Jeff Daniels (‘The Looming Tower,’ ‘Godless’): Emmy winner returns with two strong roles [Complete Interview Transcript]

Jeff Daniels has a strong chance to receive two Emmy Awards nominations this July. He is the leading actor on the Hulu limited series “The Looming Tower” and a supporting actor for the limited series “Godless” on Netflix. He is already a past Emmy champ for “The Newsroom” (2013) and has picked up three Golden Globe nominations in his film career for “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985), “Something Wild” (1986) and “The Squid and the Whale” (2005).

Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery recently chatted with Daniels about his two roles as contenders that could possibly bring a return to the 2018 Emmys. Enjoy that video above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Jeff Daniels, you star in “The Looming Tower” as John O’Neill, who’s a real-life FBI agent who worked in counterterrorism in the years leading up to 9/11. What made you interested in taking part in this series?

Jeff Daniels: “Looming Tower,” it said something. It was an important story. I didn’t know anything about it. I hadn’t read Larry Wright’s book. I didn’t know who John O’Neill was and when I dove into it, I was fascinated by it, this whole lead-up to 9/11 and how it came to be, how it could’ve possibly been prevented and the inner workings of our government at a time that, as Richard Clarke said, “Your government failed you,” and this is the story of that.

GD: Did you feel a lot of responsibility in playing John O’Neill, since that character is a real person?

JD: No more so than any other character, really. He’s a guy who believed he was right and fought for that, and he had to fight a lot of people who disagreed with him or thought there was another way to do it. His way of trying to get them to understand what he wanted them to do was abrasive. He didn’t have a political bone in his body, so when he went down to Washington to try to work with the CIA and other government officials, he just didn’t talk that game. He didn’t play that game well, and he had a short fuse and he couldn’t understand why these people were in his way. That it ended up being 9/11 that everything in “Looming Tower” leads to that day, you don’t play that. You don’t know that that specifically is going to happen on that day. That was as much as a surprise to O’Neill as to anyone, that that specific event occurred then. But you do know that it’s important. Your character knows that something bad could happen and that it is worth fighting for, and that’s what you play. That and the fact that you’re right, until they kicked him out of the FBI, told him to go retire and get out of here, and that’s when he, I think, kind of fell apart and decided to change and maybe try to be a better person and he was on his way to being that the morning 9/11 happened.

GD: How much, if any, additional research beyond the book into O’Neill or the FBI did you do to prepare for the role?

JD: Well you get to sit down with a couple of his partners who worked with him for years and years, all over the world, who knew John’s strengths, who knew his weaknesses, who knew his patience, who knew his lack of patience, who knew what he loved and it doesn’t take a lot. They said he gulped life and okay, that’s a terrific thing to be able to play. He fought tooth and nail for his agents. He would go to the mat for his guys wherever they were in the world. He’s the guy that you wanted in your foxhole with you, as one of his partners said. There was another night where I spent like three hours with about eight or nine guys who worked with him, not just partners but some other guys. And I just listened. You just listen to these people remember this guy and you can come up with a pretty good portrait, the spirit of him. You can kind of find him, and that’s when acting gets fun when you’ve done all the research, when you’ve listened to the people and then you can kind of jump off the cliff with the character and try to flap your arms and see if you fly. That’s the fun of it.

GD: Tahar Rahim co-stars with you as one of those agents who worked with him, Ali Soufan, and Soufan is actually a producer of the series. How closely involved throughout the production was he in particular?

JD: More so with the executive producers than with the actors. I don’t remember ever seeing the real Ali Soufan on the set. He might’ve been. I didn’t work every day. But he certainly was involved with them leading up to the shooting. I met him in the week prior to shooting, so he was involved in the preparation with me, that’s for sure.

GD: What was it like getting to meet him before getting to work so closely with Tahar Rahim playing him in the series?

JD: Well, I didn’t get to know Ali Soufan at all. I mean, I sat with him for an hour or so and he was part of that three-hour dinner, met with him one other time, I think, and that’s it. The guy you become friends with, the guy you are partners with is Tahar. That’s my O’Neill and his Soufan. That’s the reality for me, even though it’s fictional. That’s your reality, so you aren’t referring back to other people. So, very quickly, Tahar became Ali Soufan to me.

GD: Did you learn anything that surprised you about these events from taking part in this miniseries, from the book, that you weren’t expecting to get out of it?

JD: I was surprised by the lack of the sharing of intelligence between the CIA and the FBI. They both thought they were right. They both thought their way of getting to perhaps the same thing was the best way. And then you add in O’Neill’s abrasiveness and his bull-in-a-china-shop way of behaving in a meeting sometimes, and their animosity towards him. That he’s not as brilliant as they are, he’s not as intellectual as they are, he’s not as knowledgeable, in their opinion. He’s more of the street. I was surprised that all of that impacted how the government prepared for something such as 9/11. That surprised me.

GD: Did working on the miniseries inform or influence your own personal politics or philosophies in any way?

JD: No, other than “divided we fail” is a losing proposition and certainly 9/11 is an example of that, and have we gotten better? Are we better? Did we learn anything from that, or are we more divided than ever?

