Jeff Daniels stars as Will McAvoy, a veteran news anchor who suffers a crisis of conscience and snaps in front of an audience of college students in The Newsroom, debuting on HBO June 24. Aaron Sorkin’s first television show in six years takes Daniels’ character—together with executive producer and old flame MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), ready-to-break-the-mold boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) and a youthful staff—on a mission to produce a nightly cable news show that demands accountability and won’t hesitate to call out lies. Daniels talked to TIME about the view from behind the anchor desk.
TIME: Is there a bit of every celebrity that wants to snap?
Jeff Daniels: I wouldn’t limit it to just celebrities. We live in a very civilized, ‘everybody be polite and say the right thing’ society. Sometimes people are mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore.
What was it like working with an Aaron Sorkin script?
A friend of mine, Tim Busfield [who had a recurring role on The West Wing], said, ‘Wait till you see what you get to say.’ You read it and go, ‘Oh my God.’ It is the best part I’ve had since The Purple Rose of Cairo with Woody Allen. The writing is so well done. All I had to do was show up every day and play the best part I have ever had. Once I got inside Will McAvoy’s head, once it started rolling like thoughts instead of words, it was just a thrill. That said, Aaron will be the first one to tell you he likes to see things he knows were written. There is an art to what he does and a craft and there is no room for ad-libbing or paraphrasing, just like on Broadway. It is a wonderful kind of challenge to bring to life what he intended when he was typing.
Is Will McAvoy modeled after a specific anchor?
No, nobody in particular. Aaron had done so much research on cable news that it was more like creating someone who you could imagine tuning into tonight in between Wolf [Blitzer] and Larry [King] and Sean [Hannity] and Bill [O’Reilly]—someone who would host a show that would fall in the middle of all that. Having done the first season now, I have an admiration for all of them, to be honest, at the national level on both sides of the aisle. You many not like what their spin is, but their whole juggling act of dealing with producers and networks and handling breaking news or that live interview that veers off the cards… I have great admiration for them.
How is doing a show for HBO differ from your other work?
They don’t hold you back. They push you. Instead of watering it down, they, in a way, fan the flames no matter what you are writing. It feels close to off-Broadway in the way you feel nobody’s monitoring you and telling you to stay inside this box. They want you to be better than you ever have been. I never got the feeling like I have on some movies that there are junior executives making creative decisions or who were part of a rewrite—or a script getting noted to death by someone who just finished reading How to Write a Screenplay paperback version. It is a wonderful place to be an artist.
What was it like to work with Sam Waterston and Emily Mortimer?
Emily is such a sweetheart and she is fearless. I told her that she was so brave. She jumped off the cliff flapping her arms, hoping to fly. You just take chances and good actors know how to do that, especially with the pace required in an Aaron script—Emily would go for it. Sam was such a help. He had done this before and knows how to handle it. He is a real go-to guy for me.
Was it interesting to walk the generational lines of a relatively young cast?
I have been around longer than everybody else, other than Sam. I’ve done 55 movies or so… The other thing that Aaron and [producer] Scott [Rudin] did so well is cast theater people. They are all very, very talented actors who can deliver. Part of the whole trick to Aaron is conquering the dialogue, to know it. At 6 a.m. when you show up, know it and know what you are going to do with it. That is different than learning while walking onto set, which is what happens on a lot of movies, to be honest. That wasn’t acceptable.
What’s with all the anger in the show?
I think it is in all of us, to be honest. We are just human beings and all capable of every emotion. There are a lot of angry Americans out there right now and, as Will, I’m certainly one of them who’s just fed up. He just snaps. There is nothing he said that isn’t true; he’s just not supposed to say it. He does and then has to pay for it. It is a strange country.
What needs to change, then?
We could use some truth. That is a lot of what Aaron’s show is about. Let’s start telling the truth and stop marketing. Just give me the facts, double conformation please, but give me the facts. Certainly in that initial speech, that comes spewing out of my mouth.
In the pilot you cover the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. Will you always tackle real-life events to show how they should have been covered?
Over the course of the season we may cover news events like immigration or the tsunami. There are decisions you have to make on the fly—with 10 seconds till we are back on, do you say this or report on this speculation? Sometimes we are right and sometimes we fail miserably. You are going to win and going to lose—but either way, you do it on the air. You are a flawed hero.
Would people really watch News Night?
Some people, yes. There is this push-pull kind of thing on what the show is going to be. Will struggles over the whole first season as to what the show is. He is searching, even at the end of the season.