When viewers meet Del Harris, the small-town police chief played by Jeff Daniels in “American Rust,” he is at home crushing and weighing his daily pills. The routine is later revealed as an attempt by the war veteran to wean himself from drugs he takes for post-traumatic stress.
Del lives alone in a cabin in the woods and barks when a colleague asks whether he has been hunting out of season again: “Nobody tells me what to do on my own land!”
He also is in love with a woman who calls him “a good man,” even as he’s about to test how far he will compromise himself in order to protect her.
Set in a dying Rust Belt town where the steel mills closed long ago, “American Rust” is about people having trouble keeping up with their bills, holding on to their jobs and maintaining hopes of better things to come.
In other words, it should resonate almost everywhere in 2021.
“There are a lot of desperate people in this country right now, and not just in this corner of Pennsylvania,” says Daniels, talking by Zoom about his latest project.
Premiering Sunday on Showtime (the first episode is now available online free), “American Rust” is being compared on the surface to another limited series set in a blue-collar Pennsylvania locale, HBO’s acclaimed “Mare of Easttown.” It also seems in line with a Paramount+ show arriving in November, “Mayor of Kingstown,” starring Jeremy Renner as the top elected official of a working-class Michigan city that’s being kept alive economically by the prison industry.
The nine “Rust” episodes involve a murder that Daniels’ Del must investigate after a body is found in an abandoned mill. Del happens to be in love with Grace Poe (Maura Tierney), a dress factory worker with aching hands who pops ibuprofen like SweeTarts, according to her son Billy (Alex Nuestaedter). But their romance coincides with Billy becoming a suspect in the crime.
The fictional town of Buell is peppered with dashed dreams. Billy is a parolee who hasn’t followed up on a chance to play college football. His best friend, Isaac (David Alvarez), is forced to take care of his bitter, paralyzed father (Bill Camp), while Billy’s high school girlfriend, Lee (Julia Mayorga), seems conflicted about her old feelings for him now that she’s moved to New York City for law school and married an affluent husband.
This tapestry of unemployment, drug abuse, secrets and an overwhelming pressure to hold things together personally and financially gives “American Rust” an urgency that seems of the moment, even though it is adapted from an acclaimed 2009 novel by Philipp Meyer.
Daniels has been a fan of the novel for more than a decade. “When I got the book, I knew I could play this guy,” he says of Del. “There are guys like him all over Michigan. I live around them. I came from the working class. I worked at my dad’s lumber company. I know these guys, and I am one of these guys.”
He made the choice long go to move back to his quiet hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, and raise a family there. At the time, it seemed like a path that would be better for his happiness than his career. Yet now, at 66, he is busier than ever as a result of having switched from doing mostly movies to embracing cable and streaming roles.
Over the past 10 years, the actor famous for his charming 1980s turns in “Terms of Endearment” and “Something Wild” — and the broad slapstick of 1994’s “Dumb and Dumber” and its 2014 sequel — has won two Emmys, for best actor in 2013 for HBO’s “The Newsroom” and supporting actor in 2018 for Netflix’s “Godless.”
He also has starred in 2018’s “The Looming Tower” for Hulu as John O’Neill, head of the FBI’s counterterrorism unit, and last year’s “The Comey Rule” for Showtime as James Comey, the former FBI director fired by Donald Trump.
Dan Futterman, an executive producer and writer of “The Looming Tower,” created the small-screen adaptation of “American Rust.” Daniels says he knew Futterman would be careful in his treatment of characters “trying to survive, trying to get to the next level of anything.”
Says Daniels: “Sometimes these people are played like idiots, and (that) they deserve what they get. We’ve tried to find that decency in these characters and the goodness that’s in there that sometimes gets shoved to the side while you do the wrong thing for the right reasons.”
Daniels, who has written his own works for his Chelsea-based Purple Rose Theatre Company, attributes much of the success of his small-screen efforts to writers. He says he was acting on Broadway in “God of Carnage” in 2009 when he had a conversation with castmate James Gandolfini that would prove transformative.
Knowing how “The Sopranos” had changed what was possible on TV, Daniels shared his feelings about what he should do next with Gandolfini. “I told Jim, I said: ‘Movies aren’t happening anymore. I don’t want to be in a comic book movie. I’m looking to go into television hard. And he goes, ‘Get yourself a good writer.’ He said: ‘I got David Chase. Get yourself a good writer.’”
When Daniels turned his attention fully to television, the first opportunity he heard about was “The Newsroom,” written by Aaron Sorkin of “The West Wing.” Running from 2012 to 2014, it gave Daniels an indelible part as cable news anchor Will McAvoy.
Before being cast as McAvoy, he recalls: “I said, I will kill to get that. And I met Aaron, got it right away and worked my ass off for him. … When you do that for a writer of Aaron Sorkin’s caliber, you get asked back.”
Daniels would go on to play former Apple CEO John Scully in Sorkin’s Steve Jobs bio-pic, “Jobs,” and Atticus Finch in Sorkin’s 2018 Broadway adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Daniels says being driven to explore new territory by writers like Sorkin, Scott Frank of “Godless” and Futterman is “a new frontier for actors like me.” But words alone haven’t made him a small-screen success. Over time, his performances have become quieter and subtler. As a go-to guy now for gravitas, he can do more by staring into the distance than others can with an entire monologue.
Daniels admits it has been a process for someone whose early acting heroes were Jack Lemmon and Dick Van Dyke, two greats known for wearing their emotions on their sleeves. He says several recent roles were lessons in stillness, particularly becoming Atticus Finch on Broadway.
Of the New York stage’s larger-than-life style, he says: “It’s got to be to the balcony. That’s what we love about Broadway. Well, Atticus Finch ain’t going to the balcony. And so you had to do it with stillness.” That quality is something he remembers talking about with Justin Timberlake, who visited him backstage after seeing the show. “If you’re still with it in the right places, you’ll pull the audience onstage with you.”
Over the past five years, Daniels hasn’t stayed still about the divisive political issues that roil the nation. He spoke out often against former President Trump’s policies and behavior and even wrote a song titled “Trumpty Dumpty Blues.” Before the November 2020 presidential election, he narrated an online anti-Trump video aimed at Michigan voters and revealed in it that he had voted for Joe Biden.
But Daniels is, first and foremost, an unpretentious everyman. He approaches his work with a blue-collar commitment to doing the job well. He went viral for wearing a plaid Carhartt shirt during his virtual appearance at this year’s Golden Globes telecast. Recently, he dropped by the Detroit Tigers broadcast booth for a chat. During a profile last week on “CBS Sunday Morning,” he explained what keeps him in Michigan by joking, “It’s the humidity. I’m not comfortable unless I feel like I’m in a sauna.”
On Oct. 5, Daniels will head back to Broadway in the iconic role of attorney Atticus Finch (along with original co-star and Detroit native Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout) in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” one of the highlights of the New York City theater district’s reopening after a lengthy COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
Daniels talks vividly about the power of being onstage and delivering Atticus Finch’s closing argument, “talking directly to 1,400 predominantly white faces … and none of them are moving. You can hear a pin drop as I shame them into turning (the character Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman) loose because he’s innocent. I treat them like the 12 angry white jurors (in the story) and they never moved, for a year.”
After the social and political reckonings of the past year, the play’s themes of racism and justice are as relevant as ever. Says Daniels of returning to Atticus Finch, “I look forward to getting back into him and throwing that message out every night because we still need to hear it.”
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at firstname.lastname@example.org.
10 p.m. Sun.