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Jeff Daniels on the inspiration for new play, role in Sorkin’s Mockingbird, and playing James Comey

Jeff Daniels sits in the Stateside studio with April Baer
Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio
Jeff Daniels' new play is based on a poem by his longtime friend and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson.

Jeff Daniels’ new play Roadsigns follows a young poet on a journey to find himself and his encounters with society's outcasts. The main character is based on Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and Daniels' longtime friend, the late Lanford Wilson.

The play premieres Thursday, January 16 at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, which Daniels founded in 1991. The actor, director, and writer joined Stateside to talk about Roadsigns, as well as his recent run as Atticus Finch on Broadway and his upcoming role as ex-FBI director James Comey.

On the inspiration for his new play Roadsigns

Daniels describes the play as “a tribute to the American artist” and those who never make it to the spotlight. Daniels co-wrote the music for the show with his son. It takes the audience on a bus ride and inside the mind of a young poet and artist named Lanny Wilson.

“You’re in this guy’s imagination as he creates these people who are on the bus," said Daniels. "And then by the end of it, there’s this song called Roadsigns, and all the people are alive and in front of you.”

The play is based on a poem Lanford Wilson wrote and gave to Daniels to put to music to back in 1978. This moment between friends eventually morphed into Roadsigns. 

On playing a new version of a long-beloved character

In 2018, Jeff Daniels played Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird. He said it was daunting to play such a beloved character from the American literary canon. Sorkin’s Finch differed from the character in Harper Lee’s novel and from Gregory Peck's performance in the 1962 film adaptation.

Daniels originally worried that the play, written from the perspective of an older Scout Finch, would disappoint fans of the book. But that wasn't the case.

“We like to say you watch the movie, you read the book, you feel the play," Daniels said. "Audiences were knocked out by it.”

On playing James Comey

Jeff Daniels is set to play ex-FBI Director James Comey in mini-series based on Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership. Daniels will star alongside Brendan Gleeson as Donald Trump.

Daniels said he had reservations about playing Comey when he first got the role. It is a very different gig than his run on To Kill a Mockingbird, which he descirbes as an apex of his career. While Atticus Finch is a widely-known and studied character, Comey was more of a mystery to Daniels. 

“To go from a character like Atticus Finch that after a year, after 450 perfomances, you could write a dissertation on him, to someone where you’re guessing—that’s jumping off the cliff, flapping your wings, and hoping you fly.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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