Jeff Daniels has earned a Tony nomination for his leading role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird — and is among the oddsmakers’ favorites to win when the awards show airs June 9. (Lower Merion’s Gideon Glick is also in Tony contention for his supporting role as Dill.)
Daniels talked to The Inquirer recently about what it’s like to play the stalwart small-town lawyer in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the Harper Lee classic, now approaching its seventh month on Broadway. This is an edited and condensed transcript of the conversation.
What is it like for you as an actor to crawl around in the skin of such an iconic character?
Once we got to the 100th performance, I said, “Now I know what I’m doing.” You do everything you can, throw everything you’ve got at it for opening night, but you go on to learn it and learn it.
By the time you get to 200, which is where we are now — and I’ll be doing over 400 — it’s almost surgical, the precision of where you have your head pointed or where you toss the line and how much.
There are things that are locked and that precise, but there are other things where Bart [director Bartlett Sher, also Tony-nominated for Mockingbird] has said, let it breathe in here, keep it alive. So we’re still pointed in the same direction, you’re still driving in the same lane — you just get to weave a bit. Bob Ewell (the villain, played by Frederick Weller) might be doing a different thing tonight. Go with it.
The cast has grown into the play and stayed true to what the direction was, but also the choices they’ve made are good ones — they have good taste as actors. Sometimes they have to call a rehearsal to take out the “improvements,” as they say, but everybody in this play serves the story, and that’s what’s kept us on track.
I just saw the show again at a Wednesday matinee, with lots of schoolkids in the audience. They were very vocal in their reactions. Do you mind it when they roar over your lines?
Yeah, but you just roll through it. Next Thursday, we’ll do a matinee for 1,400 eighth graders. They listen. They do talk, but they’re into it.
It’s not the adult audience. They don’t laugh in the same places. They’re going to be whistling and shouting. But three hours into it, they’re still listening, and that’s what we want.
Just think how many kids you’ve turned on to theater.
You always think, is there a kid out there who’s going to go into theater? Is that kid in this audience?
I’m was struck by how similar Atticus Finch is to Will McAvoy, whom you played in Sorkin’s TV series ‘The Newsroom.’ You’ve made something of a specialty of playing complex good guys.
I think that aptly describes Aaron Sorkin. He writes good guys well, and I’m the guy that can project that, gets to that sweet spot. Good for me, good for him.
He’s attracted to the hero who has to struggle to be heroic. Atticus learns what a real hero is, and it’s not a guy who sits on his porch and looks the other way.
What happens in that amazingly subtle moment when Jem Finch asks Atticus which side he would have fought on in the Civil War — and Atticus replies that he’d be hiding under the bed? There is that thrilling and horrifying pause after the line, “It’s a joke," as Jem wonders if his father is a coward.
I’m working with a very, very talented actor, Will Pullen. Bart has given us permission to almost stage it ourselves. It’s different every night.
Sometimes he’ll say, “Are you sure” at different places — at the bottom of the stairs, or almost in the house. I turn, and my reaction is different every night: "How dare you ask me that, I ought to knock you across the yard” or, “Is that what you think of me?”
What serves the story is that he needs to win that moment but he needs to hurt Atticus a little bit.
The now-famous line that begins and ends the play, “All rise,” seems to speak of aspiration — that we rise to the occasion of the play and the demands of decency and justice. Do you see the enormous success of this show as speaking to our cultural moment?
I think that’s part of it. Atticus has to come to realize that there might not be goodness in everyone. You have to fight for compassion and decency and what is right. You have to fight against lies. You can’t just stand there and wait for the people who are lying to you to become good people again.
It speaks directly to racism, which has been in this country forever. It never leaves 1934 Alabama, and it’s of the moment in 2019.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., New York. Tickets: $89-$199. Information: 212-239-6200 or tokillamockingbirdbroadway.com