Eight times a week, actor and playwright Jeff Daniels steps onto a Broadway stage to portray one of America’s most beloved patriarchs – Atticus Finch – in Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed Broadway retelling of To Kill a Mockingbird. In an exclusive interview for the June/July issue of AARP the Magazine (ATM), Daniels discusses landing the job, constructing his own version of the iconic character for the 21st century and utilizing his years of experience to perfect the Tony-nominated role.
From the goofy Harry Dunne in Dumb and Dumber to the arrogant anchor Will McAvoy in The Newsroom to the spineless husband Flap Horton in Terms of Endearment, Daniels has always put his heart and soul into every character he has portrayed. The 64-year-old heavily relied on his years of experience to prepare for the role of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, memorizing the entire script by the first rehearsal, studying the history of Southern towns and reading biographies of Harper Lee.
His dedication to the job and connection to Atticus Finch’s character helped bring the role to life. Daniels’ version of the character reflects similarities to his father – “My dad was very much an Atticus, in that there was a right way to do something and there were all the other ways. He lived like that,” he states.
While Daniels felt a natural connection to the character, he was tasked with creating a version of Atticus that was respectful of Gregory Peck’s iconic movie portrayal, yet breathed new life and relevance into the role.
Daniels’ careful preparation proved beneficial in the end. On the freedom his preparation provided, he shares, “Since you know your part cold, you’re able to follow the impulse that just occurred to you. The art and craft comes from not chasing impulses that are inappropriate or wrong or ruin the scene. You learn how to make the choice. The only way you can get there, though, is time, a long career. I didn’t think it would be like that. It’s pretty cool, being in the moment, enjoying every moment. Perhaps that’s too Pollyanna. But I find myself not in such a hurry to be done with what I’m doing.”
On being offered the role of Atticus Finch: “I’ve never been one to start weeping at a moment like that…So I said, ‘Should I read the book?’ It was my way of saying, ‘I need to hear you say that again.'”
On constructing his own version of the character, separate from Gregory Peck: “You can’t go out there thinking, Peck did this, I’m going to do this. I’ve seen actors have to deal with signature roles, and sometimes they choose to do exactly the opposite of the original, and I’m not sure that works.”
On memorizing the entire script for To Kill a Mockingbird: “The profile of this thing was so big that I wanted to be prepared. If you want to combat nerves, be more prepared. It’s the Midwestern work ethic.”
On preparing for the role: “You let it all cascade over you. You think, What do you need to do to feel like you’re inhabiting him? In the end, what I wanted was to see what Atticus saw when he stood on his porch.”
On creating a convincing Atticus: “It’s not 100 percent he’s going to lose, but I’m going up a steep hill as I start the closing argument. You have to convince a jury of white farmers about the innocence of a black man in Alabama in 1935. They are all sitting there with their arms folded and staring at you. You’re swimming upstream. You’re getting more and more frustrated. You keep looking to the jury box, and you finish angry. Angry at Tom for making his mistake. Angry at the judge for giving you this task, angry at losing.”
On learning from his experiences: “Here’s the other thing about all of this. I’m working harder than in any decade of my life, which is not how they draw it up in star school. Acting is craft, and when you get roles like I’ve had lately, you need everything you’ve ever learned to pull them off. I find myself using things I learned years ago. I tell drama kids, ‘Find out what you want to do and spend the rest of your life getting better at it,’ and that still is the case, I find, at 64.”