THE CHAMELEON

Jeff Daniels Defends Aaron Sorkin and the ‘Dumb and Dumber’ Toilet Scene

In an almost absurd exercise in range, Jeff Daniels debuts the third season of The Newsroom and Dumb and Dumber To in the same week. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

11.07.14 10:50 AM ET

“Well, crap!”

Those were the first two words out of Jeff Daniels’s mouth when he won the Emmy in 2013 for his performance as cantankerous idealist newscaster Will McAvoy in Aaron Sorkin’s equally beloved and bemoaned HBO drama The Newsroom. Dressed to the nines in his Prada tuxedo, Daniels stood baffled and proud, reeling after his surprise win over the likes of Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm.

The next day, Daniels was on a plane to Atlanta to begin filming Dumb and Dumber To. “And I was showing buttcrack on the first morning,” he says.

You have to understand, it’s not every actor who pulls off Prada as well as he does plumber’s crack. But such is the brilliance of Jeff Daniels, an actor whose move from Aaron Sorkin to the Farrelly Brothers hardly raises an eyebrow.

Over breakfast at a Manhattan hotel abutting Central Park, the most Daniels musters is a chuckle at the whole situation: him sitting there talking to me about the concerning state of the news media and ethics in journalism in one breath and his bare ass in another.

“I’m able to compartmentalize,” he shrugs good-naturedly, asked about what he had referred to as the “intellectual freefall” from working on The Newsroom to shooting Dumb and Dumber To. “I should probably get therapy for it.”

This Sunday, Daniels will return for the third and final season of The Newsroom. Five days later, Dumb and Dumber To hits theaters. Both projects are storied in their own right. Therapy, indeed, might be in order.

Newsroom carries with it three years of overhype, backlash, backlash to the backlash, and a media narrative that’s ironically hypocritical and dramatic, given the blistering critique of the industry Sorkin extols on the show. And Dumb and Dumber To finds Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels reuniting a full 20 years after the first buddy comedy hit theaters, it would come to be seen as the Citizen Kane of cinematic buffoonery.

At 59 years old and in the fourth decade of his career, that’s a lot to suffer: the magnitude of memorizing Sorkin’s dialogue and the magnitude of defending Sorkin’s work, contrasted with the base-level demeaning reality that is starring in a Farrelly Brothers film.

Daniels, again, shrugs.

“You’ve got to be fearless, not just with your character but with your career,” he says. “And when you’re able to do that, then you can walk onto set 36 hours after winning your Emmy and go, ‘What are we doing?’” It’s all about committing. “It’s not, ‘Oh I don’t want to do that,’” he says. “It’s, ‘How much crack do you want to see?’”

***

It’s been three years behind the anchor desk of The Newsroom, and we’ve yet to see any crack.

But we have seen Daniels’s Will McAvoy deliver the news high as a kite, greenlight an erroneous news story that nearly took down an entire cable network, and deliver countless sermons on what the news is doing wrong and how he’s going to do it better—not to mention every shade of criticism and praise under the sun lobbied at the show.

Now that it’s all ending, how does Daniels feel?

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“I drop back down to, ‘I got three seasons with Aaron Sorkin,’” he says. If you’d have told me that three years ago, that three years was all it was going to be, I’d still have gone, ‘Where do you want me?’”

Season 3 kicks off with fictional cable news network ACN’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, and seems to blast CNN’s real-life misreporting of the tragedy. ACN, naturally, waits for confirmations before going to air with Twitter reports and dispatches from citizen journalists, the poison that led to CNN’s mistake. But at the same time, the network learns that its pledge to only report quality news with high ethical standards has caused its ratings to plummet.

“We got a real problem,” Daniels says, when asked what this means for the media in real life. “Mostly it’s ignored that you completely fuck it up, that you got the story wrong. If you put a Mission Accomplished banner on the ship, they’ll believe it. That’s not news. That’s not Cronkite, or Murrow. Those guys are still out there, but man they’re being stampeded.”

He’s right. And the idea that those guys can succeed is the fantasy that irritates so many critics, who seem to unfairly put Sorkin’s work under a microscope not used to examine other TV series, and who therefore put on blast a drama that is, at the very least, solidly entertaining.

“Maybe it’s just the subject matter,” Daniels ventures. “Maybe you can’t point the camera at the people who ask the questions. Go write about the White House, that’s OK. But don’t you dare write about us.”

