Jeff Daniels Interview: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
“We approach it as if we’re originating the role,” reveals Jeff Daniels. The role in question is Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Daniels’ fresh approach to the iconic character netted the actor his third Tony nomination (following his two for “God of Carnage” in 2009 and “Blackbird” in 2016). Watch the exclusive video interview above.
“Mockingbird” is one of the most beloved stories in the American canon, and has already become an acclaimed film. Gregory Peck played Atticus in that 1962 Horton Foote treatment, and took home an Oscar for his efforts. In order to play the character to the fullest and not allow the legacy of Peck to get in the way, Daniels says “you tip your hat to him and all that he achieved with that success. And then you hit the delete button.” Instead of treating Peck’s performance as the definitive version, he simply re-frames the thought as “he’s the only guy who got to do it.”
Now that it’s Daniels’ turn to take a crack at the role, he has plenty of opportunity to set his Atticus apart. Sorkin’s script examines Atticus’ belief system through a contemporary lens. He believes that “there’s a goodness in everyone… You just have to care enough to look for it.” But as various citizens in Atticus’ small southern town reveal racist undertones, “we find out he’s a bit of an apologist.” That’s a far cry from the film version, which held Atticus up as an “idealized version of what a great white man could be.”
There’s a dramatic shift Daniels has to navigate on stage. “His belief that there’s a goodness in everyone, that there’s a better angel in all of us, is challenged,” explains Daniels. Atticus hangs onto this mindset, even when given evidence that there are flaws to his approach. He has to realize that in some cases “the better angel isn’t going to come out.” That comes to a head when Atticus reaches his breaking point and enters a physical altercation with Bob Ewell. “He hates himself for it,” explains Daniels, but “he realizes Bob Ewell won’t hear him otherwise.”
The two-time Emmy Award winner admits that the team was initially concerned with how the legions of book fans would react to changes from the novel. But they are finding that audiences are ready to go on the journey each night. “You read the book. You watch the movie. But you feel the play,” says Daniels. “We brought them into the novel. We pull them onstage with us.” And by the end of the evening “the audience walks out thinking differently.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is roughly seven months into its run and Daniels is elated that his excitement for the project remains as high as it was on day one. “I still have the attitude of ‘I get to do it. I don’t have to do it.’” Some of that is undoubtedly due to the opportunity to play this character which he calls, “the role of a lifetime.” “I get to play Atticus Finch on Broadway” he gushes. “That is a big deal and it’s not lost on me.”