GD: Alex Gibney is a producer of the series and also a director but he’s best known for his work as a documentarian. How was it working with him on a scripted program like this?

JD: Alex’s knowledge of the subject matter was another resource. And like any of the directors on this show I expect myself to kind of bring a lot to it, and to come in fully prepared with what I think it is and the writing and the character, especially the arc for O’Neill was so clear, that I didn’t require a lot of handling by any of the directors. They certainly steered me, because I was coming in hot and big and sometimes, “More over here,” and stuff like that, but Alex and John Dahl and Michael Slovis, Craig Zisk, they were all terrific directors that let me kind of find it and because the writing was good, it’s pretty clear in what it’s supposed to be.

GD: So in this miniseries you go up against Peter Sarsgaard as CIA Agent Martin Schmidt, and I got a chance to talk with Sarsgaard and he talked about enjoying needling you about being a Tigers fan to help kind of generate that animosity between your two characters. Did that really help build the contentious relationship between you two onscreen?

JD: I don’t remember him needling me about being a Tigers fan. I don’t know what he’s talking about! He probably did. But he’s such a good actor, and I’ve always been a big believer in half your performance is in the other actor, meaning react, listen, and Peter, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tahar, especially around the table with Michael and Peter with some of those contentious meetings, they’re giving you a lot. Peter’s giving you a lot to go try to throw a punch across the table and it was a joy working with him and I just thought he was so annoying. So annoying. And he knew it. And it helped me a lot. It helped me a lot.

GD: What do you most hope viewers will get out of “The Looming Tower” when they watch it?

JD: I think like any piece of art, it asks a question, and I think the question is, “Could this happen again? Are we better off, or are we more divided than ever? And should we be more vigilant about not only outside threats but internal strife within our own government?” If we’re not working together, CIA, FBI, Justice Department, anybody, doesn’t mean we have to share information and I understand there are different policies and ways to go about things, but I know that when we were divided like we were before 9/11, 9/11 happened. And I hope we’ve learned something and it probably asks the question of the audience, “Have we?” Because 9/11 happened when the government was fully staffed with knowledgeable, brilliant, experienced people. Where are we now? We’re not fully staffed, you might wanna take out brilliant and knowledgeable because not everybody qualifies.

GD: This past season you also co-starred in the Netflix western “Godless.” This seems to be an especially good time for limited series getting to really dig deep into these kind of novelistic stories on TV and in streaming. Do the opportunities feel more varied as an actor these days?

JD: For guys like me it’s a golden time. The writing has gone to Hulu and Netflix and HBO and Showtime. That’s where the writers went, and actors chase good writing. And, it’s not a 90-minute movie. It’s a seven-hour limited series or it’s a 10-episode season based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. It’s not meant to sell cars on network television. It’s meant to be binge-watched, as if you’re reading a novel. And you’re doing a 10-chapter, 10-hour novel. That’s what you’re shooting. So for an actor, look at all the things you get to play in a 10-hour season, vs. a 90-minute or two-hour movie. It’s a great time for actors and writers and I hope it continues because the roles are challenging, the format demands more of the audience. If you have an attention span of one minute, and that’s long, then you probably shouldn’t watch “Looming Tower” or “Godless” or anything. You should just stay on your phone. But if you’re interested in a great story well told over time, like people do with the binge-watching thing, great. I hope I get to do these for the rest of my life.

GD: All seven episodes of “Godless” were actually written and directed by Scott Frank, so you’re working with the same writer and director throughout that entire process, and you worked with him on “The Lookout” some years ago. How is that filming experience different?

JD: From what?

GD: From something like “The Looming Tower” where you’re working with multiple directors.

JD: Ah yeah, “Looming Tower” was sort of like “Newsroom” in that we had multiple directors. “Newsroom” we had one writer. Aaron [Sorkin] wrote everything. He had a staff that researched but he wrote everything. Scott Frank wrote everything. There’s certainly a consistency when there’s a singular voice. “Squid and the Whale” was a movie that I did with Noah Baumbach who wrote and directed. When you’re the single voice, it’s all the blame, all the glory. But there’s a consistency there. You have to overcome that when you have multiple directors and multiple writers. I mean, the executive producers are in there trying to make it a one single voice and trying to shape and tone and all of that, but that’s extra work that has to be done when it’s not one person. As an actor I tell them, in a way to kind of keep directors from over-directing, I’ll just say, “Five words or less. I’ll do anything you want, just tell me in five words or less. ‘Faster, slower, more sad, don’t come in so hot.’” That’s all I need. And if I can get the directors, and usually that kind of gives me a consistency with the directors who will then kind of adhere to that, and then I’m not suddenly in episode whatever listening to somebody explain the world to me with a two-minute dissertation on what I should be doing. The eyes tend to glaze.

GD: Well I wanna congratulate you on “The Looming Tower” and “Godless” and all the other work you’ve been doing and thank you so much for talking to me today.

JD: All right, take care.

Be sure to make your Emmy predictions today so that Hollywood insiders can see how their TV shows and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions as often as you like until just before nominees are announced on July 12. And join in the fun debate over the 2018 Emmys taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our television forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.

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