Pressed further about why Sorkin has gotten such a bad rap for The Newsroom, he goes on. “There are critics who don’t like The Newsroom for artistic reasons, and I’ll give them that,” he says. “But there are some who make a name out of taking Aaron Sorkin down, by blasting him in their blog overly so.”

The thing is, The Newsroom is, or at least has been, very good.

Take, for example, that monologue. That one from the series’ first episode. It’s one of those classic Aaron Sorkin speeches, where the soapbox becomes the mountaintop from which the anti-hero preaches, facts and figures to sprout off divinely at the ready.

In this case, Daniels’s Will McAvoy is making the case that America isn’t the greatest country in the world. It’s incendiary. It’s riveting. It’s controversial and provocative and maybe even true. And Daniels nails it.

“You wait decades for that speech,” he says. “I’m old enough that when it came, I knew what I was looking at. ‘This is the speech you’ve been waiting to do in front of a camera for 40 years. Don’t fuck it up.’”

It sounds head-slappingly simple, but it’s that basic chore—recognizing a potentially “big” moment and knowing when to seize it—that’s been the hallmark of every turning point in Daniels’s career. It was there, too, 20 years ago on that one fateful day, when he was given a toilet, a pep talk from Jim Carrey, and the instruction to pantomime the world’s most explosive shit.

Because Jeff Daniels’s career has been nothing if not an exercise in range, it’s likely that, decades from now, when award shows are paying tribute to his career with a highlight reel of his greatest on-screen moments, that searing Newsroom speech will have second billing to that time he pooped and farted and screamed bloody-curdling arias of vacillating pain and ecstasy in Dumb and Dumber.

He remembers the feelings of “oh dear god…what have I gotten myself into?” on set that morning, and predicting, accurately, that this was either going to be the beginning of his career or the end of it. But, in its own way, it was just another “big” moment, and he had to seize it. He had to mime the most epic diarrhea in cinematic history. And he nearly passed out while doing it.

“You know how you can clench and make all the blood go into your head?” he says. “That’s what I was doing. There’s a close-up of me and you can see it. The eyes are road-map red and I fade a little bit to the left, but I come back.”

He remembers sometime after the film’s release participating in a celebrity golf tournament and seeing Clint Eastwood, who he had never met, walk up to him. “Jeff, I just saw Dumb and Dumber,” Eastwood said, to Daniels’s fumbling embarrassment. Then this: “The toilet scene. That happened to me.”

Daniels was then regaled with a story about Clint Eastwood’s bowels being ravaged by a bad piece of shell fish and being forced to butt-bomb the bathroom of a girl he was dating. When the two finally worked together on a film years later, Eastwood still talked about it.

That’s a lot of legacy to live up to—it’s not every film that gets Clint Eastwood chuckling about having the trots. There’s pressure now, 20 years later with Dumb and Dumber To to top that scene.

But how do you top a three-minute shit?

Daniels ventures that a scene in Dumber and Dumber To where Carrey unknowingly masturbates an old lady in a nursing home might be the closest rival. “That may linger in people’s consciousness for years to come,” he says, shaking his head both amused and ashamed as the words leave his mouth.

Daniels admits that it’s wild to think that he even filmed a sequel to Dumb and Dumber. He nearly dropped out of the first film, pressured by his agents who thought it would be a bad career move for an actor making a name in dramas, who thought he would be wiped off the screen by Jim Carrey. But Daniels needed a big movie. He was stuck in indies that no one was seeing. He had an inclination. He was right.

Now he’s here promoting a sequel to the film at the same time he’s promoting his performance in a buzzed about HBO drama. It’s an embarrassment of riches, Daniels says. His career is peaking. And he’s 59—that’s the part he can’t believe.

He starts talking about his big move to New York when he was 21, that drive through the Holland Tunnel to the big city. “If I could’ve sat in that passenger seat and said, ‘By the way, it’s not really gonna happen for you until you’re 59. It’s gonna be good when it does, and there’s gonna be good things along the way. But keep at it.’ Like, fifty-what?! 59?!”

It’s then that things start to get wistful. The talk of poop and Sorkin and Emmys subsides. Daniels laughs at himself, once again shaking his head in disbelief.

“We shoot at Sunset Gower Studios, and you can see the street through the gate,” he says. “I’d stand there and I was talking to somebody who was bitching about something about the show. And I go, ‘Every fourth car is a 59-year-old actor who can’t get in here. We’re lucky.’”

Well, crap.