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Jeff Daniels' Guide To A Career That Matters -- Make It Matter, Make It Count

Jeff Daniels in The Looming Tower.
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Jeff Daniels scored double Emmy nominations this year -- one for his performance as FBI agent John O'Neill in Hulu's The Looming Tower, another for his role as cowboy outlaw Frank Griffin in Netflix's Godless. He todl us about what led him to these nominations, and how he's crafted his career along the way. Here's his advice.


Even a seasoned Hollywood pro like Daniels can't deny the joy of getting recognized by the Television Academy.

"It's just validation that other people in your business can see the bag of tricks. They can also see the risk," Daniels said. "I think that's one of the reasons why I might've scored two of them. It's that this guy took a risk in Godless and it paid off. Might not've. I might've been the worst thing in it. We could've swung and missed. But I didn't, it worked."

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These aren't Daniels' first nominations -- he won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Aaron Sorkin's Newsroom. While his Newsroom stint was career-defining, Daniels argues that his work on the '90s comedy Dumb and Dumber was an equally big deal. That's because the Jim Carrey movie was instrumental in proving his range as an actor.

"I never bought that I should be doing movies, never bought that I should be starring in movies, ever. I don't look like George Clooney and they keep hiring me!" Daniels said. "So you do Dumb and Dumber just to make sure that they know you can do comedy when they get tired of you in the dramas. Now you've got a range. Now you've got Clint Eastwood going 'if you can do 2 Days in the Valley and you can do Dumb and Dumber, you can do Blood Work,' so now you're working for Clint Eastwood."


Aside from genre hopping in TV and film, Daniels had some critical advice for those early in their acting careers:

"As a young actor, if you want to really do one thing that's going to help you in film and TV, do a long run in a play," Daniels said. "I don't care if it's regional theater, Broadway or off-Broadway, I'm telling you as a supporting actor with theater in my background, if you're in a shot with an A-list star, you have to be great every time, because we're going to use the one where he or she is good."

Jeff Daniels and Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's The Frame.


Daniels stressed that approaching character is less about knowing everything and more about wholeheartedly dedicating yourself to certain attributes.

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"You don't have to know why you're doing what you're doing. Your shrink's appointment is next Thursday," Daniels said. "It was fun to play Frank Griffith in Godless and John O'Neill in The Looming Tower as if they were chasing something. Certainly O'Neill. To have a wife, a family, and, in the show, two girlfriends -- and there were more. You go back to his FBI partner and he said, 'John gulped life, he gulped life.' And I just taped that to the inside of my forehead and played."


In 2013 Daniels closed his Emmy acceptance speech with a Landford Wilson quote: "Make it matter, make it count," regarding the projects he chooses to take on and their real-world relevance.

"It's a wonderful goal. It's a great artistic goal," Daniels said. "And I think I did that with Newsroom. When Aaron Sorkin writes something, it matters and it counts. He is saying something. It isn't just something that you're going to forget tomorrow. Popcorn entertainment. Godless said some things, pretty violent things, and Looming Tower said something, and To Kill a Mockingbird coming up on Broadway is certainly saying something."

Daniels is set to play Atticus Finch in Sorkin's Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. With the actors in the thick of the script memorization process, Daniels feels both the evergreen and current political resonance of Finch's story, deeply.

"There's a thing that happens when you memorize a script," Daniels said. "Also an Aaron Sorkin adaptation of Harper Lee. And you start to hear, there's a Harper line, and it's as if someone was tweeting it today. He didn't change a word. And we're adapting it, but it's still all about the book. And you start to go this is set in '35 Alabama, but it's right now, it's right now. The way that this show is so alive moreso now than ever, as divided as we are, I'm real interested to see the reaction."

To Kill A Mockingbird opens on Broadway in December. The Looming Tower is on Hulu, Godless can be seen on Netflix -- and Daniels surely hopes he'll be on the Emmy stage on Sept. 17.

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