Jeff Daniels Knows How to Go Big: In ‘A Man in Full,’ He Explodes

Back when he was finishing “Dumb and Dumber To” in 2014, Jeff Daniels was ready to leave show business. “I’m done,” he told Jim Carrey. “You can’t stop man,” Carrey said. “You can’t, you’re creative, you’re going to create something, you’ve got to keep creating. That’s what we do!”

These days, Carrey’s off in Hawaii painting. And when Daniels is not acting, he’s writing songs and plays, which he mounts at his Michigan hometown’s Purple Rose Theatre Company. “It’s what keeps me going,” Daniels told me on Zoom. “It keeps me alive. It’s what I’m supposed to do. It’s helped me between the phone calls for the acting jobs. Because you can go insane staring at that phone. They’ll call you when they need you. And so I’ve always battled whatever depression or fear might come of never working again by working on other things that don’t require Hollywood to need me.”

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Always a hard-working actor in movies (“Terms of Endearment,” “Something Wild”) and theater (“God of Carnage,” “To Kill a Mockingbird”), Daniels has found his groove as an older star who carries both gravitas and danger. He broke out in his fifties with a push from Aaron Sorkin, who cast him as a word-spewing, womanizing, angry, Machiavellian network anchor with an ethical streak in HBO’s Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning series “The Newsroom” (2012-2014).

Daniels hasn’t looked back. Television, home of strong adult writing, has proved a powerful ally. After “Newsroom,” Daniels earned a second Emmy as a one-armed western villain in Scott Frank’s “Godless” (Netflix). He played two flawed FBI heroes, John O’Neill on “The Looming Tower” (Hulu) and James Comey in “Comey Rule” (Showtime), as well as a Pennsylvania chief of police in Dan Futterman’s “American Rust” (Showtime).

A third Emmy could be in the offing, as Daniels has outdone himself as megalomaniacal Atlanta real estate mogul Charlie Croker in David E. Kelley’s entertaining six-part Netflix adaptation of “A Man in Full,” Tom Wolfe’s 704-page 1998 bestseller. Cannily updated, the series fits right into today’s crazy climate.

“It’s relevant,” said Daniels. “It sure is. Charlie Croker is not the only one who tries to convince people that he’s worth more than he really is. David E. Kelly did a good job of updating it so we could fall into that relevancy, whether it’s Trump or any number of guys who’ve overextended themselves and think that every meeting is just going to be a refinancing meeting and then lunch. And then Bill Camp goes, ‘You owe us $800 million by Tuesday, we’re calling the note.'”

That’s in the first intense bank conference room confrontation, which was shot the first week of filming in Atlanta. Camp’s banker keeps goading Croker to lose his temper. And delightfully, he does. “Charlie Croker is not the only man’s man in this thing,” Daniels said. “And that’s what makes Tom Pelphrey as Raymond Peepgrass so much fun, in between me and Bill Camp.”

Daniels told Camp and Pelphrey, “Guys, you got to go with me. I’m out on a limb here. I’m going big. Don’t hold back,” he said. “And they didn’t. They went right in with me. The trick is to go that big, that larger than life, and still be believable. You don’t want to be winking at the camera, going ‘I’m really just goofing around here’. You want to portray this guy and it’s an exaggeration, fiction, and a TV show, but you want it to be plausible. And I go back to guys like Peter Sellers and Jack Lemmon. Those guys could go way up there like that, but they still hung on to the believability.”

A Man in Full. (L to R) Jeff Daniels as Charlie Croker, Sarah Jones as Serena Croker in episode 101 of A Man in Full. Cr. Mark Hill/Netflix © 2024

Daniels kept expecting directors Regina King or Tom Schlamme to pull on the reins. “I would do takes and wait for Regina to come around the corner and go, ‘OK, really terrific. Let’s just turn it down just a little bit.’ She never did that. And I’d be in a tight close up with the camera operator in full Charlie Croker and ‘cut.’ There’d be a pause, and I would go, ‘did I break the lens? Is there a crack in the lens?'”

King made it possible. “She had my back,” said Daniels. “I gave her the accent over the phone and she goes, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes. Great.’ She’s won an Oscar, for God’s sake. When she’s sitting back at Video Village watching me go big, she knows what I’m doing. She’s in my head as an actor. And as a director, What can she use? What is she not going to use? All that. I felt that she and Tommy and David were able to see what I was doing. And if I needed to tone it down, then then they would have come in and told me to do that. But they didn’t. They kept saying, ‘Let’s move the camera.’ And I called my agent. I said, ‘Well, this is either great, or you’re going to say what the hell were you thinking?’ One or the other.”

