Entertainment

08.25.13

Jeff Daniels on the Most Explosive Episode of ‘The Newsroom’ Yet

Jeff Daniels, who plays ACN anchor Will McAvoy on the HBO drama, talks to Marlow Stern about ‘Red Team III’—from the ‘Genoa’ screw-up to Will’s resignation and a stoned Jane Fonda. SPOILER ALERT.

The shit has hit the fan.

During last week’s episode of Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed HBO series The Newsroom, we learned that Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater), a go-getter producer who’s joined the Atlantis Cable News’s New York bureau, cooked an interview with General Stomtonovich (Stephen Root) so that he confesses U.S. troops used sarin gas during “Operation Genoa.” Jerry edits the interview footage so that Stomtonovich’s “If we used sarin, here’s how we used sarin” becomes “We used sarin...here’s how we used sarin.”

For those who’ve just tuned in, Operation Genoa is a highly classified operation in which a group of U.S. Marines extracted several U.S. soldiers from Pakistan, allegedly using sarin on a village there in the process. So far, the ACN team has collected tweets, a military analyst, and a dodgy mission manifest as evidence of the chemical-weapons attack, but it’s General Stomtonovich’s on-air “confession” that finally satisfies ACN news head Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) and executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) enough to air the segment. Anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), despite his skepticism about Jerry’s motives, decides to go along out of trust for Charlie and Mac.

If you haven’t seen Episode 7 of Season 2 of The Newsroom, you should stop reading now.

Hours after the segment airs, General Stomtonovich accuses ACN of cooking the interview. But the ratings are in, and the night was a doozy, attracting a whopping 5.8 million viewers. Naturally, Will is elated. Later on, however, MacKenzie analyzes the raw interview footage and realizes that Jerry reedited the interview. She informs Will, who is stunned. The episode culminates in a brilliant five-minute scene featuring a stoned Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), CEO of Atlantis World Media—the parent company of ACN—and Will, Charlie, and Mac, all of whom have offered to resign over the “Genoa” story.

The show really jumps back and forth through time this season, flashing back to the arbitration scenes with Marcia Gay Harden. What order was it shot in?

Episode-to-episode. We didn’t “board it,” as they say in the movies, and shoot all of Marcia’s scenes at one time. Every episode, you find out how Aaron is laying out the story and if it would flash back—if at all—and we all found out as we went along. And this particular episode was shot during the end of April, early May.

What is the whole “Genoa” storyline based on, or is that just something Aaron cooked up?

There was no discussion with us about it being based on anything in particular. There certainly was Operation Tailwind with CNN, but I’m pretty sure the details are different. Aaron created his own fictional version of what might happen. That’s how we rehearsed it, and approached it.

“I told Aaron when he showed us the script to this episode: ‘You wrote a Jane Fonda scene to beat all Jane Fonda scenes.’”

The fascinating thing about watching The Newsroom is that these events covered by the ACN crew are set in the past, yet it often seems very timely. The whole Genoa/sarin-gas storyline seems strikingly similar to what’s going on in Syria right now.

Yeah, it’s eerie in a way—that things that come around about six to eight months after we shoot it are still in the news. But some of this stuff is always in the news. We’re always debating about climate change, what to do about guns, and chemical weapons have been around since the ’50s. Some of the stuff is topical, like Casey Anthony, but the use of chemical weapons in this dangerous world we live in will probably still be on the table.

With the “Genoa” coverage, Will really seems to know something is up with the story, and with Jerry’s motives, but he still goes along with it and ultimately says, “I trust Charlie and Mac.” But you can tell he’s skeptical.

The audience is certainly aware that Jerry Dantana has something going on, and that he reedited it and passed it off as raw footage, but the ACN team is still pretty much in the dark. Will tells Sloan, “Watch him ... He wants to win a Peabody.” He can smell the ambition. But something like this? He had no way of knowing. And Will is very loyal to Charlie and Mac, sometimes to a fault.

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There’s a great scene in this episode where you’re in your office watching college football, and it’s the UCLA Bruins vs. the Cal Golden Bears, and you explain every sport’s shot clock to her.

Whenever an American can educate someone from England is a good thing. We don’t get many opportunities. That accent? Every one of them is brilliant! I mean, I buy it. But Will’s a bigger college football fan than I am. At some point, you just realize that they’re all 22. Why watch something that makes you feel older? So I choose not to. [Laughs]

When the ratings come in from the “Genoa” episode, and it’s 5.8 million viewers, Will is just elated. “Shut the fuck up,” he says, “that’s an I Love Lucy number!” It’s a moment where you realize Will hasn’t completely lost his old ratings-whore mentality.

Oh, yeah. He’s in love with being loved! Absolutely. That’s a lot more people that are tuning in and loving what Will McAvoy is doing. That’s a moment there where he really regresses.

Jerry aside, who on the ACN team bears the most responsibility for the “Genoa” screw-up?

In my opinion, I think we all share the blame. MacKenzie, who’s the EP, probably deserves the most blame, and she even says it at one point. Plus, she’s the EP, and she goes up the steps of the guillotine first. But Will reports it, the people researched it, it was double confirmed, so everyone shares in the fuck-up—including Charlie. By this point, you’ve seen the ACN team go through a lot in the first seven episodes, but there are a few more to go. We shake the tree a little bit more after this.

Jane Fonda saunters in toward the end of the episode in her evening best, stoned, and tells Mac her head is planted firmly up her ass and calls you a “Daniel Craig wannabe.” What was it like to finally get to really act alongside Fonda?

In the Season 1 finale, when she tries to fire us, I’m in the boardroom but I don’t really say much, and I told Aaron when he showed us the script to this episode: “You wrote a Jane Fonda scene to beat all Jane Fonda scenes.” She just dresses us down for page after page, and she’s stoned, and she just wanted to meet Daniel Craig ... is that so difficult in this world? And we’re there to resign! Because we think it’s the right thing—the only thing—to do in this scenario. NBC News, CNN, all the other major anchors and EPs are thinking that we’re outta there the following morning, and she’s worrying about why she didn’t get a private chat with Daniel Craig. But that’s Jane. She comes in prepared and you just watch 2,000 Oscars and 1,000 nominations work.

Jane also says to Will, quite hilariously: “Well, you should want to be Daniel Craig! Everybody should.” Does every man want to be Daniel Craig?

No, I don’t think so. I think Daniel Craig would even tell you that. Well, actually ... he’s doing pretty well. Maybe it would be a good thing to be Daniel Craig! [Laughs]

And of course, Leona does not accept Will, Charlie, and Mac’s offers of resignation.

Nope, and the ACN team lives to fight another day. But the next few episodes will, like I said, definitely shake the tree some more.