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Meet The Tony Nominees: Jeff Daniels of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

Daniels on his inspiration for Atticus Finch: “I had a real-life model.”

Jeff Daniels was nominated for a Tony for his portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Based on Harper Lee's novel, the new play was adapted by Aaron Sorkin. Nominated for 9 Tony awards, the cast also includes Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen, Gbenga Akinnagbe, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Gideon Glick, Frederick Weller, Stark Sands, Dakin Matthews and Erin Wilhelmi. A prolific actor, Daniels’ Broadway credits include Blackbird, God of Carnage, Redwood Curtain and 5th Of July. Off-Broadway, he has a long history as a member of Circle Repertory Company, and has starred in many of their plays. Daniels is also the founder and resident playwright of Purple Rose Theatre Company in Michigan. His vast film and TV credits include roles in Terms of Endearment, Something Wild, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Dumb and Dumber, Gettysburg, The Hours, Speed, Pleasantville, 101 Dalmatians, Good Night and Good Luck, Steve Jobs, The Squid and the Whale, The Newsroom, The Looming Tower and Godless

Tony nominee Jeff Daniels stars as lawyer Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Tony nominee Jeff Daniels stars as lawyer Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Why was it a great time to do this play?
Jeff Daniels
: As divided as this country is, racism seems to be a big part of that analysis. That seems to be out front. That button has been pushed on people. It’s a perfect time for Harper Lee’s book and our play. 

When did you first discover To Kill a Mockingbird
: Growing up, I didn’t have the experience of reading the book. We read Lord of the Flies and Farewell to Arms. I was aware of the movie, but not in a beloved sense. It wasn't until I got the part two and a half years ago that I dove into it.

What qualities does Atticus have that you like? 
: The trick is playing a great hero. Aaron (Sorkin) made it easy. I did George Washington for A&E around 20 years ago. How do you bring him down off the dollar bill? And it's the same thing with Atticus. Aaron approached it differently than the book and movie, which was a nine-year-old girl looking up. You still have young Scout looking up in the play. But by the end of the play she is also looking back in her late twenties, or whatever age she is. 

He is just a really good father doing the best he can as a widower raising two kids. He's a small town lawyer who gets paid in vegetables, and one day the judge comes over to his house and changes his life. That is how you walk into page one. He handles land disputes, service agreements, foreclosures and can write a will. And he would prefer to stay out of the white/black thing. Thank you very much. I’ll just stay out here on my porch and raise my kids. But he gets pulled in. It’s a different way in than the movie or the book. 

How did you find Atticus Finch in yourself? 
: Without getting all “actor speak” about it, I did two things. One was, I thought about my dad. He was an Atticus Finch in this small town in Michigan. He's the guy that everybody went to at six o'clock at night after work to talk to Bob about this city council thing they've got going. And he was not even involved. How does my church get the money to expand? Well, you could do this. He was the guy they went to. He was a great, wise old Bob Daniels. But he also believed there's the right way and there are all the other ways. He was one of those guys. I got those phone calls sometimes. It's not the right way to do it. So I had a real-life model.  

Frank Johnson was another guy. He was a federal judge in Alabama. There were interviews. He was around with George Wallace and Rosa Parks. He put KKK guys in jail in Alabama, which judges didn't do. Then, a week later, his mother's house got torched. But that was Frank Johnson. The way those guys lived their lives, my dad and Frank Johnson, I kind of step into that.  

For more of the best of Broadway this Tonys season, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in May 2019.

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