Emmy Awards 2013

08.28.13

Emmys 2013: Jeff Daniels on Will’s Finest ‘Newsroom’ Season 1 Moments

During the first season of Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed HBO series ‘The Newsroom,’ ACN anchor Will McAvoy delivered a four-minute rant about why America isn’t the greatest country in the world. He clashed with corporate and reported on the death of Osama bin Laden—stoned. Jeff Daniels, who received a Best Actor Emmy nomination for the performance, picks his Will highlights.

Will McAvoy’s Epic America Speech

Episode 1: ‘We Just Decided To’

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I want to say it was about four pages of dialogue. It’s just one long string of a monologue, but Aaron really worked on it and rewrote it about half a dozen times. It was Day 3 of the pilot, and we had 18 days to shoot it. We didn’t know if we had a series, or if we had a Will McAvoy. It’s placed five minutes into the first episode, so everyone knows—me included—that people are sitting there with their remotes in their hands giving us 10 minutes to win them over. So five minutes in, Aaron writes this speech that just clears the room. We had three executives from HBO there, Aaron, and others, and the first take, it was there. Aaron came over and said, “You’re pitching a no-hitter. I’m going to go back and sit down.” We had 500 college kids sitting there as extras, and there were several times I’d get done and they’d just start applauding. It was about what the speech said. The way it was written, who wrote it, and what he had to say at the time it was aired, I think the speech will outlive both Aaron and me. I’ve had actors who I revere who’ve pulled me over and said, “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television.” Whether it is or not is up to others to decide, but I think it’s going to have an impact.

Will Blows Up Over Mac’s Office-Wide Email Saying She Is Cheating on Him

Episode 2: ‘News Night 2.0’

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We shot the pilot in July and then shot Episode 2 around Thanksgiving. These are fun scenes to play because they’re hard to play. You don’t want to be caught going big with nothing behind it, and you gotta go there without falling off the cliff, and then you have to go inside and bring your voices down. If there’s a lot of dialogue, the thing I love about Aaron is that if it’s on their mind, it’s out of their mouth. I love that it’s written, I love that it sounds like someone wrote it, and we do our best to make it fall out of our heads. And then you gotta blow up, like Emily [Mortimer, who plays Mac] and I do in that scene, without ad-libbing or paraphrasing, because you’re delivering the dialogue word for word. It’s a challenge, but once you get on top of it, it’s just like sailing.

An Editorial Comment From Will About the New and Improved ACN

Episode 3: ‘The 112th Congress’ 

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I think it was around eight pages of dialogue, with the stage directions and all that. I remember Aaron coming in and going, “I wrote you an eight-page speech, but it’ll be on the teleprompter.” I went, “OK, but I’ve still got to deliver it!” And it’s not simple to read the lines off a teleprompter. You watch the guys on every newscast, and there’s an art to it. You’re not just reading it, but you’re talking to it just like you’re in your living room, whether it’s Brian Williams or Sean Hannity. It’s a little bit like acting on Broadway, where you speak louder and enunciate. Plus, every anchor has a different music to their voices. Chris Matthews sounds different from Brian Williams, who sounds different from Bill O’Reilly. You study that and then come up with your own voice. And in that Northwestern speech, Will changed in front of his own eyes, but it was a rant. During the third episode editorial, where he compared the program to Richard Clarke’s admission and said they’d have a new news program from now on, that’s Will’s thoughtful, put-together, intelligent response to how he—and the program—is going to change. In three episodes, Aaron had made Will take quite a turn, which was very fun to play.

Will Refuses to Report that Gabrielle Giffords Is Dead

Episode 4: ‘I’ll Try to Fix You’

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Reese Lansing (Chris Messina, from ACN corporate) is there on set saying, “For every minute you don’t call Gabby Giffords dead, people are switching to another channel.” For whatever reason, these are how these split-second decisions are made. It’s that war within Will that he has at Northwestern, and when he changes the show and goes with MacKenzie against what he knows will bring in viewers. Will goes against Reese, changing again, and it turns out that they were right. So then there’s the release: “I’m not fuckin’ around!” And it’s, “Here we go! Now we’re back to what it feels like to provide news that is fair and accurate to people.” Will gets to feel like a real newsman almost in spite of himself, and it’s a big moment for him. MacKenzie was right, and this just proved it. But then later on, Will switches again and says he wants to cover Casey Anthony and misses a lot of people watching him. Aaron writes people that go back and forth, and have flaws, and aren’t consistent. Human beings usually aren’t.

Will Reports on the Death of Osama bin Laden…Stoned

Episode 7: ‘5/1’

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Aaron said, “By the time you’re on the air, you’ve got it together enough to fake it brilliantly,” and he sets it up with Will saying, “I’m a medical marvel! This won’t affect me.” It’s not like stoned Will was walking into lampposts or anything, but he was happy to be where he was. I was stoned, so we weren’t reliving the moment when the death of OBL did go on the air, but what the show does is tackles things that have gone on in our lives very recently, and I think it takes guts to write about things like that. When I first heard about the death, I was doing God of Carnage in L.A., and my wife and I were driving up to Ojai, Calif., and we were on the 101 heading north listening to NPR, and all of a sudden, there it was. It was two months before we shot the pilot, and Aaron emailed me an hour and a half later and said, “I know what one of the episodes is about.” That’s all he said. But it takes guts to challenge views and to risk people not liking your show because you’re attacking a political party, specific people in politics, the Koch brothers, you name it. Aaron gets beat up a lot for being a progressive liberal, but there are a lot of people out there who are like, “Thanks, at least you’re bringing up the goddamn question.” You don’t see other shows doing that. We pay the price with some haters and all that, but I think the cliché is true: if we’re pissing people off, we’re doing it right. I hope to continue to do that.

Mac Is the Woman at Northwestern, Will Flips…and Hires the Question-Asker

Episode 10: ‘The Greater Fool’

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I gotta say, it’s not uncommon for someone like MacKenzie—or whomever—to lay this out as if it’s this wonderful, romantic thing, and then the person on the receiving end goes, “Wait? Whoa, whoa, whoa…” It happens in my own marriage. Will’s been manipulated by MacKenzie the whole time, and he’s not one to be manipulated very easily, and he doesn’t take it well. But Aaron is so good at being unpredictable. He comes to certain episodes where he doesn’t know what the character is going to say next. Aaron knows where he wants it to go, and then he writes his way towards it. And we’re the same as his audience, always wondering, “What happens next?” And I’m always wrong—Emily will tell you that. With the intern, Will realizes that it took guts for her to apply to ACN and then says, “You know what makes America the greatest country in the world? You do.” The 20-somethings: it’s yours next. We’ll make it great and we’re gonna make it great. That’s Aaron’s idealist, utopian version of cable news. You can have moments like that.

As told to Marlow Stern.