The 10-episode limited Hulu original series The Looming Tower, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, follows the counter-terrorism divisions of the FBI and CIA, in the late 1990s, as they travel the world on a mission to prevent an imminent attack on U.S. soil. As John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels) and his protégé, Muslim-American FBI agent Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), faced deliberately insufficient cooperation from their counterparts in the CIA, led by the frequently antagonistic Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard), it becomes increasingly clear that the rivalry between those two organizations may have inadvertently led to the tragedy of 9/11.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actor Jeff Daniels (who gives another terrific performance, playing a very complicated man) talked about the appeal of such smart storytelling, the huge affect that The Newsroom had on his career, how he came to care about acting again, why television is where he’s found the material that he seems to be responding most strongly to, why he wanted to be a part of The Looming Tower, the challenge of this character, why he’s checked out of Hotel Ambition, and that he and Aaron Sorkin are not done working together yet.
Collider: The Looming Tower has such smart storytelling, which I would imagine is both the appeal and something that’s rare to find.
JEFF DANIELS: Yeah, and so far, The Newsroom, Godless and now The Looming Tower are an example of that. That’s where the writers seem to be going. The writers are given more creative control and more time. We had 10 hours to shoot this. Godless was seven hours. There’s a lot of detail and a lot to do in there, for actors and writers. The fact is that Netflix, Amazon and Hulu wants that kind of thing. It’s a great time to be an actor who’s interested in being challenged, and that’s where its seems to be at, for me.
Were there a ton of projects in between that you just didn’t want to do, or have you just been lucky with what’s been coming your way?
DANIELS: The bounce from The Newsroom steered everybody in a different direction. They were like, “Oh, he can do that. He can do smart and complex.” I had worked with Scott Frank ten years ago, so that factored in [with Godless]. Apparently, I can portray complexity.
Were people just not aware of what you were capable of?
DANIELS: Well, I did do Dumb and Dumber, so there was ten years of, “Oh, that’s what he is.” It’s only been post-Newsroom that I’ve been this in control of what I get to do. That’s 40 years later. The ability to pick and choose, and hopefully just do things that matter, that count and that are challenging, is what I hope to run out the string on.
Are you surprised that it’s been television where you’ve found the material that you’re responding most strongly to?
DANIELS: Yes, I’m surprised. But then, you think about it and they need content. There are so many shows now, but they’re willing, at least in my experience so far, to give the artists room to be artists. It feels like what the ‘70s must have been to [Dustin] Hoffman, [Robert] DeNiro, Jane Fonda, [Robert] Redford, and all those people, where the directors got to run the show. I mean, they did and they didn’t because the studios were still on them. Now, they hire a good writer. Godless was a two-hour script and they really wanted to do it, but they wanted it expanded to six or seven hours. That’s unusual. And there’s an audience for it. I’m sure there are notes, but I have a feeling, at least in my limited knowledge after two or three projects, that they’re not like other places, like doing a big movie that gets watered down and formulaic, so that it can have mass appeal. You can be on the fringes and on the edge. That’s okay because they’ve got other stuff with mass appeal. They want you to do it the way that you would do it. That’s the feeling that you get, and it makes you want to come through. They trust you to do it again, on something else.
Did you know or feel like The Newsroom would allow for such a shift in your career?
DANIELS: I couldn’t have predicted that. I knew it would help. I was to the point where it was like, “How long do I want to keep doing this? At what point do I play the role that I really don’t want to play, for very little money, standing next to some 28-year-old who’s making $10 million? Am I really gonna do that? I don’t think so.” And then, Aaron Sorkin called. That Northwestern speech was as important to my career as getting cast in the Woody Allen movie, The Purple Rose of Cairo, when I was 30. To me, it was of equal importance, as far as what it did for my career, but you’ve still gotta come through. That Northwestern speech was just a great speech. Now, that speech will outlive me and Aaron. Whatever YouTube is, 50 years from now, you will be able to see it. That, I didn’t see coming. The Emmy, I didn’t see coming. In fact, I was told, “Just go for the salmon.” It took two or three years before [James] Gandolfini was even considered, so HBO told me to just enjoy the meal. That was a shocker.
What was it about The Looming Tower that appealed to you?
DANIELS: We were looking for something that was a challenging role with good people, and at cable – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon. I read the first episode and I thought it was well done. There was nothing formulaic about it, and I didn’t know who this guy was. And then, I was able to find out what the history of the guy was, in relation to the story. The subject matter meant it would be taken seriously, in what it says. I didn’t know how to do it, and if I don’t know how to do it, going in, than I’m going to stay interested, all the way to the end. If I read it and go, “Yeah, I could do this. Put a camera up, we’ll go. I’ll just do what I did before.” I get bored with that, real fast. The challenge of it was there, and then I dove in and read the book. I heard what his story was and I found the details of it, leading up. This guy was all over the place, so I knew it was gonna be a joy to play. It’s just about, hopefully, pulling it off. It’s called jumping off the cliff and flapping your arms.
Did he continue to be a challenging character, throughout?
DANIELS: He did ‘cause I had to keep an intensity about everything. There was not only the wife and girlfriends, but what he was doing and saying, Bin Laden, and the resistance against the CIA. Everything he did had an intensity to it, and that’s not me. What’s that intensity about? What’s he fighting for, specifically today, in this scene? It wasn’t simple. You couldn’t just learn the lines and walk out of the make-up trailer. McAvoy (on The Newsroom) certainly was that. That rejuvenated me and made me care again, about acting and about continuing to act.
When you go from The Newsroom to Godless to The Looming Tower, do you worry about finding the next one that’s of that same quality, or do you get excited about the possibility of what could be next?
DANIELS: They seem to be coming, so no, I’m not worried about that. I think what helps is knowing that you could walk away, unless you really want to do whatever it is you’re about to do. It’s not like ten years ago. I call it, “Checking out of the Hotel Ambition.” I’m here. I can still do this. Everything I’ve ever learned, I’m bringing with me now, which is about 40 years of stuff. If you want that, great. I’d love to keep doing it, but I’m not chasing stuff. There’s certain personal projects that I’m doing, with some people, but not if you want me, call me. I’d love to do it. It’s the Midwestern thing. It’s what happens when you move to Michigan.