Currently on Broadway in the stage adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Jeff Daniels stopped by The Late Show With Stephen Colbert December 5 to talk about his latest Main Stem outing.
The part of Atticus Finch, crafted for the stage by Aaron Sorkin is a daunting one. But what was Daniels’ response when Sorkin asked him to do it? “Well I'm just stupid,” Daniels admitted. “I said, 'So I should probably read the book, right?' We read Lord of the Flies and we read Farewell to Arms by Hemingway. It wasn’t on the curriculum! It just wasn’t!”
Daniels is thrilled to reunite with Sorkin for the play. “Having done The Newsroom for three years, we have such a great rapport. He just writes it and I just do it, we don't talk about it,” said Daniels.
The Emmy-winning actor and two-time Tony nominee (for God of Carnage and Blackbird) began to do research to inform his own version of the Southern lawyer who defends a wrongly accused black man in the Jim Crow south. “All the research I did to try and figure out what Atticus sees when he's standing on his porch. It's scary how serious it was then—still is now,” Daniels said.
But as for his inspiration for the man at the heart of the character, he said, “I didn't have to go very far to find an Atticus. My dad was a lot like Atticus. So was a guy—Frank Johnson—who was a federal judge in Alabama, who I studied the accent and the whole deal. He could have been Atticus growing up."
Lee's novel gave rise to the film starring Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his work. But Daniels said he chose not to be intimidated by that legacy: “He either gave the definitive performance—which is you can't imagine anyone else in the role—or he's the only guy who got to do it.,” he said. “I choose the second.”