‘A Man in Full’ Star Jeff Daniels Doesn’t Want to Be an Actor With a Brand

TV Shows

Jeff Daniels is no stranger to television, pulling double duty in A Man in Full and American Rust: Broken Justice in the same year, but his performance as the loud-talking businessman Charlie Croker certainly stands out in the crowd.

With mountains of debt piling up and familial tensions swirling, the larger-than-life Charlie is pushed to extremes beyond measure and money can’t get him out of it. Disappearing into the role, Daniels puts forth a riveting performance that functions like a stage performance on film, bringing reality to some surreal moments along the way.

Below, Daniels breaks down his performance as Charlie, discusses those wilder moments and his onscreen death scene, and reveals why he refuses to become an actor with a brand.

Jeff Daniels in 'A Man in Full'

Mark Hill/Netflix

What was your perception of the character when you read the scripts and how did you inject some humanity in a character who exhibits questionable morals?

Jeff Daniels: Oh, it’s written in, David [E. Kelley] wrote it in. What he does near the end when he could out someone for his own benefit and then he chooses not to, that’s probably the big moment where Charlie turns a corner towards goodness and humanity. He kind of reconciles with his son and his wife a little bit. But it was a lot of fun. Guys like this are a lot of fun to play. You get to do all the things they say now in politics, which is saying the quiet part out loud. Charlie needs to say things and do things that people with better manners and more civility might just button up about. I also liked the fact that it was one of these guys that is too big to fail, so therefore let’s just refinance and I’ll go to lunch even though I owe $800 million to your bank. He’s this big rich guy who’s like a blimp in the sky, and in the first episode, you poke a pin in it and you watch it free fall by the end of the six episodes.

How did you approach some of the show’s more surreal moments like Charlie wrestling a snake or his death scene?

Yeah, the little magic trick is that it is his reality. It’s what’s happening now. And your character is just going face first, head first into this thing. And so they don’t step back and go, “Wait, this is crazy. This can’t be happening,” or “I don’t believe this.” You have to believe it. You have to believe that it’s happening right now, and how are you going to get through it? That’s the fun of it. It’s the same thing with Dumb and Dumber. Harry Dunne didn’t know he was funny. He didn’t even know he was dumb. I gave him a single-digit IQ and said, that’s his reality. As long as you believe it, as long as your character believes it, then you’ve got a chance of pulling it off.

Jeff Daniels in 'A Man in Full'

Netflix

Does genre ever influence your selection of a role?

I have always loved and adored comedy, and I grew up on the Dick Van Dyke Show, even the Andy Griffith Show. They were doing something different than James Dean or [Marlon] Brando was doing, but I kind of veered towards those guys. And then I went to New York City and basically learned how to not be funny at all. And I’ve certainly done those roles too, but I have this weakness for saying yes to something that’s funny. Even with The Newsroom, Will McAvoy, and Aaron Sorkin, there’s a sense of humor. It may be smart and intellectual and quick and witty, but it’s there. And as an actor, if you have timing and you know where the funny is, you can then bury that into the drama.

What was it like going head-to-head with Tom Pelphrey’s Raymond Peepgrass?

In particular, working with Bill Camp and Tom Pelphrey was a joy because I told them on the first day, “I’m coming in big. So, one, be prepared. Two, don’t leave me hanging, meaning go with me. This is what we’re doing. It’s Tom Wolfe, it’s David E. Kelley, turning up the comedy, let’s go.” And they both went. And we would get done with shots, we’d just start shaking our heads going, “Well, it’s either great, or we all need to find new careers.” So it was a joy to work with them because you could trust him. You could look at Tom or you could look at Bill, and they were not only right there comedically, but they were there dramatically.

Tom Pelphrey and Jeff Daniels in 'A Man in Full'

Mark Hill/Netflix

You previously worked with Bill Camp on American Rust. Was there a shorthand to approaching scenes with him because of that?

Yeah, American Rust, The Looming Tower, and A Man in Full was the third time with Bill. And he’s just a friend and a great actor and you don’t have to worry about him. You just have to show up and bounce off him. He will give you everything you need to get through the scene. And when you get actors like that, a familiarity, but also a trust, there’s a trust that when it’s Bill’s scene or it’s Bill’s moment that I’m going to set him up, I’m not going to try to take away. I’m going to set him up and let him have his thing. It’s the sharing of the scene and using the other actors that both Tom and Bill do great.

Regina King directed a number of episodes. Is it different collaborating with a director who also knows what it’s like to be a performer?

I’ve written a lot, so I’m aware of story structure and what a scene needs to do to tell the story and my part in that. So there’s a little more awareness of more than just me and my character. But Regina, because she’s an actor and because she’s won an Oscar as an actor, can see under the hood, she can see the engine, and she can see the choices in what I’m doing and how I’m doing it because she’s been there herself. Other directors are more observational.

You also returned with American Rust: Broken Justice in which your character isn’t always following the rules like Charlie Croker. Is there a draw to playing characters who operate outside of morality?

Oh yeah, absolutely. And Del Harris in American Rust, he’s a good guy who makes a bad choice and then, to fix it, makes another bad one and a bad one after that. It just dominoes on him. And he’s a good guy trying to make some choices to get him out of it, and it just keeps getting worse and more dangerous. That’s just good writing from Adam Rapp, Danny Futterman, and company.

I mean, Charlie Croker and Del Harris sitting at a dinner table, I can’t imagine that conversation. And that’s the joy of what I get to do sometimes is to have characters that are so different from each other and then trying to make them so believable. That’s the fun of it, keeping me in this. Many actors have a brand. I mean, Clark Gable was a brand. You went to see Gable to be Gable. I just never was into that. I was more into Charles Laughton and Peter Sellers and guys like that who would disappear into these characters that weren’t anywhere near him. And that’s the fun of it for me. So to go from Charlie Croker to getting the Jeep in Atlanta and driving up to Pittsburgh to start American Rust… I did that over a weekend.

A Man in Full, Streaming now, Netflix

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