Exclusive Interview: Jeff Daniels Talks The Martian And Working With Great Directors

Actor Jeff Daniels attends a press conference to promote the film "The Martian" at TIFF the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto.

Landing in theatres this Friday is Ridley Scott’s The Martian, a sci-fi survival epic that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month to rapturous applause and overwhelmingly positive reviews. Though mainly about Matt Damon’s Mark Watney, an astronaut scrambling to survive while stranded on the surface of Mars, no movie and no mission comes down to just one man.

As NASA head Teddy Sanders, Emmy-winner Jeff Daniels has to call the shots from Earth while Mark plans a seemingly impossible return. We sat down with Damon’s co-star at TIFF to talk about finding a character, when you know you’re working with the smartest people in your industry, and leaving your movie in the audience’s hands.

Check out what he had to say below, and enjoy!

So how’s the reception been so far?

Jeff Daniels: You never know, but surprisingly wonderful so far. I was out the other night at the big gala and you watch the audience watch it, and you hope it works. And you hope that the humour is there, not only in the early beginning, but you hope the humour is there in the end – and it is. You hope they gasp at the right spots – and they did. But you really don’t know until you see it in front of an audience, so I was thrilled. It worked. It worked. I mean, we’re really good people – Ridley, and Matt and company – really smart people who know how to do this, but at the end of the day, we’re still guessing. It’s still up to the audience.

So was that the goal: getting people to feel good about watching Matt Damon stranded on Mars?

JD: Getting them to feel good? No. In writing, you write the characters into a corner where the audience can’t figure out how they’re going to get out it, and I think the movie does that really well. It really takes them on a thrill ride; it uses science, and kind of makes it thrilling, and makes the audience kind of dragged into it and go “What would I do, ohmygod ohmygod, what would I do?” And then we get out of it, or we don’t, or it doesn’t work. You see these people work out the problems on screen in a way that really makes it accessible to an audience, and I like that about it a lot.

Here, you’re playing one of the authority figures, along Sean Bean. Is that a different kind of challenge, having to be the voice of reason and the calm in the storm?

JD: No, the challenge is the same: you go into whatever character you’re playing, you go into him, and this is what he believes, this is what he believes to be right, these are his strengths, these are his weaknesses, and go. And then like any good script or good drama, they throw obstacles and conflicts in his way. And you believe you’re right: Teddy believes he made the best decision at the time. Do I let one astronaut strand on Mars and die, or do I send five more back and risk killing six? Simple math, and so somebody’s got to make that call, and I don’t think that’s the first time that that call’s been made in life and death situations…. You look for the biggest stakes possible and play to that.

And yet even if it is just one life, everyone’s caught up in it. It’s this one thing everybody cares about.

JD: The bigger picture is that the whole world came together to save a human life. And you can go deeper with that and bigger with that, that we really are all in this together. Every single country, every single fanatical religious group, we’re really all here together. We’re all that guy stranded on Mars.

Was it impressive to see how the rest of the movie outside of the NASA control center had came together?

JD: I loved what Ridley did with it visually, I think it’s very exciting. Simulating all that space, weightlessness – I believed everybody, that they were who they were supposed to be, and knew what they were supposed to know. That’s the kind of stuff I look for. Plus, visually there’s Ridley Scott just coming at you, in 3D which…this is a great one to see in 3D!

Ridley’s a big name, but your career started with Miloš Forman, and you’ve worked with Allen, Demme, and Eastwood. Is there anybody left on your Great Directors BINGO card you really want to get to?

JD: Oh, there are a few, yeah. I mean Scorsese comes to mind, I’ve never been in a Spielberg movie. Clint, Robert Altman, they all have this…they’re all the same in that they – and Ridley is exactly like this – they really cast it well, and then they trust the actors that they’re going to come in with something, some very creative ideas about how to bring this guy to life that also fits into the story – which is different than making it come alive and making the movie about you.

He’s very inspiring, and so he trusts you to come in with something, and wants to know what you think. You show him in the first take or two, and then Ridley works with that. He goes, “Great, love it, thank you for bringing that in, and now I’ll have you do this, try that, great, done.” It’s a great way to work, they all do that. I remember Clint really leaves a lot up to you: “I hired you because of what you’ve done. Do it for me. What do you think it is? What do you think?” It’s always a great thing to hear from a director, and a lot of them do it that way.

Was space travel of interest to you as a kid?

JD: No.

Well in 2018 the Mars Inspiration Foundation is going to be sending a married couple in a trajectory around Mars, and it’s going to take 501 days. Even if you weren’t going into space, is there anybody you think you could spend 501 days in such close proximity with?

JD: Yeah, yeah. Whether she could spend 501 days with me is a whole other story. She spent 36 years with me but we’ve had breaks. I don’t know, that would be a better question for my wife.

One of the gags in the movie is that Damon’s character is left on the planet with only disco music, reruns of Happy Days, and potatoes he grows using self-made fertilizer. If you were in a similar situation, could you think of a genre of music, a show, and a type of food you could get by on?

JD: The blues…anything Ken Burns does…and, you know, potatoes. Preferably not made from my own feces.

What are you hoping the response will be when the movie hits worldwide?

JD: That the story works, and wouldn’t it be nice if the whole world took away, “Look what we can do if we all come together,” as Lennon –Lennon?- John Lennon said, come together! That would have been a nice ending song to it.

The one they pick here is pretty good. Big laugh from the audience.

JD: Which was it?

I think it was Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive.”

JD: Not bad.

That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Jeff for speaking with us. Be sure to catch The Martian when it hits theatres this Friday.