What’s gives? At this stage of his career, Daniels figures he might as well go for it. “I keep trying to fail,” he said. “I keep risking failure. It’s not what they teach you in star school: ‘less is more.'”

While Daniels didn’t read Wolfe’s book back in the day, he used it as a bible on set. “Seemingly everyone in Atlanta has read it,” he said. “I was playing golf with this guy. And he goes, ‘I know who he based it on. I’m very good friends with so and so.’ These guys in the late ’90s really existed.” And they still exist today. “Yeah, realizing maybe that you aren’t what you thought you were, or what everyone thinks you are, or what you want everyone to believe that you are. The Georgia Tech football star was decades ago.”

Mainly, Daniels had to establish a credible Georgia accent, “and then turn up the volume on it,” he said, “because just like Charlie, that accent has to be larger than life. And that was fun. And Wolfe writes that when Charlie gets nervous or frustrated or whatever, like he does with Bill Camp, he goes full on Baker County. And Baker County is where you can barely understand what they’re saying, the accent is so thick. So that was great fun, because now you’re basically speaking in vowels and just eliminating consonants.”

Comedy ensues when Croker insists on getting the fanciest possible hydraulic knee replacement. “We really had to clock that throughout,” said Daniels. “Tommy Schlamme had his knee replaced. So he was very detailed about how much the limp should be, whether it was believable, how to use that cane, which helped a lot, because I didn’t have to do any research. I just had to go, ‘Tommy, how’s the knee?'”

When Croker first emerges from surgery in a morphine haze with his knee making whirring noises, Daniels could barely get through the scene. “I kept breaking,” he said. “And I can hear Tommy and everybody over in video village cracking up. Because Charlie is larger than life. and yet the morphine has put this blanket over him. And all he can get out of the fascination with a remote-controlled knee is “oh, god.” That killed me.”

In another memorable sequence, a real estate mogul Croker is trying to woo for money is horrified as Croker makes him and his PETA wife watch a stallion mount a mare. (This was done for real.) “It was not easy to watch for some people,” said Daniels. “But the horse wranglers, the woman who had the mare at the head, she said, ‘OK, we’re making a baby. That’s all we’re doing today.’ It was like, this is what they do. It was a Monday for them.”

One of Daniels great skills as an actor is his ability to find some decency even in such flawed characters as Croker. You feel for this guy as he faces down the bankers and tries to maneuver his way back on top. “There is some goodness in him and as an actor, that’s what you look for,” said Daniels. “You look for the good in the villain and a little weakness in the hero. They’re human beings. You’re not playing cartoons or cardboard cutouts of a hero or a villain, you’re playing human beings. He still is who he is and then seeks revenge at the end, but at least you get a sense that there’s some hope in there. That’s the fun.”

Of all the great directors Daniels has worked with, he prefers short-takes Clint Eastwood (“Blood Work”) to the long-takes James Brooks (“Terms of Endearment”) or Gary Ross (“Pleasantville). With Eastwood, “I got the one take,” he said, “and he goes, ‘OK.’ And that was it! Man, did we move! You’d get there at seven in the morning and lunch and then wrap. It was half days. And it was great.”

For now Daniels is involved in his 33-year-old theater company. He’s written 22 plays. And some of them, like comedy “Diva Royale,” are genuine hits. He gets to put one of his plays in the fall slot, one of four a year. “We brought ‘Diva Royale’ back because audiences kept calling us for it,” he said. “Three Midwestern housewives go to New York City to see Celine Dion. And everything that can go wrong when tourists go to New York goes wrong. They’re going to the concert. It’s at a place called the Diva Royale: boom! red lights, music. It’s a drag show. It’s Celine Dion in drag for these three small town housewives, whose minds are blown. We opened it last October. It ran for five months.”

What has Daniels learned from his theater company? “Audiences today need comedy,” he said. “They need to laugh. Whether it’s Trump, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s this shitstorm of an election we’re going to have in November. People are scared. They’re being told to be scared. I write about them. I write plays that they can relate to.”

This fall’s Daniels comedy is based on a police blotter headline: “Office Christmas party, Grinch in fight with Rudolf. Police called.” I said, ‘That’s a comedy.’ There are theaters closing all over the country. And we have found a little magic. The key to it is, you’re selling funny. That’s all you’re selling. And you can say something with comedy. In ‘Diva Royale’ they end up with a drag show, right? So drag queens are supposed to be something that we’re afraid of. And by the end of the play, the three housewives aren’t. And that’s what we do. I’ve always loved doing comedy in a way that wasn’t just screwing around.”

“A Man in Full” is streaming now on Netflix.

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