Jeff Daniels on "To Kill a Mockingbird": "You watch the movie, you read the book, you FEEL the play"

Jeff Daniels talks "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Actor Jeff Daniels is nominated for a Tony Award for his performance as small-town lawyer Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin's stage adaptation of Harper Lee's classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird." The story shines a light on racial prejudice in the Deep South by focusing on Finch's defense of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman in the 1930s.

Appearing on "CBS This Morning" Monday, Daniels said that Finch, in the current Broadway adaptation, is not so flawless. "He's a human being," he said. "Aaron Sorkin, when he wrote the play based on the book, wanted to take the statue down. The point of the view in the book is pretty much Scout looking up at the great father, and we kind of wanted to get on eye level with him. We always took the approach that he was a small town lawyer who got paid in vegetables sometimes. He handled land disputes, service agreements, foreclosures, that was it. And one day the judge comes over and changes his life."

to-kill-a-mockingbird-broadway-jeff-daniels-620.jpg
Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in the Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." CBS News

Daniels has referred to Atticus Finch as the role of a lifetime. "I've been waiting for something like this forever. I've had great roles throughout my career, but the stars aligned. You've got Sorkin writing it, Bartlett Sher directing it. It's the Schubert Theatre, which is like the Carnegie Hall of Broadway. You're Atticus Finch, the fictional hero. I mean people think this guy's real. Certainly the first month of the run, people came to the show with a book against their chest going, 'Please, don't ruin this, please don't ruin this!' It's beloved. So, to get the chance to play that kind of hero, that kind of iconic guy, and then to pull him off and make him a human being where he has to change, he has to go through, he has to deal with his own beliefs. It kind of peels the layers back off Atticus."

Co-host John Dickerson said, "Atticus has these beliefs of everything that surrounds him. That's what makes him a hero, and then that changes. It feels so contemporary even though it was written [as] the 1930s."

0513-ctm-jeffdanielsqa-1849071-640x360.jpg
Tony nominee Jeff Daniels. CBS News

"Sorkin did it so beautifully; I mean, it's '34 Alabama, but it's today," Daniels said. "Atticus believes that there's goodness in everyone, you just have to care enough to look for it. Well, that's up for grabs now."

Another difference in the play is that the story's black characters — defendant Tom Robinson, and Calpurnia, the Finch family housekeeper — have a voice unlike earlier depictions.

"Calpurnia and Atticus were 'brother and sister,' which is what their kind of relationship is over the years; maybe they were able to do that," Daniels said. "They didn't do it in the book, they didn't do it in the movie. Could that have existed? Sure. But in the play she definitely has something to say, and she calls Atticus out. She's the one who goes, 'Wait a minute, hang on, you're wrong.'"

When asked what about the cast has made this production so successful, Daniels replied, "It's hard to do a play eight times a week, month after month after month. We're in our seventh month. There's a way to do it where I call it the 'mule on the trail.' You're going down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon again and you're saying the speech, but you're really thinking about where you're going to eat. And I've seen that with people who actually look like that. 

"But we keep it alive. We stay in the same lane, heading to the same place. We don't deviate staging or change staging, but it's alive. If you throw it at me different today, I'll be like, Oh, I'll be over here. Let's do it. The audience feels a vibrancy and an urgency. 

"We pull you in so that you watch the movie, you read the book, you feel the play. And I think that's the big takeaway for 'Mockingbird' on Broadway. People walk out changed, but they definitely are feeling something."

Dickerson described his experience upon seeing it: "I walked out like I had been hit by a train. To weep in the seats is an amazing thing. To create that kind of art where the audience can react like that, you've done something that's amazing."

"We hear the weeping, too. We hear them weeping," Daniels smiled. "Very annoying. Shut up! I've got a line to do!"

      
See also: 

     
"To Kill a Mockingbird" at the Schubert Theatre in New York City | Ticket info

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.