Hulu’s new original series The Looming Tower explores the rivalry between the FBI and CIA prior to 9/11. Jeff Daniels plays FBI special Agent John O’Neill, while Peter Sarsgaard plays CIA analyst Martin Schmidt.
On a panel for the show before the Television Critics Association, Daniels said of the role, “I didn’t know how to do it. After the panel, We Live Entertainment joined reporters in speaking with Daniels further. The Looming Tower is now streaming the first three episodes on Hulu.
WLE: What did you mean by you didn’t know how to do it?
Jeff Daniels: It resembled nothing else I had done before where you can brand yourself or you can “oh, I know, it’s similar to Fly Away Home.” At this point, I’m bored too easily and don’t need to do this anymore just from a creative standpoint. I’ve done it and done it and done it. So when you get an O’Neill, you get a Godless or you get an O’Neill, that means, “Oh, I’ve got to figure this out. I don’t know how to do this.” Then that’s a reason, that’s a challenge. That’s a creative challenge that later in your career, usually you’re getting offered things you’ve done before. That’s the great thing about Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. You can take chances on actors who haven’t done a certain thing. I like that a lot.
WLE: Was it the technical nature of the FBI?
Jeff Daniels: I just didn’t recognize the guy as anything resembling me. You start with you and you pull truth out of you and put the character on it, inside out. But, I didn’t have a clue as to where this guy was inside me, not a clue. That keeps you interested.
Q: Is there a little of Will McAvoy with his righteous anger?
Jeff Daniels: You get to do that. I’ve got to separate them. When I think about both of them now, the ego was different on McAvoy than it was on O’Neill. McAvoy was insecure and brilliant and insecure. He just vacillated back and forth. O’Neill was right and he knew he was right but he had personality flaws that got in his way. He fucked up a lot. Basically it’s O’Neill being righteously angry. That’s the only thing in my head about these specific things and talking to these specific people. None of those people and none of those things were in The Newsroom so for me there’s always a difference.
Q: Is his personal life a challenge to navigate?
Jeff Daniels: Just intensity in everything he did, work and play. The guy kept going to the wrong places to try to fix this anger inside of him.
Q: Did he have the ability to deceive yet he couldn’t stop telling the truth?
Jeff Daniels: Yeah, a complete contradiction. That’s interesting. That’s human in a big way. That’s what makes him, I think, such a great character. They’re both equal, that deception in his personal life, righteously carrying the flag all the way to Richard Clarke in the CIA on his professional side. And he was right on that side, completely wrong on the other. He couldn’t stop.
Q: Are you surprised by some of the stuff you learned about O’Neill?
Jeff Daniels: I was. This is all new information to me. FBI versus the CIA, are you kidding? What happened to him floored me. You can’t write that but it happened.
Q: Is what the story says also important to you, in addition to writing and the character
Jeff Daniels: I don’t choose projects like that. It’s nice when it happens and Looming Tower is one of the latter, but no, it’s not a prerequisite. I mean, there is Dumb and Dumber.
Q: After you read the script, was your next impulse to Google the real O’Neill?
Jeff Daniels: The next thing I did, we got into it with them. We called them the next morning, e-mailed that night and said, “He wants to do it” so we got right into negotiations. So then I got Larry’s book. I did eventually. I don’t know if it was right away but I got into O’Neill and the history of him. There was tons of research but also you can hit the internet. There was one Frontline interview in 1997 where he sat down and talked. So that was an interview situation, so it certainly wasn’t the guy [in real life]. He was much more buttoned down.
Q: Did you feel you wanted to look and sound like him, so people would recognize him?
Jeff Daniels: Yeah, and I told Mark Rossini, one of the FBI partners we had who knew John really well. I said, “This is not an impression. It’s going to resemble him but it’s what he thought and how he thought it. That, you should recognize. The spirit of him.” Mark ended up being very happy with whatever it was he saw, but this wasn’t that. There was just the one 1997 film, that’s really all I had visually. It’s just how I do everything. You think like the guy, figure out how he thinks. If there are some externals, you’ve got to wear a mustache or something, okay. But if you start thinking like him, then maybe people like Mark Rossini will recognize him, even though it’s not a dead-on 100% version like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. Michael Stuhlbarg, I’ve got to say, from day one there was Richard Clarke. I read all Richard’s books. I read all that stuff way before this, even Richard’s fiction. I’m looking at Michael.
Q: You read Richard Clarke’s books as a fan?
Jeff Daniels: Yeah, don’t ask me to name the titles but I never forget that your government failed you and now this guy is writing about what happened. I read that one. I think he wrote another book, read that. Then he wrote a couple like Robert Ludlum fiction things, which the guy’s like Tom Clancy. He’s got access to some information, then whatever the plot was, and it was pretty apocalyptic, it was like okay, I guess that could happen because Richard Clarke fictionalized it. I’ve been very interested.