Back in 2009, when Jeff Daniels was starring in “God of Carnage” on Broadway, TV was on the rise. Cable dramas like “Mad Men” were bringing newfound respect to the medium. Stars formerly exclusive to movie screens (like Alec Baldwin on “30 Rock”) were reinvigorating their careers with weekly roles. And Daniels, being a curious thespian who chased good parts whether they’re in movies or at the theater, whether they’re comedies (like “Dumb and Dumber” and “Something Wild”) or dramas (like “The Squid and the Whale” or “Good Night and Good Luck”), he wanted to know how to find those quality gigs on television.
Luckily, he was sharing the stage with an expert.
“[James] Gandolfini was there, god bless him,” Daniels said of his fellow Tony-nominated cast member. “And Jim… I was starting to go, ‘I want to get into TV. I want to chase whatever that is.’ So Gandolfini said, ‘Get yourself a good writer.’”
To this day, Daniels follows that advice. He said he was “lucky” Aaron Sorkin wanted him for HBO’s 2014 drama series “The Newsroom,” which netted Daniels his first of two Emmy wins, but since then, he’s made sure to seek them out.
“I’ve always remembered that advice,” he said. “From Aaron, to Scott Frank [‘Godless,’ which marked Daniels’ second Emmy win], to Dan Futterman and Adam Rapp [both from ‘The Looming Tower’], and back to Aaron with [“To Kill a Mockingbird” on Broadway] — it’s just, find yourself a good writer. Or writers, plural.”
Now, Daniels has re-teamed with Futterman and Rapp for “American Rust,” a Showtime limited series in which he plays Del Harris, a veteran and chief of police in the rural town of Buell, Pennsylvania. Joined by “Looming Tower” co-star Bill Camp and two-time Emmy nominee Maura Tierney, Daniels is also an executive producer in his latest small screen story. He’d been attached to Philipp Meyer’s book for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he was “finally in a position to do what I wanted, versus what was offered,” he said.
Jeff Daniels and Rob Yang in “American Rust”
Dennis Mong / Showtime
Why the change in status?
“The Emmys probably helped,” he said. “‘[The] Newsroom’ — ‘Newsroom’ certainly changed my life. And when that happens, you ride that. ‘Newsroom’ probably bought me, at least, five years, if not more. And so that led to things like ‘Godless,’ with Scott Frank, whom I knew before. But they’d all seen ‘Newsroom.’ And that led to ‘Looming Tower,’ because they’d seen ‘Newsroom’ and had heard about ‘Godless.’ And it just snowballs. As long as you can chase writing, that’s what [happens].”
Daniels pursued Futterman to the point where if his “Looming Tower” scribe wasn’t interested, he may have dropped “American Rust” entirely.
“So I emailed him, and I said, ‘Look, I got a book. And I’m not sure where you are, or what you’re doing, but if you love the book, remind me why I want to do this’ — because it had been 15 years, almost, and I was about ready to walk away,” Daniels said. “Danny loved it. Loved it. He came over to the apartment and we talked about it a little bit, and I just said, ‘Make it about something. That’s all I ask.’”
Daniels said he’s had a “good run on stuff that matters,” starting with “The Newsroom” and running through “American Rust” and his return to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which reopens on Broadway Tuesday, October 5. He also described himself as a “big fan of hiring good people and turning them loose — not telling them how to do their jobs,” which is why he brought the book to Futterman and then trusted the writer and showrunner to bring the best out of an acclaimed novel.
Set in an industrial town that’s lost its factory jobs along with its sense of identity, “American Rust” tracks the remaining citizens — all of whom seem one bad night away from losing everything. Tierney plays Grace Poe, a seamstress working at a local dress shop whose hands are rebelling against years of meticulous labor. Camp’s Henry English is dependent on his children to take care of him, after a workplace injury left him with disabling back pain. Daniels’ Harris is lonely (he tries to court Grace, but his job and her ex-husband make things difficult), set in his ways, and slowly trying to cut back on his prescription medication, lest it become a dependence.
“There are a lot of these people in this country,” Daniels said. “A lot of people like that who are either at the bottom, or they can see it from where they are. They’ve been abandoned, they’ve been dismissed, they’ve been, like an old piece of equipment, left out in the fields of rust. And that’s kind of what it feels like as you look around, in some of these places. But also, it’s kind of what these people feel like, and they’re hanging on to what they do have.”
Jeff Daniels in “American Rust”
Dennis Mong / Showtime
Unlike “The Newsroom,” “American Rust” isn’t interested in politics. The book, published in 2009, is set in the 2000s, but even though the series takes place in the present day, there’s no MAGA hats floating through Buell or fights breaking out at the bar over who should be president. Daniels acknowledges these characters are the same people whose frustration over losing their jobs may have caused them to turn to Trump in 2016, who promised to bring those jobs back — “he conned them,” as Daniels put it — but the series is more invested in spotlighting the cold, daily reality facing too many rural Americans.
“There’s a lot of pain that’s being covered up, whether it’s [with] alcohol or opioids, and there’s a lot of anger,” Daniels said. “We certainly don’t get into the politics of it. But these are people who’ve been left behind and abandoned. We’re trying to paint a picture of right now. Here are some people, right now, in this country, and they don’t know where to turn.”
Elevating these stories means something to Daniels. The actor grew up in Chelsea, Michigan (pop. 5,467) and still resides there today. He’s seen factories close down in his home state, as well as the debilitating effects those closures have had on the surrounding communities. Near the end of our conversation, Daniels paused unexpectedly.
“I’m just thinking,” he said. “My own small town here in Michigan — it’s hard to be a small town in America anymore. It’s very hard for small towns to stay small towns. The small town I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore.”
Chelsea is still there, but it’s undoubtedly changed over the last 50 years, along with the surrounding states and more blue collar, working-class parts of America. With “American Rust,” Daniels said the point isn’t to offer solutions; unlike so many other programs, there’s no implication that moving to a big city would fix everything. Instead, the focus is to honor the people who are still looking.
“I don’t see us, at this point anyway, saying, ‘Here’s the way out,’” Daniels said. “I think these are people who are trying to find a way out, or can’t find a way out. That’s where we are now. And how we’re going to get out of it depends on a lot of things over the next couple years.”
Personally, Daniels appreciates playing all of Del’s many facets — his honorable intentions and occasional lapses; sharing some secrets but not others; trying to preserve parts of a town that’s rusting over, while still trying to make small change that matters a great deal to specific people.
“The contradictions in these people, I liked a lot,” Daniels said. “Often I told Futterman, ‘I feel like I’m playing two or three things at once’ — which usually actors are unable to do. I’ve always said, ‘I can only play one thing.’ I’ve said that. [But] it’s not necessarily true. It’s complicated. Kind of like life. Kind of like people who are desperate. And there’s a lot of desperation going on, with some of these people, masked as frustration, or anger, that seems to permeate. And it only gets worse. It only gets worse.”
But perhaps with a little more attention, things can find a way to get better.
“American Rust” premieres new episodes Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime. “To Kill a Mockingbird” returns to Broadway on Tuesday, October 5.
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