother, Chrisann Brennan, and his splits with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and Sculley (Daniels).
Daniels says the real Sculley has given the film the thumbsup. “I’m glad he is happy because theirs was an important relationship,’’ he says.
I just took the long, scenic route for my career
Sculley is known as the man who sacked Jobs after the early failure of the Macintosh. Like many things in life, the true story behind that event was rather more complex.
“I was very appreciative to have met John (Sculley) during rehearsals,’’ Daniels says. “He sat with me and gave me some great information. John was like a father figure to Steve. He kind of steered Steve’s career. John could see he was a creative genius and visionary.
“John was a corporate CEO, and he was also brilliant at what he did, but when he had to make the decision, he stayed with the Apple II and he let the Macintosh go. It was not performing at the time. John made a business decision, which, in hindsight, was the wrong one. Steve never forgave this betrayal, and John never recovered from it. They never reconciled, even though there was one email exchange when John sent congratulations. The regret and pain is still there.”
Drama has always been Daniels’ first love, so it is ironic that his best-known role is the bumbling Harry Dunne in one of cinema’s most famous comic buddy movies, 1994’s Dumb And Dumber with Jim Carrey, a role he reprised 20 years later in Dumb And Dumber To.
When he was offered the role of Harry Dunne, two of his managers/agents warned him not to take the part, deeming the humour in the Farrelly Brothers comedy too gross.
But a third manager endorsed Daniels’ gut feeling that he should take on the role to reveal his comic versatility.
“Those two guys moved on after that, but the one who said to give the movie a shot, he is still my manager,’’ Daniels says.
“Doing Harry Dunne was a good move ... I think I surprised some people. I wanted to show I could also do wild comedy, because comedy is just as important as serious drama.’’
Steve Jobs is in cinemas now
At 60, Jeff Daniels is at the peak of his career.
Jeff Daniels (John Sculley) with Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) in Steve Jobs.