How Jeff Daniels Landed 2 Emmy Nominations for Playing a Hero and a Villain: Both ‘Wildly Complex’

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “I never bought that I was a movie star,” the star of “The Looming Tower” and “Godless” says of his award-worthy second act on the small screen

Jeff Daniels
"Godless": Netflix / "The Looming Tower": Hulu

A version of this story about Jeff Daniels first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

Among the list of 2018 performers with nominations for two different shows (a list that includes Sterling K. Brown, Donald Glover, Bill Hader, Alex Borstein and Jane Lynch), Jeff Daniels stands out for an elegant piece of Emmy symmetry: He was nominated for playing a good guy in one miniseries, “The Looming Tower,” and a bad guy in another, “Godless.”

At least, that’s the easy shorthand for his characters, FBI counterterrorism chief John O’Neill in the former show and brutal Wild West outlaw Frank Griffin in the latter.

Of course, Daniels doesn’t exactly see it as being so cut-and-dried. “The characters don’t see it that way, and that’s the key,” he said. “So you play the good and the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses. You figure out how they think, and make that their normal.”

In the dark Western “Godless,” he said, “Frank Griffin would kill somebody and then quote the Bible — for him, that was normal. He probably had some sense that he was not well mentally, but there weren’t a lot of shrinks putting out a shingle in the Wild West.”

He paused. “You get inside the mind of Frank Griffin and sit there for a while, it’s a complicated place. But fascinating.”

It also allowed Daniels to saddle up in a Western, a genre he said he’d always wanted to work in — not that the experience was an easy one.

“I broke my wrist falling off a horse during ‘Godless,’” he said. “You find out how dangerous it is — it’s not like walking down a hallway and sitting at a desk and giving a speech. You’re galloping on a horse through a river with 20 horses behind you, and suddenly you’re in the Kentucky Derby. And half of the horses have actors on them who lied about how well they can ride.”

John O’Neill in “The Looming Tower” is a fascinating character, too: a real-life government employee with a penchant for Italian shoes, expense-account meals and multiple mistresses, but a man who also saw the threat of Osama bin Laden coming but couldn’t get the national-security apparatus (particularly the CIA) to stop squabbling and take him seriously.

“He had a lot of faults, a lot of insecurities, but he was right,” Daniels said. “John knew there were better ways of getting people to do what he wanted them to do, but he was frustrated with the competition and the pettiness of the time. You press a button on him, and he’s a bull in a china shop.”

Eventually, O’Neill was pushed out of the FBI and took a job as head of security at the World Trade Center. He died in the 9/11 attacks, which he’d warned about for months.

“He was wildly complex,” Daniels said. “The challenge of it and the fun of it was trying to figure out what he was chasing, whether he knew it or not.

“I made the choice that he was chasing his true love, the FBI, and he had been looking for it in other places, like women and living large. That was his true love, and when he lost that, it broke his heart.”

Coming on the heels of his run on Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” “The Looming Tower” and “Godless” have given Daniels a trio of significant, substantial roles on the small screen.

“I always thought television was where I was going to land,” he said. “I never bought that I was a movie star. I happened to luck out that Jim Gandolfini and David Chase just happened to change what television was going to be with ‘The Sopranos.’ And years later here came Netflix, Hulu and Amazon and all the others, and all the writers who weren’t interested in writing comic-book movies went there.

“For actors and some stars, that’s where we’ve all fled. Late in my career, I got lucky and found this whole new frontier of good writing.”

To read more of TheWrap’s Down to the Wire issue, click here.

TheWrap Emmy magazine 2018 Down to the Wire cover