Jeff Daniels is in it for the art, not the awards. That’s why he’s co-hosting two films on Turner Classic Movies this Sunday May 19 with Ben Mankiewicz: “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) and “The Trip to Bountiful” (1985) — both are films written by legendary scribe Horton Foote.
“Why did I want to pay tribute to Horton Foote?” Daniels said. “He’s a great writer. End of story.”
Daniels has earned a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a play in the role of Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel, currently running on Broadway. That Daniels wants to talk about Horton Foote and his screenplay for the 1962 “Mockingbird” film is striking, considering how much Sorkin’s take on the material departs from both the novel and the film. This Atticus Finch has feet of clay — or is at least a tad less godlike than Gregory Peck’s portrayal, which the American Film Institute once voted as the single greatest hero character in the history of American cinema.
“I hit the delete button,” Daniels said of Peck’s performance. “You have to. Horton and Gregory Peck did it before the Civil Rights Act, before so much of what Martin Luther King did. Aaron made the decision that we can’t do that version in 2019. He made Atticus be the one who goes through the change. The movie was seen through the point of view of Scout. She’s looking up at Atticus Finch, she’s looking up at Gregory Peck. She’s the one who changes, she’s the one who basically loses her innocence in the story. Atticus does not necessarily change in the book or the movie — and a protagonist has to change. So in the play we still have Scout, who’s now maybe in her late 20s looking back at what happened when she was younger, but we’re looking at Atticus at eye level.“
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Initially, Harper Lee’s estate was not happy about portraying Atticus Finch as anything less than a candidate for Mt. Rushmore. The estate sued producer Scott Rudin to prevent the production from happening.
“Scott said, ‘You’ve probably read there’s a lawsuit. We’re not going to tell you anything, so you don’t know anything,’” Daniels said. “I still don’t really know anything about it, and I don’t give a shit about it. We settled in May and whatever the lawyers did that day we settled, it’s the day that I realized I was going to play Atticus Finch on Broadway. The rest of the time of the lawsuit was just me sitting by a phone waiting to find out if I could play Atticus.”
Daniels’ passion for Sorkin’s perspective on Finch is deeply felt, and he feels this current production opens a window on the past as well as the present.
“It’s not enough to wait for the better angel to come out in all of us,” he said. “I think we’re finding in 2019 that that better angel no longer exists. Expecting that there’s good in everyone may have been the answer in the ‘60s, but it’s not the answer now. There isn’t goodness in everyone in this country, and Atticus has to come to realize that. When all the people come to the theater clutching the book to their chest, it is like a slap in the face, because if they want us to sit in 24 chairs and read the book to them, we’re not going to do that. There would be no reason to do this play if that’s all we were going to do. Can we make people think of this story in a different way?”
What Daniels doesn’t have passion for is awards chatter. When asked how he feels about “To Kill a Mockingbird” tying for the most Tony nominations this season but — to the shock of most Tony experts — not receiving a Best Play nomination he paused, let out a bitter but resigned chuckle, and said “You guys…”
Then he collected himself and said, “There were 21 dramas on Broadway this year, which is a helluva lot, and there were five plays that got nominated. Good for them. You have no control over any of this. It’s to be enjoyed. And absolutely, I would have loved to have seen a Best Play nomination for ‘Mockingbird,’ for the cast, for the crew, for Aaron, for the whole production, but we didn’t get it. Five other plays did. Good for them.”
Spoken like someone who really doesn’t care about awards — the art is enough.
Check out a clip from Jeff Daniels’ talking to Ben Mankiewicz this Sunday at 8:00pm ET on Turner Classic Movies.